Introduction: Laser Cutting for Absolute Beginners: Custom Laser-Cut Pendant Using the MAGIC OF THE INTERNET (or: a Very Basic Introduction to Adobe Illustrator)

Picture of Laser Cutting for Absolute Beginners: Custom Laser-Cut Pendant Using the MAGIC OF THE INTERNET (or: a Very Basic Introduction to Adobe Illustrator)

Have you ever wanted one of those fancy laser cut out necklaces, but you don't own a laser cutter or know how to use design software?  This is your lucky day, my friend.  I am going to teach you everything you need to know to make this happen, and no more.  This procedure is more widely applicable to 2d fabrication than just for making necklaces, but that's the example you're getting.

This is a beginner technique, so don't hate on me if this seems basic.  

This Instructable also doubles as a hands-on basic introduction to the wonders of Adobe Illustrator for novices.  Making this model took me about 10 minutes.  I am going through EVERY step in extreme detail for novices, but don't be scared off by the length of the tutorial!

You will learn: a technique for making such necklaces (or laser-cut cut outs from other line art), a mechanism for uploading your design to a fabrication site and recommendations for how to get it fabricated effectively and cheaply.

You will need: access to Adobe Illustrator CS2+, the internet, a bit of money (not too much) to pay for the fabrication.  Illustrator is not cheap, but perhaps you know someone who has it running on her/his computer?  At your school somewhere?  It's a common design program, so you'll find it around somewhere.

A couple of notes:  
My screen shots will be using AI CS4.  They should be generally applicable for CS2 and beyond.  Illustrator is TRICKY, so don't get discouraged if you find yourself stuck.  This procedure should avoid some of the most common pitfalls.  If you hit a wall, Google is your friend, as is the Help menu and Adobe online help.  Search, and use it liberally.

I am NOT affiliated with any fabrication site.  I have used Shapeways for 3d printing and Ponoko for laser cutting and found pros and cons for each.  Generally, I think that online fabrication is awesome, and everybody should try it!

The speech bubble design in the photo is something simple that I made, a similar version of which could easily be created using this technique.  I wanted to share a photo of something physical, although in full disclosure, that was 3d printed rather than laser cut.  3d print design is for another instructable another day...

Step 1: First Step: Create Word

Picture of First Step: Create Word

General note on digital fabrication:

Before you do anything, think for a second about scale.  What do you want this thing to be made of (some common options are thin bamboo board or plywood, a few millimeters thick, or acrylic plastic)?  You can learn more about your materials options on the fabrication website (currently, I'm recommending  Think realistically about how tiny some of the parts are going to be, and whether they'll snap off.  Use common sense.  If you think a piece looks like it's going to snap off, it probably will.  Once you're working in illustrator, you can zoom in and out of your design using Command+ and Command-.  At some point, zoom in to the point that the design on your screen is about as big as you want it in real life.  Imagine it in the material you'll be cutting it in.  Do any of the parts look flimsy or strangely out of proportion?  Fix them.

Also, contrary to popular belief, lasers aren't perfect.  Any fabrication process has a "tolerance" (the amount of of error you might expect in the measurements).  Also, the laser itself burns up the material where it cuts, so you may see some shrinkage in the physical model relative to the computer version, or blackened edges.  It's a physical process, even though it looks so nice and abstract on your computer screen!  Don't be down.  That's what makes it cool.  That said, read the specifications from your fabricator.  Most online fabricators have good templates and plain-language material guides.  The fabricator I'm using this time (Ponoko) recommends assuming that the laser will burn off 1mm of material where it cuts.  In effect, that means leaving MINIMUM 2-3 mm thickness for any part of your design between two cuts, otherwise a thin part of your design will probably break quickly, if it even makes it through the cutting process.  You have to order the material in standardizes pieces, so often there will be enough rom for a few different versions.  Try out a couple at different scales to see what works best.  Thankfully, you can get small pieces of material and the overall cost is pretty low.

It's a fact that frequently the first time you try to fabricate something it won't come out exactly as you expected.  Sometimes it can make you feel better to think of the first version as a "prototype."  Maybe it'll be perfect, but maybe not.  Never spend a ton of money on a prototype.  Consider using a cheaper material the first time around, if that helps. 

