How to Make a Laser Cut Portrait on a ULS Laser Cutter

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About: I am an artist, designer, and maker located in the San Francisco Bay Area. I have Bachelors of Art in Fine Art and Politics from UC Santa Cruz, and an in progress Associates Degree in Fashion Design and Mark...

Intro: How to Make a Laser Cut Portrait on a ULS Laser Cutter

In this Instructable, I'll show you how to transform a photograph of someone's face into snazzy laser cut portrait on clear acrylic plastic. This method utilizes Adobe Illustrator, CorelDRAW, and a Universal Laser Systemslaser cutter. You should have some familiarity with the laser cutter before starting this project, such as how to turn it on, what type of ventilation you are using and how to operate that, how to place material on the laser cutting bed, etc. Please also note where your fire extinguishers are in case of a fire, and never walk away from the laser cutter while it is cutting. Before starting, please note that in the Universal Laser Systems software:

  • Red on your image = cut all the way through
  • Blue on your image = cuts a thin, clear line that does not go all the way through the material
  • Black on your image = creates a raster, which looks like shading

The material I am using is CAST ACRYLIC. Acrylic can be made by casting, or extrusion. If you use extruded acrylic, your results will not be the same. The thickness is about 1/8", but be sure to measure it every time you input the thickness into your settings.

Note: These steps will teach you how to make either type of image above (positive and negative space normal and reversed). Even if you have experience with a laser cutter, or this one specifically, MAKE TESTS BEFORE YOU MAKE YOUR FINAL!! I recommend making a mini version of whatever you are making, and testing your settings on that first. You will likely have to go through a number of tests before finding that sweet spot.

Now, let's get to it!

Step 1: Select Your Image

First, select the image you want to use. The image should ideally be high quality, have a white or very light colored background, and be free from harsh highlights or lowlights. Open Adobe Illustrator and open the file of your chosen image.

Step 2: Live Trace Your Image

After you have opened your image successfully, select the image using the marquis tool. You should see a few buttons in the top toolbar, including "Image Trace", "Mask", and "Crop Image". If your image needs to be cropped, do it now before moving on. If you are cropping, keep in mind the shape you will ultimately be cutting out so your image fits nicely inside.

Once cropped, click on the "Image Trace" button - this will do a live tracing of your image, converting it to vectors. This method will produce a graphic, simplified version of your original image. If you are not happy with it initially, you can play around with it a bit using the image trace tool bar. To find this, look to the top toolbar above your image and locate the dropdown menu with the words "Tracing Result". To the left of this menu is a little icon that looks like a toolbar/menu. Click on this and your tracing result tool bar will pop up. To see changes in your image, drop down to the advanced settings and play around with "Threshold", "Paths", "Corners", and
"Noise."

Step 3: Expand & Erase White

Once you have adjusted your tracing result settings to your liking, click on the "Expand" button to the right of the "Tracing Result" drop down menu. (Make sure your image is still selected at this point.) You will see a blue outline. Switch from the marquis tool to the magic wand tool, and use it to select any part of your image that is white. Once this is done, you should see the color white appear in your "fill" box in the lower lefthand corner of your screen. Hit "delete" to delete the white background, and you will now have a black image with a transparent background.

Step 4: Create Your Frame

In this next step, you will have to determine what shape you would like your image to sit in. (You can adjust the size later in CorelDRAW.) Open a new window and draw your shape. If you'd like to do a square, like I did above, use the rectangle tool and hold down the shift key while you draw your shape. The outline of your shape must be set to true RGB red: R=255, G=0, B=0. The stroke width should be set to 0.25.

At this point you will need to decide which part of the image you want the laser to recognize, i.e., which part will be rastered and which will not. In the first images above, the example with sky in the background rastered only the face. In the example with grass in the background, everything but the face has been rastered. Whatever you want rastered should be in BLACK.

If you want to raster the face and nothing else, leave the outline as is, with just an outline and no fill. If you want everything but the face rastered, fill your shape with true RGB black: R=0, G=0, B=0. Because the outline is set to a stroke width of 0.25, it might look like it's not there unless you're really zoomed in because it is quite thin.

Step 5: Put Your Image in the Frame

Return to your traced image, select, and copy it. Paste your image into the art board with your newly made frame.

If you have chosen to raster just the face, all will you need to do is position you image inside the frame, as we have already made sure it it a true RGB black. Drag your image on top of your frame and resize and/or adjust it until it is placed just how you want it. It is important that your image does remains on the inside of the red line. Once you have your image in your frame in the location you desire, save your image as an adobe PDF.

For my example, I have chosen to raster everything but the face. For this option, you'll need to add one more step. Right now, your frame fill and image are both black, which won't work. Change the color of your image to true RGB white: R=255, G=255, B=255. Drag your image on top of your frame and resize and/or adjust it until it is placed just how you want it. It is important that your image does remains on the inside of the red line. Once you have your image in your frame in the location you desire, save your image as an adobe PDF.

