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Tell me about the LASER?

Our workshop has a Universal LASER Systems VersaLASER VLS4.60 fitted with a 50 Watt CO2 LASER assembly. This is what is known as a platform LASER engraver system, and can engrave a design of up to 24 inches by 18 inches, on pretty much any object that will burn or melt when heat is applied, and can fit into the engravers workspace.

It is possible to fit items larger than the 24 inch by 18 inch engraving limits into the cabinet workspace (Max. Part Size is 29x23x9in/737x584x229 mm), but clearance issues mean that oversized items will have to be looked at on a case by case basis. There is also a 18kg/40lbs limit to the weight that the supporting platform can lift for the purpose of focusing the LASER beam on the object.

Our LASER has an optional Rotary Fixture, so we can engrave on cylindrical items of up to about 8 inches in diameter and 16 inches long. There are limitations to exactly what will fit into the standard mount on the Rotary Fixture, so anything odd or larger than about 3.25" (83 mm) in diameter or smaller than 1.5" (38 mm) in diameter may require a jig to be constructed to mount the object, and this will add to the cost of the job.

There are limitations on how deep we can etch into an item, so we can't easily carve you a design that goes all the way through a piece of 2" thick oak. If we had to we could, providing we had enough time, had a fire extinguisher ready, and the 2" focal length lens assembly that we have fitted was replaced with a longer focus model. A practical limitation on wood would be cutting to a depth of 1/4", and on most wood this results in a lot of flames and charing unless the LASER power is turned down and a lot of passes are made.

What can we do with our fancy LASER?

We can carve and cut designs into wood. All sorts of fancy work things can be done with wood, from making simple signs to intricate shape cutting for inlay work. The thinner the material to be cut, and the less the depth of the engraving, the better the result will be due to less chance of burning due to the higher LASER power needed for thicker cuts/engraving.

Glass can be etched by a process of micro fracturing the glass surface. Not all glass can be successfully engraved, but most can. As a rule of thumb, the more expensive the glass, the harder it will be to engrave.

Anodized aluminim or painted metal can be marked by the process of blasting the coating off the base metal. The end result is either bare metal, or an underlying coating being revealed.

Bare Stainless steel can be marked by the use of a heat activated marking compound. If time is not an issue, it is possible to directly mark the surface of some metals like stainless steel and titanium, but the results produced by this method will vary from object to object and alloy composition.

Even thin paper and card stock or even fabric can be cut on the LASER. It's just a case of getting the power and speed set right to prevent burning.

What's it going to cost to have some custom work done?

Every job is unique, and the final cost will depend on a number of factors - design and file preparation, LASER configuration charges, the cost of constructing any special jigs we may need to hold a non-standard object, the time it takes to actually engrave the work, and the cost of the object that is being engraved.

It will cost exactly the same amount of time (and time is money) to produce one item as it would cost for the first item of a batch of 100. Every identical item produced after the first one, either as part of an initial batch or at any time in the future, will be charged purely based on cost of materials and engraving time. Once the design and set-up is done, and the power levels are figured out, it's just mass production. It's the first prototype that costs the most money.

The design and set-up costs for a custom job usually range from $45 to $60, but the exact cost can only be determined once we have an idea of what you want and examine any files that you provide.

The production cost of the item(s) will also have to be determined on a case by case basis, and this will pretty much be determined by the amount of LASERing that each object needs, and that will be generally determined by the actual size of the design.

For cylindrical objects engraved in the Rotary Fixture, the wider a design is (the more it wraps around the cylindrical section of the oblect), the longer it will take to engrave, and this determines the cost. Within reason, the height of the design makes very little difference to the engraving time and hence the cost.

As an example, most of the engraved Rocks/Whisky/Cooler/Shooter glasses shown in the photos work out to be in the CAD$8 range, the water bottles are around CAD$15 (prices include the cost of the glass or water bottle). A mug with a handle will always be more expensive to engrave than a glass that has no specific orientation. The handle on the mug makes the design layout more complex, the positioning of the mug in the Rotary Fixture is critical, and the engraving often requires more test engraves in the initial design stage to get things right. On a mug, a double sided design (engraving on opposite sides so it works as either a right handed or left handed mug) will always be more expensive than a single sided design that is done to be either right or left handed.

