Good Files Make the Magic Happen - Outlining Text in Illustrator

Outlining your text is an important step in preparing your file for laser cutting! This is what creates vector paths around the text, what allows the text to be easily scaled, and the best way to ensure your font is included in your file.

Outlining text in Illustrator is actually pretty easy! To begin, you’ll want to create a new document (or work in an existing one). If you are new to creating an artboard in Illustrator, you can read more about it here.

Next, you’ll want to create a text box. You’ll select the type tool (your workspace might look a little different than mine, but the tool will look the same), it’s just the T button. Once you select the type, you can drag your mouse on your workspace to great a text box.

How to add text to an adobe illustrator file using the text tool
How to create a text box to prepare your file for laser cutting.

Once you have your text box, add your text. If you’d like to change the typeface, you can either open the type window or use the type menu. To open the type window, select the window - type - character, and you’ll get the type tool bar. Otherwise you can access the same tools under type - font OR type - size. I prefer to have the type window open, as it’s easier to change things quickly.

How to open the type window in Adobe Illustrator
How to change type face and type size in Adobe Illustrator

At this point, you want to ensure you have the correct text and type face, the size isn’t really important. The text can always be scaled after you’ve created outlines. I SAVE MY FILE NOW! Making edits to the copy in outlined text isn’t easy, you pretty much have to add the text and outline again. Most of the time, this isn’t a big deal if it’s just a name or simple text, but it can be a hassle if you have a lot of copy.

Now you’re ready to outline. You’ll want to make sure you have the text box selected, so you’ll want to switch back to the black arrow by selecting that from the toolbar. Then go to type - create outlines. You’ll notice blue outlines that go around the every part of your text - these are the vector lines.

How to outline text in Adobe Illustrator
Outlined Text in Adobe Illustrator - How to, Tutorial for Laser Cutting

Next, you’ll save the file under a new name (to ensure that you don’t save over the file with the unedited text). This is the file that you’d send to us for laser cutting - it allows us to have the vector paths for the font. Also, if you have a font that we don’t have, this will still allow us to see the font.

Pew Pew! The Basic Components of a Laser Cutter

You know how in Star Wars, the Death Star shoots like a beam to destroy stuff, or how Superman can melt things with his heat vision? That’s basically how our laser cutters work! At least that’s how it operates in the abstract anyways. The realities are a bit...less dramatic, but it’s equally as spectacular! Let’s go through basics of how a laser cutter functions! To start, here are the essential components:

  • laser tube

  • mirrors

  • head assembly

  • motors

  • rails

These parts can be further subdivided into two groups: the mechanical and laser systems

 
Main Laser Cutting Components and Parts Diagram - Mirror, Head Assembly, Laser Tube
 

LASER SYSTEM:

  • laser tube

  • mirrors

  • head assembly

 
Laser Cutting Mechanical Motion Components and Diagram - Motor and Linear Rail, How do Laser Cutters Work
 

MECHANICAL:

  • rails

  • motors

The laser system is responsible for cutting the material. The tube makes a heated beam much like a flashlight. The beam is bounced around the mirrors to reach the head assembly. The assembly then passes the light through a focus lense to cut the material.

The mechanical systems are responsible for moving the laser system around. There are two motors which drive the lasers in the horizontal and vertical directions over the span of the work area (or the laser cutting bed). There are also two additional motors responsible for raising and lowering the work area to make sure the laser is focused.

How does a laser cutter work, laser cutting component diagram - laser tube, mirrors, motor and lens to focus laser cutting beam.

We import our digital files (created in CAD programs, like Illustrator, Sketchup, etc.) into our laser cutting program. Once we have the file in the program, we change the settings depending on what we’re cutting/engraving. Then the program is responsible for translating an image to be cut or engraved into a series of instructions for the laser system and mechanical system: “Go here and then go here; fire the laser now and now stop firing” These two systems then work in concert to give us the desired result.

There you have it…the basics of how a laser cutting machine works. The next time you see Superman or the Death Star on the big screen, we hope you think of us!

Tiny Text - Sizing Text for Engraving

Sometimes when designing things digitally, it’s easy to forget that we might be designing things that are really tiny. We can easily zoom in and out while working in CAD programs and suddenly we’re making something that is 2mm by 2mm.

