Tag Archives: transparent acrylic

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.

100: Pyramid Holograms

The pyramid, taped and ready for the phone.
The pyramid, taped and ready for the phone.

A few months ago,  Jennifer had me order some unusually thin 1/32″ transparent acrylic to try out some kind of “phone hologram” trick she read about on the Internet. The material arrived in a shipment of a whole bunch of other inventory and was mostly forgotten, until just last week Eagle Engraving’s resident laser ninja Monica brought up the same concept and basically demanded I make it happen. So thanks for helping us reach the big 1-0-0, Monica!

A close-up of the pyramid.
A close-up of the pyramid.

The pyramid hologram uses four pieces of thin transparent acrylic taped together in order for it to be placed either on top of or below a display—in this case, a mobile phone. A specially formatted video is then played back and the image is reflected “into” the pyramid, resembling one of those old Sega arcade “hologram” machines.

There are plenty of templates out there on the net to make your own, but I followed the graph paper measurements from Demilked. The laser did the dirty work, replacing the most often recommended x-acto knife work on a CD jewel case. The finished plastic was very clean, but my questionable tape job connecting the four trapezoids left things just a little sloppier. Even with the pieces taped, the pyramid is a little wobbly, so I had to be gentle when balancing the phone on top.

Tiny minions make jokes underneath my Moto X.
Tiny minions make jokes underneath my Moto X.

While you can also rest the finished pyramid on top of your phone, I opted to set the phone on top so I’d see less of the originating video. There are several videos on YouTube to demonstrate this trick, and you need to choose “screen up” or “screen down” versions to make sure the hologram is displayed correctly. With the phone on top, I selected a playlist of screen down videos and set it going. Minions, anime girls, and a very motivational Shia Labeouf all appeared in my tiny pyramid and danced around. All in all, it’s a neat little trick, and didn’t take much time; perfect for a busy holiday season!

Hatsune Miku shows off a double image effect that's hard to avoid.
Hatsune Miku shows off a double image effect that’s hard to avoid.

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.

 

14: Box Joints

I’ve done box joints before, just once, for a 3D picture frame celebrating a newborn baby. It was a harrowing experience back then because I didn’t really understand how the width of the laser beam affects the ability of two pieces to fit together and because I was using a thick wood that just didn’t want to play nicely. The piece did turn out fine, but the procedure was such a mess that I haven’t really considered box joints since.

Three tetriminos with etched surfaces.
Three tetriminos with etched surfaces.

That changed this week, because Tetris was still on my mind. At some point while laying out hundreds of tiny tetriminos for the NES etching project I realized that it shouldn’t be too hard to recreate those popular shapes in 3D if I could just get over my box joint demons. Wood was out; I selected varying colors of 1/8″ thick acrylic for my material this time.

The darker shapes were the tricky ones.
The Blue J / Orange L. The darker shapes were the tricky ones.

Figuring out the shapes initially took no time at all.  I settled on 1″ squares to form the basic tetrimino shapes and made sure that the box joints (the teeth shown above) were the same thickness as the material, 1/8″. When I began on the Cyan I, there were no inside corners and the design went incredibly smoothly. Because Yellow O, unpictured, is just a fatter version of the same shape, adjusting the cut was trivial.

When I got around to Blue J and Orange L, I had to get through a few bad test cuts before figuring out how to adjust two shapes to account for the inner corner. Once I discovered how it should be shaped, the same inner corner treatment could be applied to Red Z (shown here) and Green S, as well as the unpictured Purple T.

The trickiest part of layout was the inside seam shown here at center.
The trickiest part of layout was the inside seam shown here at center.

With that design puzzle solved, more test cuts were spent discovering the best kerf setting for this material. After cutting a few box-jointed pieces that wouldn’t fit together and a few that fit together so loosely they’d require glue, I discovered that the laser’s width burned away 0.0064″ of material on each line, which could be solved with an offset path setting of 0.0032″. The resulting graveyard of pieces shows many cracked edges, but the final pieces fit together so perfectly that they’ll never fall apart by accident.

The graveyard: Paper unpeeled, incorrect shapes and cracked joints.
The graveyard: Paper unpeeled, incorrect shapes and cracked joints.
The difference between Orange L and Blue J here is paper: lots and lots of tiny paper tetriminos.
The difference between Orange L and Blue J here is paper: lots and lots of tiny paper tetriminos.

Speaking of accidents and graveyards, don’t soak transfer paper in Goo Gone. One of the fun little extra steps I took during this weekly project was to vector etch a pattern of tiny tetriminos over top of these big 3D pieces. Well, when you vector etch a sheet of acrylic that is covered with transfer paper to prevent burn issues, you end up with hundreds of tiny little paper shapes you then have to remove by hand; you can see them here in the comparison between Orange L and Blue JI thought I’d save time by liberally applying Goo Gone to the paper surfaces and then leaving the pieces overnight. I figured I should be able to just wipe away the paper, its adhesive dissolved.

This gelatinous goop is an incredible pain to remove.
This gelatinous goop is an incredible pain to remove.

The end result was horrific: the Goo Gone did make the paper very easy to remove, but it left the adhesive on the acrylic, which had become a horrible, gummy mess. Way too much time was spent using more Goo Gone, some isopropyl alcohol, and some plain liquid soap to slowly remove the residue from the etched pieces. What a mess.

The Cyan I, everyone's favorite tetrimino.
The Cyan I, everyone’s favorite tetrimino.

Most of my tetriminos were cut out of transparent colored acrylic, though some pieces (shown in the graveyard pictures) were opaque. The Cyan I was the most fun to look at, thanks to the “Ice Blue” acrylic used. It didn’t have much visible color looking at the surface of the material, but the cyan color really shines through the etches and cut edges. It appears to glow, even when placed next to the other transparent tetriminos.

 

 

Plenty of tetriminos stacked in ways they shouldn't be stacked.
Plenty of tetriminos stacked in ways they shouldn’t be stacked.