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Shop Talk: Laser Learning Curve

Each day brings a new way to use a laser engraver

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Since being in the sign making business can include just about anything and everything-from working with wood, metal and plastic to multiple forms of printing and engraving, in 2D or even 3D-there is never an end to buying tools and equipment. Being in the business for more than 40 years certainly does not mean we have everything we want, or even need, and our wish list always has something on it.

But this past year, without having a real game plan as to how we would put it to work, I decided to take the plunge and buy one big-ticket item I had been looking at for years but had not yet purchased: a laser engraver/cutter.

And it really is an engraver/cutter, because with enough wattage a laser engraver certainly can do highly precise cutting on a variety of materials, and engrave a wide range of engraving media as well as a whole host of standard materials that have the potential to be laser engraved.

We are still finding our way into the laser engraving/cutting business, but before I decide to slow down a bit and let the shop run without me at least some of the time, the time was right to get this new toy on the road to being paid for so it can be a valuable asset to our commercial sign business, whether I am present each day or not. And, over the years I have proved this several times: if I wait until I am forced to buy a piece of equipment and until I know exactly how I intend to use it, I have waited several years too long already.

Of course, with any significant equipment purchase, the last thing we ever want to do is spend real money on a machine only to find that we did not get the size, capacity or power we really needed. Our unit, made by Trotec, is a 120-watt machine and has a usable area of 24″ x 39″, so the power and table size will accommodate just about any type of laser work we will need to do, which was certainly our intention when we became serious about buying a laser.

For a beginning user, a modern laser engraver/cutter is not a really difficult thing to learn, but one surprise I had was how much exhaust ducting is really needed to keep the ventilation where it needs to be. When setting up a laser, having the required amount of vented air flow, or even more, is a very important factor.

We bought a vent fan unit with plenty of horsepower, and mounted it outdoors on the other side of an exterior wall, and had it wired to a switch right beside the unit. Since virtually all materials, when laser engraved and especially laser cut, emit considerable fumes or smoke, having a very capable exhaust system is a first priority, and it is critically important for the safety and health of our employees, and even the health and care of the machine itself.

At our commercial sign shop, we digitally print, screen print, make vinyl graphics, do rotary engraving and have access to a CNC router and a waterjet, so there is a lot of ways we can mark, print or cut something. Our laser fills a gap, but it is a gap we are still exploring.

Interestingly, some of the things we’ve found to do with it are not typical sign products, but this is to be expected with a laser engraver/cutter. Several of the photos here show a very small portion of the atypical uses one can find to do with this type of equipment.

From team sport zipper pulls given out as gifts at Christmas, to clear Plexiglass “makeup pallets” used by photographers and makeup artists, to stencils cut with extreme precision and intricate detail not possible by any other means, what can be done with a modern laser unit is mostly limited by the user’s imagination.

Of course, cutting acrylic plastic letters and logos from sheet stock up to ½” thick is easy work for a laser with enough wattage, but it will also cut the install templates simply and cheaply in poster board stock or similar paper material … and fast. Though a unit that is less than 4′ wide will not make large install templates, they can easily be done in sections and taped together to make just about any size required.

A somewhat creative project we did for a local school featured quite a bit of laser cut acrylic elements, and is shown in the accompanying photos. Producing the main graphic elements, in black .25″ acrylic, beautifully cut with flame polished edges, was the simplest part of this custom sign project.

Even though there is a variety of engraving stock manufactured for both laser and rotary machines, and a lot of it works with both types of engravers; there are sign shop materials that are not engraving media but can still be engraved.

Recently we did an order for a manufacturer of deer feeders and hunting stands, and laser engraved 1,000 metal tags in pre-finished brown and green aluminum sheet. Nothing beats the detail of laser engraving and the permanence of the marking, or even the low cost for us to produce them.

Tags of various kinds for manufacturers are a big part of our intended use for our laser-that much we know. But what we don’t know, but are finding out day by day, is how many other uses and can find for it, and how it will fill that void in our capabilities and help us run a more efficient and more profitable sign business.

One thing is for sure, it’s going to be interesting to work through this learning curve and explore our little corner of the world of laser engraving and laser cutting. These days, signmakers get to play with some pretty cool toys, and that’s OK by me. 

Rick Williams

Rick Williams owns Rick's Sign Company, a commercial sign shop in Longview, Texas. He has been in the sign industry since 1973 and has been a contributing editor to Sign Business, Sign & Digital Graphics, and GRAPHICS PRO since 1986. Contact Rick via email at [email protected]

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