The ottoman tray looking over the entertainment center

163: Symphony of the Ottoman Tray

Just a few more than 52 months ago, I worked on a laser project with Castlevania: Symphony of the Night as the main theme. While that project was about using different engraving power settings to lighten and darken the same material, during its course I dug up some bitmaps of the 1997 PlayStation title’s in-game map and translated them into vector. I ended up using very little map data for that project in the end, instead focusing on character art, but that vector map has been sitting on my SSD ever since.

The donor frame, originally used as a makeshift ottoman tray

Jennifer and I have an oversized ottoman that matches our current hand-me-down couch, and it takes up so much space that we often use sturdier flat surfaces atop the ottoman so that it can be makeshift coffee table. As it turns out, ottoman trays have been a thing for a long time, and we were tired of using an old empty picture frame as an ottoman tray. Since I had some wood, a laser, and an iconic video game map handy, I knew I’d be making a tray instead of buying one.

Over the years I’ve gathered up a fair amount of leftover material from previous projects. This month, several of those projects’ remainders were going to come together to help make this tribute to Dracula’s castle happen:


The main conceit behind this whole project is that the world map in Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (hereafter SOTN) is split into two halves. One is Dracula’s castle, and the other is also Dracula’s Castle, just flipped upside down. This reverse castle, which I grew up calling the Inverted Castle, doesn’t sound clever at all today, but the way it was revealed over the course of the game was fun and, if you weren’t the explorative sort, entirely missable.

Since the our ottoman and its tray would be looked down upon from all sorts of angles, I placed the map—in all of its rectilinear glory—across the entire 14″ by 12″ surface and placed the labels on the side walls. This way you’ll always see the name of the castle from your point of view.

A textured mockup to get a feel for how the pieces would look when assembled

I had thirteen game areas divided out, and would represent them mostly with thin wooden inlay. While there were several amazing pieces of wood inlay that Jennifer brought home from Italy, they were all slightly warped and I didn’t have the patience to solve that issue and deal with a separate adhesive. Instead, I used a set of clear-coated wood grain inlays that had an adhesive back built-in. I would use cherry, maple, and bird’s eye maple wood thins for most areas, but since the fourth grain was the same as the base wood, walnut, I restricted that to the twenty-two single loading rooms, used to mask load time from spinning optical media in its original release.

The mother of pearl sheet was so thin and cracked so easily that it was nerve wracking to remove from the laser bed

The Marble Gallery, one of the more iconic areas in the castle, wasn’t going to be represented in the design with a wood inlay. Instead, I’d use some of Jennifer’s mother-of-pearl shell inlay. Its shine eclipses even the silver and gold foiled plastics used for save and teleport rooms, and it really does give off a marbled look perfect for the area it represents. Finally, a simple serif typeface labels each area and its inverted equivalent flipped along a horizontal rule so that the label matches which castle you’re viewing.

I laid out the initial design to fit around that borrowed 14″ by 12″ pane of glass. It was taken from a relatively cheap picture frame and the glass had the edge to match. I got a little overzealous while cleaning the glass and cut my ring finger just under a joint. So hey: Be careful when handling any glass, especially pieces with unfinished edges.

I connected the sides to the base with some simple box-jointing, using the material width for inch-long teeth. I kept the sides low, at about an inch, with a sweep up to form handles on the short ends that top off at just a hair above two inches. I wouldn’t realize it until later on, but I accidentally misaligned two teeth, and it’s visible on the layout screenshots I took at the time. This would require me to cut a new side later on, a mistake that is painfully evident due to the grain direction.

The basic layout of the tray reveals a box-joint error on the Dracula’s Castle piece I eventually had to replace

Fitting the map design onto a 14″ wide piece of wood meant each room would be about 0.17″ square. Cutting interconnecting rooms of that size out of material measured in the thousandths-of-an-inch would mean a lot of very delicate work isolating each area and removing the paper from its adhesive backing. This alone precluded using the actual foils I’d planned to use. They were far too thin to use for save rooms or any rooms at this scale, so I settled on some fairly traditional gold and silver over black. Pretty thick plastic, turns out, relative to the wood thins and mother-of-pearl.


Various colors represent speeds of engraving and thus depth of engraving

Because I have so many different materials to lay into the walnut, I had to run several test engravings to determine how much power would be needed to reach the right depth for the inlaid material to lay roughly flat with the original walnut surface. The software lets me assign various basic RBG colors to specific powers and run them all in a single pass, which is a huge time-saver for tests like these. I was able to line up several speeds, all at maximum power.

