Laser Etching x Aluminum

Back in December of 2021, I decided to stick my laptop inside of a $40,000 laser cutter (Epilog Fusion Pro 48"), and watched for 20 nerve-racking minutes as the laser did its job of blasting away the original coating.

The results were pretty awesome!

How the idea came to be:

Sometime earlier that fall semester, I took an introductory class for fabrication, and our professor mentioned during laser week that some students would engrave vector designs onto laptops. Having been intrigued with that idea, I googled some pictures of what the laser can do on a laptop, and I was pretty blown away!

From that moment, I was determined to also customize my laptop. Obviously it was pretty scary to try and do it with the tool I use for most of my day, but hey, big rewards require big risk.

Design Steps

  1. Find an illustrator file that’s the size of a Macbook, so that the apple logo wouldn’t be affected. I couldn’t find one for the 2016 models, so I ended up needing to modify a file for the 2012 versions. (The apple logo was bigger back in 2012).
  2. Select a photo (Had to look good in B&W, needed to look good with the apple logo in the middle, and must have lots of contrast)
  3. Test runs on paper and an old 2012 macbook
  4. The real deal!

The first iteration was done on a sheet of paper in which I cut out the apple logo. I had to manually trial-and-error the size of the logo by overlaying it on my laptop to try and get the design in the correct place and size. The back side of the paper wasn’t really burnt much, so that helped to give a little bit of confidence that my laptop wouldn’t get fried 😅

To get the laser to correctly print the image, it must be converted to B&W & have the colors inverted. White areas in Illustrator are where the laser will etch

Next up was the 2012 Macbook. Here, I discovered that there was a lot of real estate on the bottom of the device where I could test out the power settings to make sure the whites weren’t overexposed.

How it turned out

Pros: The design works at least! And the laptop turned back on!

Cons: This gray is definitely too light — the metal underneath doesn’t contrast enough with the regular coating. There appears to be burn marks also.

Nothing left at this point to do, except move onto the real thing

Unfortunately, here’s when I ran into some technical difficulties. I’d done all my tests so far on an Epilog Mini, but as I was making etches onto the bottom of my normal laptop, the X-axis belt on the cutter kept drifting on its own over to the right. I couldn’t figure out why, and eventually had to move to the big scary Epilog Pro which I’d never used before. Different machine, also meant different power settings — the pro had more power built in.

Test etch on the actual laoptop

Luckily my test etch on the bottom turned out pretty well, but it seemed that a small change in power resulted in a really big difference in terms of visible detail. My test etch was a bit on the darker side, so I bumped it up by 2% and hoped that, that wouldn’t wash out the details in the shadows.

Part 1
Part 2

And just like that, the print was done!

It looked great all the way through the process, and now it was time to take it out to see how it looked up close, and if it would turn back on.

Luckily it turned back on without a problem, and the design looked amazing! I had no idea the metal underneath was so white

Design Iteration Process

Fast forward to May of this year, and I get the idea to do more laser etching, but this time with aluminum business cards with a black coating on them.

I ended up creating around 40 total, with 30 of them being displayed at NYU’s ITP/IMA Spring show. The first batch of 10 were where I learned about the unique properties of these cards, and improved upon the process.

The first realization was that the coating on these cards were shiny instead of matte. This meant that all dark shadows wouldn’t look very good, so I either had to edit the photos to have less, or choose photos that didn’t have many shadows to begin with.

The second was that I didn’t need to tape down the cards as the laser module didn’t really manage to shift the card. I didn’t realize the first batch had been taped down unevenly, so that the bottom right corner couldn’t quite be reached as well by the laser (Evident in the left photo above)

The third was that the laser didn’t quite start all the way against the left edge. I had to shift the card a tiny bit each time to the right so that I wouldn’t get that black strip seen in the right photo above.

With those adjustments in mind, it was time to create the rest of the collection!

A friend pointed out that there was likely dust on the cards after they’d come out of the printer and that I could try washing them. At first, I wasn’t sure if this would mess up the design, but luckily the designs were fine, and looked super HD when they were covered with water. Maybe I could coat the cards in a clear resin to try and mimic the wet look.

Here’s a small sample of some of the cards below:

Hard to capture how they look exactly, since it’s very dependent on the angle of light.

And here’s how the original photo I etched onto my laptop looked:

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