I recently got into laser cutting. I got into it because
- I found out my local university has a Fablab, a maker’s lab with an open source philosophy where everyone is welcome to work on their projects at material cost. They exist all over the world!
- I like pimping my favorite games!
I pretty much have zero experience in crafting or graphic design. So if I can do it, you can do it!
Your first job is to find a laser cutter you can use. I can’t help you there, but I imagine it’ll get easier and easier. If you can find a Fablab, you should, because it means tapping into a community of people that can help you get started. Keep in mind, though, that you will be expected to make your designs publically available there. Open source goes both ways, after all.
If you want to get a taste of what laser cutting can do, you might want to take a look at The Broken Token. These guys have a great range of laser cut game accessories. It’ll be a long time before I will be able to make anything that cool myself!
How to get started
Most Fablabs have great tutorials to get started, but basically you need to prepare your files for printing. A few things you need to pay attention to:
- You will usually print vector graphics, line images. But the actual printing in our fablab happens from PDF format. A free program like Inkscape will help you out here.
- Your PDF should be the same size as the plates you will be printing on
- A laser cutter will only print lines of the prescribed color(s), others will be engraved.
- You can only print on certain materials, our Fablab only allowed plexiglass and medium-density fibreboard (MDF)
Your first design
If you have a printer nearby, I recommend taking a ready to go design for a spin first. You’ll already have a few challenges ahead with getting the file lay-outed properly and getting the file to print, so there will be plenty of excitement along the way.
For your first project, I recommend making a box with Maker Case (though before you do, you may want to read my remarks below under ‘evaluate’). Maker Case is a great little web app that will generate plans for a box for you.
- Input all your box variables
- You can even have text engraved on it.
- You can also pick some badass joints: finger joints are wonderful for laser cut stuff because the design is so tight that they can snap together perfectly without any glue.
- Then generate your plans: de sure to put in the right color code and thickness for the lines.
- The app will give you an SVG (Scalable Vector Document) document. I think you should be able to take that to the printer, but I put mine in PDF format first with Inkscape.
Notice we haven’t done any drawing ourselves yet! If you’re as lazy as I am, that’s a huge bonus.
By now you should have a file that looks like this that you can take to the printer.
- Our FabLab is strictly first-come, first serve. So depending on the day, you may wait hours for your chance to print.
- People there will sell you materials (or strictly vet the materials you bring yourself. Cutting the wrong material means toxic fumes!)
- They will also help you navigate through the different print screens. I’m a techie and I found this plenty confusing so take the help!
Then it’s time to cut. It will look something like this.
(The video is of me printing out the logo of my university newspaper. Our graphics guy gave it to me in vector format, so I could just take it to the printer without any fuss)
- Did you see the fire in the last part of the video? It looks cool, but fire is bad. It can damage your material and leaves soot. You can twiddle with the settings to reduce fire but I don’t know how yet.
- Even without fire the laser will burn and leave marks on your material. You may find the soot stains charming (I do), you may not. I hear people sand them off.
- Your product will make you and your surroundings smell like a wood chipper for the rest of the day, so you may want to think twice about taking it back to work. My coworkers were not amused, at least!
Et voila, boxes! A few things went wrong with them. For one, the engraving on the Race for the Galaxy logo turned out far too blurry. I will probably need to clean up the gradient quite a bit for it to come out well.
For the other thing, the box fits so well that it’s hard to open when it’s all closed up! I had to file down the top lid to get it to open at all! With the top lid off, the box is far less solid and will need some glue to stick together.
Also, my measuring seems to have been off, because my sleeved cards don’t fit in the box!
So just like any maker, you take your designs back to the drawing board and readjust them. I find laser cutting is a lot like coding. You make your program/design the best you can and then hit compile/print and see what comes out. Then you start again.
Interesting free designs
The great thing about the open source movement of Fablab is that no one has to invent the wheel all over again. There’s a ton of game-related designs that people have made available online for free. Here’s some stuff I have my eye on.
- Collectible Card Game Deck Box
- Tiki dice tower
- Blank dice tower
- Another lasercut dice tower
- Optimized lid box for 7Wonders
- Laser cut jewelry box (look good for tokens)
Designs I’m working on
So what will I use my newly minted laser cutting powers on? Well, because the wait for the laser cutter can be long and my vacation days are limited, I am working on several projects at the same time. This way I can run them all through the printer in one session and then take back my results for refining.
A race for the Galaxy box & lid
Obviously the box up there is a sham unworthy of the best game in the world. Because we like to take our Race everywhere, I want a sturdy box and lid for it. Not unlike Broken Token’s Box for Humanity.
Love letter box & lid with silk binder
Another game I love to take everywhere. Here I would like to make a lid with holes in it, so I can loop a silk cord through it and fasten the box in a hopefully romantic looking way.
Castles of Mad King Ludwig
I’d love to make a box insert for Castles. The game itself is just an empty box without any inserts so there’s both room and neccessity!.