A Step by Step Guide to Laser Engraving
A brief introduction to creating etched images using engraving machines.
If you want to get a idea of how laser etching is performed, what steps are required for it, as well as the very basics of operating a laser engraving machine, this guide will get you started.
1. Assuming that you already know the object that you wish to personalize through laser engraving (a plaque, a paperweight, a ring, a pendant, a picture frame, an iPod – what have you), the first stage requires that you come up with a suitable creative idea for an engraved text, a graphic or a combination of both. To get you started with inscriptions I might suggest some resources that I made available on this site:
There are numerous sources of clip art on the Internet that can be used as graphical elements of your design.
2. Create a final graphic version of your design. You can do this in PhotoShop, PaintShop Pro or any other program you are familiar with. It is, of course, possible to scan an existing graphic so that it can be modified, resized etc. The important thing to keep in mind is that your design must be of the right size for the laser engraving equipment that you intend to use. This primarily involves using the correct resolution. Most laser engraving machines are capable of handling designs of up to 1200 dpi (that’s dots per inch for the uninitiated). Although you can choose a much lower setting for testing purposes, it is advised that your finished engraved product feature at least 300 dpi resolution. You also need to know what modes are available on your engraving machine. It may be able to handle vector graphics, bitmap graphics or their combination within a single pattern.
3. When your initial artwork is ready you need to convert the resulting files into a format that an engraving machine can use. There is a popular program that exists for this very purpose: PhotoGrav ($395 for a full version). Some software may also be provided with the engraving equipment that you have at your disposal, but PhotoGrav is particularly useful if you are etching photographs, as it takes into account specific property of more that 20 materials typically used in product engraving. If your design does not require such precision you can bypass this preprocessing step.
4. Now it’s time to buy, rent or otherwise gain access to an engraving machine 🙂 (If you are serious enough to buy one you will be happy to know out that just for a few thousand dollars you can get one that will likely do the job for you.) Modern manufacturers of engraving machines, such as Epilog Laser, are actively pursuing ways to make laser engraving as user friendly as possible. As a result, you may be surprised to find out that some laser engraving machines connect to your computer the same way as printers do. It is even conceivable to regard a laser engraving machine a very evolved laser printer! This means that you may be able to select your etching equipment in the printer dialog of your graphics package and send your picture directly to the machine. In reality, of course, you need to know a little bit more about laser engraving than you need to know about printing. Apart from resolution, you need to properly set the power of your laser, its speed and focus. This is quite natural, if you think about it. Because all materials have different properties you must be careful, otherwise the wine glass you wanted to engrave can become leaky! You can (and should!) make sure that the laser engraving system is set up to correctly represent the colors and shades in your design. This is typically achieved through software.
5. There are important safety precautions involved in using engraving equipment. Most importantly perhaps, if you thought that the fumes coming out of your printer are bad, you will be unpleasantly surprised that when the laser beam carves through most materials they are tend to evaporate creating gases that can make you seriously sick in no time. Therefore, it is essential that a proper exhaust system is in place.
6. When everything is ready the engraving process can begin. It can last from a few minutes up to several hours, because of the differences in materials’ properties and the size of engraved surfaces. Laser engravers resemble printers even in the way the operate. You will see that the laser head moves over the engraved surfaced similarly to a printer head in a typical ink-jet (sometimes, however, the material itself is set into motion or both the material and the laser are moving, especially when you have to engrave something on a circular surface). As you watch your engraving system do its job, it is the right time to ponder how long it would have taken you do perform the same task by hand. Also, don’t forget that laser systems do not require bits that tend to break or wear out, so everything should go quite smooth for you.
7. When the engraving is ready the material may be quite hot. Be careful handling it. Take a close look at your finished product. Looks good? That’s laser engraving for you!