Tag Archives: laser

117: PC Case Engraving

To ring in the new year, and celebrate the ten year anniversary of my previous build, I decided to build a new PC. Back in 2007, it was two years before we even started playing with lasers. This time around, I knew for sure I’d be laser engraving some piece or another. I’ve engraved a few macbooks and other portable devices, and I’ve even engraved a custom wood faceplate for a friend’s ATX midtower. So I’ve been pretty excited about the idea of engraving something on my own machine!

Over a few weeks in January I did the research, collected the parts, and then planned a small “build party” with some of my local PC enthusiast friends so we could put the machine together together. Hey, it only happens once a decade or so, that’s a pretty good excuse for a shindig, yeah?

From left to right, Brenn, Jen (<3), myself, Maul, Ray, and Mark. Also not pictured: Maul’s bro Joe! Thanks for the photography, Mark!

Together we had dinner, built the PC, played some couch games, and mulled over a few remaining questions. What should this new build be called? What part of the case will be laser engraved? What are we going to engrave on it? I was so wishy-washy on the name decision that I couldn’t even settle on it before the party was over. Furthermore, I wanted the engraving design to be related to the name, so I couldn’t really come to any decisions on that front, either. But we were able to figure out what part to engrave, and as it turned out, the answer was nothing.

Fractal Design’s Define C case is sexy, but made out of questionably engravable plastic.

The Fractal Design Define C is a sexy, sexy midtower ATX case. I love the shroud, I love the quiet, and I love the flat textured front. I like simple, unassuming case designs, and I wanted to continue down that road after my last build in an Antec P180B. But when we finally dug into the case, I learned a few laser-unfriendly things I could probably have sussed out from reviews online if I had been more thorough.

The front of the case is not an anodized aluminum plate, and it’s also not easily detached from the surrounding plastic chassis that covers the front exhaust system. It’s made out of the same plastic—it’s very pretty, with a subtle vertical brushed texture, but it’s still just the case plastic. Because the textured surface isn’t repeated anywhere on the inside (or indeed on any other external surface) I wasn’t going to be able to do an inconspicuous engraving test. So I wouldn’t be able to engrave the front plate, but what about the window?

On a quest for extreme sound dampening, my previous PC build didn’t have a window at all. But over the years I’ve kind of missed being able to peek in on my parts, so this time I bought a case with built-in acrylic window.

With a power shroud for modesty and excellent cable arrangement, who wouldn’t want to peek inside?

Unfortunately, there wasn’t going to be an easy way to test that material inconspicuously either, and with the  engraving quality difference between cast and extruded acrylics, I didn’t want to gamble.

When I looked closer at the acrylic window, I noticed there was a lip on the inside, one that would fit a secondary piece of acrylic just fine as long as the measurements were correct. So I did a couple of sizing tests with some old pieces of acrylic, got my measurements spot on, and settled on a solution: cut a separate piece of cast acrylic and snap it into the existing acrylic window. I wouldn’t technically be engraving the PC case after all, but the finished piece would still look as good. As a bonus, I’d be able to easily change out the acrylic in the future if I wanted to change the design.

Amusingly enough, it was mulling around design ideas that led me to my final decision on the name of the machine. I’ve always been a fan of the Metroid series, you can see it in some of my other projects. Most game servers I host have names based on “Maru Mari”, and you’ll be connecting to “Varia” if you try to stream content to my television. I had a feeling I’d end up going with the Metroid theme again, but it wasn’t until I thought about how much fun it would be to engrave the cold steel corridors of Tourian into acrylic that I really landed on it.

The full map is too big; I’d have to fit it in this cyan rectangle

Tourian is a big map. Well, it’s not big, but its hallways are long and the vertical shafts are all a daunting climb. I’d have to compress the map pretty significantly to make it fit the relatively tiny space I had for my acrylic window. To make matters worse, halfway through the design I realized I had laid out the template wrong and was designing for the measurements in landscape instead of portrait. But after cutting a few rooms in half (and completely excising the hallway before Mother Brain’s chamber) I was able to make it fit.

The final compressed map, corrected to a portrait aspect.

I added a few additional details (the opening text scroll and an excessively big title in the original typeface in the corner) and the design was finished. I cleaned up the acrylic, seated it in the window’s lip, and used a tiny bit of clear packing tape on the inside corners to make sure it wouldn’t somehow come loose.

A mockup of what the case might look like with the final design.

The panel looks great when it’s not connected to the computer, but as it turns out, I should look into buying some motherboard-powered LED strip lighting to brighten up this design. Most of the photography here is cleaned up to make the engraving visible, but it’s much more subtle than that when properly installed on the PC.

This door is all that’s left of a completely deleted room. Don’t tell the purists!

