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This is my first cryptex and what a learning experience. It's really a pretty simple thing to make but dimensions are critical. I expect it will take two or three more before I get any I can use for gifts. I have to say I am thrilled at how well the rotary engraver worked once I got the pattern and spacing figured out. The rings have the alphabet on them but the code for each grand kid will be their birthday as it corresponds to the letters of the alphabet, won't tell them at first and see if one of them figures it out. I don't think they can guess it out as there are about 3 million combinations possible. I wasn't sure how long to make the barrels so I had to trim them off on the band saw, shouldn't be a problem on the next ones. From what I understand, these devices were used to transport sensitive messages. Supposedly the message would be written on parchment and a glass vial of vinegar was placed in with the message. A person couldn't break into the cryptex without breaking the vial which would dissolve the parchment. I don't know if all that's true but it makes a good story and these are kind of neat I think. FWIW, Carl Jacobson has three videos on making one of these and that's where I got the idea. Steve
What do you do when you have a project in mind that will require a lot of lettering but your lettering stinks? Well, if you don't know any better, you try and build something to do it that you don't know anything about. I started gathering parts for this several months ago, doing research, doing drawings and redoing drawings. Bought a little 2D cad program and had to learn how to use that, still learning BTW. After all that I decided to try and build a proof of concept, prototype, and learning project. This is the result, this video is not public and it's not very good but you should get the idea what I'm trying to do. I can see mad potential for what this may do for me on vases, ornament globes, rims of bowls, etc. etc. For now though, it almost works and I have some areas to redesign and make it better. This is my first "successful attempt what I envisioned before starting this project. Not nearly refined enough and it's much too large for what I have in mind but it's a great start I think. Drew the scroll in Inkscape and turned it into a file my engraver can read. Still learning about all that as well. Steve
I've mentioned that to take advantage of the potential of one of these little laser engravers there are some software programs to know. One of these is an open source program called "inkscape". To someone who has never used it, inkscape can be intimidating as there are so many menus, options, controls, etc. etc. With a little effort it all starts to make sense and a person begins to understand what is going on. This is a little step-by-step to create a name tag file that can be used with a cnc laser or cnc engraver. Once the main template is created it's a simple matter to change the name to rout or engrave several different tags. The picture above is the main screen from inkscape. As you can see there are menus and tool bars all over the place. The only one that concerns us just now is the one on the right of that picture and the close up just to the right of this text. This dialogue defines the size of the document we're creating. One of nice things about inkscape is the ability to create a working page whatever size is needed. For a name tag that's about 3.5"X 2.4". The laser software is written in millimeters so the document will be created in millimeters. In this case, 90X58 millimeters. Inkscape will work in mm, inches, feet, or even pixels. The document page is outlined in the above picture. After creating the page three items were added to it. First, a rectangle slightly smaller than the document. This defines the actual size of the name tag as the laser will engrave this box and provide a guide for cutting out the tag. These small lasers aren't powerful enough for actually cutting wood, not even thin veneer. By engraving the rectangle I don't have to measure to cut but can just follow the line inscribed by the laser. Then, two decorative ovals were drawn. There are menu boxes to size, position, and manipulate the ovals or any other object. A person can even determine how thick the drawing line is. At this point the file is saved in inkscape as an SVG file. That is the inkscape default format. SVG stands for scale-able vector graphic. That type of graphic can be made larger or smaller without losing detail or resolution. This is now my master template, From now on the only design changes will be different names as required. When a name is added it probably won't be exactly where you want it. For this example I'm going to center it on the page which is also the center point of the ovals. Incidentally, the rectangle and the ovals were centered on the page using the same method. Notice in the example the "name" is selected. It can be moved around, rotated, enlarged, or made smaller. Centering an object on a page couldn't be easier with inkscape. Simply open the "alignment menu and choose what you want to do. Again, only because the program is so powerful there are many options. Looking at the menu to the right you can see I've chosen to align my name relative to the page. The two symbols I've pointed out represent vertical centering and horizontal centering. Simply clicking on those center the name perfectly on the page. A person can also choose to center items relative to each other or a dozen other options. At this point it does get a little tricky. Its important to keep in mind a laser engraver is basically a plotter and not a printer. A printer moves the print head back and forth. As the paper advances the printer makes a dot in the right place, connect the dots and you get a picture or text. A plotter actually follows a path, much like writing in cursive. So, a path must be created that the plotter can follow. Two more steps and the file will be ready to send to the laser. First, all four objects, the rectangle, the two ovals, and the name must be selected. You can see a selection box around all four objects and I've chosen the option "group" in the drop down menu. That will make all of the objects one entity as far as inkscape is concerned. If I enlarge one, they will all be enlarged the same amount. After grouping them the selection boxes morph into one box as there is now only one object. At this point there is one more operation before the file can be saved and that is to add the object to the "path" After, the file is saved in "DXF" format which is a "desktop cutting plotter" file. This may seem a lot of steps but in reality it takes about five minutes to do this start to finish. Once the master template is created the name can edited in about a minute. This is a very simple example of creating a file that a laser or cnc engraver can read. The next step is to open the laser software and load the dxf file for engraving.
