Introduction: Illustrator-Based Custom Laser-Cut License Plate Frame

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Custom License Plate Frame from Cast Acrylic using Adobe Illustrator and the Trotec Laser Cutter

The license plate frame is a fairly simple project that can give you professional results by following some tips and will teach you some key aspects of Illustrator that can translate to a ton of other vector projects.

For this Instructable, I’ll be using Adobe Illustrator CS5.  Instructions for later versions of Illustrator should follow very closely.

Step 1: Step 1: Setting Up Illustrator

Open Illustrator, and select File > New.  In the dialog box, set Size to Custom, Width to 13 inches and Height to 7 inches.  Unspool the Advanced window and make sure Color Mode is set to RGB, as the Laser needs an RGB color profile.

This will open a 13 x 7 inch artboard.

If the Rulers are hidden, click on View > Rulers > Show Rulers.  We’ll use the rulers to set Guides to precision-place geometry in Illustrator.  While we’re rolling out menus, make sure the following are visible: Pathfinder (Window > Pathfinder), Transform (Window > Transform), Character (Window > Character), Color (Window > Color), Appearance (Window > Appearance), and Swatches (Window > Swatches).

Step 2: Step 2: Setting Up Guides for Precision Geometry Placement

I measured an actual license plate to determine the dimensions I wanted to use for the frame.  The plate was twelve inches wide by six inches tall.  The radii on the rounded corners of the plate were 1/2 inch.  There were four elongated holes 1/2 of an inch wide and 1/4 of an inch tall.  These holes are centered 5/8 of an inch from the top/bottom edges and 2-1/2 inches from the left/right edges. 

From the top ruler, drag down six guides. Place them near the 1/2 inch, 1 inch, 1-1/8 inch, 5-1/2 inch, 5-7/8 inch and 6-1/2 inch ticks.  Don't worry about precision placement at this point, we will precisely place the guides in a moment.  From the left ruler, also drag out six guides and place them near 1/2 inch, 1 inch, 3 inch, 10-inch, 12-inch and 12-1/2 inch ticks. 

Click View > Guides.  If Lock Guides is checked, clear the check mark.  This will allow us to use the transform pallet to move the guides we created to precision positions.

Click the Selection Tool, then drag a marquee that intersects one of your guides.  It should change color to indicate it has been selected.  Then, in the transform pallet, you can enter in precise measures and the guide will move to that location.  For vertical guides, enter in an X position and for horizontal guides, enter in a Y position. 

Go back to View > Guides and replace the check in Lock Guides.  This will prevent their accidental selection and movement. 

Now that we have our guides in place we are ready to start building our paths.

Step 3: Step 3: Building the Basic Shape of the Plate Frame

Click the Rounded Rectangle tool.  (If it is not visible, click and hold the Rectangle Tool and select Rounded Rectangle from the flyout).  Click once in the artboard and you'll get a dialog box that will allow you to enter in precise dimensions.  For the outside edge of the frame, we want a rounded rectangle 12 inches wide, 6 inches high and with a corner radius of 1/2 inch. 

With the Selection Tool, drag your new rectangle and dock it to the guides that originate from the 1/2-inch x 1/2-inch point (upper-left most intersection of all the guides).  If the shape isn't snapping to the guide, make sure you have Smart Guides on under the View menu.

Build another Rounded Rectangle, this time with width 11 inches, height 4-1/2 inches and a radius of 1/8 inch.  Drag this to dock with the guides at 1-inch x 1-inch.  With this rectangle selected, click Object > Arrange > Bring to Front.  Then, select Object > Path > Divide Objects below.  Select this inner rectangle once again and delete it.  You should be left with a frame-like shape with a missing middle. 

Now that we have the basic frame shape, we'll add the top screw lugs.  Create two more rounded rectangles, this time with a width of 1 inch, a height of 3/4 inch and a radius of 1/8 inch.  Anchor the center of one of these at the guide intersection at 3-inches x 1-1/8-inches.  Anchor the other one at the 10-inches x 1-1/8-inches intersection. 

Click and drag a marquee around all three shapes (the frame and the two lugs). If you end up selecting guides as well, you haven't re-locked them as outlined in Step 2. 

Click in the Pathfinder pallet and click Unite.  This will combine all your shapes into one path. 

Finally, create four more Rounded Rectangles.  Make them 1/4-inch high by 1/2-inch wide, again with a radius of 1/8-inch.  Anchor the centers of these rectangles to the following guide intersections: 3 x 1-1/8; 3 x 5-7/8; 10 x 1-1/8 and 10 x 5-7/8.  Since these rectangles will be our elongated screw holes, it hopefully is apparent where they go if the coordinates are confusing. 

With the Selection Tool active, select the frame, click Object > Arrange > Send to Back.  Select one of the elongated screw hole Rounded Rectangles, click Object > Path > Divide Objects Below.  Select that Rounded Rectangle again and delete it.  Repeat for the remaining three holes and you should have your completed frame shape.

Since these will be cut lines, select the completed frame, clear any Fill and change the Stroke to RGB Red and a 0.25-point width.

Add any text you'd like and position it where you want it.  Since we'll be etching the text, use RGB Black for the fill.  Be careful with text that is too narrow as the paint may not adhere well.

Step 4: Step 4: Ready for Cutting

Set up and focus the Trotec laser following the instructions in the SBU guide.  Print the plate frame from illustrator to transfer the design to Trotec Job Control.

In the print dialog, select preferences.  Make sure Minimize to Job Size is selected, and our initial Material Settings will be "Acrylic Casted."  Select OK, then go back to the print dialog and this time choose Print.

Once the job appears in Job Control, bring up the Material Setup Dialog.  Make sure Black is set to Engrave (for your letters) and Red is set to Cut (for the frame).  Everything else should be set to Skip.  I find I have better results cutting through Acrylic with the speed lowered a bit from the recommended setting, so I change this to 0.50%.  Since we're going to use the paper coating on the plate frame as a frisket for later painting, I need the laser to ablate both the paper and the acrylic, so I lower that speed as well to 65%.  Power (100% in both cases) and Power/Frequency (500 PPI and 5000 Hz) are per recommendations.

Place and rotate the job as it will fit for your material and initiate the cut following the instructions in your SBU.

Step 5: Step 5: Painting

I take a damp rag and clean out the ablation dust from the etched area.  I use painter-quality tape to mask off all areas of the frame other than where it has been etched, especially the edges, to prevent overspray. 

Prime the plate frame using light coats and allow it to thoroughly dry. 

Paint the plate frame using light coats as well. I prefer metallic colors as they stand out more, but be careful as metallic paint can flake more easily when you peel the frisket off. 

Finally, when dry, carefully peel the frisket and masking tape off the frame.  Go slow in tight areas.  For sections inside letters or other enclosed artwork, I like to use the point of an X-Acto knife to pick a corner out and then peel it away.