I proposed to my girlfriend Shirin on the eve of her birthday this year. She liked it and so did her friends so thought I'd share it here on Instructables. Above, you should see some exterior views of the book plus a video describing how the book works.
Overall, I wrote this Instructable assuming that anyone recreating this is going to want to swap out their own story, images and even puzzles to a certain extent so I've focused mostly on the overall process and not on the specific text, images, etc.
This project was made at TechShop in San Francisco. Unfortunately, I don't have a laser at home yet ;)
Edit: got some feedback from people who DMd me that they actually created versions of this as Christmas presents. That was awesome to hear! Based on those suggestions, I've made some updates to the Instructable to make things more clear. If anything could be made more clear, let me know!
Step 1: Background
Growing up, Shirin loved to make story books for her family so I decided to create a fairytale story based on our relationship.
The book is about the two main characters - Super Santa (me) and Ms. Gingerbread (her) and and their quest to find The Perfect Fit. What is the Perfect Fit? Neither of them know.... yet. Each chapter in the book is accompanied by a puzzle based on unique details of our relationship. She has to make the pieces of the puzzle fit together, hopefully perfectly ;), in order to get to the next chapter. I'll share details on the story as well as how I made it.
Step 2: Creating the Storyline
One thing I’ve always found remarkable is how Shirin and I fit so well together in almost any situation. We both are entrepreneurs, like going to festivals like Coachella, and love adventuring in the backcountry. We fit perfectly together.
As I pondered the theme “The Perfect Fit”, I realized that The Perfect Fit could also refer to many more things, like the fit of a ring on a finger or the pieces of a puzzle fitting together. Armed with a theme, the story came together quickly. There are 4 clear Acts to our story:
1) The day we met
2) The adventures we’ve gone on
3) Adding Pickles (our dog) to our family
4) Getting engaged
The characters were also easy because we have code names for each other - Superman Santa and Ms. Gingerbread. (If you read our background, the day we met we were at a Christmas themed dress up event). And adding Pickles was a no brainer. Dogs always help a story ;)
Researching how to tell a story proved quite helpful e.g. Pixar storyboard artist Emma Coat’s 22 Tips for storytelling was particularly useful. There are also many sites with tips for how to write a fairy tale.
Step 3: Exterior Design
Playing off of the theme ‘The Perfect Fit’, I thought that maybe I could create a storybook that, in order to advance to the next chapter, the reader had to fit the pieces of a puzzle perfectly together. Online, I found a whole bunch of puzzle locks and puzzle books to take inspiration from with the Codex Silenda being the clear primary inspiration for the exterior design.
Each page is essentially a box. To create the box, I started with MakeABox.io to create the drawings and then modified them in Illustrator to add things like the extenders for the dowels.
You'll notice that the box extends out to hold the dowels but I also needed to a) make the box sturdy and b) connect each page to the other. To accomplish that, I made small pieces that the dowel could fit through and that would also fit into the side of the page.
The jpg illustration shows two major things
1) A generic version of how I connected the visible pieces to the interior pieces that lock / unlock the puzzle. In this simplified example, the cover page is locked. The (red) lock, which is connected to Page 2, prevents the (blue) interior pieces of Page 1 from moving. Once the (blue) moveable image on the front cover is moved, it simultaneously moves the interior pieces. This allows the front cover to be opened without hitting the (red) lock.
2) On the left you'll see the small pieces that connect the dowels to the box. They are colored green. To understand this, first look at the photos.You'll see that each dowel is connected to a page in 5 places. The top, the bottom and 3 internal connectors. The top and bottom are just extensions of the box, as you'll see in the illustrator files. The 3 internal connectors look like the green pieces in the illustration. Note: they don't need to be glued or otherwise locked in to place because the top and the bottom connectors are locked - the internal connectors are there to stabilize the book.
Step 4: Parts and Materials
I'm still very new to the maker world so I used Illustrator to design all the pieces.
Note: Your laser bed will be different size so your material needs will be different. I've estimated my needs based on the 18x24" laser bed I primarily used.
Book pages- the main pages are 1/8" MDF with a maple veneer. I purchased these from my local makerspace (TechShop) because it already comes pre-cut in 18x24" sheets that fit perfectly into the laser bed that I used.
