Introduction: Laser Engraved Alphabet Blocks
The purpose of this project was to create a personalized set of alphabet blocks for my 1 year old niece. I wanted the traditional capital, lower case, and number sides, but also superhero/cartoon characters for each letter as well as a puzzle she will be able to do when she's a little older. In order to store them perfectly in a cube I ended up with 27 blocks and doubled up the A.
My rough inspiration came from "Young Mad Scientist's First Alphabet Blocks" by Xylocopa http://www.xylocopa.com/product/mad-science-alphabet-blocks. As a science teacher I still plan on making a more science based set one day, but my graphic design skills need work.
Step 1: Designing the Blocks
The trick to this project is to burn each side of all 27 blocks at the same time. As long as the blocks are carefully aligned when it comes time to use the laser this is a huge time saver.
In the computer program Paint, create a template of large boxes for the letters etc. to go into. Two of the sides will be light (unburned) images on a dark background and two sides will be dark images on an unburned background with a dark border. Using copy and paste I created a 5 by 6 block pattern with equal spacing horizontally and vertically to allow for the edges of the blocks to eventually be rounded.
The actual size of the boxes is not important at this point. More important is getting maximum detail without getting pixilated.
With the templates created, copy and paste images to fit in each box, saving the files as separate versions. I used:
Side 1- Dark box with light capital letters (A-Z plus additional A)
Side 2- Light box with dark numbers (two sets of 0-9 plus basic operations)
Side 3- Dark box with light lower case letters
Side 4- Image relating to each letter. I used superheroes and cartoon characters. Maybe sports teams? Animals? Food?
Note: The hardest part of this project was finding or creating and then manipulating appropriate images. Ideally they need to be only black and white so that the burning process is an all or nothing operation instead of shading. Original artwork is preferred as it avoids any potential copyright issues.
Step 2: Making the Blank Cubes
Wood choice is at the maker's discretion. I chose to use a 2 foot long S4S maple 2x4 as it is durable and close grained. Softwood lumber will work but could have more issues down the line with splintering and dents on the surface. Ultimately it's a kids toy and you obviously can expect some wear and tear.
I cut the 2x4 into 1.5 by 1.5 by 1.5 cubes using a table saw for the long cuts followed by a mitre saw for the cross cuts. At this point sand the sides of each block but not the edges or corners.
Step 3: Burning Pt. One
To properly scale the images, I used Microsoft Word. When laid out in the 5x6 grid (minus 3 blocks in the last row) the total dimensions of the blocks was 7.5 inches by 9 inches. Taking into account the edge of the blocks that will not be effected by the laser, my total dimensions of the image files became 7.3 inches by 8.8 inches. These images were then ready to export to the Laser software.
Lay the blocks in the laser bed with end grain running in the same direction with no space between blocks. Double and triple check the size and starting position of the image to be burned to ensure the blocks are lined up straight and each block will have its image relatively centred.
By rotating each row of blocks 90 degrees after each pass, the four traditional sides can be engraved. Don't shuffle up the blocks and the 4 images will relate to each block (B, 2, b, Batman all on the same block etc.)
Step 4: Burning Pt. Two: Puzzle Sides
For the remaining 2 sides of the cubes I decided to use large images for each that would be carried over on all blocks. I scaled the images into 6 inches by 10.5 inches (4 blocks by 7 blocks when laid out)
Side One- Name, designed and sized in Microsoft Word
Side Two- Skeleton (both parents are in healthcare)
Instead of being careful not the shuffle the cubes, I intentionally mixed them up before laying them on the laser bed to make for a more interesting puzzle.
Again double and triple check the position of the laser before beginning.
Step 5: Finishing
Use a hand sander to round all corners and edges. Where the puzzle images crossed the gaps between blocks there may be a bit of burning down the edges but this can easily be sanded off.
If desired, butcher block oil (food safe mineral oil) can be applied at this point to prevent staining or water damage.
Step 6: Container
I created a box-joint container to hold the blocks but this is definitely not required for this project to be complete . There are many excellent tutorials already available for creating simple wood boxes, and a cloth drawstring bag would be equally up for the job of keeping the blocks together.