For flat objects that are engraved on the cutting table, the taller an object is (the 18 inch size limit direction) the more it costs to engrave. Double the height, double the cost. The width of the design is less of a factor, but really wide engravings do cost a little more than narrow engravings, but the price difference is less of a factor than in the taller engravings. If your flat object can be laid out so it runs across the LASER rather than being laid out vertically, it will engrave in less time and this will reduce the cost.

If the job requires cutting as opposed to engraving, then it's the type and thickness of the material and the total length of the cut lines that influence the cost.

If I decide that I want something made, what do I need to provide?

First of all, you'll need to tell us exactly what kind of item you want engraved, and what you want engraved on it. If you have a specific design in mind, then a sketch or photo, or even a link to a web page with a similar design will help us in the design process.

If there's a photo or logo to be included in the design, then the higher the resoution photo you can send us, the less work we'll need to do to prepare the image for etching. While we can engrave most photographic images, a photo with a simple background will make things easier and the results usually look better.

If it's a logo or design that you want done and the file is available in a vector graphic format (like a CorelDRAW .cdr file, an Adobe Illustrator .ai file, an Encapsulated Post Script .eps file, or a Scaleable Vector Graphics .svg file), then our preparation process should take less time and the result will usually be better.

If your logo design contains text, any information on the fonts that were used (or even better, the actual font file) will make things easier for us and less costly for you.

We'd prefer designs that are just 2 colours, like black and white. Everything that is to be etched has to be considered as a black and white image, and the LASER etch process does not deal well with variations in levels of gray. Any subtle shading in the art work or design features that rely on colour differences will certainly not achieve the result that you expect. If your design uses multiple colours or shades of gray, and these differences are needed due to the nature of the design, then getting this right can quickly add a lot of extra cost to your set-up charges.

I'm a wiz with computers, so can I do the design and file preparation work to save myself some money?

By all means. The less work we have to do to create the file for the LASER, the less file preparation time will be added into the job cost.

Our LASER engraver is a bit like a fancy printer, and it will produce some form of output from any program that can be printed on a standard printer ... however, to gain the most benefit from the LASER's capabilities, it needs to be driven by the right kind of software. CorelDRAW is the software that the manufacturer of our LASER recommends for the best results, so our workshop uses CorelDRAW X4 and X5 as our software preparation tools. If you can prepare your design in any version of CorelDRAW up to X5, then we can use that Corel vector file without having to do any file conversion. Technical details on what you'll need to do are on this page. Your CorelDRAW file may need a small amount of massaging, but the cost of that should be minimal.

Photographs that are to be engraved/etched, will still need processing using something like 1-Touch Photo or PhotoGraV to produce good results. On our workshop, we use the 1-Touch Photo software package that was developed by our LASER engraver's manufacturer, but the more you can do to prepare the photographs the less we will need to spend working on the photographs for you.

The most important thing is that the file must be in a format that we can use. There's no point sending me a data file from a fancy 3D modeling package if I don't have the software to actually read the file. Also, the file should be in a Windows compatible format. I know that Apple and Linux also have software for design and layout, but the VersaLASER manufacturer provides drivers for the Windows operating system only, so that's what we have to use to talk to the LASER.

As I mentioned above, if you can send me your file in CorelDRAW .cdr file format (version X5/15 or earlier), then that will be the best option. Adobe Illustrator .ai files, Encapsulated Post Script .eps files, or Scaleable Vector Graphics .svg files should work as well, but they may need a bit of massaging, although I have had difficulty importing some Adobe Illustrator .ai files into my versions of CorelDRAW. If your file is just a bitmapped image (like a .gif, or a jpeg, or a png, or a .tif), don't bother importing that file into a vector graphics package unless you plan to convert the image to vector format using a tracing tool. You might as well just send me the bitmapped image in its native format. If it's an item that needs to be cut/engraved to a precise size, then including some sort of X/Y axis dimension markers in a blank area of the artwork will help ensure that I get the dimensions right if a scaling problem arises when importing a non-CorelDRAW file into CorelDRAW.