Accent Walls - the accent walls of each page are 1/8" MDF with a walnut veneer. These were also purchased from TechShop.
Etched Pieces - Any of the etched pieces, e.g. the two people on the front cover in the oval, are done in 1/8" alderwood purchased from Ocooch Hardwoods. They've been super reliable and the thickness of their material is very consistent. Note - alder etches very nicely and contrasts well with maple and walnut. I used ~10 of them because I redid a bunch of components but you'll hopefully need much less. They come in 6"x24" sheets.
Page 2 Components - The only place that I used anything different than what is described above is Page 2 - Life of Adventure and Change. Each of the moving components (e.g. the Burning Man symbol, the Walmart logo) are done on 1/16" alderwood from Ocooch. The thinner wood gave me enough clearance so the pieces didn't hit each other when moving. You only need 1 6"x24" sheet but consider getting 3-4 so you can play around a bit. They are only ~$4 each.
Dowels - The dowels for the book binding are 3/8" thick while the dowels inside of each page are 1/4". I purchased these from Amazon. Here are the links to the book binding dowels and the interior dowels. Order one package of each.
Washers - Any visible washer e.g. the 3/4" ones on Pages 1 and 2 puzzles are made of 1/16" alder that I rastered 100% to get the dark coloring. Anything invisible I just used whatever spare material was around.
Although I didn't keep track, all in material should be less than $200.
Equipment - The only piece of equipment that you might not think of is a nice flush cutting saw. I bought mine at Amazon here. It really helped create clean lines when I was cutting dowels. Beyond that it was just super glue, a little bit of sand paper and the laser.
Photos and Videos
The photo shows the parts, after they were cut out and before assembly. It is ~400 individual pieces. You may notice it is different color wood - the photo was take of a test run and I never had all the pieces together, unassembled, for the final version. I also took a couple of videos showing the laser etching of the text and the cutting of some mechanical pieces.
Some Lessons Learned
1) Should have learned CAD first!
This ended up on Reddit and a whole bunch of CAD folks were shocked that I did this "the manual, labor intensive way". I should have taken the time to learn CAD software so that I could model out all the interactions of the parts.
2) Material - Use MDF not hardwoods
I originally tried to use actual walnut and maple for the pages of the book but the pieces were breaking on me during assembly. I used MDF in my trial runs and that didn't break so I actually reverted back to the MDF for the final version. Plus, surprisingly, the text came out crisper using the MDF with walnut veneer vs actual walnut. The positive is that it's also cheaper!
Step 5: The Front Cover
The front cover is an easy puzzle. While the two people (me and her) are separated, the entire book is locked closed. However, when you slide the two of us towards each other and we interlock, you can now open the first page of the book.
The text is very straightforward on a laser cutter, although you do have to play around with the laser settings to get the best contrast.
1) Type the text in Illustrator
2) Get the right font and size
3) Make sure it's the right text
4) Object -> Expand to turn it into a vector
Once you've expanded into a vector, Illustrator no longer treats it as text so it is not editable. It's a real hassle to go back and change text later!
Etching the characters
It's actually relatively hard to get these to come out correctly. I probably laser cut 30-40 iterations before I was happy with the result. There are many variables and it probably deserves its own instructable but here is the gist of it
1) Open photos in Photoshop and really work to contrast light and dark. Manually add lines to denote things like arms and legs where the photo itself doesn't do a good job of clearly highlighting it
2) Open up the photoshop file in illustrator and do a Live Image Trace to expand into vectors. I used the Live Image Trace window, not the button, because it gave me a whole host of settings to play with. Sometimes, I had to import a certain part of the photo with one Live Image Trace setting and another part of the photo with a different setting.
Here is an instructable on how to laser engrave a photo. You'll also find many other resources online.
Note: a Redditor let me know that I could have used a bilateral filter to get better contrast more easily. here is this person's note: "A bilateral filter is one that sharpens lines between high gradients but smooths everything else out.It is a mixture of Gaussian (blur) and Laplacian (sharpen) filters basically.
