Tag Archives: fluorescent acrylic

120: Fluorescent Samurai FightStick

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!

The stock acrylic has a lip almost certainly CNC milled. These aren’t easy to recreate with a laser!

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!

The layout is about 13″ by 8″, features eight buttons and zero button labels. Pro!

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.

The chipboard prototype fit perfectly, and looks pretty snazzy on its own!

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!

Several small material setting prototypes. Please ignore the Triforce!

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.

Detail of the letter engraving, including the deep vector stroke outlining the glyph above.

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!

This acrylic really shows off fingerprints, doesn’t it?

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.

My final acrylic lip was close enough, and check out that smooth rounded corner on top!

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.

Samurai on metal plate. Great shadow effect, but with plenty of distracting screws.

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.

One small detail: the acrylic’s rounded corners needed to be about 0.1″ radius, quite a bit rounder than I first estimated.

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.”

The joystick just barely fits between the samurai and his blade.
Detail of shallow halftone raster engraving combined with deep vector engraving.

109: Edge-Lit Acrylic

I’ve been playing a lot lately with a new toy I picked up from Inventables: a powered LED strip for edge lighting acrylic. It’s made in particular to work in tandem with specially made acrylics that transmit light efficiently, but I’ve found it works really well with simpler transparent and fluorescent acrylics.

The first dual-layer design.
The first dual-layer design.

My first test was with transparent orange material sourced at the Aurora Public Library’s Makerspace—check it out if you’re local!—and it seemed appropriate to design a little sign for the space as the test. Because the LED strip is designed to snap to the edge of a 1/4″ piece of acrylic and I only had 1/8″ material available, I decided to split the design across two layers of acrylic. The front layer included all of the vector engraving and the back layer was just the main title text filled. The resulting look is striking, but using two transparent layers means you have to be extra careful not to let any fingerprints or dust get in between.

The short sign lit up easily.
The short sign lit up easily. Please ignore the Macbook!

Around the same time, I was working with a local artist to create some wall décor based on the classic Pac-Man maze. We agreed pretty quickly that the lit effect would look great and settled on some fluorescent blue acrylic. The first several tests confirmed that the two layer effect would be excellent; dividing the pellets, ghosts and other objects from the maze walls might not be very visible in the photography, but it’s a really neat trick when you’re examining the piece up close.

A small cross-section of the Pac-Man design in two layers.
A small cross-section of the Pac-Man design in two layers.

One concern I continue to have is whether a single LED strip will be able to illuminate the entire flourescent blue acrylic sheet—this piece is 16 inches tall, towering compared to the 4″ makerspace sign. A quick test on some scrap acrylic shows that the light visibly dims near the top, but I won’t be able to know for sure how the final piece will look until a last-minute shipment of materials arrives. Speaking of that, here’s a pro tip: don’t assume you’ve got all the materials you need until the day you’re scheduled to cut! Always check, even if it’s something you always keep in stock, like the black cast acrylic that was supposed to be the backing layer for the finished Pac-Man piece.

A later single layer test cut with rounded vector engraved maze walls.
A later single layer test cut with rounded vector engraved maze walls.

Edge lit acrylic is a great look, and I’m might have to investigate the “EndLighten” brand or similar substrates to maximize light transmission. I know I’m also going to be looking into portable equivalents; this hardware has to plug into a wall. I’m sure that’ll be a post in the future; until then, look forward to an update on this post with additional pictures of the finished Pac-Man piece!

This crazy square panorama shows how the lighting falls off near the top. We'll see how it looks in the finished piece!
This crazy square panorama shows how the lighting falls off near the top. We’ll see how it looks in the finished piece!

78: X-COM Shield

Owing partial thanks to the awesomeness of fluorescent green material, I put together a custom piece for a client this week that blended appreciation for two things: the X-COM series of science fiction video games and the real world United States Army Special Forces. We decided on a parody of the X-COM shield design, cast in green in reference to the green berets, and featuring a popular Special Forces motto in place of the shield’s original vigilo confido.

The first prototype made it clear that glue on the front acrylic was unacceptable.
The first prototype made it clear that glue on the front acrylic was unacceptable.

Because the design was made with two pieces of acrylic in mind, I had to determine the best way to attach the pieces.  On my first small prototype, I tried simply putting a few dabs of super glue in the corners of the piece, hoping that it would dry clear. Unfortunately, the uneven splotches of glue were readily visible from most angles and killed the fluorescent green effect in many cases.  It wasn’t going to work out.

