Corel X4: Working with Laser Jigs: Part 1

Copyright © 2009 by Davis Multimedia, Int'l. All Rights Reserved.
As Printed in December 2009, Volume 35, No. 6 of The Engravers Journal

   One of the most common jobs that engravers in the Recognition and Identification Industry run into is the need to personalize large quantity orders of the same product. Whether it’s cutting out name badges, engraving pens or sublimating mugs, we’re constantly creating multiple-plate layouts in order to speed up the production process.
   As I have suggested on many occasions, one of the best ways shop owners can increase their profit potential, other than adding new products and increasing their customer base, lies in reducing the amount of time it takes to get an order out the door. Reducing the time spent on each individual job leads to increased productivity which, in turn, leads to more money in your cash register at the end of the day.
   One of the issues we often run into, however, is that some of the products we sell can require a fair bit of manual labor or hands-on processing, especially when we’re dealing with unusual or odd-shaped items. The cost of labor is very expensive so whatever we can do to limit the amount of time it takes to set up a job, the less money it’s going to cost to produce that job and the more money there will be left over after the sale. That’s called profit!
   In order to reduce our costs, it requires that we constantly look for ways to speed up production. This article will look at how engravers can save time and money processing odd-shaped items by creating jigs for use with their lasers. These savings become even more significant when you’re doing quantity orders.
   The majority of laser engraving jobs involve marking flat objects like a piece of plastic or wood. These jobs typically involve placing the items, one at a time, in the top left-hand corner of the laser bed and then engraving each one. Note: I would suggest that you not always laser engrave in the top left-hand corner as it can wear the machine out faster, placing more wear in that area of the motion system. You can and should periodically engrave in the right-hand corner to help prevent uneven wear to the machine and ultimately increase the life of your system.
   Now, let’s get back to our discussion on jigs. While many of the materials and products we laser engrave are flat, obviously that’s not always the case. Wine glasses are one of the more common nonflat items that people want personalized. Most laser engraving systems have a cylindrical attachment, which is basically a large jig, specifically designed for these types of items. The nice thing about these attachments is that they are designed to work in conjunction with the laser, which means when they are in use the laser recognizes it and knows where it is on the table. This makes our job setup much easier.
   However, what do you do when you have odd-shaped items that will not fit in the cylindrical or rotary attachment or that you want to engrave on the laser table? I’ve found that after fielding questions about laser engraving unusual or odd-shaped products, pens and wine glasses are among the most popular items that I’m asked about. That’s why I chose pens as the topic for my next two CorelDRAW columns. This article, part one of this miniseries, will focus on creating a jig for engraving pens one at a time. Part 2 will show readers how to create a multiple-layout jig so you can engrave several pens at the same time.
   One of the most common misconceptions that newcomers to the laser engraving industry have is that they must use a cylindrical attachment to engrave a pen with a laser. This is not true. It is possible to laser engrave pens flat, although this tends to give some people fits. It can be done quite easily, however, by creating a simple jig to hold the pen in place. Let’s look at how we can make a jig for laser engraving a single pen using CorelDRAW.

Figure 1: Creating a pen holding jig with CorelDRAW allows you to laser a pen flat rather than with a cylindrical attachment. Figure 2: Here is a close-up view of a pen jig created from a block of wood. Figure 3: Cut the pen holding groove so the pen rests in the mouth, allowing the pen to be placed with the pocket clip in either the left, right or down position.
   Despite the fact that a pen has a curved surface, most brands typically have enough room for two lines of relatively small engraving. Before we get started, it would be wise to discuss some of the common difficulties we run into when working with pens. The first problem you often encounter is that the laser may have trouble locating the pen on the bed of the laser. The second problem is that the pen usually will not lie flat; it typically wants to roll or rotate until it is resting on the pen’s pocket clip. Another issue is that once the pen is in the correct position for lasering, it may start to move around if the laser is running too fast.
   There is one solution that will solve all of these problems at once, and that is to create a homemade jig or a holding device for the pen (Fig. 1). The best reason to create a jig is so we can place pens in the same position each time we need to engrave one. This eliminates the need to always try to figure out where the pen is on the engraving table since we know the coordinates of the jig and where the pen sits on this jig. Simply save this information in your “pen job” file within CorelDraw and you can reuse the layout each time one of these jobs comes up.
   Another advantage of using a jig for these jobs is that you can place the pen so the clip rests on the side of the jig, allowing you to position the pen so that the engraving is where you want it in relation to the pocket clip. Thirdly, the jig will hold the pen in place so it doesn’t move or roll around during the engraving process. There’s nothing worse than a product that shakes while it’s being lasered as this is usually a recipe for adding more scrap material to the garbage.
   You don’t have to be a skilled woodworker or have a lot of fancy equipment to make a holding jig for a pen. All we really need is a block of wood that’s about 1" or 1.5" thick and a table saw or a router. Note: If you have a rotary engraving machine then you can make your own jig simply by using a cutter suitable for wood or plastic and engraving a series of lines to create a tapered groove into the block.