If you bf all three colors separately and then recombine, you can greatly enhance the filters power. Though note that there may be some artifacts of this created and a visual inspection is necessary to confirm they are or aren't there. Simple photoshop fix at that point."
Step 6: Locking Mechanism
You'll see that the locking mechanism is fairly straightforward. The diagram above is a side view of Pages 1 and 2. The pieces you see on the interior of the front cover are actually 3/16" below the front cover. When the (light blue) cover pieces move, so do the (light blue) pieces below. And that means the locking mechanism has been freed up to move. The locking mechanism (in Red) is connected to the next page i.e. Page 2 has the locking mechanism for Page 1, Page 3 has the locking mechanism for Page 2, etc.
The diagram I created hopefully shows how this works.
Now, for each page, the locking mechanism needs to be in a different spot because the lock for Page 1 is on Page 2, etc.
Lesson Learned: I'm repeating this one a bit but holy cow I should've used CAD software and am learning AutoDesk Fusion 360 now. As the puzzles evolved, the location of the locks had to change as well and I had to consistently move back and forth between different files to ensure everything lined up. This resulted in significant wasted time and material. Apparently it's pretty straightforward to convert from CAD to the file format needed for the laser
Step 7: Page 1 - Once Upon a Time
The first chapter is the story of the day we met at a Christmas Festival called Santacon in San Francisco. I was dressed as Super Santa and she was Ms. Gingerbread. In order to move to the next chapter she had to find Super Santa and Ms. Gingerbread from an array of Christmas characters and line them up with a mistletoe, because our first kiss was under a mistletoe. Once she lined them up, she could move the Christmas tree up and that unlocked the next page.
I searched Google Images for silhouettes of different christmas characters, then put them into photoshop for some touch up. I found that the silhouettes on their own ended up looking kind of blobby when laser etched onto wood so I had to add lines and shading in order to get the right contrast.
For Ms. Gingerbread and Super Santa, you'll see a photo of them. I just took a gingerbread silhouette and then drew, in Illustrator, the additional details such as the Santa hat and the superman logo.
I also tried to think through other unique details of our life together. For example, she had feathers on her outfit and one of them fell off some time during the night. I kept it ;) so that's why you see a feather. Overall, I found that cutting pieces and making it 2.5D rather than etching things made the whole book pop a bit more. For example, we met at Green's so I recreated the front facade of Green's and laser cut the windows, etc.
Lasers are incredibly good at this 2.5D stuff - I can not recommend more highly taking advantage of the precision cutting.
You'll see a recurring theme, which is that the text is on the left side and the corresponding puzzle is on the right. The text was done the same way as the front cover: type it, size it, Object-Expand. To add a bit more pizazz to each text page, The text was on a flat sheet that I inlayed 1/8" down. This allowed me to add a border that was unique to that part of the story. e.g. on this first page you'll see mistletoe borders, which is how we first kissed.
Step 8: Page 2 - Life of Adventure and Change
The second chapter is the story of our adventures on the road with our RV, nicknamed The Slim Roller. As she moves the RV, little wooden icons popped up on the road. These were either fun things we did together or obstacles we had to overcome. Like how I got really sick on our first date but she went out with me again, Burning Man, Zion National Park, sleeping in a Walmart parking lot stranded in Elko, Nevada and escaping a grizzly bear in Alaska
RV - For the RV, I took a photo of the RV and traced it in Illustrator in order to get the replica that you see.
Each moment - I searched for something that representing the moment well, e.g. on our first date we saw TinTin (don't ask, it was a terrible idea ;) so I found the movie poster. For Burning Man, I looked a an aerial shot and then had drew it to show all the streets as well as the man in the middle. Overall, I probably looked at 10-12 moments and selected the ones that I thought worked best, using significant to our relationship and aesthetic as the two main variables.
Ensuring the moving pieces don't hit each other - Because there is no mechanism for ensuring that each moment stays completely level, the farther out from the center the piece goes, the more gravity tilts it down. As a result, I needed a greater height difference than expected to make sure the pieces don't hit each other.
Background - There is 3/4" of an inch between the top and the bottom sheets, with the bottom sheet being the text for the following page. As a result, for each Moment, you need the 1/16" alder on which you etched the Moment and 11 washers, each of which are 1/16". By using the washers, you can vary the height of the moment relative to the other pieces.