The end result may be disappointingly dim, but I still had a blast manipulating the Tourian map in a way that wouldn’t compromise the basic layout, and I will definitely be using what I’ve learned on this project to make some more “window inserts” for this case in the future. Once it’s lit up, the design itself should really shine, but for now it still makes for some pretty fun close up photography!

The engraving fights with the inner bits just a little more than I’d hoped.
I love that the escape shaft coincidentally has its own murky yellow and green lighting.
This example clearly shows how dim the engraving is compared to the LED-lit components inside.
A two character 8 segment LED readout hides in Tourian’s O.
One Metroid, permanently frozen.

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!

105: Tint and Shade Engraving

A close-up showing off the depth of the shade engraving.
Tint engraving is light, frosting the finish, while shade engraving is deep, darkening the surface.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve spent half a day here, half an hour there, slowly going through all of the inventory I’ve accumulated since starting my collection of laserable bits back in 2011. One of the gems I pulled out of the rough was a set of about a dozen small pieces of finished wood I scavenged from Eagle Engraving’s scrap material a year or so ago. I picked it up because I noticed that the finish reacted to light engraving in a unique way, but it got lost in the stack and forgotten.

I wrote about using halftones to get more than one shade when engraving wood recently, but approximating a handful of darker shades of the wood’s surface color can only have a certain pretty small range of values. It’s better than the usual duo of the untouched wood color and a single full-engraving shade, but what about lightening the wood color? It’s not really something that can happen on untreated wood—even the darkest wood just gets darker when burnt—but wood with a clear coat of certain chemicals can sometimes frost like cell-cast acrylic does. That’s exactly what Eagle’s scrap wood was doing, so I nabbed some to experiment with both shading and tinting on a single piece.

The first batch of prototypes showed that halftones couldn't be used.
The first batch of prototypes showed that halftones couldn’t be used.

I call this “tint and shade engraving” because of its parallel to a concept in color theory, though I am sure there is already a sufficient technical term for this type of double engraving out there; let me know if you know the answer!

I started out trying to recreate a section of the castle map from an old PlayStation game I was fond of, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. I was hoping to create a physical map of the castle, starting with just the Entrance for now, and the added value range afforded by the tint engraving would really help the room graphics stand out over the wood grain.

Finding the right threshold for the tint and shade graphic layers was difficult.
Finding the right threshold for the tint and shade graphic layers was difficult.

Figuring out the shade engraving settings was easy enough, but I made a quick test cut to determine the best laser power settings for tint engraving for this material. The result looked like 15% (on a 40w laser, at 100% speed, on this specific material; YMMV!), so I started a series of test engravings on the many small pieces of wood I had available.

Coincidental background shading and foreground tinting created great contrast.
Coincidental background shading and foreground tinting created great contrast.

I quickly learned that I wouldn’t be able to use halftone patterns when shade engraving on this material. Because of the same clear coat that allows us to tint engrave, a tiny white outline appears around every shade engraved section. It’s tolerable in the final pieces (take a good look at the close-up shots to see what I mean) but with halftone pattern it got really visible and completely ruined any properly shaded effect.

Using halftone patterns on the tint engraving had better success, but was far less effective than halftone on a more traditional engrave, so I opted to use just one tint and just one shade. While it meant that we technically have less values than were used in the halftoning wood examples, the contrast is way higher and the result is much more striking.

A small section of Castlevania's Entrance. Do you recognize it?
A small section of Castlevania’s Entrance. Do you recognize it?

Once I had the prototypes engraved, I engraved and cut out a small subsection of the Entrance area of the game. It turned out pretty awesome, but because I only have smaller pieces of this particular wood at the moment I wasn’t able to complete the entire Entrance area as originally planned. I’ll just have to revisit that project another time. For now, another tint & shade engraving would suffice: the beautiful Ayami Kojima promotional painting that I still have an old wall scroll of somewhere in this office.

The processed art used for the shade engraving.
The processed art used for the shade engraving.
The shade engraving is complete, and tint engraving is up next.
The shade engraving is complete, and tint engraving is up next.
The processed art used for the tint engraving.
The processed art used for the tint engraving.
A close-up showing off the depth of the shade engraving.
A close-up showing off the depth of the shade engraving.

Like with the castle maps, I fired up Photoshop and went about adjusting levels and all that to build two engraving rasters, one for the shade engraving and one for the tint engraving. I engraved the shade first, snapped a quick picture in the laser to show off the piece mid-process, and then engraved the tint layer. The shading turned out way better than I expected even after the positive results with the in-game map, and I suspect that all sorts of well-shaded facial photography and artwork would engrave really well with this procedure.

The only trouble is finding exactly the right kind of finished wood! I have several coated woods and only some of them have the same frosting effect when lightly engraving. Maybe some of you out there know of good sources of wood specifically coated to provide this effect. Let me know if you do!