While it may not seem so at first glance, a laser engraver is much like a table saw, a lathe, or even a router. Now that you have it, what can you do with it? Not much as it's a "core" tool. With a table saw, an add on might be a dado set, or molding heads. A special sled or jig. A lathe is very dependent on other tools to prep stock. Different operations on a lathe require different accessories. A hollow vessel requires completely different tools than a spindle. Of course, a router or shaper must have bit's or cutters to be functional at all. Not to mention a fence or sled. A laser engraver? Well, it must have graphics and/or documents to do what it does. That may seem a simple matter, after all, there are thousands of images just waiting to be downloaded. While this is true, many of them are copyrighted and water marked. What if a person can't find the "just right" image to download? What if someone has a special request, like a graphic of a specific scene or pet? How to add text to a picture? How to make the picture fit on what is to be engraved? What if only a part of the image is to be engraved? Let's address image size and making it fit the project first. It's fairly easy to enlarge or shrink an image. Windows paint can do it as can any number of programs. The problem is, enlarging or shrinking an image often results in loss of detail and crispness. This is an image called Odin's triangle, printed, or burned it will be about 3" tall and 3" wide. The lines that form the triangle are fairly crisp and sharp. This is what is called a "raster" image. That means it's made up of tiny dots of different color arranged in a pattern. What if I wanted the image to be bigger? Say, 3 times as big. You can see, the enlarged image isn't nearly as sharp as the original. This will happen with any raster image, that includes image files like bmp, gif, jpg, to name a few different types of raster images. The answer is to convert the picture to a "vector" image. A vector image is drawn according to a mathematical formula. No matter how big or small the image is, the formula remains the same. What that means is, the image always remains sharp and crisp. What if a person had a picture of a leaf they wanted to use? Easy enough to do, but what if only an outline is needed? What about using more than one leaf? What about overlapping them? That way it would look like one leaf laying on top of the other. That would be great for wood burning, painting, carving, etc. etc. So, let's use the leaf picture at the right, copy it and paste it to look like one leaf is on top of the other. It will look something like this. Hmmm, not exactly what we had in mind, is it? Why didn't it work? Well, because a bitmap, ie, jpeg, gif, bmp, can only have one layer and there has to be a back ground. Normally the background is white and on a white page you can't see it, it's still there and will make it's presence known at the worse times. Wouldn't this look much better? This isn't the best job of editing as I still have a little back ground showing but that is easily addressed. The programs that manipulate images like this are the tools or accessories a wood burner or a laser engraver needs to be much more flexible than it would be otherwise. These programs are also very useful to a wood carver or pyrographer. So, what are the programs that work this magic and how much do they cost? Probably the most well known is Adobe illustrator. To the best of my knowledge, illustrator can only be leased at this point. Licenses start at around $10.00 a month. Not a lot of money but for a now and then user not a good value either. Fortunately, there are completely free alternatives. The two programs I use are "Gimp" and "Inkscape" Both are open source and completely free for downloading, although I recommend only downloading from their official websites. https://www.gimp.org/ https://inkscape.org/en/ These are two powerful, full featured programs for manipulating images. Because they are so powerful, there is a steep learning curve associated with either of them. This section of the blog is not meant to be a tutorial on using these programs, but rather just to introduce them to someone who may not be aware they are available. While there is a steep learning curve with either, there are also dozens and dozens of tutorial videos on youtube about them.
