Negative Laser Etched Metal





Introduction: Negative Laser Etched Metal

Needing a prototype done for a shaft encoder, Steveastrouk asked me to experiment with removal of paint on stainless steel using our laser cutter.

If successful the void in the paint could then be used to electrochemically etch the holes in the shaft encoder.

While not an instructable that's immediately accessible to a lot of people, hopefully you'll find the end result attractive and some of the instructions on prepping and painting metal useful. This instructable will hopefully serve as an introduction to several projects I'd like to publish over the next month.

Since shaft encoders are a bit boring, I also etched a graphic by HiddenPower, gmjhowe's logo and the hackaday logo to see how solid images looked as well as to give me a more interesting title image. I think they turned out great!

Step 1: Tools & Materials

  • laser cutter
  • bead blaster (optional, bead blaster not sand blaster since it's finer)
  • something to cut the metal with (bandsaw, hacksaw, tin snips, guilotine)

  • stainless steel sheet (I used 0.6mm)
  • Plasti-Kote Woodstove Black
  • acetone (or other cleaner/degreaser... IPA, Flash, Limonene)
  • emery paper (if you don't have a bead blaster)

Sorry, there's no picture of all the tools in one place, getting the bead blaster, laser cutter and all the other bits in one place would be impossible! Instead, here is a picture of PKM, gmjhowe, Kiteman and Lemonie crowded around our laser cutter.

Step 2: Surface Preparation

Surface preparation is key here.

To get the paint to stick as well as possible, the metal should be clean with all grease removed from it. The surface also needs to be roughed up to give the paint more to stick to.

I first bead blasted all the sheets of metal I wanted to play with. This is to rough them up as described above, but also to remove all the crud and some of the grease. Don't have a bead blaster? No problem, some very fine grit emery paper should do the job just as well but take you a little longer.

To remove any remaining grease I squirted a tissue with acetone and wiped the sides to be painted, being careful to only hold the edges after cleaning. A kitchen cleaner like Flash would also suffice, as would IPA (isopropyl alcohol NOT india pale ale).

Step 3: Painting

Next it’s into an oven to warm the parts. The paint sticks better and gives a nicer coating if the metal is preheated.

Once warmed to your liking, spray the sheets in a well ventilated area.

Having sprayed them the parts can go back into the oven to dry. Drying takes about 2 hours in an oven and it helps to keep the dust off them while they're still wet. Alternatively leave them in a dust free place for 10 hours or until they're dry.

Step 4: Laser Etching

Once fully dry the painted stainless can be etched. I used a high power (98/100) , a high etch speed (300/400) and a step size of 0.1mm per scan. These worked better than the original settings I used since the thinner sheets of metal warped when I ran it at a lower speed.

The shaft encoder was designed in a CAD program called Alibre then exported into the program that came with our laser cutter as a .dxf file. This one took 2 minutes to run.

The logos I etched were imported as jpegs and the program sorts out the rest. They took slightly longer to etch since there was a larger area of paint to remove, 4 or 5 minutes.

Step 5: Results!

And here are some shots of the finished etched sheets.

Got a laser cutter and give it a go? Please post some pictures in the comments, it'd be great to see it done in some other colours, or perhaps layers of colours!



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    54 Discussions

    Very nicely done, I will be able to use the skills you taught with this to help with a project I am working on. I will post an Instructable once I have accomplished some results. Thank you so much for your very informative Instructable!

    Fantastic images, very clear, but I would have liked to know roughly how large/small they are...... I would guess for etching, you have to make a negative image, so that only what you don't want is removed....the gears appear to be free of paint, so you would have "gear shaped" that correct? How powerful is the laser itself (I am building a CNC machine) and what would such a tube cost? Roughly.... Many thanks for sharing. Regards Andy

    3 replies

    The images I etched ranged from 3x3 to 6x6 cm.

    Yes, you'd have gear shaped holes.

    The laser cutter I'm using is a 40W HPC Laser Cutter. The tube by itself costs 195GBP.

    I know it's supposed to be an "artsy" logo but the first gear logo you have there just makes me cringe. The gears won't move..... Not only do you have an odd number of gears, but the three in the middle just won't move because they're locked together in place. That's just a thing that I'm a stickler about. Other than that looks pretty cool. Does it work on Aluminum and other metals (ie. really low grade "monkey metal" or pot metal)?

    Nice idea, I'm thinking of trying it on some cheap copper clad SRBP or some very thin flexible pcb that I've seen on here in other instructables. Opens up a huge possibility of ideas. (Custom LED light shades for instance) Easier and cheaper than using photo-coated pcb. You don't say how you then etched the surface? Not a lot touches stainless after all, and that which would might take the paint off too?

    I did this 3 months ago with pre-made etching metal, It was fun!

    Take a look at this pdf (from here).

    Me thinks this could also be useful to create all types of prototype parts from sheet steel using a laser etcher that isn't powerful enough to be a laser cutter.

    4 replies

    The technique is different.  He's painting large areas and then scratching  an outline for the parts he wants to remove.

    You are painting the large area, and then blasting away large open areas to create designs. While that makes great HaD logos, it's a large area to electrochemically etch away.

    Oh, and in the PDF, he's making a reed valve for a pulse jet engine, not a rotary shaft encoder.

    It looks like you haven't started on the actual etching part yet, I thought the technique would be useful.

    Thanks. I etched it last week but have yet to document it or am unsure whether I should since he already gives great directions. The larger open area of the shaft encoder didn't seem to matter when etching, though I thought think it would probably be quicker if I just did the outlines.

    Document it. If you pulled some good ideas from that guy's page, it would be nice to credit him.

    The fact is that it's an obscure reference, and I don't think anyone has picked up the ball and ran with it beside you.

    I've had the idea of making full moon clips for a S&W 610. It would be cool to actually scribe the design with a laser cutter first.

    I also think this instructable needs a note somewhere explaining that while you are using a laser cutter, it can't cut through items like stainless steel because it's too reflective (I assume that is the reason why)

    Hey, so who's the hidden person between PKM and Laird Howe in Step 1? There are clearly five people in the picture, even if we can't see more than the chin and uppers of one of them....

    4 replies

    I would have guessed Han, as the mostly like to be willing to stand next to Howe. Notice in particular how The Teacher is keeping a respectful distance upwind :-)