Somehow for all the plans I’ve had over the years to laser engrave a fight stick, I never actually got around to it until this week! Last week, a coworker at the library was planning on making a custom artwork label for his arcade fight stick in the library’s makerspace, and it didn’t take long discussing materials and fabrication processes (including just printing on paper to replace the stock Ryu artwork) before I practically demanded to laser engrave the hardware myself. Since I kind of stole his project from him in order to complete one of my own, I hope there’s enough juicy details herein to cover the process! Thanks, Mark!
We briefly discussed engraving the acrylic panel that is included with the controller, but we decided against that so that he’d always have an unaltered panel handy. Besides, we were already talking about using a fluorescent orange acrylic that we’ve used in the library before for making bright, eye-catching tokens and trinkets. It’s a fiery equivalent to the green acrylic I use for Ingress badges; edges practically glow with this material! But the material we chose was only available in 1/8″—about 50% thicker than the stock acrylic—so I’d have to do some measurements to make sure it’d still fit. There were a few other tricky issues to figure out as well, so I knew I had some prototyping to do. But first, the design itself!
Mark had already done some of the hard work and whipped up a layout of the artwork he wanted to engrave. It was only roughly the size of the fight stick’s acrylic cover. Featuring an illustration of a kneeling samurai and seven bushido virtues, he told me he’d always been enamored with samurai and the code they lived by.
“How that warrior code and Buddhist philosophy can coexist interests me. … I think anyone who is interested in an applicable ethic for living, who understands that the world can be violent, but hopes not to have to actually be violent, will find plenty to study in the samurai.”
The layout didn’t have accurate measurements or the button and joystick layout, though, so I’d have to see if someone put one together online. As it turns out, we didn’t need to rely on the community; late product manufacturer Mad Catz provides a PSD template for users who want to print out their own art. Its pixels are no good for laser cutting, but it has the exact dimensions and throwing together some vector circles where the PSD says they should be was quick and easy.
Once I had the layout prepared, I ran several prototypes. The first was cut out of cardboard, which was slightly too thick to be used easily in place of the acrylic, but it did help me discover that I accidentally nudged the bottom row of buttons out of alignment when creating the vector template. I corrected those issues and cut out a second full size prototype in chipboard. The chipboard fit perfectly and even looked pretty good under the stock acrylic!
I had to run several small engraving tests on the actual material because of a few techniques I planned to use that need really precise settings. First, I’d need to recreate a lip on the entire outside rim of the acrylic; I’d have to engrave very deeply in order to do so. I also wanted to make sure I created a nice depth effect on the engraving, so I’d need to combine the halftone raster engraving on the greyscale samurai art with selective vector engraving on the darkest strokes. Finally, because of the thicker material we’re using, I wanted to round the edges so they wouldn’t stick out quite as much around the buttons. This involves pulling the laser out of focus, so I’d have to make sure the depth offset was an appropriate amount.
During this prototyping, I figured out that I’d need to engrave at 100% power, 10% speed to burn away enough material to recreate the stock acrylic’s outer lip. That’s ridiculously slow, and across an entire 13″ by 8″ design it would have taken over three hours to engrave, so I ended up breaking the engraving into four jobs. By doing so, I prevented the laser from passing by the entire inner area of the acrylic, reducing the engraving time to about 35 minutes. What a relief!
I also determined that pulling the laser out of focus by exactly 1″ creates a nice rounded effect while being a nice easy number to remember. I used the same settings that would cut through the material with the proper focus. The slight misalignment of my #2 mirror struck again and required me to move the out-of-focus vector lines just a tiny fraction to the left to compensate. One of these days I’ll get that fixed.
After I engraved the lip and cut out the button holes, I flipped the material, removed the back face’s protective mask, and got to engraving the art! It might not be obvious at first, but if you’re going to engrave something you’ll be resting your hands on often, you should engrave the back face and leave the top smooth and untouched. Otherwise the engraving might irritate your skin and you’re going to have to clean your filth out of the artwork more often than anyone should have to deal with. Besides, the fluorescence of the material is best shown off through the material; back face engravings capture much more of the color and appear less frosty.
Amusingly enough, it didn’t dawn on me until I installed the fight stick that I’d need to make some kind of thin black background layer so that the metal button plate wouldn’t be visible through the design. It’s kind of a neat look, but it detracts from the theme, so I used the only material I had on hand (some black/silver LaserLights; don’t tell Jen!) and cut the template out of that. It fit just fine beneath the acrylic, so it was time for put Mark’s fighting game weapon of choice back together for good.
The final piece was simple to install thanks to the hinged design of the FightStick-branded fight stick (that’s not confusing at all, right?). I was a little worried that the originally-pencil samurai design would suffer from being printed “in reverse” (i.e. light lines on a dark background), but the way the deeper vector engraving works with the light halftone raster engraving almost makes it look like our calm, kneeling samurai is fashioned out of fire rather than graphite. As mark put it, “Simultaneously peaceful and ready for battle.”