Burning Man (bottom left) - Moment at the bottom. 11 washers above that
Zion (bottom middle) - 8 washers below the Moment and 3 above
TinTin (middle left) - 11 washers at the bottom. Moment at the top
Margaret (bottom right) - 2 washers below the Moment, 9 above
Coachella (middle) - 5 below the Moment, 6 above
Walmart (top left) - 8 below the Moment, 3 above
Grizzly Bear (top right) - Moment at the bottom. 11 washers above that
Step 9: Page 3 - the Trusty Sidekick
The third page is about how we added our dog, Pickles, to the mix and how much joy he has brought us. Mechanically, it's quite simple. Just slide the top and bottom dog bones. You'll both see how Pickles is now in the middle, walking into the distance with us. It also unlocks the next page.
To get the etchings of the three of us, I started with the photo you see of us walking down a fire road in Escalante. In Photoshop, I separated the three of us into different layers and then mucked around quite a bit with the contrast as well as manually adding some definition that wasn't evident in the photo, largely due to the position of the sun. From there, I brought each layer into Illustrator and did an Image Trace. Within Image Trace, there are a lot of options and sliders. For your photos, you'll just have to trial and error your way through. I literally cut out ~40 different images before choosing the ones that you see. See the section on Page 1 for more detail and links to other Instructables that are helpful. I also included some of the lessons that Pickles has taught us about being good to each other and having fun with life.
Left side - You'll notice that the overlay is dog bones. Shirin really appreciated that. Assuming that anyone recreating this will be changing the story, simply change the illustrator file and make it match this part of your story. She really loves how I matched the overlays to the story.
Key lesson learned in this step:
If your recipient loves dogs as much as my future wife, if you have a dog, include him/her ;)
Step 10: Page 4 - the Proposal
And the final chapter is when Super Santa finally figures out that Ms. Gingerbread is his "Perfect Fit". And that he would walk 500 miles and he would walk 500 more just to be the man who walked 1,000 miles to fall down at her door. And now he needed to know if Ms. Gingerbread felt the same way about him. I gave her one last puzzle to solve...
The ring you see in the photos is actually a placeholder ring, not the actual one that I made for her. The one I made for her is the one in my hand
The puzzle is really simple to solve - it's a mechanical iris that she slides open, which opens up to show the ring. At that point in time, I was down on one knee and asked her to marry me. Amazingly, she was so caught up in the story that she didn't even realize that I was proposing until she actually saw the ring. Boom!
One thing to note - I cut out several versions of the 3 Persian Circles before I settled on what you see in the final version.
1) Don't use tape on really intricate pieces. Originally, I had it the Persian circle as a separate piece, as you can see from the photo with the disc. It didn't look good. But the real reason I uploaded that photo is because I taped the top of the wood to ensure that the laser left a really nice contrast between the burnt and clean portions. It took 2 hours to peel off that blue tape.
Instead, run the laser cutter 2x but at lower power. That helps to reduce burn marks. Also, I very lightly sanded it afterwards if I saw any specific burn marks. If you do that, definitely blast it with air to remove the particulate.
Step 11: Back Cover
The back cover was fun. I knew where we were going to be on the day that I proposed to her so I found a photo online of the road that we were going to be traveling on. After photoshopping in our RV in the foreground, I etched the updated photo onto a 6x6" piece of alder and glued that onto the back.
Surrounding the etching, I placed 4 semi-circles, each one of which had an image of the ring I was building for her.
And, as for the text, you might have noticed a theme. Our theme to life is, "live a life of adventure and change" so I knew I needed to incorporate that into the back cover.
Emotional - She talks a lot about how the photo etched on the back is the place we were that day. It's symbolic to her that, while this particular book has ended, our life together is continuing down the road. If you are recreating, I highly suggest finding a way to signify that the relationship is continuing (or whatever is symbolic for you)
Technical - Use rastering to create different heights. Look at the rings closely. You'll see that I rastered everything but the ring. Because rastering burns off material, the effect is that the ring is raised relative to the surrounding material. Originally, I had rastered the ring itself but it looked funny because then the ring was a cavity.
