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
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 ponoko.com). 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.