In the case of the current online fabricators, they will have different pricing structures.  For the fabricator I'm using in this example, they charge for the material and also for the time it takes the laser to do the cutting.  That depends on how easy the material is to cut (thicker takes longer, usually), as well as how many cutting lines you have.  You will see the price before you place the order.  More on that later.

OK, first the design.

A. Open Illustrator.  Create a new file (File->New or command-N).  If prompted to choose a template, it doesn't really matter which one you use.

I'm going to teach you one principle right now, and I will leave it at that.  On the left, you should see a sidebar of tools.  If they go away, you can get them back by selecting Window->Tools.  One thing you need to understand is the difference between the black arrow and the white arrow.  They look similar, but have different functions.  An easy mistake is to use one when you mean to use the other.  If things are not behaving the way you expect them to check what tool you're in.  Your current tool will be highlighted in the tool bar.

Black arrow: This is called the Selection Tool, and you can use it to select a whole shape or group.  You can also use it to move things or transform them (change overall attributes such as scale).  You can get to this tool by typing 'V' at any time.

White arrow:  This is Direct Selection Tool.  It would have been nice if they'd chosen a different name, but no such luck.  It allows you to select points.  An object is made up of points (for instance a rectangle is an object made of 4 points).  This tool allows you to pick and move individual points within an object.  The keyboard shortcut for this is 'A.'

B.  Select the Text tool (looks like a T, or type 'T').

C.  Click and drag somewhere on the white Art Board area to start a text object.

D.  Start typing your desired word (you can change it if you make a mistake).

E.  Still in the text tool, select all the text and use the Character and Size options to make the letters the size and font that you want.  You can find these up top, or else hit Command-T for an options box.

Step 2: Turn Word/Letters Into Shapes

Picture of Turn Word/Letters Into Shapes

Now we're going to turn your word into shapes and manipulate them.

A.  Click the Selection Tool ('V'), then click on your  text object with the Selection Tool

B.  Turn the letters into shapes.  Type Menu (above) -> Create Outlines (or shift-cmd-O)

C.  If you're just doing one single letter, rather than a word, skip to the end of this step.  If you're doing a whole word, continue from here.  Ungroup the letters.  Object -> Ungroup (or shift-cmd-G)

Note: You'll need to make the letters substantially overlap so that the word sticks together once it's cut out.  One way to do this is to use a cursive font that really connects the letters.  The other way is to move the letters so that they overlap.  That's what I'm going to do here to demonstrate.  If you decide you want to try a different font, go back to the point where you create the word.   You can select and delete anything you have on screen at any point, if you want to start over.

D.  Now you can select the letters one by one using the Selection Tool (V) and then moving them with your mouse or with the arrows on your keyboard.  If you hold down Shift while you drag the object, it will only move left-to-right or up-and-down (not diagonal).  That helps keeps things in line.  As you get going, you can also select more than one letter at once.  Anything you do (moving them up or down, etc.) will affect all the currently selected objects.

You can see that I've made all the letters overlap.  Imagine that this is a brittle piece of plastic.  If you make the overlap really small, it will easily break at that point, so don't press your luck!

Step 3: Add Ring for Making Object Into Necklace

Picture of Add Ring for Making Object Into Necklace

This step is only for if you're making a necklace.  If you don't need to make loops, skip this step.

This is to make little rings holes for you to thread a necklace through.  For instructions on how to use jump rings or lanyards to attach a chain to your object later on, google it!  Lots of jewelry-making instructions all around.

A.  Choose the Ellipse tool by pressing 'L' or clicking+holding the rectangle on the Tools bar until you see an option for a circle.

B.  Click and drag to create a circle.  Hold down shift to make sure it's a circle rather than an oval.

C.  Fill it in with black by selecting the Fill (see photo) and selecting the color black.  If you don't see the Color box, you can access it by Window->Color or F6.

