Introduction: Laser Engraved Lord of the Rings Boxed Set

This is my first Instructable write up, so bear with me. I clearly did not take enough pictures along the way and I keep catching myself describing what I did rather than instructing you on what to do. I welcome your feedback and suggestions on how to improve next time.

I have been learning woodworking one small project at a time. My daughter's birthday was approaching and it was time to make something for her. She is a big fan of the work of J. R. R. Tolkien, not only the writing, but the art work as well. For Christmas she had mentioned how much she'd to get a copy of the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings trilogy that had the original cover art work. It didn't take more than a couple searches to understand that I would not be buying used copies with the original art work. Thankfully a set of paperbacks was recently published that had covers based on the originals. I bought the books and decided my next project would be to make a nice box to keep them in.

I had visited our local hackerspace, BloomingLabs, to use their laser cutter to help me make the Smartphone Alarm for my other daughter for Christmas. This had given me an idea for the book box project. After a little searching on the web I found a vector-based map of Middle Earth. With a little help of my wife the graphic artist I had it split into two images to be engraved in the sides of the box. For the back I used the Tree of Gondor and my daughter's name in the writing of Middle Earth.

Step 1: Materials and Tools


  • Light-colored solid wood, preferably hardwood. I used white maple because I had planned to dovetail the joints so it had to be pretty solid, but I also wanted it to burn well with the laser. White oak's grain is too tight and it would not have engraved as well. I ended up, for reasons that will be explained, doing a mortise joint, so poplar might have ultimately been a better choice.
  • The dimensions of my stack of books was 8-1/2" (H) x 3-3/4" (W) x 5-1/2" (D). I bought the wood unfinished, then cut and planed it down to size. I made the sides 3/8" thick and the top/bottom 1/2". I made it from a 6'x8" piece of maple though if I were to do it again I'd look for a 6'x10" piece so I could cut the side pieces across the grain. More on that later.
  • Contact paper to cover the engravings during finishing work
  • Shellac and poly-coat for finishing
  • Rubber feet


  • General woodworking tools - planer, joiner, sanding block, wood glue
  • Laser engraving machine (check with your local maker space)
  • Hollow chisel mortiser
  • Router plane
  • Mitre box
  • Brad nailer

Step 2: Prep the Wood for the Sides of the Box

This part is basic woodworking that is specific, in size, to your set of books. For me, I needed three pieces, roughly 7" x 9" each to ensure I had enough room to engrave the images, have room to do the basic woodworking to build the box, and, quite importantly, to leave a little room for expansion of the books as they get read. I cut about 30" of my board, put it through the band saw to trim it to about 1/2" thick and then planed it to 3/8". Make sure you sand it well, because after engraving you won't have a chance to sand those surfaces again.

It turns out I made a fundamental miscalculation here. I'd planned on doing dovetail joints to join the sides because I wanted to learn how to do them. I'd left enough wood to cut the joints, but in testing I learned that you really can't do dovetails with the grain. They are too weak. In our test cuts on the router they kept breaking. If I do something like this again I will get a wider board and cut across the grain so that I have the strength to do the dovetails (or box joints). Because of this mistake I ended up doing mitre joints. It's hard to get those really precise, at least for a novice like me. Anyway, it was only after the boards were engraved that I learned this, so there was no going back. I won't go into detail here about making mitre joints because there are much better tutorials than I could give, but also because it's not what I'd recommend you do. Box or dovetail will be stronger and ultimately more attractive (in my opinion).

Armed with my three boards I headed to my handy local hackerspace.

Step 3: Engraving the Boards

I knew that my local hackerspace, Bloominglabs, could use vector-based images for cutting or engraving with their laser. With the help of Mr. Google I found this lovely vector map of Middle Earth. With the help of the free vector graphics editor Inkscape, I prepped the three images. The sides were the map split roughly in two, with some overlap. The back was the White Tree of Gondor plus my daughter's name written in Cirth, the runic alphabet of Middle Earth. (My daughter tells me that for something decorative like this box it might have been better to have used Tengwar, the fancier script. I'll keep that in mind for the next time I make one of these...)

Challenge one was getting the images together in Inkscape. Challenge two was making sure the software that drives the laser read them correctly. We made numerous tests to get the images right and align the prints. I would only have one shot at this. I didn't mention that they charge by the minute to use the laser. For non-members like me it was $0.50/min. I needed to get it right the first time.

With the laser you can adjust dpi and speed among other things to balance quality with length of time. We did some test burns on paper and even the back of my boards. We ultimately found a combination that did made some of the smaller names on the map legible, but did not require a really long burn. I believe we ended up only doing 250 dpi, but cutting it relatively slowly. It ended up costing me about $20 of burn time and doing as good a job as a higher dpi at a faster speed.

Step 4: Construct the Sides

You will want to protect the engravings as you turn the panels into the sides of the Box. Cover them with contact paper to prevent the normal machinations of the woodshop from scratching or dulling them.

Cut the boards to their final size and create the joints you desire. I cut my mitre joints, glued and clamped it. Once it was dry I shellacked and poly-coated the inside because I knew once I got the top and bottom on it would be much harder to do.

NOTE: I cut two pieces of scrap wood that were the exact size of the inside of the box. I used these as inserts when gluing and clamping the sides together. I just placed them high and low in the structure. This is particuarly helpful with the mitre joints.

Step 5: Construct the Top and Bottom

As mentioned previously I cut the top and bottom 1/2" thick. I wanted them to be more substantial than the sides.

Carefully place the sides unit on the face of the box top you want down. Measure to ensure it is properly centered. Draw its outline with a mechanical pencil. Using these lines sketch the full outline, accounting for the thickness of the sides, on each piece. For my box that was 3/8" thick. Using the Hollow chisel mortiser, with a depth stop set, drill a track for the sides a consistent 1/4" deep.

With a router plane or chisel, carve away the excess wood to give a consistent surface with an even depth. This is MUCH easier to do with the router plane. Nothing like having the right tool for the job.

Repeat with the box bottom, making sure in both cases to strive for straight lines and consistent depth. Periodically put the sides unit in place to ensure your slots are wide enough. This fine-tuning is painstaking, but it pays off.

Step 6: Putting It All Together

In order to soften the lines of the pieces I ran them all through the router with a 1/4" round-over bit before putting them together. NOTE: Avoid the mistake I made. Don't round over the last 1/4" on the top and bottom of the sides or else it will leave small gaps in your slots. You want them to be square to fit snugly into the nice slots you've made.

Doing one end at a time, liberally glue your slots and the end ends of the side unit. Keep in mind that that end grain will really drink up the glue. Once you have it glued and firmly tapped, OK pounded, together, get it clamped. In order to give it greater strength I nailed in some carefully-placed brads using a pneumatic nailer and covered them with a bit of wood filler.

When the glue is dry, sand the exposed surfaces down to a fine grit before removing the contact paper over the designs. Shellac and poly-coat the entire box. I put the final coat of poly on with a spray in order to avoid brush marks. When dry, add some rubber feet to the bottom and you are ready to make some Hobbit's life a little richer.