Dear laser cutting lover,
I am sharing with you my first experience with laser cutting. I enjoyed the process so much that I want to spread the benefit and joy of laser cutting with those who are interested. Before today, I was not aware of the laser cutting technology. Once I was introduced to it, I started thinking if it is available in my country of origin, Palestine, especially for local artists. The East is famed for its many forms of traditional craftsmanship, which incorporates highly detailed engraved and cut art-decorative pieces. This includes furniture making, called Arabesque. The old Arab house designs are highly decorative, with its architecture, doors, furniture, fountains, rugs, etc. The visitor there will be overwhelmed by thousands of variant handmade decorative items and souvenirs in the markets, as well as buildings and restaurant frons and interiors. Many of the newly built houses are also following in the footsteps. Knowing the importance of the engraving culture in the Middle East, I thought it would be good if laser cutting technology was available there, to help with the high demand on such items. After some research, I found out that laser cutting technology is widespread in the middle East. It is also incorporated in schools to familiarize the student with it as a fast alternative to handcraft.
The possibilities offered by the laser cutting technology as a new medium in industrial manufacturing as well as artistic production are unlimited. The design and process are easy and straightforward. Believe me, you will be surprised by the results and the things you can make using this technology. You can also laser cut and etch almost any material like wood, paper, cork, cardboard, aluminum, stainless steel, plastic, marble, stone, tile, and glass. Thus, you would be able to bring to life any concepts that you have in mind, and add to your tools of making and assist in your creative process.
I am going to show you a step by step tutorial on how to recreate my object or use it as an example to follow in creating your object. Since my object was done as an art project, and is specific to a particular theme I am working on for my MFA thesis, you do not want to recreate the exact design. However, you can follow the instructions to recreate something similar using Arabic calligraphy or Islamic design. You can create your very own traditional Middle Eastern object using Adobe Illustrator and a laser cutting machine. You can make any kind of object, in any size: a Lantern, Jewelry box, gift box or even an art project using any Middle Eastern, Islamic decorative art or Arabic calligraphy. You might like the results that you will decide to start your own business and sell such beautiful objects. I have provided here some design examples for your use.
Since artists in the Middle East and all around the world have access to laser cutting machines as an industrial production tool, I found no need to make a tutorial that addresses recreating my object without a laser cutting machine. That would not be of any help since hand crafts are widespread there anyway. Instead, I have decided to make tutorial to address anyone anywhere who is interested in producing objects or art installations with Islamic decorative art or Arabic calligraphy.
Here is a helpful website that has examples of Islamic patterns. This website shows you a step by step how to draw Islamic patterns.
If you cannot draw it, you can simply import your favourite image from the examples I have provided, or the stock inventory below into Adobe Illustrator, trace it, then prepare it for laser cutting.
If you are interested in becoming a professional in the field, here are some courses that are offered in various Arab and Islamic regions such as Istanbul, Cordoba, Dubai, Marrakesh, Cairo and others.
Tools you will need:
Baltic Birch Plywood. Any size desired depending on your project. I used 36”x24” and 18”x12” x 1/8” for my project.
Laser cutter machine
Hot glue gun
Gorilla glue or any wood glue will work
Lights, LED candles
1’’x3/4” door hinges
Where to do it in Toronto: I did my cutting at the Rapid Prototype Centre (RPC) at OcadU. I know they do it for alumnae too, depending on their availability and the time of the year. You can call or email them for more specific information:
Other resources in Toronto
A Step by Step Tutorial:
1- First decide what is it you want to create? What design? Since you are here, I understand that you are interested in making an object using Arabic Calligraphy or Islamic art. Great!
2 – Decide what material you want to use for your final products. Since my objects shown here are created using Baltic Birch Plywood, I advise you to try it too. You can choose the thickness you like or whatever serves your end object best. However, you have to be aware that the thickness affects the price, because the thicker the material, the longer time it is going to take to cut. In addition, you have to check with the place you intend to have your piece laser cut at. Some machines can only accommodate certain material thickness and size, depending on the bed size of the laser cutting machine.
You can get your material at:
If you go to home depot, lowes or Rona, they can cut the material to your desire.
If you are outside Canada, you can check at your local hardware and utility store.