D.  Click into the Selection Tool ('V') and select the circle.  Copy and paste another copy.

E.  Redo step C, this time coloring the new circle white instead of black.

F.  Shrink the new circle by 50% by selecting it (with the Selection Tool/ 'V'), then Object->Transform->Scale.  The same options can also be accessed by right clicking.

G. Move the new circle right on top of the old one.  If you aren't getting helpful little guides to tell you when the centers are lined up, choose View->Smart Guides.

H.  Use Selection tool to pick both circles.  Group them (Object->Group or command-G).

I.  Move them to one corner, where you'd want to attach the chain.  Make sure it has a lot of overlap with the letter.

J.  Copy and paste another one of these and move it over to the other side, where you want to connect the other side of the chain.

Step 4: Turning the Letter(s) Into One Shape

Picture of Turning the Letter(s) Into One Shape

We need this to become one shape.  Right now, the program is still considering each individual letter to be its own shape.  To do this, we're going to export the image and import it back in.  Sounds roundabout, but it's actually a shortcut.  (If you are using other line art instead of the lettering we've made so far, start with step D.  Most bold black and white JPGs or PNGs should get reasonable results, if you fiddle with the Live Trace settings)

(A.)  Make sure all your shapes are on the white part of the screen (the "Art Board").  If it's too big to fit on the Art Board, select all and scale it down enough to fit.  The real world scale doesn't matter right now.

B.  Export using File->Export.  Select PNG.  In the PNG options dialog, select 150DPI.  Save your file somewhere easy to find.

C.  Save this file and create a new Illustrator file.  Again, the template shouldn't matter.  

D.  File->Place to re-import the PNG image that you just exported.

E.  Select Live Trace at the top (or Object -> Live Trace).

F.  Click on the little box next to Live Trace to bring up the options.  You can play with these if the image doesn't look enough like your original lettering.  Make sure you have "Preview" selected so that you can see the tracing results in real time.  Make sure that "Ignore White" is also selected!

G.  Click Expand on the top right (or Object->Expand).  Now your image is one complicated line object (AKA compound path or vector).

H.  At this point, you want it to be outlined rather than filled in with black, so you are going to click the switcheroo button down by the fill/stroke selector.  See photo.  I don't know the real name.  Then you'll have the nice cutting lines for the laser cutter.

Step 5: Putting the Design Into the Template, Checking Scale

Picture of Putting the Design Into the Template, Checking Scale

Now's the time to get your laser cutting templates.  Most consumer fabricators will make this easy by providing you their own templates.  Ponoko, Shapeways and others have easy to understand template files.  Go to the fabricator's website and track down the appropriate template for the size you want to use (double check that you can get the material you want in that particular size).  It should be a free download, probably already in Adobe Illustrator format.    

A.  Copy your outline in your own file (Select and Cmd-C).

B.  Open the Illustrator template from your fabricator, and paste your outline into it.  Your outline may not show up where you expect it to.  You can drag it to the center of the template.  Now that you're working with a flurry of points, you may find it more helpful to use the Direct Selection tool, if things are not moving the way you expected them to with the Selection Tool.  If using Direct Selection, make sure to select ALL the points in your shape.

C.  Now's a good time to check in on your scale.  You can see from the information in the template that I used that the material is meant to be 7.1"x7.1", to put things in perspective.  If you don't see rulers up top to show a scale, hit Command-R.  If you'd like the rulers to be in units that you're more familiar with, right-click on the ruler and select another unit of measurement.  That should help you get an intuitive sense of what's going on.  If your design doesn't look like it's at the scale you want, select it with the Selection Tool and scale it up or down by clicking on the tiny white box in the lower right corner.  Hold down Shift to keep it proportional.

D.  Check on some of the tiniest parts of your model to make sure they're thick enough.  You should read the specifications from the fabricator about minimum thicknesses.  In this case, the fabricator said MINIMUM 2mm thickness.  Again think through the common sense.  If you're cutting out a giraffe's neck at 2mm thick, it's likely to break off.  If you're cutting out a circle, it won't be under as much stress.  I won't give you a physics lesson for why that's true, but if you can imagine breaking your object easily with two of your fingers, try not to make it that way!  To measure a part of your model,  there's a handy Measure Tool, which you can access by clicking and holding on the Dropper Tool in the Tool Bar (see photo), and selecting Measure.  Then you just click the beginning and ending points that you want to measure in between.  An Info box will pop up.  In this case, it looks like I might want to make the model a bit bigger, based on this reading.

