One of the first limitations of laser engraving I learned about was the right angle. On most (if not all? let me know!) laser engravers, the laser can only fire in one direction: straight down, perpendicular to the surface plane. This means that you can’t easily get beveled edges, rounded corners, or other nice depth effects you can get using a rotary engraving system like a CNC mill.
There are ways around this limitation, of course: a patron I spoke to at the Aurora Public Library‘s Makerspace suggested rigging smaller pieces of material at their own angles, allowing the laser to fire directly down at a skewed surface, creating the angled edge desired. I considered this process, but it only works if you are cutting a single straight line—any shift in the direction will pull the head out of focus with the section of material you’re cutting.
Focus matters, though, as I found out several months ago while cutting some badges for an event. I accidentally left the laser bed way out of focus when cutting one of these badges, and you can see how the laser didn’t cut through, and instead just created a rounded channel in the surface of the material, in the shape of the badge I’d intended to cut. It made me realize I could cut a shape normally, and then cut it again out of focus, to give the edge a soft curve.
So this month, I got around to testing that some more! I opted for some snowflake designs (sourced from freepik.com; thank you!) to give me plenty of edges to smooth and for general holiday goodness. The first step is to cut the piece normally, which results in the traditional sharp 90 degree edges you see in most lasered pieces.
Leave the leftover material in the laser bed, and do your absolute best not to disrupt its place. In fact, I suggest not touching the piece at all at this point and just telling the laser to fire again with new settings. Specifically, I threw the laser out of focus by telling it I was engraving on a 1.125″ thick material rather than a .125″ thick material. I’ve experimented with different unfocused settings, and can probably dial that in a little better, but 1″ is a nice easy number to get a decently rounded corner on a 2″ lens. I also sped up the laser a little bit because I didn’t want to overpower the edges when rounding them (while my speed settings won’t match yours exactly for a multitude of reasons, I cut the snowflake at 5.5% speed and then rounded the edges at 15% speed.)
Since the rounding only happens on one side, you’ll have to flip the piece and round the edges again if you want to give both surfaces the same treatment. This is only possible if your piece has an axis of symmetry, and this is where you have to be very careful not to move your temporary jig. Once you’re done, you might have to clean the piece as firing a laser out of focus can produce a fair bit more detritus than firing it in focus.
As it turns out, even if you don’t move the makeshift jig at all, your second pass might be slightly out of alignment to the first. Why is this? Kerf—the width of the laser—means that your freshly cut snowflake might shift a fraction of a millimeter inside the jig. There’s a tiny, tiny little bit of give and it can sometimes be enough that the alignment is visually off. You can solve this by rounding one side before cutting, but you’ll still have to contend with this on the back half, and kerf didn’t affect my alignment nearly as much as another issue:
Much more alarmingly, I discovered while doing this project that pulling my laser out of focus by about an inch noticeably moves the laser’s aim. It’s not enough to ruin the project, but it is enough that I had to correct for it after several prototypes to get a nice even rounding. This aim issue as the laser focus changes is due to incorrectly calibrated mirrors somewhere along the laser’s path (totally my fault, as I foolishly adjusted them once upon a time and have been tweaking them here and there ever since) so if your mirrors are factory aligned like they should be you shouldn’t run into this issue.
In the end, the rounded edges are a little rough looking, but if you get your settings dialed in (or would it be dialed out in this case?) you can get a nice smoothed edge that will catch light in a novel way for a laser cut item. I used opaque and translucent acrylic for this project, but I know this effect would look great in transparent and fluorescent acrylic as well. I can’t imagine it working as well with natural materials or microsurfaced plastic, but maybe I should experiment with that in the future!
If you have any unfocused laser tricks, or tips for keeping materials clean while processing pieces in multiple steps, let us know in the comments below! Happy holidays!