Introduction: Lasers + Scrabble = Garden Markers for Grandma

We decided to make all our Christmas presents this year. This meant ruffling through our list of skills and trying to figure out how they mapped onto anything our friends would possibly want. Fortunately, one of us is a bit of a graphic designer, we're both reasonably good with computers, and we have access to some nice fabrication tools, including a laser cutter and wood shop.

But it's always hard to figure out what to get for Grandma. Grandmas are magical creatures who always seem to have the things they need, and who continually ask that no one get them anything, insisting that "your presence is the best present". Unfortunately, we weren't able to spend this year with Grandma, so we decided that we needed a real present. :)

In a collaboration with my sister, we came up with these nifty garden stakes. Grandma is really into gardening (she volunteers at a garden club), and one of her other hobbies is wildlife tracking. She volunteers for a group that does frog counting, going out to ponds in rural areas and counting how many kinds of frog calls they hear, and she also keeps a close eye on the birdfeeder out her kitchen window to see what the local bird populations look like. Neat stuff!

So these markers have birds, frogs, and other animals (including her adorable shih tzu) on them. Obviously you can customize them for your own grandma!

Materials you'll need:

  • photo-editing software
  • laser-cuttable pieces of wood
  • a laser cutter
  • clear-coat sealant
  • printable magnet sheets
  • scissors
  • steel strips (or other magnetic metal)
  • teeny tiny nails
  • hammer
  • drill
  • garden stakes
  • small screw-in mounting hooks

Step 1: Lasers!

This is the fun part! You get to think about what your grandma would want to see hanging in her garden. We chose to do a bunch of species of birds that are native to her area (cardinals, robins, bluejays, chickadees), some butterflies (monarchs), frogs (great American bullfrog), and her dog (a shih tzu).

I found one image for each of these animals online (using the ever-popular Flickr, which you can search for only cc-licensed images using this link: http://www.flickr.com/search/?l=deriv&q=something... ), then used my sketchy Photoshop skills to cut out the background, leaving just the animal.

For lasercutting, the animals need to be black and white (this tells the laser how deep to cut). In the black and white tool in Photoshop, you can change the color balances. This might be a good idea for darker images: you don't want to end up with a whole lot of black on the image, because then everything will be too deeply cut and there won't be enough contrast to tell what they are. So play with the color balances before you turn the image black and white, this will help a lot when lasercutting.

The way most lasercutters work is based on colors. Red hairline-thickness lines are vector cuts. Blue hairline thickness lines are vector etch (doesn't go all the way through). Any other color or thickness of line is a raster etch, which means that instead of cutting along a line, the laser will cut back and forth across the line, just like a printer does to make images. You want to cut something out around your animals so that they are not all together on one big piece of wood. The signs I chose to make were about 4"x3", and I decided to get a little artistic and have them follow the edges of my creatures rather than just be rectangular blocks. One important thing here, though, is making sure that you cut a hole in the top middle of each tile so that you can hang it.

I've shared the file I used for our project, in case it's of use to anyone. The material I cut from is a particle board with thin layers of cedar wood on either side of it, which looks nice but isn't hard for the laser to get through.

After cutting your signs, make sure to spray them with a clear coat protective spray, otherwise the first time it rains Grandma is going to be very sad.

Step 2: Scrabbling to Finish

But how is Grandma going to label her plants? We didn't know ahead of time what plants she'd want to mark, so we wanted to let her change the labels around herself. And Grandma likes Scrabble, so...

On each sign we added two thin metal strips (make sure you get a ferrous metal, like steel). This process, which we sadly didn't photodocument, involved drilling pilot holes through the metal strips, then hammering them down with teeny tiny nails. The backs of the nails then got bent, so that they don't hurt anyone.

For the labels themselves, we bought some magnet sheets. These are totally printable, and we simply found an image of all the scrabble tiles and printed a few copies. After much cutting, we had a large collection of magnetic rearrangeable letters, which stick nicely to the steel strips we had just attached to the signs.

Step 3: Raising the Stakes

Finally, Grandma has to actually put these beauties into her yard somehow. We bought a bunch of cheap stakes at the local hardware store, which we were careful to remove staples from. We then simply drilled pilot holes into the stakes and attached some basic mounting hooks, onto which the signs slide quite nicely.

And that's it! We haven't yet gotten pictures from Grandma of how the signs look in her garden, but hopefully she'll put them out soon after the snows retreat. :)

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