When the first laser engraving machines hit the market, one of the most impressive features was their ability to engrave directly into wood. This has not changed. Laser engraving into wood still provides results that will impress even the most particular customer.
When it comes to wood, the options for products, shapes, and wood choices are almost endless. Some people will fabricate their own wooden products, while others will buy finished products to laser. When choosing wooden products for laser engraving, there are several things to keep in mind.
Some woods will laser better than others. As a rule, harder woods tend to hold up better.Soft woods will tend to burn inconsistently, and also dent and scratch easily while handling.
One popular hardwood choice is ash, which is hard and strong and used for plaques, bases, and bats. Maple is also a good choice, providing attractive grain patterns and a nice light color. It is a popular choice for plaques and cutting boards. Oak is also a popular choice for laser engraving due to its strength and color. Oak is widely used for plaques and desk accessories. Poplar tends to be a little softer, but is often used for trophy bases and lower end items. Walnut is another very popular choice, and may be the most common wood seen in plaques and desk accessories. It is a darker wood, but it is also very strong. Cherry is another favorite, and provides a nice high end look for executive items. Ebony and mahogany are also used. They are dark and strong, and also provide some attractive results when lasered. In addition to those listed, there are a variety of exotic woods which provide some interesting alternatives. This includes paduk, which is a reddish colored wood, purple heart, a purplish wood, zebrawood, which is light and dark striped, and cocabola, a dark rich wood.
When choosing a wood for laser engraving, you will want to pick items with a consistent grain pattern and density. You will want wood that has been finished, as unfinished wood tends to laser inconsistently. Also, make sure that the wood has been finished with products that are compatible with laser engraving. This includes sealers that are used to protect the wood, stains which darken, bleaches which lighten, and glues that are used. The best advice may be to stick to items that are sold as being "laser engraved quality".
Keep in mind, too, that what gives laser engraving its "look" is the contrast between the engraved and unengraved areas. Woods that are dark may lose some of that contrast.
However, one can highlight the engraved area with a variety of darkening agents to enhance the contrast. Just use caution. Some woods will absorb the darkening agent unevenly, so you will want to make sure that you test the wood first.
In addition, wood, because it is a natural product, will also have inconsistencies that are unavoidable. This is more of a concern for multiple-piece orders than one-piece runs.
When picking the wood, you will also want to factor in cost, availability, and wear ability.
In addition to wood choices, there are also an endless array of product choices that are made from wood. If you will be lasering, make sure that the item / s) that you pick are compatible with the laser engraving equipment that will be used. Different systems have varying size and weight restrictions. Awkward-shaped items may also be a concern. Some systems come equipped with a rotary device for engraving on curved surfaces, while others do not.
The most popular wooden product that is lasered may well be plaques. Plaques come in such a wide variety of sizes, shapes, and options that there is literally something for everyone.
Common sizes tend to be 4" x 6", 5" x 7", 8" x 10", and 9" x 12". Many wood shops will offer these and/or others as stock options. Common shapes include shields, state shapes, and geometric shapes. They also come in a shadow-box design, or with a display window that holds photos, certificates, etc. Some are routed or lasered out to hold coins or medallions.
Most plaques come with hangar holes, both vertical and horizontal already drilled into them.
Some come with an easel back mount for a stand-up display. Others will come with two boards hinged together to allow for a freestanding item. They also come with a variety of edges, including beveled, easel or rounded, and standard cove. Sometimes, the edges are notched in the corners for a different look altogether.
Perpetual plaques are designed to allow for new names to be added as time goes on. Usually, plates are used for the names. However, the area for the plate is oftentimes lasered.
Perpetual plaques are used widely for donor boards and recognition programs.
In addition to plaques, there are also a variety of bases, boxes, clocks, executive desk items, bats, hockey sticks, furniture, gavels, urns, cutting boards, games, and puzzles that are widely available and routinely laser engraved.
As a rule, there is no difference between the art used to laser engrave on wood or other materials. However, there are a few things to be aware of when working with wood as it pertains to the art.
Due to the inconsistencies and variations that occur with wood, you might want to avoid lasering borders that are near the edge of the piece. This is particularly true with multiple-piece orders.
Detailed art does tend to show up particularly well on wood so don't be afraid to use it.
The only time you will want to avoid fine art is if you are planning on color filling afterwards.
Once you have the piece picked out and the art ready, it's time to engrave. As with anything, you will want to follow OEM instructions when running the laser. However, as a general rule, the harder the wood, the higher you will want the laser power. For extra deep engraving, extra passes may be required.
FINISHING THE JOB
Finishing a lasered piece of wood can be as easy as wiping off the piece and handing it to your customer. There are, however, other options to finishing the piece.
Finishing a piece always starts with the planning. Planning and laying out the entire piece ahead of time allows you to develop the necessary processes in the most logical, cost-effective manner possible. Running a spec sample will also help in avoiding problems later on.
Popular methods to finishing wood that has been lasered include adding vinyl or Mylar overlays, color filling, screen printing (before or after lasering), and the assembly of coins, photos, certificates, figurines, etc.
Adding vinyl or Mylar overlays involves applying the overlay material with a premask tape on top. This is done prior to lasering. After lasering, the premask is removed, leaving just
the color to show through. Such products come in a wide range of colors including classy gold's and silvers. These can be bought in sheets and cut to size or purchased in ready-made form.
Color filling involves applying paint into the engraved areas. There are a variety of methods and paints used for color filling depending on required drying time, desired effect, material to be color filled, availability of color, and ease of application. For color filling on wood, try enamels. They apply easily and wear well, providing a shiny finish. They do, however, require a longer drying time. Other choices include model paints, lacquers, and house paint.
Paints can be applied by brush, spray, or through the use of a special tool called a paint applicator. In addition, for quick and easy cleanups, mask the piece prior to engraving. After engraving, apply the paint and remove the mask. Any spills or mistakes will come off with the masking. If necessary, excess paint can be removed using a paint thinner or similar product.
With woods, you will want to make sure that the wood is sealed properly, so the paint will not be absorbed into the wood. You will also want to engrave at least .010" deep to effectively hold the paint. Fine or highly detailed art is usually avoided when color filling.
Screen printing on wood is another method of adding color to wood. Laser engravers have discovered that combining screening and lasering can produce some highly creative andunique looks. Screen printing can be done prior to lasering or afterwards, depending on the look for which one is looking. Some shops provide screening in-house while others job it out.
Basically, screen printing is accomplished by creating a special screen of the desired image. Paint is then applied through the screen, and onto the desired product. This works with one or more colors, and is best used for large orders, where uniformity of parts is important. For smaller quantities, screen printing can be cost prohibitive.
If there is assembly to be done, now, after lasering and color applications, is the time.
Common attachments include photos, certificates, plates, figurines, medals, coins, and medallions. The basic rule to assembly is to use what works. Factoring in what the product is and what it will be used for are all important considerations. Screws, glues and tape are all alternatives. Make sure you use products that are compatible with wood and strong enough to hold. Nothing can be more embarrassing than having a product fall apart after the customer receives it. Sometimes, lasering the area out ahead of time helps to hold a product in place. This works well for coins, medals, plates, etc. If the method of attachment will show, use an attractive method of attachment (such as decorative screws). You will also want to make sure that whatever method you use, that pieces are attached straight.
The final step in finishing is to package it. Make it pretty by taking advantage of today's wide range of gift boxes, bags, wrapping papers, etc.
It is clear that whatever the future holds for laser engraving, wood will remain one of the premier materials. Due to its beauty, wear ability, availability, and wide range of choices, it truly is a winning combination!
By Diane Bosworth