Step 6: CorelDRAW

Open your Adobe PDF in CorelDRAW. At this point, you can change the size of your image to whatever you would like by adjusting the height and width in the top toolbar. (Your image will need to be selected in order for you to do this.) Make sure the little image of a lock is locked, otherwise your proportions will become distorted. Next, you'll need to double check that your black and red colors are true RGB black and red, as described above. You can access these settings by selecting an area on your image and then double clicking the color in the lower right corner of your screen. This will bring you to an adjustments panel. At this point, you must also adjust the width of your red line to "Hairline". This is the correct width for the laser to recognize as a cut all the way through your acrylic.

Step 7: Print Settings

Once you are POSITIVE that the colors are set to true RGB black and red, and that your image is the size you want, go ahead and press print. This will pull up your print settings window. In our studio, the printer selected will take you straight to the ULS software. You will need to set this up ahead of time, or you may have a different system.

If your setup is like ours, however, make sure the proper printer is selected, and then click on "Preferences". Go to the "Manual Control" tab and adjust settings ONLY AS NEEDED. I recommend changing the print direction to "Up," and the dithering set to "Black and White". Your image density will be up to you depending on your laser and exactly how you want the final to come out. I have mine set to "4". Before you click ok and exit out of this panel, switch over to the "Materials Database" tab and adjust settings as needed. For the project, I recommend the following:

  • Select your material from the dropdown menu: Plastic -> Acrylic -> Cast Acrylic -> Cast Acrylic
  • Raster = 20%, Vector Engraving = 0%, Vector Cutting = 0% Vector performance = Standard
  • MATERIAL THICKNESS MUST BE MEASURED!! It is imperative that you measure the thickness of your acrylic using a caliber. Even if you think you know the thickness, THINK AGAIN!

Be sure to click "Apply" and then "Ok" from the materials database screen, which will bring you back to the original print settings. Go ahead and press print, which will send your image over to the ULS software.

Step 8: ULS Software

Open the ULS Software and locate you file. Use the red buttons with the arrows to position position your image on the laser cutting bed. Use the red button with the timer to estimate how long your project will take. Next, open the settings here. Check that the "Manual Control" settings are how you set them in the last step, and then switch over to the "Materials Database" tab and check these as well. Now, these settings are going to vary even more from project to project, and will add to why you need to do tests. However, if you'd like to use the same acrylic I used here, these settings are a good place to start your tests from (same as last step):

  • Select your material from the dropdown menu: Plastic -> Acrylic -> Cast Acrylic -> Cast Acrylic
  • Raster = 20%, Vector Engraving = 0%, Vector Cutting = 0%
  • Vector performance = Standard
  • MATERIAL THICKNESS MUST BE MEASURED!! It is imperative that you measure the thickness of your acrylic using a caliber. Even if you think you know the thickness, THINK AGAIN!

Hit "Apply" and "Ok" to close the window.

Step 9: Load Your Material!

Open up your laser and gently lay down your acrylic. Make sure it is lined up with the edges of the bed and nestled into the upper lefthand corner. At this point, you are almost ready to get that baby going, so turn on your ventilation systems. In our studio, we use a compressed air line and a Purex 3-stage air filter. Close the lid on your laser cutter, and you are ready to go.

Step 10: TESTS!

This is your friendly reminder to do some tests before you cut out your final. If your final is a very small thing to begin with, you can probably just test it using the final file. However, if your final is larger than 2"x2" I'd recommend scaling down for experimenting with settings.

Step 11: Go!

Double check all your settings once more, and then press that big green play button to watch the magic happen! Your final product will have been cut cleanly out of your main material. It will look fuzzy at first because of the acrylic residue. Bring it over to a sink and wash it off, using you fingers to gently rub off any excess. Peel away the protective sticker on the back of your acrylic (if it is there), dry it off, and voila! You made a cool thing!!

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    6 Discussions

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    ykulik

    2 months ago

    CorelDRAW and Adobe Illustrator are expensive (unless you use time-limited trial versions). Can similar result be achieved using freeware?

    1 reply
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    rachelfinnykulik

    Reply 7 weeks ago

    That's a good point and question. Vectormagic.com seems to do a good job at converting a photo to a vector image similar to what I've done above in AI. Your options for editing the result will likely be limited, and you may have to use an additional website or free software to get the image to pure white and/or black. Inkscape is a free AI/CorelDraw type program that includes a lot of similar functionality, and may actually erase your need for a vectormagic type website in the first place. If you do use Inkscape, keep in mind that files are scaled when saved - to avoid issues with this, save your file as a pdf. I'd play around with those yourself to see which works best for you. That said, the specific set-up I work with uses CorelDRAW as the direct communication between our USL software and the image and I am unsure which alternative softwares can be used in place.

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    Kink Jarfold

    2 months ago on Step 11

    Rachel, as an old-timer this was way above my acumen, but I truly loved how you got there and the finished work. KJ

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    1 reply