Tag Archives: 3D etching

22: Hylian Inlay

I think you picked the most ambitious first time trying to inlay project ever,” wrote Jen, fairly certain that I’d bitten off more than I could chew.  While I could already tell by then that l I was in for a lot of delicate work, I reassured her of my expert mastication and went back to peeling tiny bits of plastic off of tiny bits of plastic.

“Nutters.” was her final judgment anyway. Now, that I can’t really disagree with, even if the direction of this week’s project was entirely her fault.

The mirror, before.
The mirror, before.

Once upon a time, local friend and fellow video game nutter Caitlin saw my lasery doings and donated a small plain mirror with a giant plain wood frame—something IKEA-made, surely—suspecting that it would eventually be a great laser canvas.  While this was years ago and the mirror has been sitting patiently at the side of my desk since then, she turned out right!

A prototype of the inlay idea, permanently branding the mirror's back with another favorite series.
A prototype of the inlay idea, permanently branding the mirror’s back with another favorite series.

At first, I wasn’t sure what to do with the mirror, but I knew I’d eventually be giving the piece back to Caitlin, so I wanted to make sure it was something she’d totally dig. Earthbound came to mind first, and I spent a fair amount of time unsure of how to best represent the series etched into a mirror. It was around this time that I decided against etching the mirror itself; while I already know not to etch the front surface of the mirror (thanks, Monica!) I just wasn’t comfortable etching the back surface without any scrap to test on first.

Before I settled on inlays, I experimented with 3D printing on the mirror frame.
Before I settled on inlays, I experimented with 3D printing on the mirror frame.

Obviously I had plenty of wood surface to test on—the back of the frame—so I went to town with some ABCD etch depth tests and later a 3D print featuring art by the immensely talented Sires J. Black. It wasn’t until I etched the Earthbound logo with a really deep outline stroke that I realized an inlay was possible. You can see the first inlay test there, using “brushed aluminum” acrylic.  I still couldn’t decide on how exactly to represent Earthbound on the frame, so I ended up stalled. Battle background graphics weren’t nearly as interesting when not in motion, and character sprites really needed better than one color representation.

The design was based on the limited edition Zelda 3DS.
The design was based on the limited edition Zelda 3DS.

“I was thinking about Zelda. Caitlin has that Zelda-branded Wii U gamepad,” offered Jen, “and you’ve still got the Triforce eagle design files.” It was a revelation. While the gamepad’s decorative borders weren’t as interesting as I’d hoped, I rediscovered the awesome design used on a limited edition 3DS. A later discovery on Reddit sealed the deal: Reddit user ProjectOxide had already vectorized the design from the 3DS and was offering to share the data freely. A few layout adjustments to accomodate the mirror’s aspect ratio and we were good to go.

The etch left a deep groove for an inlay, but a light etch also filled the instrument borders.
The etch left a deep groove for an inlay, but a light etch also filled the instrument borders.
Some of the etched areas needed to be filed down a little farther, especially seams.
Some of the etched areas needed to be filed down a little farther, especially seams.

I etched deeply for all of the outlines, and in the spaces marked with orange on the above layout I gently etched the wood surface to give it a slightly darker appearance. The idea was to give the impression that it was a different, richer wood also inlaid between the faux metal inlay. The depth was almost perfect, but there were a few spaces, particularly the seams between each side of the wooden frame, where the depth wasn’t deep enough and needed some tender loving gouging. I filed away which bits needed filing and then it was on to cutting the “metal.”

I laid out the inlay pieces to fit on the material I had.
I laid out the inlay pieces to fit on the material I had. Yes, I cut extra Triforces!

It had to be gold, obviously. I had most of a sheet of flexible, thin acrylic with a brushed gold foil cap. It even had an adhesive back pre-applied! I took the deep etch vectors from the frame layout and positioned them so that they’d fit on my cramped gold sheet and made sure to give them a slight stroke offset so that the laser width wouldn’t cut the pieces too small. I also rotated a few pieces so that the brushed look would be a little more random, but that ended up nearly invisible on the final piece.

Nearly impossible to see, the brush strokes on the faux-gold cap radiate out from the triforce.
Nearly impossible to see, the brush strokes on the faux-gold cap radiate out from the triforce.

Because of the way the vector data was traced, every single cut was unique; even though two ocarinas, two harps, and many little filigrees looked mostly the same, they wouldn’t fit in their twin’s holes, so I had to be meticulous in keeping track of which piece of inlay was meant for which etch. It made for some very slow work.