3- Let’s assume that you want to recreate my design, but make it your own. That means you want to experiment with Arabic Calligraphy. As I mentioned earlier, my design is very specific to my thesis work. You do not want to copy anyone’s exact design and get in trouble with copy right issues. Now think of any words that have meaning to you that you want to laser cut. It could be the names of your best friends, your family, your children, a poem you wrote or like. There are seven main types of Arabic calligraphy, these are: Kufi, Ruq’ah, Diwani, Naskh, Thuluth, Taghrah, and Farsi . Although they are all beautiful scripts and have been long used in decorative art, I chose the Kufi for my design. After experimenting with different types, I decided this is the most suitable for my cutting project because it was the least to lose material at the negative rounded letters that would otherwise need support to keep it from falling, like when creating stencils. If you are rasterizing or engraving, then it would not really matter. That is my opinion. You could experiment yourself and see what works for you and what does not.
4- Once you have decided on the type, you can download Arabic fonts on Adobe Software. I believe you have to pay for this, unless you are a student then it is free. Please check with the computer software department at you school:
Or you can download it for free from the following website:
5- Download Adobe Illustrator Software to your computer. Again, you need to pay to get the software, unless you are a student as I have explained above. However, if you live in a country where copyright is not an issue, I am sure you can buy a copy for very cheap, or even download it from a friend or a website for free.
Now, once you have your font and your software, you are all set and ready to go. Let the fun begin!
6-Since you have decided on the final look of you design, now set to work. Open your illustrator. then try playing with the tools to familiarize yourself with the software. Since this design is mainly text, it should be very easy to accomplish using simple tools, mainly the selection tool.
7- Opened a new document
8- entre the size of your wood panel with the correct orientation. For example, since my work was in a portrait orientation, I put my dimensions as follows: 24”x36”.
9- Now start typing your words. I know this is hard if you do not know Arabic, which likely is the case. In this case, I would advise using google translate if you are using names or simple words. However, I would not recommend this if you are writing a full text, because google translate is not accurate, therefore, cannot be trusted. In this case, you might want to ask an Arabic speaker you know, or pay for the service. If it is a simple task, you might spend some extra time learning some basic Arabic. This might be helpful and practical if you are planning to do more similar work in the future. You can find many free Arabic language tutorials online. Here is a link to one:
10- Once you have your text, now you need to cut your work plane into four equal sections. Use the ruler at the top of your page; drag it to the middle to divide your page into two halves vertically. In this case, it is 12’’. Then do the same to divide your page horizontally, in this case, 18”.
11- Now using the selection tool to the left of your screen, select all your text and copy and paste it in each of the four sections with different orders. It is totally up to you; you can have different text in each section; it can be the same repetitive text but starting from different part each time like I did with my text. You can play around however you like it.
12- To prepare your text for laser cutting, change the colour of the lines to blue. Then change the text into lines only and change the font colour into red. This is for the laser cutting machine to cut each type separately, the edge lines then the text lines.
13- You may consider adding an image to your design. You have two options:
A- A linear image: That is called itching. In this case:
– go to file, import the image you want to include in your design
-using the tracing tool, trace your image, then delete the rest of the details.
-you can also do that by selecting the picture with the selection tool then choose linear only tool.
-Now you have your image as a linear background. It looks like a map. This might work if mapping is what you are interested in.
B- If you want to experiment with all aspects of the process, you might want to try rasterizing or engraving your image into the material. You have to be aware that this is going to be much more expensive. You also have to check with the place you are considering to laser cut at, because not all machine can do engraving. Some only use vector setting and do cutting and etching only, which would be suitable for your option “A”.
To prepare an image for rasterising:
-Export your intended photo in photoshop.
-Select Image, colour adjustment, black and white. Move the toning bars until you reach satisfying tones of greys in your image.
-alternatively, go to Image, rasterize.
-File, save as, close
-Now go to your Adobe Illustrator, file, export image into your design.
-Copy and paste the image into the four sections. You might want to experiment first with a small size due to the high cost of the image rasterizing.
Tip: Do not use your image as is, otherwise the engraving would fail. Instead of engraving the picture, the machine will replace the picture with a blank square engraved into the wood.
C- You might want to add a decorative design like the ones I attached above to replace the picture. You can do so by importing the design into Adobe Illustrator, then line trace it, and prepare it for laser cutting or engraving as instructed.
