In this Instructable, I show two different methods for engraving custom dice. Most laser cutters are not able to cut as deep as a typical die (standard die size is 16 mm) but blank dice are readily available on the internet, and most laser cutters will do an excellent job of engraving them.
The first method engraves 6 dice at a time, with complete control over the image orientation on each side. The second method engraves blocks of dice and is a more efficient method but provides a little less control over the final product.
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Step 1: Tools and Materials
Access to a laser cutter
Design software (I use Adobe Illustrator)
Digital calipers or other measuring device
Blank dice (I use acrylic but wood would work just as well)
Blank dice can be purchased on the Internet, I bought mine on Amazon
1/4" acrylic sheet (for the jig)
Acrylic paint (I use Citadel paints)
Full page paper labels
Goo Gone or other cleaner
Optional: 1/8" plywood (for puzzle board)
Step 2: Cut Masks for the Dice
Because you will paint your dice after engraving, you will want to apply masking paper before engraving. Acrylic sheets come pre-masked but blank dice don't.
I buy full page paper labels and cut them to fit on a paper cutter. For this project I am using fluorescent yellow labels.
Method one requires individually masked dice. My measurement method is to lay out the dice next to the cut line and apply a piece of masking tape. This way I can slide the label up to the masking tape and cut strips, then slide the strips in and cut squares.
For method 2 I will be engraving a 3 x 3 matrix of nine dice, and I will be masking each block as I go. To cut these masks I lay out three dice side by side and apply the masking tape, then cut squares using the same method.
I apply the masks to the individual dice right away. The masks for method 2 I take along with me to the laser cutter.
Step 3: Create the Design for Method One: Engraving Individual Dice
The basic approach for both engraving methods is to first cut a jig that will hold the dice in place, and then place and engrave the dice. The design needs to contain both the cutting instructions for the jig and the engraving instructions for the dice.
While I have a very visual approach to measurement in the last step, label cutting, there is no substitute for using accurate calipers in the design step. A nominally 16 mm die is unlikely to be 16 mm in real life, so always measure the actual product before creating a jig to hold it, and plus up the size slightly to achieve a good fit.
In method 1, I lay out 6 squares for the six sides of my D6 16 mm dice. Since I will be cutting these out of 1/4" acrylic to create a jig to hold my dice, I use RGB red lines, which is what my laser cutter recognizes as cutting lines.
I envision a rotation plan for my six dice, rolling the center four to the right, the last die up into the upper slot, the top die down into the lower slot and this lower die back into the first slot. I will have to execute this rotation plan exactly, six different times, to engrave all sides of each die.
In this example I am trying to replicate, exactly, game dice from Dark Souls, the Board Game. When I create the engraving pattern on a second layer of my illustration, I lay the sides out to match my reference die, based on my rotation pattern. All of the engraving is done using black images, which is what my laser cutter recognizes for raster engraving.
You can reference another one of my Instructables: How to Use Adobe Illustrator to Create Rose Motifs to learn more about using clip art to create Adobe Illustrations that can drive CNC machines like a laser cutter.
Step 4: Create the Design for Method Two: Engraving a Block of Dice
You could use this method for creating game dice as well, but I'm going to use it to create 'puzzle dice'. This was a bit of an experiment on my part, but I like how it turned out!
Also, I am doing 9 dice but you could just as easily use this approach for a matrix of any size, e.g. 5 x 5, or 4 x 5.
I will be applying the labels as I engrave the dice, and I will be rolling the dice individually, so I can start with a label that covers all nine dice but that label will have to be cut apart so the dice can be rolled individually. I achieve this by laying a rastered 'tic-tac-toe' design inside my red cutout for the jig. These rastered lines will cut just deep enough to go through the paper and a little beyond; using red cut lines would run the risk of damaging any dice that may be slightly out of alignment in the block.
My plan for my 'puzzle' is to have six different leaves engraved on the six blocks of dice. In this way you have six mini puzzles in one. I've never seen puzzle dice before, it was just an idea that came to me... It also turns out to be surprisingly hard to put together a puzzle with only nine pieces, when you don't know which side is the right side for this puzzle!
Step 5: Method One: Cut the Jig and Engrave the Dice
First, set the default settings that you will want in place throughout your session.
For me, those were:
Material: Cast Acrylic
Thickness: .25" (for cutting the jigs)
Raster Speed and Power: 50% (deep pocket engraving)
For this method, I will only print once out of Adobe Illustrator to my laser cutter (which is a Universal 60 watt laser cutter), but I will execute that same print seven times, once for cutting the jig and six times for engraving the dice. Because I am running the same print over and over again, placement is not an issue, as it will be in method 2.
Before cutting the jig, I make one manual override on my default settings:
Black Mode: Skip (this tells the laser to ignore the black raster engraving)
I remove the cutout squares from my jig with a piece of wadded up masking tape, so I don't have to remove and reposition the acrylic.
Then I place my six masked dice in the six slots. Before rerunning the same print I make these important changes to my settings:
Z setting: .64" (the height of my dice) This raises the laser to clear the dice.
Red Mode: Skip (this tells the laser to ignore the red cut lines)
Black Mode: Raster
After engraving the first pass, I execute my rotation pattern, rolling and moving the dice appropriately. Then I just hit the run button again, with all the same settings. Then I rotate again, and so on, through six passes of engraving. The dice are done!
Step 6: Method Two: Cut and Engrave the Dice
Because there are six different images that cover all nine dice, I will need to send the print from Illustrator six different times. If I wanted to engrave standard dice, instead of my puzzle dice, one image would be nine 'ones' or single dots, the next would be nine 'twos' or two dots, and so on.
Every time you send a print from Illustrator to the laser cutter, you need to reposition it to fit on the material you want to cut or engrave. The best way to do this accurately, repeatedly, is to use the x and y coordinates on the 'move' function. I position the jig cutout first, then record the x and y numbers and use the same numbers to position each engraving image.
The first print I send is the red cutout for the jig. I remove the square, as in method 1, with a ball of masking tape. Then I position the nine blank, unmasked dice.Then I cover all nine dice with a masking label and run the first engraving image, making sure to include the tic-tac-toe lines that cut the dice apart.
I must change the z position between the jig cut and engraving, raising the z to .64" so the laser will clear the dice, but I don't have to worry about telling the laser cutter to skip any colors, since I will only send exactly what I want in each print: the red lines to cut the jig and the black images for engraving.
After engraving one image, I roll the dice so new sides are up and I place a new masking label on the block for the next engraving. I engrave all six images.
Step 7: Optional: Cut a Game Board for the Puzzle Dice
To make it easier to use the puzzle dice, I created a little board out of 1/8" plywood that had a pocket cut to hold the nine dice and vector engravings of the six leaf designs. Because these puzzles are surprisingly hard to assemble, it is important to know what the six solutions look like!
Step 8: Paint, Peel and Clean the Dice
I use the same Citadel paints I use to paint miniatures for painting the dice. Pick high contrast colors: I used white on the blue transparent dice and black on the ivory dice.
When the paint is almost dry, peel off the masking labels. When the paint is completely dry, use Goo Gone or another cleaner and Q Tips to clean away any remaining adhesive.
My puzzle dice experiment had an interesting, artistic look to it: I show each of the six leaves in the photo. This look comes from the fact that the engraving design goes to the very edge of the dice. A more traditional dice design, with centered images like my game dice, would look exactly as clean as the dice I created with method 1.