“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.
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!
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.
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.
“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.
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.”
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.
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
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.