The "pokes" are most visible in this prototype.
The “pokes” are most visible in this prototype.

I made a second prototype, again only a couple of inches tall, to test out a post solution. I would cut small holes into the layers, and then cut matching posts out of 1/4″ black acrylic. The uneven laser width when cutting thicker materials meant that the posts acted kind of like nails, with a slightly larger diameter on one side. I also played around with using single-point laser bursts—I called them pokes—to create a neat depth effect on the spherical grid design. Because imperfections of any kind glow in the fluorescent material, these “pokes” became connecting posts that met with the grid and traveled through the thickness of the material. It produced a pretty cool, albeit slightly messy result on the prototype.

You can barely make out the top of each poke, but the lines beneath are invisible.
You can barely make out the top of each poke, but the lines beneath are invisible.

Once I had the post thickness figured out, I laid out the final 9″ by 12″ piece. I included the poke technique, which didn’t turn out very visible due to how large the surface engraving was in comparison to the tiny lines the pokes produced. I also used repeated inset paths to create a depth effect on the typography and the three stars featured in the design. While the posts fit snugly in to the front surface, they were too small for the black acrylic in the back. A little glue there, where it wouldn’t be visible through green acrylic in the front, was just fine.

The engraved portions cast a shadow on the back layer.
The engraved portions cast a shadow on the back layer.

While the poke technique didn’t really come into its own with the finished, piece, it’s something I will be experimenting with more in the future. Every other facet, especially the awesome shadow the engraving casts on the back acrylic, turned out great!

The full piece, cut from two layers of acrylic.
The full piece, cut from two layers of acrylic.
The bottom post, one of five that hold the acrylic layers together.
The bottom post, one of five that hold the acrylic layers together.
The stars were engraved via repeated inset paths, creating an illusion of depth.
The stars were engraved via repeated inset paths, creating an illusion of depth.
A close-up shows the "rotary-style" engraving process used on the text.
A close-up shows the “rotary-style” engraving process used on the text.

25: Fluorescent Badges

I can’t believe how long it took me to realize how awesome fluorescent materials are. I’ve cut plenty of things out of transparent acrylic, but I completely ignored its glowing sibling until a group of Ingress players asked me to make them some badges.

A stack of badges; the top badge is the same color as the rest, I swear!
A stack of badges; the top badge is the same color as the rest, I swear!

Have you played Ingress? If you haven’t and you’re using a somewhat recent Android phone, you should give it a shot; it’s a well-polished geolocation game that has a fairly engaging progression system ostensibly designed to get you to go out walking/biking/what-have-you. I was absorbed into this game, rarely playing anything else during my run from level 1 to level 8, and I’m not the only one. That group of Ingress players mentioned earlier is called the Chicago Enlightened, because they’re in the Chicagoland area and are a bunch of frogs.

Check out how much these babies glow!
Check out how much these babies glow!

The fluorescent acrylic just soaks up light and fires it right back at you, especially where you’ve etched or cut it, making just about any art you etch amazingly, fantastically visible. Pardon my enthusiasm; I’ve been disappointed in the past with how difficult it was to make clear, high-contrast etches on transparent acrylic in the past, and this material solves the issue with bright glowy aplomb.  Like other transparent acrylic, it also cleans up very easily, without the sticky edges I’ve come to dread on most opaque acrylics. It was a joy to work with and generally a joy to photograph.

The old badge looks black mostly on account of the background surface.
The old badge looks black mostly on account of the background surface.

The awesome badge design seen here was provided by the group, and they’ve worked with this material before, so thankfully I didn’t have very many trial-and-error moments to deal with there. I did do some prototyping on a medallion-style badge similar to one I cut long ago, and I’ve taken some pictures of those too to show the contrast between the transparent green acrylic I typically use and the fluorescent material for this project. While the designs vary wildly—a raster etch focus on one and a vector etch focus on the other—the materials’ differing transmission of light is clear.

Here you can see the green tint of the original badge more easily.
Here you can see the green tint of the original badge more easily.

I think I’m going to have to revisit the tetriminos in this new material. In the meantime, I’m just thrilled that I’ll never again forget how to spell fluorescent.

More stacked badges.
More stacked badges.