14- Align your text and centre the images
15- Save your design, copy it into a USB key, then take it to the laser cutting centre in your area.
16- Once your project is ready to pick up, now it is time to assemble the parts together. If you are making a lantern or a box for example, you can first use hot glue gun to see how it works before applying permanent wood glue.
17- You will need to clamp your pieces to insure accuracy.
18 -You can also consider alternative connection methods like small door hinges to connect your pieces together.
19- Instead of using screws to fix the hinges, consider gluing those to the wood to avoid possible damage that can result from drilling holes into the piece, which can also interfere with the design cuts. This would work best if you are working with thin material. Otherwise, the screws of the hinges would pop out, constricting the movement and flexibility of the different parts thus defying the multi-functionality of the piece. If you still want holes to fix your parts, you can also plan to incorporate the screw holes into the design to have them laser cut.
20- If are making a room divider door, use door hinges. You can also make a life size room divide door with thick wood, but remember, it will cost a lot.
21- You can assemble your pieces to be multifunctional. It can be two types of decorative pieces that you can use for various occasions or moods. In this case, I would advise you to use the door hinges instead of glue. This way you can use your piece as both a lantern and decorative door divider. When making the big object, I had in mind an installation piece, however, I also wanted it to be functional. I thought what would I do with such a huge piece when the art show is done? I had to think of alternatives. That is how I thought of a room divider. When the show is over, you can use it, or sell it as an artistic divider. After putting the pieces together, the screws were popping at the back, preventing the doors from folding in the desired order. To resolve this, I cut the remnants of the screws in the back.
22-Once your pieces were assembled, you can experiment with projecting light from the large piece in different directions. You can also make a roof piece to project light to the ceiling, depending on your liking. The text is projected on the large walls around. You can also try LED candles or even buy a revolving disco light that can move around and project the light in every direction, whatever your taste and mood.
23- You can use the same principle to create stencils for multiple usages. You can for example, make stencils of words in any language you like, patterns or designs, then fix them to your painting surface and spray paint them as many times as you want to receive the desired effect.
I am sure you will enjoy the process of laser cutting all the way from the concept to design to fabrication, to final product. You will be able to make it with limited experience and a basic knowledge of the software.
Pros and Cons:Pros: The laser cutting technology is fast and time saving. It is a great alternative for the strenuous hand-work which can take ages to finish. This is an instance where you will appreciate technology replacing the hand-made. Plus, laser cutting provides a clean final work which can be very tricky and sometimes hard to achieve by hand. In addition, it is amazing how various types of technologies can intertwine and combine together to produce new functional and artistic objects, and how a simple design using computer software can transform things.
It is of a great help when you want to make a unique object that is only your own, or an object that you have in your head, but is not available at your hand reach. You will also feel great as you will turn into a maker who can make interesting objects.
Cons: laser cutting is very costly if you want to do detailed and large work. In contrast, handmade cutting takes so many hours of labour, which might be costlier; and precision might be hard to achieve. Additionally, it can be hard to achieve your concepts if you are not design software friendly; in this case you might want to hire a designer.
Both the traditional and digital methods can fail. If you are hand cutting or engraving, you are making cuts into the material. Therefore, once a mistake is done, it is irreversible. Same can apply for laser cutting. For example, your engraving can fail if your design is not carefully prepared for the machine, or if it is not read properly by the machine.
I will post here the challenges I had designing and fabricating my object so you can avoid or know how to overcome similar challenges that might arise.
My first challenge was trying to figure out how the tools of the Adobe Illustrator work. You can overcome this obstacle by watching some you tube video tutorials and trying to familiarize yourself with the tools before you start.
My second challenge was developed due to using Arabic text, which was not fully supported by the Adobe Illustrator program. Whatever text I wrote, it would come out reversed. The program is treating Arabic letters as English letters. Thus, they are separated and are reversed from left to right. After some research, I found out that this is in fact a common problem with all of Adobe applications. To overcome this problem, I researched and used Arabic text reverser. I then copied the text in reversed order into Adobe Illustrator, which in turn reversed it into the correct form.
My third challenge was the type of font I needed: Arabic calligraphy. It took me hours of unfruitful research. I was finally able to download the fonts I needed from Adobe and used Kufic and apply it to my design.
A reference that you will benefit from:
Some jewelry boxes I bought from Syria and Egypt. Now I can make my own. You can too!