There’s a terrific way to personalize all kinds of workshop project items, and hardly anyone knows about it. You can add names, numbers and even images on anything made of wood, masonry, metal, plastics and Corian. It also doesn’t cost very much.
The technique is called laser engraving, and I’ve used it often enough to recommend it with complete confidence. Anything that can be photographed or created on a computer screen can be transferred to various materials with stunning resolution via a laser system. You’ll find custom laser engraving offered by large trophy and award manufacturers, so check the Yellow Pages for businesses in your area.
Think of laser engraving as precise, computer-controlled woodwork burning art, and you’ll get the idea. Visual depth, shadow and contrast are all created as power to the laser beam varies during use. In work I’ve had done, the depth of surface texture changes by about 1/32-inch from dark areas to light ones. Here’s the process of making it happen as part of your projects:
- Select an image or create a design; hi-resolution digital photos are best; any computer-ready design or lettering can be rendered with a laser.
- Contact a laser contractor and discuss your intentions; costs for engraving in wood range between 70 to 90 cents per square inch of lasered area, plus $15 to $25 setup fee; lasers are often limited in the size of material they can handle, so ask about details.
- Deliver computer files or visual items to your laser contractor; the more digital preparation you do ahead of time, the cheaper the job will be; email transmission is ideal.
It’s easier to find a laser operator who can do lettering than photographs. Applying successful laser images depends on experience and subtle skill, especially when working with the vagaries of wood. Pine, spruce and most coniferous woods laser poorly because of high resin content; open-grained woods like oak and ash yield poor detail because of their open pores. Western red alder and basswood are two species that accept images very well. Their fine grain and consistency yield crisp detail and shading. Banak, walnut and red cedar also accept excellent lettering because they develop a very black surface under the laser.
I’ve had laser letters applied to parts for a music stand I built, an outdoor sign made of Corian, and even the lid of my own simple white pine casket I completed a few months ago. In all these cases I called a laser engraver hundreds of miles away and we worked out details of specific lettering. The design was applied to materials at his end, then shipped to me early in the construction process before the lasered material was woven into the project involved. You don’t even need a computer to get in on the act. We proofed layouts and lettering style by fax.
With its fine surface detail, sealing laser engravings attractively isn’t as simple as you might think. It’s easy to clog details of the images, making them seem muddy and lifeless. The same risk applies to lettering. I’ve had good luck sealing surfaces with several layers of wipe-on polyurethane or tung oil. Light coats of spray-applied gloss urethane, put on the wood before it passes through the laser, is another excellent option.
When you count all the costs of building your own furniture, it probably doesn’t make much sense to pursue the craft because it saves money. A more enduring reason is the opportunity to create something that lasts and has personal meaning. Laser engraving is a high-tech way to add old-fashion charm to anything that comes out of your workshop. Remember it the next time you’re working on something really special.