E.  Lastly, you want to make sure your lines meet the specifications for the fabricator.  That means giving the lines a certain color and stroke thickness, so the laser cutter can read them properly and translate the lines into beams of the appropriate intensity.  All this information is on the template already, normally, otherwise it'll be easy to find on the fabricator's website.  I like to do this by making a new line, giving it all the right parameters, then and matching my shape to it.

To create a line, select the Line Segment Tool in the Tool Bar.  It looks like a line.  Make a line, any old line.

F.  With that line selected (or select it, if it's not selected), you want to set the stroke color.  Double click on the little outline box at the bottom of the Tool Bar (see photo), and you'll see a color box with inputs.  Input the color information indicated on the template.  On the right it says that a cutting line should have these particular values of R, G and B (stands for Red, Green and Blue, it's a common way that a particular color can be specified by its component colors).  Input those numbers.  See Photo.

G.  You also need to specify the stroke weight (how thick the line is).  You can see the input for that at the top bar.   See photo.  Input the number you want.  On this template, it says 0.1px is the right stroke weight.  OK, now your random line is all set.

H1/2.   Select the Eyedropper from the Tool Bar (or press 'i'), and then click on your random line.  This saves all the attributes from the random line into the Eyedropper.

I.  Now click back on your real shape, and it should take on the attributes of the random line (color, weight).  Again, this may seem like a roundabout way to set the color and stroke weight of your model, but it avoids a number of potential pitfalls.  

K.  Now select and delete that random line!  You don't want to confuse the laser.  Confused lasers are bad lasers.

L.  Feel free to move the shape around within the template, if you want to arrange it with other objects to cut in the template-sized piece of material.  You can make multiple versions of the same object, just remember that you're paying for the time that the laser is going, so adding more cutting lines means more money.  Don't let laser cut lines cross each other, and don't leave multiple copies of an object exactly on top of each other (the laser will make multiple passes on the same line, not a good thing). Don't put your objects over the edges that are indicated on the template (in this case, stay off the orange).  Keep in mind that if you scale an object, you can accidentally scale the stroke weight in the process.  Check up on the stroke weight  one last time before you finish.

M.  Save early and often!  Save one last time.  You're almost done with Illustrator.  Read through the words on the template one last time to make sure you didn't miss anything important.

N.  Now follow the instructions about how to export.  This particular template says to Save As and select the file format EPS, with a few specifications.  Each fabricator will want something slightly different.

Step 6: Upload!

Upload!  Sounds pretty easy, and it is.  Just follow the website's directions, and pick the right size and type of material.  You should be able to get an accurate quote BEFORE purchasing anything.  

Remember again that this is a prototype.  Try it first in a material that won't break the bank before you have it made in jewel-encrusted platinum.  Even if you want to order a bunch of your item, buy one template's worth and see how it comes out first before ordering mass quantities.  Sometimes I will try out a couple different materials in one initial order, but only if it's a cheap cut.  If there's leftover space on the material, I'll sometims try 2-3 variations of a design in an initial round, to give myself something to compare against and learn from.  Even experienced designers will prototype.

If you get stuck in the uploading or ordering process, get in touch with the fabricator.  They're there to make you a repeat customer, not to scare you off, so don't feel intimidated.  

Congratulate yourself for reading this far.  Illustrator is very powerful, but can be a total pain at first.  Now go hurry up and make your Mother's Day present!


dagiv. (author)2015-07-25

Great Tutorial!

davidtav (author)2013-11-06

This is such a great tutorial! Does anyone know of one just like this for Corel Draw?

Battlespeed (author)2013-10-10

Very good Instructable. It would have been GREAT, however, if you'd explored ways to accomplish the same thing without requiring Adobe Illustrator, to which many do not have access.

There are numerous ways to do this - some free - but since it's your instructable I'll let you do the exploration.