Engraving at 100% power and 100/80/60/40/20% speed to determine depths

Max power and speed resulted in a fine depth for both the wood inlay and the mother-of-pearl, while a slower speed of 40% gave a deep enough engraving for the thicker foiled plastics. The 20% speed group was laughably overkillious.

With engraving depths figured out, vector cut and raster engrave designs ready to go, and plenty of wood to burn, it was time to actually make something.


Starting with the wood thins, I cut each castle area in as few pieces as possible given the size of the sheets. I then laid them out on the pane of glass sitting atop my cutting mat and enjoyed the shadowy effect it created way too much. As expected, the mother-of-pearl was particularly delicate and I was very anxious handling it because of how thin it is and how easily it will crack. Perhaps worse were the individual rooms. Each one was about 0.17″ by 0.17″, absolutely tiny and easy to get lost down the laser bed. I had to cut several extras for each type just to make up for the loss.

The finished surface engraving, still masked

Once all of the thin bits were cut out—thirteen areas, thirteen inverse areas, five teleport rooms, twenty-two save rooms and twenty-two loading rooms—I was able to start engraving the main design into the 1/4″ walnut wood. The main map squares and their labels were engraved to the calibrated depth for the wood inlay, and the save and teleport rooms were engraved further to accommodate the thicker plastic.

Cutting through the 1/4″ thick walnut, the score lines are meant to help wood glue bond

Accounting for kerf, 0.0035″ in this case, meant that my box joints would fit snug but not so snug that glue couldn’t squeeze between. Just in case, vector engraving lines were scored across the box joints in order to provide texture and space for the wood glue. I couldn’t assemble the sides just yet, though.

I used color fill to blacken the title engravings on the sides of the tray

I used some black paint fill to darken the lettering on the sides with the name of each castle. When applying this kind of paint, it can soften the paper mask and if you’re too aggressive when brushing it in, you might lift up a corner and end up painting an otherwise pristine surface. To avoid that, use a cotton swap and gently roll it across the surface. You can dab a bit thick early on to get the paint in the corners if you engraved too deeply, but make sure to roll the surface afterward to clear away excess paint and maintain an even surface for the engraved text.

I gently rolled cotton swabs through black paint fill to prevent the mask from pulling up

The paint was painted and lasering lasered, all that remained was to lay in the inlays. I was a little aggressive with my kerf settings on the wood thins, which resulted in them fitting too tightly. This is especially evident on the cherry, which bows up in a few tricky spots. I decided this wasn’t a big enough issue with the pane of glass on top and moved on.

While all of the wood and plastic inlays fit in the end, it was the marblesque mother-of-pearl that fit extremely well. As I pressed it into the engraved area, it powdered somewhat, which gives me the impression it basically crushed into a perfect fit. All of the shiny save and teleport room bits fit as they should, though some dip a little below the walnut surface due to a slightly uneven engraving depth.

With the base piece’s surface inlays finally complete, I tested assembling the pieces. It wasn’t until this point that I realized that the Dracula’s Castle side piece had two misaligned teeth. It was a simple enough fix, but I would need to recut and repaint, and in the final photos you’ll be able to tell it was replaced because the new part was cut with a different grain direction.

Various clamps hold the tray together while the wood glue dries

A second assembly test was successful, so I slathered on some wood glue and clamped the whole thing together for the night. In the morning, I tested again, slathered some more glue, and affixed the cork on its belowside.


The finished piece is 14.5″ by 12.5″, and sits about 2.25″ tall. The glass fits snugly atop the base wood, which is firmly glued together with the sides and a cork foot with its own special engraving. It’s smaller than I would have liked, but I really wanted to use the glass piece so as to avoid having to learn how to do something really neat like pouring resin or epoxy to get a smooth flat protective coat.

I entertained the notion of oiling the surface of the walnut base wood, but decided against it since it would reduce the contrast on the labels. They’re miniscule as is and I don’t want to make them any harder to read than absolutely necessary.

Detail of the complete ottoman tray, mother of pearl and wood inlay beneath glass

In the end, I’ve satisfied a household need, geeked out with some game map nostalgia, and used up some leftover materials to do so. I won’t need to use a surrogate flat surface as an ottoman tray any more and it’ll be a neat conversation piece once we can have other nerdy friends visit again!

Let us go out this evening for pleasure. The night is still young.

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