The design component that most often gets too small is text! We typically recommend that the smallest that you go with most text is 12pt font. Anything smaller than this becomes tricky to read once engraved. To make things a little more visual, we’ve engraved a few samples on bamboo plywood, clear acrylic and birch plywood.

Laser Cut Text on Bamboo Plywood
Laser Cut Clear Acrylic Engraving
Laser Cut Birch Plywood engraved or etched with Text

You can see that small text size becomes illegible when working too small and sometimes the engrave can become inconsistent.

If you’ve already outlined your text (one of the things you do to prepare your file for laser cutting…don’t worry, we’re doing a tutorial on this soon), you might be unsure of what size your font is. Typically you don’t want the font to be any smaller than .08 - .11” in height.


If you have any questions about text size, feel free to send us an email!

Good Files Make the Magic Happen - Illustrator Artboards

Illustrator is a vector based drawing program that can be used to create vector paths for laser cutting. Many of our clients use Illustrator because it’s one of the easiest programs to use, especially for your beginners!

Illustrator artboards are the background in which you create your design on. It’s kind of like a canvas for a painter…you can make it a variety of sizes and have more than 1 for your artwork.

To create an artboard, open Illustrator and select File - New. A New Document menu will pop up. This is where you can select all of the details for the artboard, like the size, orientation, and the quantity.

I always start off by naming my file. Once you’ve named your file, you can select the number of artboards you’d like. If you’d like more than 1, the greyed out menu options will pop up and you’ll be able to change more info about the artboard.

Laser Cutting File Prep Tutorial for Adobe Illustrator.

I typically like to have more than 1 artboard if I’m working on a piece that has a front and back side or if I’m working on several pieces that are very similar. For example, a menu that has a front and back or a set of coasters that will vary in design. Once you’ve titled your piece, you can select the profile, these include options for if you’re using the final piece for the web, print, etc. I normally stick with custom.

Artboard tutorial for Illustrator for Laser Cut Co in Houston.

The following steps will determine the number, the spacing, the layout and the size of your art boards. If you select more than 1 artboard, the greyed out menu area will become active and you can select the layout of these using the 5 boxes next to the number of art boards. Depending on what you’re making, you might want a column of artboards vs. a row of artboards - this is pretty much just personal preference.

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The next option you have is spacing. I typically like my artboards to be spaced .5” away from each other, but again, this is just personal preference.

The next option is the size. You can select from a number of presets or you can leave it on custom and set your own. The units box on the right hand side of the screen will allow you to change to a variety of units including inches, centimeters, pixels, points, etc.

I typically work in inches or centimeters because we’re making physical objects, so it’s nice to be able to work directly in the size that we’ll be cutting in.

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There is also an option to change the orientation - both vertical and horizontal. Once this is set, click OK and your art boards will appear!

If you want to add or delete an artboard once you’ve started designing, you can use the artboards tool to do so.

Illustrator Artboard for laser cutting file prep.

Once you select this, your layout will change slightly and an artboard tool bar will appear at the top of your workspace. If you select the little page with a corner flipped, this will allow you to add a new artboard. This artboard can be placed anywhere on your grey workspace.

Adobe Illustrator Artboard Tutorial for Laser Cutting.

When you’re finished with your design, you can also choose if you’d like to save all artboards or only selected ones. If you select File - Save - OK, you’ll get to a second save menu. Under Options, you’ll see a checkbox to save each artboard as a separate file, or to just a save a range of art boards.

How to save selected dartboards in Adobe Illustrator

To Mask or Not To Mask

We love mask in our shop! Masking material provides a protective layer on the surface of material during cutting and engraving that helps prevent burn marks. Masking paper is pretty comparable to masking tape. We use a low tack paper mask that can be easily removed and doesn’t leave a tacky residue.

We use 24” mask that’s on a roll, which allows us to mask large surfaces fairly quickly. When we’re putting on the mask, we attempt to avoid having creases or air bubbles underneath the mask, as this can allow for burn marks. We use a rubber squeegee to press the mask firmly all over the surface. We typically mask wood, leather, mat board, and paper.

700A1897.jpg

When we purchase acrylic, it arrives with a protective mask already on it. Sometimes it’s a paper mask and sometimes it’s a thin plastic mask. We typically try to get acrylic with the paper mask, as it’s much easier to remove.

Laser Cut Acrylic with arch pattern
Laser Cut Acrylic Pattern with Mask Being Removed.