Step 12: Assembly
I assembled two prototypes before finalizing. If you use my files, you probably won't need to do that much prototyping other than seeing how your specific images etch on wood. That being said, I learned a few things during this assembly process that are worth sharing
1) Assemble each page first, then combine the pages to create the book
2) When assembling each page, put down the back sheet, then the 4 edges of the box, then the top sheet. If the pieces aren't fitting together smoothly, you might want to either increase the power on the laser (burn off just a bit more) or sand some of the notches where it is getting stuck. Be careful to only sand in the spots that will be hidden from view because otherwise you'll impact the aesthetic by sanding off the burnt edges from the laser cutter.
3) After ensuring that the box comes together perfectly, I then super glued the bottom to the 4 walls with just a few dabs of super glue. Although not really necessary, this helped keep it stable as it was getting moved around during the rest of the assembly process.
4) There will be a whole lot of dowel cutting. I created a jig to cut the dowel pieces to the exact size - it needs to be accurate to the 1/16" of an inch. The flush cutting saw got a reasonably smooth cut that I then sanded smooth before placing the dowel in place.
Pretty straightforward assembly, hopefully. The puzzle has 3 discs. Each inner disc lays on top of the larger disc. The Christmas tree connects to the T shaped piece, which needs to go all the way through the 3 discs in order to unlock the page.
Go back to the step on creating Page 2 detail for assembly instructions.
Very straightforward. The only thing that is not likely self-evident is that I glued on 3" sliders (2 per side) out of acrylic to ensure that the pieces smoothly moved left and right.
I used NTT's Mechanical Iris design and modified a bit to meet my needs. Rather than using thumb tacks I covered the moving pieces of the iris with the top sheet (That contains the 3 Persian circles). That was sufficient to keep it on
I glued the back cover on and weighed it down with a bunch of carving blocks I had laying around the house. To ensure that it was centered, I laser cut a template out of acrylic and then placed the pieces into the template. I super glued the half circles with the rings.
See the diagram I included above for how the dowels connect to the pages. Place the first two pages of the book together, make sure all the connector pieces are inserted into the page, and thread the dowel. My dowels were 0.375" and the holes were 0.39" so there was plenty of room without being wiggly. Before you place the dowels, you might want to soak the connector pieces in hydrogen peroxide to get rid of the burnt wood from lasering. That helps you avoid getting the dowels dirty.
You'll see in the photos that there are 5 potential connector pieces between the pages. You just need to alternate 3-2-3-2 i.e. Page 1 and Page 2 are connected via 3 connector pieces. Pages 2 and 3 are connected via 2 connector pieces. etc.
Note: Look at the Green pieces that connect the dowels with the boxes. Measure the specific width of the material you are using for the green pieces and make sure that it matches the width of the holes on the box that you will be inserting into. too tight and it won't fit, too loose and it will be wobbly. Similarly, you'll want to ensure that the width between the holes is the same diameter - that's where the pieces connecting the pages together go and you don't want that to be wobbly or too tight! Run some experiments before cutting everything.
Step 13: Finished!
This project was rather lengthy because the details were really important to me and I'm new to the Maker world. I wanted to make something special for her, something that she would still have 50 years from now.
Related, here's an Instructable on how I made the engagement ring.
Some overall lessons learned. Some are within the Instructable but are worth repeating
1) I should have taken the time to learn CAD software - I wasted a lot of time cutting parts that didn't fit because I had forgotten that modifying one part meant that another part had to be changed. CAD software would have reduced that issue quite a bit.
2) lasers are amazing. they give an amazing level of detail. Towards the end, I started learning how you can use a laser to cut small parts vs just etching them onto a flat surface. For example, we met at Greens and I originally was just etching the image onto the main surface. Then I realized - hey, I have access to a laser! I can cut this piece beautifully! People really remark on how beautiful that component is.
3) I should have taken the time to get comfortable on a CNC. There were a few puzzle designs I tried that just weren't possible without more sophisticated parts, parts that would've been easy on a CNC.
Several of my friends helped me out with this project, including Shanay Moghbel, Pete Nguyen, Pete Shannon, Mana Aynechi, and JoAnne Tobias. A very big thanks goes to each of them.