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This is a way to make fun, customized ornaments that may be a hit for years to come at family gatherings.  Turn your smiling mug, or that of your friends, dog, and what-have-you into nice little Christmas ornaments (or wall hangings, tags, wine glass identifiers, etc).  

I made sets of these for my family and they really enjoyed them.  Lots of good reviews and "How did he make these?" questions from friends and family.  Maybe they are biased. 

Here we go.  Here is what you will need to complete this task, should you accept it:

1.  A nice photo of your smiling face.   Make sure it is of your "best angle" as it will be set in stone (wood) for a while :)  If you are making ornaments of multiple folks, pick the photos where their faces make you smile, but won't get you into too much trouble with them.  I liked how laughing photos turned out.  They add joy to the scene.  

2.  A photo of any accessories that you'd like to add onto the image of your face.  I used a stocking cap, since it was for Christmas ornaments.  You could find big sunglasses or beards, etc.  Try to match the view angle of the facial image that you have chosen for item #1. 

3.  Photo-editing software.   I used photoshop, but there are many many many free online photo-editing programs for you to pick from.  I believe even adobe has a free online photoshop app now. 

4.  Graphic editing software that can convert your image from a rasterized jpeg (or equivalent) to a vector-based image, and save it out as a dwg or dxf, CAD file.  I used adobe illustrator.  I believe Inkscape may do the same thing for free.

5.  Sheets of wood or other material for the ornament.  You could use acrylic or some plastic, which may prove an easier feat than wood.  I used 1/4" thick oak and 1/4" thick balsa wood.  More on this later.    Make sure your sheets are cut to size to fit flat onto the working surface of the laser cutter

6.  Wood working tools (if that is your material of choice) such as a band saw or jig saw, a drill, and sand paper

7.  Decorative strings and hooks to hang the ornament with

8.  A laser cutter (very important :)


Task Instructions (This is my first instructable, and I thought I could add text with each image). 

Step 1.  Edit your selected photo so that only a head is visible.  Save without a background if possible as a png.  See example photo. 

Step 2.  Edit your accessory photo (cap, sunglasses, etc) so that only the item is left.  

Step 3.  Combine the two images (the face and the accessory (ies)) in the photo editing software, however you like.  I put the stocking caps on each person's head to make it more Christmassy.    You can also do this in the graphic editing software, which I did, but it was more difficult to do after the image is in vector form.  Flatten and save the image as a single jpeg file.  Play with the contrast so that facial features are highlighted as you see fit. 

Step 4.  Open the jpeg image into the graphic software (adobe illustrator for me).  Convert the jpeg image into vector form.  To do this in illustrator, use the "Live Trace" option.  Play with the slider to the left of the "live trace" button until the appropriate amount of detail is shown.  You may need to try a few different "live trace" setting options to get the black and white image that you want.  

This will result in an image made up of lines and thicknesses, instead of pixels.  You should be able to select the image and see the lines. (see example photo).  These are the lines that will be sent to the laser cutter for imprinting on your base material.  

Step 5.  Create a full size template in the graphic software that matches the size of your sheet of wood.  Place all of your images that you'd like to make arranged within this template.  Scale the images as you would like them to appear in real life.  Turn on your software's "rulers" to get a sense of how big they will be.  Each of my heads was around 4-6" tall, depending on hairstyle :).  

If you have thin material that your laser cutter will cut through (after one or several passes), draw a vector outline of the outer perimeter of your shape.  I didn't do this because the wood I used was too thick for the laser cutter that I had.  I would have risked setting the wood and machine on fire if I tried to cut it with the laser.   You can also draw a hole at the top of your ornament head, with a vector circle to save on drilling later.  Be careful though, as the hole needs to be along the lines of balance of your ornament or it will hang crooked (think of hanging a picture on the wall - it needs to be straight up and down in the resting position).  

I did the holes with a drill after I could identify where the center of gravity for each ornament was.  I did this by holding each ornament loosely between my thumb and index, and seeing which way the ornament wanted to lean, then adjusted, marked, and drilled. 

Step 5.  Save or export all of the images as one ".dxf" or ".dwg" file.  

Step 6.  Open the dxf or dwg file in the CAD software that your laser cutter uses.  

Step 7.  If you are cutting your ornaments out with the laser cutter (meaning your material thickness is compatible with your laser's strength), set all of your ornament outlines (the lines to be cut all the way through) on one layer and set it as one color (blue).  

Set all of your facial image lines as a different color (green).  These lines will not be cut through, but will be etched onto the surface of the material.  

Step 8.  Prepare to "print".  Find the plotter properties window where you can adjust the speed and strength of the laser cutter passes.  Set the speed for the blue lines so that the laser passes slowly (low speed) and strong (high ppi) along the cut lines.  Set the speed of the green lines so that the laser passes quickly (med-high speed) and lightly (lower ppi) over the lines to be etched.  These settings should be available to you from the people who maintain the laser cutter equipment.  Even so, you will probably have to adjust these through trial and error (I did). 

Step 9:  "Print"!  and watch the laser go!  Observe how the work is progressing.  It may take several passes to achieve the look you are going for.  If so, do not move the wood sheet material between passes and hit "print" again.  Cutting through a material may take numerous passes.  Also watch out for burns.  If the laser is set too high for your material, it may burn or warp the material.   If this happens, cancel the print, put the fire out (if there is one), lower the laser settings or find a different material.  

Step 10:  For wood or material that was only etched, but not cut:  Once the ornaments are etched onto the material.  Take the wood sheet to the wood shop and carefully cut out each of the Christmas Head ornaments as you see fit!  Beware of sharp edges and corners.  Sand them down with the sandpaper.  Drill the holes at the top of the ornament.  

Step 11:  Thread your decorative string/ribbon through the hole and adjust to the length you think is appropriate.  Tie a bow at the top if you like.  Or use the hooks to attach them to the tree - or both!  It's up to you. 

Step 12:  Enjoy!


If I were to win a laser cutter, I would do more of these type things for family and friends.  These are fun.  I have also made intricate architectural models and wall facades that I would like to continue to explore and possibly bud into a design business.  I've got lots of ideas to test out and continue.  Thanks for the opportunity, and I hope people enjoy this instructable. 

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