Lucy from Lewis and Hickey Architects in Edinburgh had a wall graphic project at their office. She got in touch to ask if I could laser cut some shapes for her from 12mm plywood or mdf. It was Monday, and she needed them to arrive at her office on Thursday!
How thick can the laser cut?
I gave Lucy a call to discuss exactly what she wanted and what compromises she might be prepared to make as the maximum thickness of laser ply and mdf I can cut is 9mm. We discussed the possibilities of creating two layers of 6mm thick ply to give 12mm, but she thought gluing would add too much time and the join would be easily seen.
Lucy also asked what the cut edges of laser ply and mdf would look like. As luck would have it, I had just published how do the edges of laser cut wood look that very morning. I talked Lucy through edge cut appearances of plywood and mdf. She asked about how clean the facing surfaces would be too. She’s seen images of face discolouration of laser cut wood. I assured her that my work would be clean and any slight discolouration could be sanded off easily.
Having seen my photos of cut mdf and laser ply, Lucy decided that 9mm laser ply would give the look she was after.
Wall graphic artwork
Lucy was happy with my quote. On Tuesday afternoon, she sent through final artwork with some changes to add an extra L&H door sign shown at the top of the page.
I selected a sheet of 9mm mdf that was knot free on one side and cut the shapes and letters. As I’d explained to Lucy, the edges of 9mm laser ply are very dark and quite dirty. If you run a finger over them, it comes away black. So after I’d cut the shapes and letters, I cleaned the edges as best I could. Then I packed them in layers of paper to keep them clean in transit.
The complete wall graphic
All the pieces arrived on Thursday as planned, and the finished piece is mounted on the wall next to the door of Lewis & Hickey’s conference room. It looks very smart in its spotlight.
Last summer, Jill Philips opened Milly’s Kitchen, a new cafe in Cupar. She asked me if I could engrave a couple of oak signs for her with the cafe’s logo.
Jill sent me marketing files with Milly’s Kitchen logos. She had asked for the signs to be rectangular with the larger one at 880 x 600mm and the smaller one at 650 x 570mm to fit the mounting brackets she would be using.
Jill told me how large she wanted the logo to be on each one and I prepared proofs for her to approve, showing the text areas to be engraved and the surrounding area of the wood left unengraved. We agreed that raster (fill in) engraving of the text would work best and be clearest to read.
As Jill knows Frazer Reid from FAR Cabinet Makers, she commisssioned him to make both of the oak signs. They were designed to hang from brackets on the walls outside the cafe, so she wanted them to be engraved on both sides so they could be viewed from two directions.
Double sided oak signs
When the oak pieces were ready, Jill collected them from Frazer and brought them to my workshop. I engraved each one with the same artwork on each side, and the video below shows the larger sign in process.
You can see that the areas around the engravings have a brown haze round them. This happens because the resins in the wood burn and it happens with solid wood, plywood and mdf too. It’s easily sanded off before varnishing.
Once they were ready, Jill picked them up for varnishing and installation outside Milly’s Kitchen. She was delighted with them and they looked even better after a couple of coats of varnish.
Karen Elwis of The Learning Cauldron became a friend through Fife Women in Business. She tutors students in English, German and French from her home. Recently, she asked if I could engrave a sign with her logo so that pupils would know where to come.
She had also been short listed as a finalist for the Perthshire Chamber of Commerce awards for 2018 and wanted the sign in place when the judges paid her a visit. This increased the urgency of the request considerably!
The Learning Cauldron logo
When Karen had her logo designed, she wanted it to look like as though it was written with chalk on a blackboard. The Learning Cauldron text is all white on a black background, except for the TLC letters which are all in chalk colours.
Laser engraving can’t be done in colour. The laser either engraves or doesn’t engrave, and the engraved surface of wood is a shade of brown. This is darker if the wood is darker and a higher power setting is used during engraving.
I suggested to Karen that there would be two ways of engraving her logo. It could be done so that the black square would be engraved and the letters unengraved. This would look closest to her logo. Otherwise, I could engrave the outline of the square which would be left engraved, and the text. This way, the logo would be recognisable with minimal engraving. Both options would look great depending on what she preferred.
What does engraved wood look like?
It was important that Karen knew what to expect. Most signs have small engraved areas like text. Karen’s logo was different to most that I’ve worked with as the engraved area would be much larger.
