Misadventures in Laser Cutting

Here at Root Simple we have a tendency to only post our successes. This can lead to the impression that we live in a state of transcendent Martha Stewart perfection, obscuring the reality that DIY projects are as arduous as climbing a mountain. There’s an initial enthusiasm followed closely by alternating periods of triumph, self doubt and pain. Hopefully you learn from your mistakes while acknowledging that you’ll never un-see the flaws nobody else will ever notice.

My latest episode of DIY mountain climbing involved a laser cutter. When I found out that the LA Central Library had a laser cutter that you can use for free I jumped on the opportunity. As an experiment I thought I’d try making a woodblock for printing as well as etch a few images on wood.

For the woodblock I downloaded an image from the internet by the Belgian turn-of-the-last-century artist Félix Vallotton. I used a combination of Photoshop and Illustrator to change the downloaded JPEG image into a vector file suitable for laser cutting. The actual laser cutting was fairly simple. I loaded my Illustrator file into the library’s PC based CorelDRAW program and then hit the print button. A screen pops up with a set of options for the laser cutter which includes materials and depth of cut. I used birch plywood and checked the thickness of the material with calipers. I ended up having to run the laser cut twice to get a deeper cut in the plywood so that the cut portions of the wood wouldn’t soak up ink. It was almost as easy as printing a normal document on paper.

A few days later I asked Kelly (since she has the art degree) to assist in printing the woodcut. We made a trip to the art supply store to get a brayer, paper, and some ink. I fashioned a baren, used to press the paper onto the woodcut, out of scrap wood and a doorknob.

We managed to pull two not-so-great prints. The problems fall into two categories: materials and concept. First, I should have sanded the birch plywood before laser cutting. The surface of the wood left too rough an impression in the print and soaked up too much ink. I probably would have better results had I put linoleum in the laser cutter instead of wood. Or, perhaps, I should have sanded and sealed the plywood more thoroughly. I did put a coat of shellac on the wood but that wasn’t enough.

Conceptually, using a computer and laser cutter to make a woodblock can remove what is interesting about a woodblock: specifically the irregular line qualities introduced when a human hand cuts wood with a gouge. This does not mean that using a laser cutter to make a print block isn’t worth doing. But I think you might get more interesting results where you acknowledge, rather than try to disguise, the use of a computer and laser. For instance, artist Patrick Collier uses photographs with a halftone pattern to make large lino prints. In a similar process, Toby Millman deomonstrates in a YouTube video how she turns photographs into colored lino prints. The advantage of using a laser printer to make a printing block is that you can do effects that would be impossible to do with a gouge as well as make large prints that would take weeks to cut by hand. Getting the right balance of concept, materials and tools is, of course, one of the central struggles in making art.

Printing on Wood
After completing my print block I had some extra time in the lab so I thought I’d see what it looks like to simply etch in wood. First I tried an image of our cat Buck, one on birch plywood and the other on a scrap of quarter sawn white oak. With some more tweaking in illustrator I probably could have gotten a better image on the birch but I didn’t have time. The oak image did not work at all because the figure of the wood competes too much with the image. If I had my own laser cutter I could probably spend my weekends sitting in a booth at cat shows making laser printed wood cat portraits but that’s not a future I look forward to.

I also tried cutting a more complex image by the symbolist illustrator Carl Otto Czeschka. The results prove that the laser is capable of very fine line quality. I’m thinking of experimenting with some intricate Islamic patterns on a small wood box. Laser cutters can also cut entirely through thin materials so that opens up more possibilities to do things that would be difficult to do by hand. I’m intrigued, for instance, with the possibilities for making three dimensional folding paper cards. You could also use the laser cutter for screen printing, making stencils, wood inlay or marquetry.

Many thanks to the knowledgeable staff of the Octavia Lab!

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  1. This is very exciting! What good ideas you all come up with. And what a great library you have! We all need to know that perfection doesn’t come right off the bat and it’s good to have fun while we are learning. Actually I think what you have done looks nice!

  2. I doubt that any library in the South has the equipment you used. I am going to check further than this small town.

    • There are two: Boyle County Public Library, Kentuky; and Broward County Public Library, Florida (if Florida counts as the South!).

  3. Thanks. Well, Florida is south but not in the South. Both are so far away. It is amazing what technology can do.

    • Thanks for the link! Did not know about his paintings. That red pepper still life is startling.

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