Zero to Maker: Crash Course in Laser Cutting

Over the next month-plus, David Lang, something of a reluctant maker, is immersing himself in maker culture and learning as many DIY skills as he can, through a generous arrangement with our pals at TechShop. He’ll be regularly chronicling his efforts in this column — what he’s learning, who he’s meeting, and what hurdles he’s clearing (um… or not). –Gareth

“And that’s just the beginning, there are all types of materials that work with the laser cutter. In addition to cardboard and paper, you can etch glass, cut acrylic, and engrave leather. You can even laser etch onto a chocolate bar.” Said Zack, my TechShop Dream Coach who has been guiding me on my Zero to Maker journey. He was also today’s Laser Cutting SBU substitute teacher.

“Wait a second… Chocolate, seriously?” I asked in disbelief. “Doesn’t the laser melt it?”
“Nope, it works great. I used the laser cutter to engrave a picture and a poem on a chocolate bar last year for Valentine’s Day. My girlfriend assumed I had organized a custom mold at the Ghirardelli factory, but it was only five minutes of laser cutting time after work one day.” Zack continued, “I actually have a bar of chocolate in the freezer, we can try it out right now.”
Next thing you know, everyone in the course was eating a piece of chocolate they had just had their name laser cut into it.

One of my main assumptions starting out on this journey was that I wouldn’t be able to make anything cool right away. I thought I’d be exposed to different tools and processes, but it would take years of practice and mistakes before I could do anything useful. Well, I’m happy to report that the Laser Cutter course at TechShop totally blew that assumption out of the water.

It started off just how you would expect: basic safety information and an overview of the machine (on/off, cleaning the lens, orientation, etc.) but Zack quickly let us loose to try both raster cutting (used for engraving/etching) and vector cutting (used for clean cuts through material) for ourselves. It was such an easy process to learn, I was a little embarrassed that I hadn’t attempted it sooner. I think I harbored a bizarre fear that I needed CAD experience or some other technical background, which is not the case at all. The machine runs off Adobe Illustrator or Corel Draw. It’s as easy as typing, drawing or uploading an image you want to use, and sending a print job (with a few settings tweaks) to the laser cutter.

Aside from the general ease of use, I was surprised at how many ideas for using the laser cutter were pouring into my head. I could use it to personalize my wallet, create a mold for a ceramics project I was envisioning, or repeat Zack’s chocolate idea with my girlfriend. The laser cutter experience was also valuable for the OpenROV project. Eric Stackpole, the OpenROV creator, had recently redesigned the frame of the ROV to be cut from a single sheet (24 inch x 18 inch) of 1/4 inch-thick acrylic. After a quick heat bend of the main section, the rest of the pieces snap into place without the need for any adhesives. Using the single sheet (opposed to multiple parts, connected with adhesives) cuts the cost of the ROV dramatically – a main goal of the project – and makes it fast and easy to reproduce.

If you want to learn the skills yourself, the 2-hour Laser Cutter SBU course at TechShop costs $60 and will have you well on your way to bringing your own laser cutting creations to life. Even if you’re not quite sure how you’ll use the tool, it’s a great experience and I’m sure you’ll be full of ideas once you realize what the machine is capable of.

Also of note, the team at Nortd Labs is working to develop an open-source laser cutter called Lasersaur. Who knows, the laser cutter may turn out to be a household item someday soon. Might as well figure out how to use it now!

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18 thoughts on “Zero to Maker: Crash Course in Laser Cutting

  1. Just found out today that local tech school owns laser cutter. Will see If I can somehow get access to it if I use my own materials…

  2. Having Make follow this ‘zero to maker’ experience is like forcing children to watch some other kid gorge himself at an all-you-can-eat candy buffet.

  3. Having Make follow this ‘zero to maker’ experience is like forcing children to watch some other kid gorge himself at an all-you-can-eat candy buffet.

  4. If you feel up to the challenge you can even make your own laser cutter. Here are a few links that might be helpful.   An article I wrote about building a laser cutter:, a project log I started about upgrading an old laser to today’s standards .,  and last a website for DIY laser builders Hope you find these helpful

    Bill Griggs

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Co-Founder of OpenROV, a community of DIY ocean explorers and makers of low-cost underwater robots. Author of Zero to Maker. And on Twitter!

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