Thought hard about this segment and came up with all sorts of reasons and justifications for even wanting a laser engraver. The honest truth is, I've just always liked gadgets. Never mind I intend to use it for embellishing some of my turnings if and when I figure out how to use it. There are some youtube videos with turners using small machines to make “signature disks” they let into the bottoms of their bowls or vessels. The machines cost about $90.00 and do a surprisingly good job. The down side is they will only do an area about 3” square and are limited in height. I thought if I ever got one I would like more capacity and flexibility so I spent a little more and bought a machine that will etch an area about 11”X14” There are several vendors that sell these machines, banggood.com, gearbest.com, aliexpress.com, to name a few. I suspect they are all made in the same factory. At any rate I bought this machine from banggood.com. One thing I will say, if, and when a person may decide to purchase one of these, be patient and watch for price fluctuations. The price will change almost daily and move as much as a hundred dollars one way or the other. So, what do you get for, in my case, about $200.00? Basically, a box of parts. I have to to admit, the parts were packaged very nicely. Everything was organized and easy to get to. All of the necessary hardware and tool are included in a little plastic compartmentalized plastic case. One thing to note about these kits, they don't come with printed instructions. I imagine that's to save expense as they are shipped all over the world. There is a video of a machine being assembled on the banggood website and there are "assembly" pictures as well. When you get right down to it, there really isn't a lot to one of these machines. The little box at the top right contains the power supply and the laser. Next to it is a pile of plexiglass parts that are machined to hold the motors and for the aluminum extrusions to fasten to. Four corner brackets to assemble the frame, a "gift" pack of small wood test pieces. 5 pieces of aluminum extrusion and the controller board next to that. And, of course, the little box of hardware and tools. The three stepper motors and various cables are not in this picture. That's about it. So, I watched the video several times and looked at the assembly illustrations. For some reason Banggood.com has made the video and pictures so a person can't save them to a computer. Seems crazy to me, but whatever. My shop is about 90 feet from our house and surprisingly, I can access our home network in the shop, if, and only if, my computer is next to the wall closest to the house. My workbench is near the opposite end of the shop and trust me, it's no small feat to change that. So, I would go to one end of my shop, watch a little of the video and run back to my bench to assemble the part I could remember. Being in my 60's that wasn't a lot. Back and forth and back and forth. The assembly starts with putting together the frame which is aluminum channel fastened together with corner brackets. I did that on my router table surface so everything would be nice and flat. The extrusions that make up the frame are two 1" X 1" and two 1" X 2" channels. I don't know if they are real 8020 or a knockoff but those aluminum channels have changed how we do so many things. The next step is to assemble the motors and bearings to the machined plexiglass components. Fortunately, this is all pretty straightforward stuff as the online "instructions", if they can be called that are not the best. I knew that before hand though so I can't complain. The bearings ride in the groove in the aluminum channel and it's actually quite smooth. I should probably note that this is not meant to be a "how-to" as far assembly goes. There are a few third party videos on youtube which are better than a series of pictures showing how it all goes together. Once a person gets into the project a little it all starts to make sense. After the motors and the bearings are attached the gantry supports are put on the channel and the feet are attached. I would guess by this point I'm about two or three hours into it. A good part of that time is watching video to make sure it's put together correctly. As wood workers, we joke about our toys when we get a new tool for the shop. Most of us know that these "toys" can hurt a person. Something like this may seem a little less risky. The opposite is true. A person doesn't even have to be near one of these to suffer eye damage as just the reflected light from one of them can be harmful. The most important safety rule with one of these is; "Don't look into the laser with your remaining eye." After the feet are attached the laser is installed and the gantry assembly is mounted. After that, the wiring begins and its all plug in connectors so that's not a big deal. After several hours of studying video, restudying video, hard work, and paying close attention to detail I'm done except for putting on some wire wraps to tidy everything up. Once I get the software loaded I'll be ready to do some laser engraving........... on the ceiling, doh, mounted the laser upside down. Thankfully it's a simple of flipping the gantry channel over as it will mount either way. Now, on to loading the software and doing some world class etching!