I showed Karen samples of how engraved oak would look. It’s such a beautiful wood with a lovely grain which would show through the engraving. Engraved areas would be slightly recessed into the wood, and growth rings of different densities would engrave to different depths. After engraving, varnish, stain or oil protect the wood, evening out and enhancing the engraved areas and improving the contrast between engraved and unengraved areas. You can see the difference it makes if you compare the picture above with the lead picture and video.
Karen was keen to have the sign looking as close to the logo as possible, so opted to have the square engraved. She asked Frazer Reid of FAR Cabinet Makers to make the oak sign. He dropped it off at my workshop and I got to work.
This piece of oak was less dense than some I’ve worked with, and the engraving had a nice depth to it. And the wood grain rippled like a wave across the surface and this was pronounced in the engraving, enhancing interest in the area. As there was so much engraving, a lot of dust was created as it is a burning process, so I gave the sign a good rub with an old sock and then gave it a hoover for good measure to remove as much as possible. Karen was delighted with it and decided to varnish it herself.
The challenge in this job arose unexpectedly as Karen finished her sign at home. While she was varnishing it, black specs from residual charred dust stuck to the brush and spread across the sign. It also contaminated the remainder of the pot of varnish I gave her from engraving my own house sign. Usually when engraved areas are small, the brush doesn’t contact the bottom of engravings and this problem doesn’t arise. In this case, a quarter to a third of the sign surface was engraved and it was a problem that I hadn’t even thought of. I learned something new that day!
Karen rang me up and we chatted over how we could sort it out. She removed the affected varnish from the sign using solvent and sanding as she thought best. Once all of the engraved areas had one complete coat of varnish, it was sealed.
A splash of colour
Karen wanted her sign to look as close to her logo as possible, and enlisted her friend Claire Brownbridge’s expertise. She mixed some acrylic paint to match the chalk colours in the logo and painted the T, L and C. Varnishing the sign first made it easier to remove stray paint from unwanted areas. Then Karen completed the final coat with a clean brush and a new pot of varnish.
Karen’s sign is now proudly mounted outside her door for judges and pupils to admire!
Sergeant Gordon Fullerton recruits medical personnel for 152 Medical Squadron based in Glenrothes.
He contacted me because the troops were refurbishing their mess area. They wanted their cap badges engraved on four oak cask ends to hang on the wall and wondered if I could help.
Cap badge detail
Gordon sent me artwork for the four cap badges for the Medical (RAMC), Nursing (QARANC), Logistics (RLC) and Staff and Personnel Support (SPS) corps. They were all very intricate with lots of detail, particularly on the crowns and the snake on the RAMC badge.
Gordon wanted them all engraved at 250 x 250mm. As all the badges were different widths, we decided to make them all 250mm high to keep them the same size as all the cask ends would be displayed together.
Gordon had found four different looking cask ends that he wanted to have engraved. You can see the cask end in the video has very irregular wooden boards. As the troops wanted the tops of the barrel staves to be part of the cask ends so it would look as if barrels were sticking out of the walls, Gordon used metal hoops to hold the stave ends securely in place.
Engraving the cask ends
Gordon wanted the boards of the cask ends to be vertical, and he’d allocated one end of each as the top for hanging. Once I positioned the cask ends in the laser in the right orientation, I found the central points and lined up the laser with them. This made sure the engravings would be centrally located. Then I started engraving.
I used my highest power setting to get as dark engraves as possible. We wanted the engravings to show up as well as possible against the oak. All the detail came out very well. The engraving looks a bit fuzzy on the video as lots of dust is created when engraving wood. It dusted off easily after production.
Gordon rubbed some Antique Oil over each cask end when it was finished. This brought out the richness of the wood and enhanced the engravings. He managed to install them in the mess before Remembrance Sunday so that the troops’ families would see them. I’m so please that the troops are delighted with them.
GSK Montrose was preparing to open their first vaccines facility in the UK. This new £44 million manufacturing site will provide ingredients for more than 400 million vaccinations a year worldwide.
A commemorative plaque was required for the opening ceremony. Dave Mackenzie got in touch to ask if I could engrave a brushed stainless steel sign in time for 15th August when they were expecting the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, to do the honours.
