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Despite that fact that woodworking in one form or another has been around since the dawn of man, and word "traditional" is thrown around like mainstay in the industry, there are always new tools, techniques and ideas being introduced and adapted literally every week. Many years ago, when working in another industry I discovered that a company down the street from us could provide us with some promotional products, including some very cool clear glass coffee mugs with our logo engraved on them. When I went to place the order, they showed me the machine that would be used. It was of course a laser etcher and I had never seen one before. That year was around 1995 ... and I wanted one of those machines from the first time I ever saw it. They were, and still are expensive for the commercial versions and I could never really justify the expense ... but move forward 20 years and technology has changed and now there are "hobby" or "home" versions of laser engravers that are affordable for non-commercial use, and the one that I am using was provided by www.banggood.com
I received the engraver in large cardboard box, well packaged in plastic packing and all in pieces, which is what I expected. Because of such a large international customer base there are NO instructions in the box, you go to their website to watch the video for assembly and how to download and use the software that drives the etcher. Think it took me ...
... about 5 hours to assemble the etcher, and yes I had to undo a couple of items and re-do them, but that is all part of how these things go together at this stage of their evolution. Do not expect to receive your etcher, unpackage, plug it in and start etching. These machines need more attention and they are NOT toys, just as your table saw or jointer are not toys. Even these home laser etchers are serious tools.
In terms of a computer to drive these etchers, at least the one I received, you will need a Windows based computer. I do not believe the software is Apple compatible, nor is would a phone or tablet have the processing and storage power to properly drive these little etchers ... but, as always check the specs of the machine you are interested in before purchasing.
A Revolution in Woodworking
It's not often that I would choose to use such a bold statement, but having lived all my working life in a variety to technology related fields, I have a strong feeling that in years to come, laser etchers will become a favored tool in some woodworking shops. Right now we are just scratching the surface of what these tools could do for us and in time the ideas and uses will become even more innovative and useful.
For a very few, simply using them to etch images will be enough but for many it will open whole worlds of ideas and even new business ventures as people start experimenting and using these tools and discovering how and where they can be used. One of the very first uses for me is a way to "signature" the woodworking projects I want to release. Up until now if you wanted to permanently etch your woodworking projects you could purchase a small "branding iron" that would have your name and maybe even a small logo on it. They are available in electric (plug them in to heat up the branding surface) or manual (use your propane torch to heat up the branding surface) .. then brand your item with a permanent signature. These branding irons work well but come in one size only and and anything but convenient if you want to change the brand head. With a laser etcher you make up your own signature, with or without a logo, in any size you want, even a variety of sizes and brand your own wood either before, during or after assemble. That alone will make these little laser etchers very popular.
These little etchers can be used to make patterns, even cut patterns from thin materials like plastics foam and veneers and could even be used for making patterns for scroll saw usage. Imagine how these could open up the worlds of veneering and scroll saw use and what kinds of things you could do with them.
Picture frames with special detailed wooden frame etching and if you are a luthier, I can't even imagine the ideas that you could be using these for like inlay work and other fine details an several places on many different instruments, even down to creating a special instrument for someone and actually printing their name somewhere into the wood.
Cabinet makers could make designs on doors, or just for pattern making for designs or other detail work, like etching custom made door handles and knobs, door and drawer front panels, detail work on tops and trim ... many, many options.
For woodworkers into making boxes, jewelry boxes, keepsake boxes and a realm of other boxes, image being able to etch parts of the box, the tops, sides, insides ... where ever with images, signs, names uses ... whole exciting range of opportunities.
Cutting boards and other kitchen items are very popular woodworking projects, now you can etch in any of a wide variety of ideas of images, signs, names highlights or even just your own signature. Imagine being able to etch your name into the back of a small wooden spoon one minute, then the next onto the side of a vanity cabinet ... all this is possible because of the ease of re-sizing that is commonplace.
Then there is the whole world of ... "not necessarily related" uses, like small or large labels, name badges etchings on special materials and all sorts of cool combinations like etching through thinly painted materials to expose under surfaces for images and text. You can purchase many of these materials and even make your own in many instances.
There are a few accessories that are available for Laser Engravers, and as time goes by, I am sure there will be more innovative ideas and products. The one product that is worth mentioning is the Offline Controller Breakout Board. For those people who want a different version of controlling the their laser engraver, this might be exactly what you are looking for. Not everyone has the same ideas for using engravers which means that there can be better ways of setting them up and using them which is what this unit is designed to solve for certain applications. You can read more here, and watch the video about this unit ... http://bit.ly/1UXxyNd
Risks, Caution & Warnings
As I said earlier, these little tools, as cute and useful as they are, are NOT TOYS. The laser heads can do real and often non-reversible damage especially to eyesight, and the actual burning is extremely bright and could also be damaging. Depending on what you are burning or etching, fumes can be a real concern and in some case can be toxic or even deadly. It is important to know that if you are burning or etching anything, it is recommended to vent the fumes out side and to be in a well ventilated area. Most of the commercial units include some sort of exhausting system or recommendations ... these smaller units also need to be ventilated.
The author and this website make no claims or warranties about these machines, anyone using them does so at their own risk and peril, there are just too many versions, updates and combinations of use to possibly try to cover so users need to ensure they work safely at all times.
Like any tool in woodworking, these little etchers are not for everyone, but if you are innovative at heart and have some of that "pioneering spirit" or have some amazing ideas for uses, one of these little laser etchers might be just the tool that will send you into a whole new realm of woodworking adventures. They are available in a variety of sizes and some of the units can be upgraded to a more power head later on. As always, do your research and know exactly what you are getting and don't be afraid to ask questions to confirm or better understand what you may need or want.
Support and Help
If you do get into Laser Etching know one thing ... you will be getting into something that is technical in nature and that support and help may not be as forthcoming as you may like. Software is often provided with NO warranties or guarantees and may be problematic on some computers so know that you may be doing much of your own troubleshooting. Patience may be your most valuable asset.
In order to help to build a small community of like minded users of Laser Etchers, this website has provided a special category specifically for laser etchers for those who have questions and others who have answers. You are able to READ the Forums without becoming a member of this website but are unable to ASK questions or ANSWER questions without becoming a member. This is standard fare for most Forums to help eliminate scammers and time-wasters.
If you do venture into the world of laser etching, it will be fun, educational and sometimes challenging but always rewarding no matter how it turns out ... a whole new world of woodworking.
Copyright Colin Knecht