The tiniest pieces of inlay were so small that half a dozen of them fell

Placed in direct sunlight, the acrylic inlay is convincingly blinding.
Placed in direct sunlight, the acrylic inlay is convincingly blinding.

into the honeycomb support system and were, essentially, lost. I eventually had to cut duplicates and carefully fish them out of the blank material to make sure every deeply-etched spot on the wood frame was filled with gold. Because I gave the inlay vector path a slight offset, the cut pieces fit snugly—sometimes too snugly—in their grooves. One piece of inlay actually cracked in two places while being hammered, but they’re very difficult to see.  I had to use a tiny rubber mallet to hammer most of them in place, and then I used a brayer to aid in flatness. While most of the material is flush with the wood frame, there are enough rough spots that I wish I would have etched just a little more deeply.

With the final piece complete, all I had left to do was break out the camera and the sun and head to fancy photography town. The piece is presently hanging out post-shoot in my photography box, but its final resting home is sure to be near other similarly Zelda-themed hardware. Thankfully, I’ll always have all of these super-sexy shots of the finished piece to admire.

The full mirror is about 20" square. That's a pretty big project!
The full mirror is about 20″ square. That’s a pretty big project!

 

The darkened instrument background shows up more clearly when the inlay is lit up by reflected light.
The darkened instrument background shows up more clearly when the inlay is lit up by reflected light.

 

 

This image reminds me of A Link Between Worlds. I wonder why.
This image reminds me of A Link Between Worlds. I wonder why.

 

Hyrulian Inlay (11 of 15)

08: 3D Etching

This week I decided to give 3D etching another shot. I have just once before played around with the 3D settings available on our laser, but I haven’t really explored the process until now.

Normally, the laser interprets shades of grey by preparing a halftone map and etching that at whatever singular power I have set. With the 3D feature enabled, the firmware will adjust the power of the laser depending on the darkness of the grey: white is ignored, black is etched at your selected power. Because of this, all you really need is a depth map and you can 3D etch straight away.Just remember: white is shallow and black is deep!

ABCD 3D
The Abecediary logo with the core etched away

Back when I first tried it out, I just used some sample depth maps available in Google’s image search, but this time I created my own typography-themed art. I had to use Photoshop to create some raster effects to create the sloping edges I wanted because there isn’t an easy way to create shape-burst gradients in Illustrator, but this wasn’t a problem because, while the laser won’t cut anything that isn’t proper vector data, it’ll etch even raster graphics with impunity.

ABCD Layout
The blurry edges are where the 3D happens.

I often use the simple Abecediary logo as a sample design when testing new materials. Even though the white melamine-coated MDF I used wasn’t a new material to me, I felt it appropriate, so I created a black version with a white inner glow. The thin red line is the vector cut that created the final shape of the letters after I hollowed out the core. Because I etched five passes at a fairly strong power, the finished piece had too steep a slope; you can hardly see that it was a slope and not just a really deep etch, but it’s there! I swear!

Etaoin in MDF
The whole piece; the depth is hard to capture without appropriate lighting.
Etaoin in MDF
The slight lip on the edge was made by skipping a few lighter levels of grey.

The second piece, ETAOIN SHRDLU, was based on a fun part of newspaper lore and set in Colonna. It was etched opposite the ABCD: the letters were left untouched while the outer space was etched away. I chose a thicker gradient stroke so that the slope would be gentler. I also only etched the bitmap four times. The contrast between the white letters and the resulting grain of the MDF’s innards is profound. It almost looks like the letters are sitting in a bed of sand that has settled over years.

Etaoin in Black
The black acrylic Shrdlu is a little hard to read without the right light reflected!

The final piece was cut from quarter-inch black acrylic. For fun, I created an offset path so that the letters would be cut out more tightly than the MDF version’s square border. Even with six passes at full power (and half-speed) the etch didn’t quite reach half-way through the material.  The result is a little hard to read (maybe I should have used a capped material!) but certainly looks neat.

Etaoin in MDF
The slight lip on the edge was made by skipping a few lighter levels of grey.

The amount of passes necessary to create a good 3D look takes a lot of time, but there’s a whole lot more that can be done than just beveling the edges of pretty type faces. I’ll definitely be playing more with the 3D mode as we go on.

Etaoin in MDF
The sand blows away, revealing pure white type!