Introduction: Laser Cut Box With "inlay" Designs.
I love making boxes with the laser cutter. The laser cutter makes cutting the box parts easy and accurate. By cutting a series of tabs and slots along the edge, the pieces fit together so well you almost don't need glue to hold them together.
Also, by taking advantage of the thinness of the laser cut, you can easily make "inlay" designs. When you cut out a design from the inside of a box part, the cut line is so thin that you can easily insert the cut out piece back into the part it was cut from. By staining or painting the cut out a different color from the box part you get an inlay. Then simply glue the seam together and you have your design.
So lets get started making some boxes.
Step 1: Designing Your Box
The first step is to design your box and to create the parts that will be laser cut.
If you just glue the flat edges of 2 pieces together its called butt joint which works and has a clean look to it but you need to clamp or hold the pieces together while the glues dries to keep them from moving around. Not the easiest thing. But by adding tabs and slots to the edges (a box joint), you create a puzzle that helps to hold the box together while the glue is drying.
To make the tabs and slots, the first thing to do is to figure out the height of the tabs. The easiest option is to make the height the same as the thickness of the material you are making the box out of. For my box I used 1/8" thick plywood. So I made the tabs 1/8" tall and the slots they fit into 1/8" deep. The number of tabs and how wide they are is a bit arbitrary. You can do just a few or make a zipper. Just don't make them so small they break off while you are assembling the box.
I used Adobe Illustrator to make the file that I used to cut the parts on the laser. First I created rectangles for the base and sides. Then I made smaller rectangles for the tabs. I placed the smaller rectangles on the large ones to create tabs and slots and made sure they lined up. Then I subtracted the small rectangles from the large ones to make the slots and added them to make tabs. Take a look at the pictures and pdf file to see an example of how I did this.
Step 2: Creating the Inlay
Most inlays are usually very shallow and don't go all the way through the piece. With this technique the cuts will go all the way through the sides of the box.
The photos for this step show the parts as I removed them from the laser cutter and then all the parts separated. The inlay pieces should be easy to remove from and add back to the piece they are cut out of. There will be a tiny amount of wiggle room when the inlay is in the larger piece. We will fix that later.
You can make your box without the inlays. Just skip the steps about the inlays and go to the steps about assembling the box.
Quick note, the pdf I included in this Instructable can be used to cut out the box parts and the star inlay. I did not include the rocket designs. You'll have to make your own inlay design.
Step 3: Staining or Painting Your Design.
The inlay will look much better if you add some color to it and differentiate the box parts from the inlay.
I used wood stain to do this. First I separated all the parts and stained the box parts a dark brown. Then I stained the inlay parts a light/golden brown to increase the contrast between the parts. Once the stain had dried I inserted the inlay parts back into the box parts to see how they looked. At this point I decided which sides I wanted to be outside of the box versus the inside. I choose what I thought the nicest looking side to be the outside. The inside of the lid is not stained because I put a backing piece on the lid, which fit inside the box to keep the lid from sliding off (and the backing piece was stained).
Step 4: Gluing the Inlay In
To attach the inlay to the box parts and to fill in the tiny gap from the laser cut, fill in the seam between the inlay and the box part with glue. Since my box is made of plywood I used wood glue.
Since the glue will show, only glue one side and its best to have that be the inside of the box. That way the outside looks nice and clean. To help me remember I put some masking tape on the "outside" side of the box. You don't need a ton of glue. Just go along the seam and fill it in with glue. It helps to wiggle the piece around a bit to help the glue get down into the seam. Sometimes you may need to go back around the seam again to add more glue once its settled into the seam a bit.
The seam will be a weak point in the box. While I haven't done any calibrated tests, the bond is pretty strong and the box holds up to normal handling. If you want to increase the strength of the parts with inlays you can add a backing to the "inside" side of the box. This will also hid the seam and glue when viewing the inside of the box. I'm happy with the strength of my box and the glue isn't too bad so I did not add a backing.
Step 5: Putting the Box Together.
Once you're done with the inlay its time to put the box together.
Do a dry fit of the pieces first to make sure they fit. You might need to sand them a little if they are really tight or slightly out of alignment. Because of the tiny gap created by the laser they should fit together pretty easily.
Now you just need to glue them in place. I put a small amount of glue along the edges with the tabs and then pressed them into the slots. Try not to use a lot of glue unless you don't mind it showing when it dries, or you are going to scrape or sand the excess glue off.
Once all the sides were glued and assembled my box held together pretty well so I just let it dry like that. If you need something to hold it together while it dries you can put a rubber band around it or tape it in place with masking tape.
Have fun making laser cut inlay boxes!
Runner Up in the
Make a Box Contest
Participated in the
Full Spectrum Laser Contest 2016
6 years ago
Very nice. My grandkids would love it. Have a Boss laser coming in the next week or so. If interested will let you know how it works. Have never used one so it will be interesting.
Reply 6 years ago
Sounds good. Write an instructable for it.
6 years ago
Great looking box. Wish I had a laser cutter:( Your photos and instructions were easy to follow. I like your idea of using masking tape to keep the inlay seem sturdy so you can fill the seam with wood glue from the inside. An alternative, if you use a few coats of lacquer on the outside, the seam will be sealed and stronger around the inlays. The more coats you put the stronger and you can get a glass appearance. Overall a very nice box. Good luck in the contest.
Reply 6 years ago
Great idea about the lacquer. I'll have to try that on the next one.
I rent time on a laser at my local maker space. Saving my pennies to buy one eventually.
7 years ago
I like it! What laser cutter are you using?
Reply 7 years ago
I use the Epilog Helix at ADX Portland (my local Maker space). So far its the only laser I've had access to. I would love to try some other types to compare.