After assembling the machine it's time to install the software. I have to say before I get into that, assembling the machine is well within the scope of most any wood workers ability. It's kind of like Lincoln logs. If a person takes it in small steps and doesn't look at the overall picture, it's not too daunting. Like my brother's wife always says, "it's hard by the yard, but it's a cinch by the inch" she is right. Now, what can I say about the software? A lot, and not much. It's important to keep in mind, for myself, as much as anyone. This is a bare bones, entry level, hobby machine. It will engrave an area approximately 11" X 14" and will cost 2-300 dollars depending on the time of day, literally. Any of the name brand machines, like Epilog, will cost a few thousand for their entry level machine. I'm not comparing my machine to those at all, they are more refined, more powerful, more capable, etc. etc. Like the instructions, the software must be downloaded from the banggood website. Its kind of confusing just what to do once it's downloaded and there is zero technical support. Once again, I knew that going in. And like before, I spent several hours googling, researching, watching video, reading instructables and struggling to install the software and get it working. One big problem is that most virus software doesn't like it, so it won't allow the package to install. A person basically has to disable virus protection during the install process, something I didn't care to do. After the software is installed, the computer must be configured to communicate with the laser, guess what? Back to youtube, google, instructables, etc. etc. to find out how to do that. Again, hours were spent figuring it out. In fact, I never did get that first software package to work but downloaded a different package from gearbest.com and finally I could communicate with my machine. The engraving program included with the software is called "benbox". It is a very, very basic setup. To give an idea how basic, it always loads in Chinese, so every time a person starts the program they must choose a different language, unless of course, they speak Chinese. Basic settings must be restored every time the program is started, such as laser speed, power, etc. etc. You can't save a profile, like if you find settings that work well with maple, they must be written in a notebook and re-entered each time a person would burn maple. A person must also go through the steps to connect with the machine every time it starts. None of this is a big deal but it's not what most of us are used to with a program. Even so, eventually I was ready to try to engrave something. The first several times I tried, mostly what I made was a black hole in whatever I was using, It seemed no matter what, that was the result. At the risk of repeating myself, once more, google, youtube, etc. etc. etc. After much research, tweaking, setting up and testing I got to where I could get the black hole to move slightly and make little square boxes that kind of resembled charcoal, frustration was beginning to set in and I began to wonder if I'd wasted both time and money. Back to the web, finally I thought, maybe there was a benbox forum? Guess what, there is. benboxlaser forum All I can say is, forums are a gift, in only an hour or so I had learned enough on the benbox forum I was able to engrave a simple gif of a horse. Not the most impressive bit of laser engraving but hey, it was a start. The next few days I spent a lot of time on that forum. I have to say it again, a good forum, like this one, and from my limited experience, the benbox forum is one of the best things about the net. In just a short time, I learned much about the capabilities of the software and the machine. I also saw, there are people who own this machine doing some very nice work with it. I also learned the machine is capable of much but is limited severely by the included software. For instance, with benbox, the laser itself only knows on or off, there are no degrees of power. In a nutshell, what that means a person can etch dark or not at all. There is no gray scale. That's kind of a big deal. For outlines, silhouettes, or something like a Celtic knot, black or white is just fine. For a picture of any kind, gray scale is a must. As I was browsing the forum one thing I noticed was many of the members weren't using the benbox program but instead a program called "t2laser". As I started reading more I discovered one of members had gotten frustrated with benbox and was smart enough to develop t2laser, which according to many who post there is a much better option. It didn't take much to convince to download a trial version and after a few tests, buy and install the registered version which he sells for $39.00. At this point I have about $250.00 in this venture. Well, after using the new software I am seriously impressed with it. Very user friendly, easy to configure and the gentleman responds to questions in a few minutes most of the time. I am still very early in the learning curve with this machine and this software but also very encouraged with recent results. One of the items I make quite a few of, are decorative lids for mason jars, and/or honey dippers for mason jars. One of the main things I wanted to do with this machine was to embellish the lids to increase the value of them. I did a couple test lids today using the t2laser software and I'm really pretty happy with the results. One of these is maple and the other is walnut, same settings on both. The nice thing is, once the setup is made, the little laser can work on it's own while I'm doing something else. So, that's where I am at this point, still lots to learn but that's part of the fun isn't it? If someone were to ask me if the machine is worth the cost, I would say it is to me without doubt, just for the learning experience, the rest is all gravy.
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