If material is left un-masked during cutting/engraving, there will be small burn marks around these areas. Sometime this is a wanted aesthetic, but most of the time, this halo effect is unwanted.

Sometimes there are small areas where the mask wasn’t fully pressed down against the surface and there are slight burn marks in these areas. To solve this issue with wood, we’re able to gently sand the area down. To solve this issue with mat board, we’re able to clean the surface with a barely damp paper towel. For other materials, like acrylic, leather, or paper, there’s not a good way to reverse the burned effect.

When you’re placing an order, we will confirm with you if we’ll remove the mask or if we will deliver your pieces with the mask on. For most acrylic pieces, we will deliver the pieces with the mask on to help protect the surfaces until you’re ready to install or use the piece. This is especially important with mirrored pieces, as the mirrored acrylic easily picks up finger prints. Also, some materials can be pretty time consuming to de-mask. If your pieces have a complex engraved design, it might take a few minutes to de-mask per piece. For complex pieces, we’ll give you an estimate that includes cost if we remove the mask or if we deliver the pieces with the mask on.

Laser Cut Pieces of Material - MDF, Bamboo Plywood, Birch Plywood and Leather with protective masking

The Basics: Engraving

THE BASICS: ENGRAVING

It’s clear by our name that we can cut things, but we can engrave too! Our machines can actually engrave more materials than they can cut. We can’t cut metal, slate, or glass, but we can engrave them. (We can engrave any materials we can cut - wood, acrylic, leather, mat board + more!)

When the machine is engraving, the laser head is actually scanning back and forth across the entire surface of the piece at a very small (.00394”) interval. If you look closely at an area that has been laser engraved you’ll see faint lines that run along the engraved surface. The laser only powers on for the areas that it’s engraving.

Machine time is typically much higher for engraved pieces verses scored or cut pieces. This is because when the machine is scoring/cutting, the laser head just follows the score/cut paths directly, instead of scanning back and forth across the entire piece. With some pieces, we might recommend having score lines instead of engraving, especially if you’re working on a budget.

LEFT PIECE IS SCORED AND CUT IN 2:30 SECONDS, RIGHT PIECE IS ENGRAVED AND CUT IN 9:30 SECONDS.

LEFT PIECE IS SCORED AND CUT IN 2:30 SECONDS, RIGHT PIECE IS ENGRAVED AND CUT IN 9:30 SECONDS.

Engraving color varies based on the material. Wood engraves a darker brown color, but sometimes will have variations based on the wood grain. Colored acrylic typically engraves to be white or a lighter version of the original color. For example, opaque blue acrylic engraves to be light blue and black acrylic engraves light grey or off-white.

To learn more about what materials we can cut/engrave, visit our materials guide here

CutPieces copy.jpg

Good Files Make The Magic Happen! - Vector and Raster Files

We get it…if you’re not making digital files often, it can be pretty confusing! Over the next couple months, we’ll be releasing a series of blog posts with tips and tricks on how to create and submit your own files for laser cutting.

Laser cutting begins with a file…it’s pretty much a map that tells the laser where to go! We need vector files that we can import into our laser software for cutting.

The laser can make a few different types of marks. It can cut all the way through, it can score (this is similar to a cut, but at a lower power so it doesn’t cut all the way through) and engrave material.

Cutting and scoring take much less time than engraving because the laser is just following paths. Engraving on the other hand, is a little more time consuming because the machine scans back and forth over the design at a lower power.

In vector files, the image is made up of points connected by lines. Vector files include .ai, .eps, .svg, and sometimes .pdf files (depending on how they were first created). Vector files allow us to scale the file without losing the integrity of a file and also us to edit the file. Vector files give us the direct paths that the laser needs to cut or engrave on.

Raster files are made up of pixels and can lose their integrity when resizing. Raster files include .jpg, .gif, .png, and .tif. Raster images don’t give us paths, instead they are just a flat image. They don’t contain paths that can be edited or adjusted.

In most situations, we want to have a vector file. Vector files allow for clean cut lines, scaling, and editing. However, in some situations we can use a raster file. If we’re engraving a logo on something small, we can likely use a high res. jpg to do this. We can also use a raster file if you want an photo (like a family portrait) engraved on material.

If you’ve worked with a graphic designer to create your files, they might have given you a folder containing several types of files - if you’re not sure what to send, send us the entire folder! We can help.

VECTOR RASTER

Have questions about how to create your file? Visit our design resources page or send us an email!