104: One Word Affirmation

I’m not a huge fan of New Year’s Resolutions – sometimes I can be too much of a perfectionist to have it work in my favor.  Instead, I come up with a one word affirmation for the new year ahead.

I know it sounds a little hippy dippy, but a one word affirmation is designed to be a positive statement that shapes your actions during the new year.  In December, I contemplate the year that has gone by and think about the type of year I want ahead.  I pick one, easy to remember word that will prompt me to act and have the year and experiences I want.  And because it isn’t a full statement with a measurable goal that I can either fail at or finish (ie I want to visit Mercury or I want to become a breatharian)  I can use the affirmation to take advantage of opportunities throughout the year that I might not even dream of in December.  (Please let it be noted I’m not going to attempt either of the resolution examples above.)

This blog is about laser cutting, so how does this not-quite a New Years resolution post fit in?  I’m showing you how I created the laser cut file to put my affirmation on the wall. Disclaimer – I’m not the trained graphic designer, Ryan is.  This is my novice way, but it gets the job done!

My word for 2016 is “Go” which is a little simplistic, so I’ve picked a second word to do the process with as well – Shine.

  1. Pick your font and word!
    Pick your font and word!
    The stroke is a slightly different color here so you can see it
    The stroke is a slightly different color here so you can see it

    Type the word you want in a program that makes files readable by your laser.  I used Adobe Illustrator, version CC2015.  Choose a font – I have used Archer for “Shine” and Plantagenet Cherokee for “Go.” Check if you like the bold versions of the fonts you chose – bold gives you a little more meat to the letters to make more solid connection when smushing them together.  If bold is not enough, you can stroke the letters to add weight.

  2. I also made the "S" bigger to help balance it.
    I also made the “S” bigger to help balance it.

    Bring the letters together so they touch.  This can be done a couple different ways.  The easiest is to reduce the tracking between the letters.  Just like you can change the size of letters individually, you can also change the tracking between letters.  This worked really well with the word “Shine” because the serifs are so prominent.  For the word “Go,” I didn’t reduce tracking, but instead put the letters on different layers so I could move them more freely.  Because of the baseline isn’t obvious since g and o are so rounded, I decided to move the o down slightly to nestle it in the the valley of the g – creating visual interest and increasing stability of the final project.

  3. First Expansion
    First Expansion
    Second expansion
    Second expansion

    Expand the appearance of the type so the word is no longer type, but instead considered an object by the program.  In Illustrator, “Expand” is an option under “Object.”  Because the word is slightly stroked, I found I had to expand the appearance twice – the first time expanded the fill and the object, the second expansion gave me the option to include the stroke properly.  Once expanded, it gives you lots of different layers.

    Step 3 - Unite
    Step 4 – Unite
  4. Step 4 - Outline of the united word.
    Step 4 – Outline of the united word.

    Unite the expanded layers using the “unite” option under the pathfinder menu.  At this point you should have a unified word.  You’ll notice I don’t – there is a pesky dot to the i in “shine”.  Because it is not attached, it’s easy to just move down.  When it’s overlapped enough, unite the elements to make it one.

  5. Resize your vector to final print size.

    Step 5 - The pattern is overlaid, and because the engraving is rastered, I masked it. Saves on laser time.
    Step 6 – The pattern is overlaid, and because the engraving is rastered, I masked it. Saves on laser time.  Also, don’t judge my illustrator layout.  I’m a newbie.
  6. This step is optional, but it fun to jazz up your words – I overlaid a pattern on the word “Go”.  It’s a raster pattern and will engrave over top.  This effect is pretty on wood, and looks awesome when engraving through a painted layer, like we did in Week 56: Decorated Clothes Pins.  (If you are curious, the design is one I won from Designious – it’s part of seamless pattern pack number 23).
  7. Make sure your design is print ready by setting the colors and line widths as specified by your laser cutter.  Save in a laser friendly format such as .ai or .eps.
  8. Cut and admire your unique finished project!  And have a fantastic year!

goshine (9 of 9)

The painted wood was masked, to protect it from soot and over burn. I really liked the effect of the transfer tape, which allowed some of the color to come through. The tiny bits of tape left made a fun texture. I wouldn't suggest doing this for high use objects (the tape comes off easily), but this it just going on the wall.
The painted wood was masked, to protect it from soot and over burn. I really liked the effect of the transfer tape, which allowed some of the color to come through. The tiny bits of tape left made a fun texture. I wouldn’t suggest doing this for high use objects (the tape comes off easily), but this it just going on the wall.
Perhaps a good resolution for me would be measure twice, cut once - they I wouldn't have the word for slightly off the end of my piece of wood!
Perhaps a good resolution for me would be measure twice, cut once – then I wouldn’t have miscalculated and the word would have fit on my piece of wood!