Figure 4: Here the outer guides represent the size of the block of wood and the double dashed lines indicate the area to be cut out with a table saw. Figure 5: Place a separate guideline (red) in the center of the area to be cut out. Figure 6: The vertical guidelines in the layout indicate where the engraving will take place.
    Figure 2 shows a close-up view of the pen jig that I created from a block of wood. This was done by simply making a series of cuts into the wood until I had a cutout area large enough to hold the pen in place. In this case, I made the cutout area .25" since this will accommodate most of the pens that I use for personalization.
    The slot width and depth for a pen might vary slightly with the pens to be engraved, but generally you want the pen to rest in the mouth of the slot as shown in Figure 3. This makes it easy to position the pen so the pocket clip can be positioned either in the front, the back or positioned facing the bottom of the groove, allowing you to place the engraving where desired in relation to the clip.
    Once you have your block of wood, the first thing you need to do is open a new document in CorelDRAW and create a series of guidelines in your layout that indicates the size of the jig. I start out with an 8.5" x 11" page and then use the guidelines to mark off an area that represents the size of the block of wood, which is 4" x 3.625". Note: if you don’t want to use this setup you could also create a plate that is 4” wide by x 3.625 tall. Either way will work equally well.
    Guidelines will appear as dotted lines on your screen. They do not print out or engrave on your finished product, they simply serve as location points. To place a horizontal guideline, drag on the ruler on the top of the screen and drag down to a location on your page. Vertical guidelines are created the same way as horizontal ones, except that you drag from the vertical ruler on the left side of the screen.
    Once you have your block represented in the layout, the next step is to use another set of guidelines to indicate the groove that you want to cut out with the table saw (Fig. 4). Notice that the top line is at .875" and the bottom line is at 1.125", which will allow about .25" of engraving area depending on the thickness of the pen.
    Now you will need to place a separate guideline in the center of the other two lines (Fig. 5, red line). In this example, the center guideline is located exactly at the 1" mark, which will make it easier when you do the setup later on.
    Now that the horizontal guidelines are in place, we will need to create the vertical guidelines that will indicate the engraving area. Figure 6 shows our CorelDRAW layout with the vertical guidelines placed at the 2.5" mark and the 3.75" mark. Now that we’ve determined our engraving area and it has been included in the layout, we can do a test run on the laser. Note: I would suggest using a pencil or a wooden dowel rod about the same size as your pen when you do this test for the first time to prevent ruining a good pen and costing yourself money. One thing I’ve learned about laser engraving products like these is that even if you measure with precision, there is almost always some margin of error that will creep into your setup.

Figure 7: Create a rectangular object and place it in the engraving area.

Figure 8: The red rectangular box indicates the engraving area at the top of this pen.

Figure 9: The laser’s red dot pointer traces an outline of the box to show the engraving position on the pen.

    Before performing this test, make sure that the jig is placed directly against the ruler at the top left corner of the engraving table. This may seem like a simple thing, but you’d be surprised at how many jobs are ruined because this little detail is overlooked. Take it from experience and be sure to take one extra second to ensure that the jig is positioned correctly. With the jig in position, you can now send the job to the laser for your test.
    Even after running this initial test with a new jig, I typically like to perform one extra test with each new job using the laser’s red dot pointer. The first thing you need to do is turn on the “Snap to Guidelines” function located in the VIEW menu at the top of the screen. Make sure there’s a check mark beside this option to indicate that the function is activated. When the Snap to Guidelines function is turned on, the guideline coordinates act like magnets, allowing you to easily locate a selected object to a horizontal or vertical location, or both.
    Next, draw a rectangular object that is .25" tall and 1.25" (3.75"—2.5") long. Now, select the object and move it into the center of the guidelines that you have created to indicate the engraving area (Fig. 7, blue box). Note: you can also create your object by selecting the Rectangle Tool and, starting at the top left-hand corner of the guidelines at 2.5" and .875", drag down to the 3.75" guideline and the 1.125" guideline. The Snap to Guideline setting will keep your mouse on the guideline.
    This box will serve as our test image. Make sure your image has a hairline line width so the rectangle will be visible. Now just send the job to the laser and use the red dot pointer to trace out the engraving area. I usually select the image first and then tell the printer driver to print only the selected object. This will prevent any other objects you may have in your layout from printing/engraving.
    Also, in the printer driver you’ll want to reduce the engraving speed so you can see the trace taking place. There’s no need to worry about the power setting here since the lid will be up. Once your settings are selected, engage the laser’s red dot pointer, making sure that the lid is open. If the lid is closed then the laser will actually burn the test image onto the material, ruining the pen.
    Now, press the start button on the laser. With the lid up and the pen resting in the jig, you should be able to see the red dot pointer creating an outline of the rectangle where we want to engrave on the pen. The red box in Figure 8 shows the area of the pen we want to engrave and Figure 9 shows the red dot pointer in action, tracing the outline of our engraving area.