Proofs for sign
David sent over a couple of sign mock ups and a GSK logo. He wanted a plain font with the GSK logo in the top right corner. Unfortunately, the artwork was very pixellated and not of high enough resolution to deliver good engravings. To achieve the best results, I created the text in vector format, traced the orange GSK logo to turn it into a vector too and sent a proof to David for approval together with a quote.
David decided to supply the stainless steel plaques to get the size and thickness they wanted.
How to engrave a stainless steel sign
Once David had approved the artwork and the stainless steel plates arrived, I could get to work.
As the laser isn’t powerful enough to engrave stainless steel, I used Thermark, a metal marking paste. It’s a mixture of glass particles and black pigment. Once it’s been spread on the surface to be engraved, it needs to be allowed to dry. Then engraving can commence.
When the laser engraves the paste, it melts the glass and traps the black pigment onto the surface of the metal. This process forms a thin layer of black enamel on the surface of the metal that can just be felt with a fingernail. It’s weatherproof and highly scratch resistant, making it perfect for outdoor display. And the matt black mark gives good contrast against the metal.
When the engraving was complete, the sign was rinsed to remove traces of the leftover paste.
David was pleased with the sign that arrived with time to spare, and the sun shone for the big day!
Margaux Larg from The Crepe Shack contacted me because she wanted a new sign for her food truck. Like her friends at The Cheesy Toast Shack, she was taking her food van to the Edinburgh Festival and Margaux wanted a sign to show they sell drinks as well as crepes.
A long sign
Margaux wanted a long piece of oak that would span the width of the van’s serving hatch. I asked Margaux how long she wanted it to be as the laser bed is 1200 x 800mm. When she said 8” long, I asked whether she’d be happy to have it made in two parts so they would fit the machine. Initially, she said yes, but the more she thought about it, the more she knew that she really wanted it to be in one piece.
A bit of imagination
In the past, I have managed to set up the machine so that I can pass long things through the ‘letterboxes’ at the front and back of the laser. This works best if the items for engraving are up to 15mm thick, because I need vertical space to raise or lower the machine bed to maintain focus on the surface of the material. If I use the letterbox, I can’t lower the material as it’s sitting on the machine’s casing. If the material is thick, I can’t raise the bed much which makes it difficult to focus accurately.
When Margaux said that the oak was 15mm thick, I knew I could do it. Ben brought the oak round to the workshop and I got to work.
Splitting up the artwork
As the machine bed is 800mm wide, I checked the artwork from Hasta Inc to see how I could break it down neatly to engrave it in sections. The total engraved length was 2261mm with a logo at each end and five words in between. I worked out that I could engrave it in four sections – first, the left logo and ‘hot chocolate’, then ‘coffee tea’, then ‘soft drinks’, and finally ‘water’ and the logo on the right. It was going to be a fiddle and take longer than if it were done in two pieces, but it would be worth it.
Engraving in sections
First, I slid one end of the oak into the laser. I held it against the side of the machine so that I could change the position of the wood easily for the next engraving.
I deleted all the artwork except for the left logo and ‘hot chocolate’ and created a rectangle containing them. This included space from the end of the wood to the left edge of the logo for positioning. Then I set up the laser’s origin at the top right corner of the wood and started to engrave.
When the first section was finished (see picture above), I set up the second section of artwork. To get the right spacing between ‘chocolate’ and ‘coffee’, I created a rectangle that started from the edge of the last ‘e’ of ‘chocolate’ and ended at the right edge of ‘tea’. The artwork breakdown picture above shows this clearly. Before engraving, I moved the wood deeper into the machine so that it protruded through the back ‘letterbox’ and aligned the laser head with the last ‘e’ of ‘chocolate’. Then I engraved ‘coffee tea’.
Next, I had to remove the wood from the machine and turn it around, feeding the unengraved end into the machine. I continued to process the artwork as I did for the first two engravings. This time, I rotated the text and logos 180 degrees so that it wouldn’t appear upside down on the sign!
Margaux was delighted with her new sign. She posted a photo on Instagram when the van was set up in Edinburgh and tagged me in so I could see it. It’s such a lovely piece of oak and it looks beautiful in one piece.
The Crepe Shack is near the Gilded Balloon box office for the duration of the festival. Check it out if you’re in the area!