If you've designed something that uses a non standard font, then it would be best if you either convert the text into curves, or send us a copy of the font either embedded in the file or as a stand alone font.

What's all this about charges for LASER reconfiguration and special jigs?

Sometimes, your particular job may necessitate re-configuration of the LASER engraver. Examples of this are the replacement of the final focus lens assembly with a unit with different optical paths and focal length lenses, fitting of different engraving platforms to deal with different types of materials and item shapes, the fitting of special air flow hardware to assist the engrave process and/or minimise the risk of a fire in the cabinet, or cabinet reconfiguration to handle oversized items. The last process involves the bypassing of some safety interlocks so that the LASER cabinet can be run with some access panels open, and extra precautions have to be taken to ensure safe operation in the "open cabinet" mode. These changes take time, but this is a one time charge for the batch.

If you provide an item to be engraved that is an odd shape or size, then a jig may need to be fabricated to hold your item securely and in the right position for the LASER to do the engraving. This is a one time charge. Examples of jigs that I've made recently are a fitting to securely locate an oversized beer mug in the rotary adapter and a holder to ensure that a not quite round and not quite square glass container would remain in the correct position for a succesful engrave.

What is a LASER anyhow?

The word LASER is an acronym that stands for Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation.

Essentially, you have some sort of medium that is housed in a container between two highly reflective surfaces. The medium can be a solid state semiconducter, like the little LASERs used in inexpensive LASER pointers or LASER printers, or it can be a gas held in a tube between two mirrors, or it can even be a jewel, like a rod made of synthetic ruby, with two parallel, polished and mirrored faces. Some sort of energy (electric current arc, a bright flash of light, or a radio beam) is directed into the medium, and electrons in the material in the medium all change state and give off an amplified burst of electromagnetic radiation, usually in the visible or infra-red region of the spectrum.

The like all the models in the VersaLASER range, our engraver is fitted with two different LASERs. The first is a low power, visible red, solid state LASER that is used as a guide pointer. This LASER is a Class III type LASER and uses a solid state LASER diode that is almost identical to the ones used in LASER pointers, and as a result requires no more safety precautions than you'd need to follow when using a LASER pointer ... basically don't look into the beam.

The cutting/engraving work is handled by a 50 Watt gas LASER assembly that uses CO2 as the gas. The CO2 gas is energised by a radio beam to produce an invisible infra-red beam, about 50,000 to 100,000 times more powerful than the average LASER pointer. This LASER is classified as a Class IV LASER and will burn flesh and do serious eye damage if the beam reflects off an object in the engraving chamber. There are all sorts of safety switches and/or interlocks on the doors and access panels to prevent operation of the CO2 LASER with any doors opened. CO2 LASERS generate a 10.6μm wavelength beam in the far infra-red area of the spectrum, and tend to work best marking/cutting organic materials (wood, plastic, paper, etc).

A different type of LASER that you'll find in marking/engraving systems are the YAG and Fiber LASERs.

There's two different types of YAG LASER - Nd:YAG LASER(neodymium-doped yttrium aluminum garnet) and Nd:YVO LASER (neodymium-doped yttrium ortho-vanadate). These are solid state LASERs, a bit like an over powered LASER pointer. The yttrium systems produce a near infrared 1064nm beam that is exactly double the wavelength of the 532nm beam from green LASER pointers. Green pointers use the same yttrium compounds as their LASERing material, but use some trickery to produce a frequency doubled/half wavelength output. Some green pointers filter out any stray 1064nm infra red energy, but the cheap ones do not.

The Fiber LASER is a different technology and has a neodymium-doped glass fiber array that's usually energized by a smaller solid state LASER pump diode. This system closely resembles the technology used in the original ruby LASER developed in 1960, where a synthetic ruby was energised by a photographic flash gun tube to generate a 694.3 nm LASER beam. Compared to the YAG LASERs, the neodymium-doped glass fiber LASERs have a slightly different wavelength of 1062nm.

Both are called 1.06 micron LASERs by the manufacturers. The YAG/YVO/Fiber beam produces a much more focused heat spot, and they are better at marking metals and are less useful for marking organics or engraving glass.

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