Figure 10: For one line of text, use the middle guideline to center the text between the top and bottom of the engraving area.

Figure 11: For two lines of text, position each line between the guidelines in the engraving area. Figure 12: Here is the same pen layout with a logo added.

    This is an excellent way to reduce your chances of ruining products. I use this technique all the time. When creating a test image, make sure you don’t use a raster image or the laser will go beyond the image so that it can turn around, which means you will not get a true reading of where the image will be located on your pen.
    After using the red dot pointer, if you determine that your rectangle is either too big or too small, you can simply resize the test image and run it again. If the size of the rectangle is correct but you find that it’s not located in the right place, then I suggest turning off the Snap to Guidelines function so that you can adjust the image within the layout.
    Once you’ve tested the image and have it in the right location on the pen, the next step is simply a matter of placing the text or logo in the text box. Before placing the text, however, I will typically drag the guidelines so that they straddle the rectangle and truly reflect the engraving area. Now you can delete the rectangle from the job and add your text or logo.
    Figure 10 shows an example of what our layout would look like if we were using only one line of text. Notice that I use the middle guideline that we added in earlier to ensure that the text is centered correctly between the top and bottom lines.
    The “Left Edge” and the “Right Edge” in Figure 10 indicate the left and right margins of the engraving area. If your text extends beyond these margins you will have to compress the line of text so it will fit into this area. You can do this either by making the font size smaller or by using the right and left handles to compress the text. Once your text fits properly within the engraving area, be sure to center the text between the left and right margins.


Figure 13: Notice that the barrel of the pen is to the left of the engraving so a right-handed person can see it while holding the pen.  

    If you want to use two lines of text in your layout then each line of text should fall between the guidelines in the engraving area (Fig. 11). Note: when it comes to engraving wooden pens, I tend to find that two lines of text is the maximum amount that will fit in a single layout. If your customer is looking for more than that, you may need to have them rethink their design or choose a different type of pen that may have more room for engraving.
    Some customers may want to have a combination of text and a logo or other image in their design. As long as there’s room in the engraving area, simply add the image to the left or right of the text (Fig. 12).
    Notice that in this example (Fig. 13) I have chosen to engrave the pen with the barrel of the pen to the left of the engraving area as this is the best position for right-handed people. If you engrave the pen with the barrel to the right then a right-handed person would not be able to see the image when they are holding the instrument.
    One of the most important techniques you can employ when working with unusual or odd-shaped items such as pens is to use a jig. This technique is very common in the rotary engraving business, but it seems to be underutilized for laser engraving.
    Remember that once you create a jig to hold the item you want to engrave, you should also create your jig setup so that your engraving area is located in the correct position on the product you want to engrave. By doing this when you make your jig you can save a lot of time down the road when you have another job that involves engraving the same item.
    For example, each time you get a new job to engrave one pen, all you’ll have to do is change the text and/or logo and fit it into the guideline area. This makes future job setups so much faster and easier and more importantly it reduces the risk of ruining a product.
    One additional thing you can do to make future jobs even easier is to place some marks on the jig. These marks should correlate with the guidelines in the CorelDRAW layout to show where the engraving area of the pen should go. In this example, there should be a mark at the 2.5" location on the jig and another one at 3.75". Again, this step is optional since we can see in our CorelDRAW layout what the proper coordinates are. If you use the same brand of pen for most of your jobs then this would be helpful. However, if you are using the jig for a lot of different pens then I’d suggest not marking the jig so it doesn’t become confusing.
    Well, that does it for this month’s CorelDRAW lesson on creating a jig for laser engraving a single pen. Next month we will look at making a jig so you can hold and engrave several pens at once. When it comes to making and using jigs, remember that they can serve more than one purpose. In addition to a holding device, they can also be a great production booster whether you’re engraving one item or a thousand!





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