Introduction: Laser Cut Stencil Letters

This is a simple set of instructions for anyone with access to a laser cutter on how to use a vector-based graphics program to alter text in such a way as to make it laser-cut friendly.

I've been working on the design for a few art-objects that need laser-cut letters, and decided it would be good to prototype some letters first, to get a sense of what's required. There are a lot of "stencil fonts" out there to be had for free, but a lot of them are pretty limited stylistically so I have been working with creating "laser-safe" versions of other more decorative, less industrial fonts. In this case, I am using Zapfino.

It started with a present for my father, then a present for a friend, and a wedding present, and this example is based off of a package of fashion show schwag that I gave to someone. It seemed a great opportunity to test out a few techniques, and the result was a stylish success. In fact, the usefulness of having a laser or stencil-friendly version of a font was so novel, I started working on an OpenType version called Stencilano that is available for free beta download now.

Also, a laser cutter is nice, and very effective, but after altering type in the way I've outlined here, you could cut the letters out by hand. It would take a very sharp knife, a very steady hand, and a lot of patience, but it's a nice alternative since not everyone has access to laser cutting equipment.

Here are all the steps I took to alter the letters and package my gift.

Warning: This technique may impress your boy/girlfriend.

Needed materials:

1) A vector-based graphics program. Inkscape is a great open-source vector program. You can also use CorelDRAW or Adobe Illustrator. I'm going to use Illustrator's interface for this example.

2) Some kind of gift-wrap to wrap your gift in. I used a brown craft paper.

3) Some stiff card stock. I used plain manila, which looks nice and clean against the craft paper.

4) A laser cutter.

5) An exacto knife.

6) A present to wrap.

Step 1: Selecting and Generating the Type

First we need to make our vector document where we will doctor our letters.

1. Open Illustrator. It will be helpful to set your document size to match the size of your laser cutter's print range.

2. We need to make a rectangle that will define the edges of our gift-tag. Use the Rectangle tool, and make a rectangle that is 1 in. smaller than the largest face of your gift in each dimension (if you don't have your rulers turned on in Illustrator, do so by hitting Command-r. It will help).

3. Select the Rectangle and give it no fill with a 1pt red stroke (making it red will be important later).

4. Now it's time to pick and type the letters. Zapfino is a really good font to use, not only because it's super-classy, but also because the strokes are often very thin, making it easy to "cut to the counters".
Counters are the isolated white spaces inside letters. Most fonts have them, but when cutting what is essentially a stencil, the paper will fall apart if we leave these in. But we'll get to counters in the next step.

5. For now, simply type your message and place it inside the Rectangle you've made.

6. Get the words centered and where you want them, then, select the word with one of the arrow tools and go to Type>Create Outlines. This will turn the text into editable vectors.

7. Leave the vector letters with no stroke, black fill.

Step 2: Cutting Out the Counters

Now we need to alter our text vectors to make them suitable for laser cutting. Really, what we need to do is get rid of the counters, or the white spaces inside each letter. We're going to accomplish this by using the Pathfinder function in Illustrator.

1. Identify your counters. For each one, choose a section of the adjacent letter that you think would be easy and attractive to cut out (you'll see what I mean in a second). In our case, we have three counters: one in the W, one in the A, and one in the G.

2. Zoom in on the first counter.

3. Using the Pen tool, with no stroke and a red fill, make a new polygon that overlaps the section of text you want to delete. With Zapfino, it's pretty easy to find places to cut that fit with the flow of the letters.

4. You need to strike a balance between subtlety and integrity. The smaller your red polygon, the less change you'll make to the original letter. The larger you make it, the sturdier your cut-out will be.

5. Select both the red polygon and the letter vectors and use the Subtract from shape area command in your Pathfinder panel. After you use it, MAKE SURE YOU CLICK EXPAND. Otherwise, the change won't become permanent.

6. Now the letter vectors have a nice bridge connecting the counter to the rest of the white space. Simply repeat the same process for all other counters.

7. Once the counters are bridged, select the entire text vector and use the Add to shape area command in your Pathfinder panel to create one big vector.

8. Lastly, select your big text vector and change it to no fill with a black 1pt stroke.

Step 3: Making Lasers Cut Things

So now we're ready to send this file to the laser cutter.

To double-check:
Our rectangle is 1pt red stroke, no fill.
Our big text vector is 1pt black stroke, no fill.
(For our laser cutter, the color of strokes determines the order in which they are cut. That's why it's important to make the rectangle red!)

1. Go to File>Save As... We need to save the finished file as an SVG so the laser cutter can understand it.

2. This part is kind of up to you, based on what kind of laser cutter you're using. For us, we take our SVG and transfer it to a PC that has CorelDraw. Then we make all of the strokes "hairline", position the image in the right place on the picture plane, and then literally select "Print" to send it to the cutter. Everything from there is on the laser cutter's end.

3. General neatness rules apply here, like keeping your paper clean, avoiding folds, etc. etc. etc.

4. However you do it, cut the text vector out of the card stock.

Step 4: Wrapping It Up

Once you have your laser cut-out done, all that's required is some good old fashioned wrapping.

1. Wrap your gift in the wrapping paper, using normal tape-and-fold procedure.

2. Take your cut-out and apply a layer of glue to the back with a glue stick.

3. Use an exacto knife to clean the fine edges of stray paper or glue particles.

4. Press the cut-out onto the face of your gift. Apply pressure and you're done.

Step 5: The Finished Product

It's ready to be mailed!


This experiment was a success for me, but it's really just the beginning. There are a lot of satisfying variations on this technique, using different materials, fonts, etc.

For instance, sometimes the letters that get cut-out are far more precious and attractive than the piece they are cut from. You can see this effect in the sample photos below.

Also, Zapfino is just one font - you can use other, pre-made stencil fonts, or use the counter-bridging technique we used here to make "laser-safe" versions of your favorites. Also, with access to free font generation software like Font Forge you can make permanent "laser-safe" versions. That's how I started making an OpenType version of Stencilano; I hope that I have time to make more in the future.

Please comment or share if you have any other ideas or applications to use with this technique.