lasercutter-01

How to Use a Laser Cutter – The Essentials

How does a Laser Cutter Work?
Preparing Your File
Setting Up Your Work
Tips

Hand-made models are great but at some point, precision becomes very important. There are some people who are very good at making models by hand quickly and precisely, but using the laser cutter can help save time, if you know what you’re doing. This article will go over some essential steps you need to know to prepare your file for laser cutting. 

Where to start

Laser cutting machines work by reading vector files. The technician will help you to use the software for the laser cutter but before that you need to prepare the file as a DWG. You can use AutoCAD, Sketchup, Rhino, Illustrator etc. Any vector program that lets you draw 2D. Check out our CAD 101 post to understand file types. 

How Does a Laser Cutter Work?

A focused laser beam follows ‘instructions’ from the computer to cut shapes, engrave and scribe. The beam goes through a lens/mirror which helps to focus the beam and get the precise cut you want. The intensity, heat output and length of the beam can be controlled and set according to the material you are using. Speak to the technician regarding the material as not all machines are the same. 

If you are interested in all the details about these, this is a great post which explains it in more detail.

There are three types of laser cutters:
– CO2 laser cutting
– Crystal laser cutting
– Fibre laser cutting

Preparing Your File

You can do this in most CAD programs, Sketchup, Autocad, Rhino, Illustrator etc. For this example we will be using Rhino.

1.Scale your work

If you are drawing out pieces for a model then your work is fine at a 1:1 scale e.g 200mm on the drawing, is 200mm. However if you have a site plan thats at 1:1 you need to scale everything down to the scale you plan to make your model. e.g 1:50

2.Organise your layers

Make 3 new layers: Board, Cut, Engrave. Select the objects and move them onto the correct layerSelect the objects and move them onto the relevant layer 

3. Set up your board

First of all; you need to know the dimensions of the laser cutting machine. The maximum of the one we use is 590X820. This will help you to figure out the dimensions of your drawing board. You obviously can’t go over that, and if you decide to have your board as the full size; it’s recommended that you leave a tolerance of a few mm, around 2/5. This depends on your machine- speak to the technician before you sort out your board.

Place your line work on the board that you have drawn. Things can get a little complicated and you are likely to get confused with your pieces so it is recommend that you mark them. It might be a little time consuming but it is worth it. Put the markings on a different layer and call it ‘engraving’

Select and export as a DWG or DXF
Need to recapture

2.Preparing to cut

The following may differ for different systmes, so make sure you speak to the technician about templates and settings for the laser cutter. However in general you print from Adobe Illustrator.

1. Fix the colour of the lines, they should be RGB- RED cut and BLUE Engrave
2. Select all and place on to a single layer

Move all objects on to one layer
Delete the empty layers

3. Change lineweight to 0.1pt

File is ready to cut. Save it as an .ai (Adobe Illustrator file) and also make sure to back up as a DWG/DXF file.

Note: Remember to remove the board out line once you have the correct artboard size.

Tips

  • Mark your work after it has been cut out so you know where to place your pieces
  • Make sure your material is clean and to try minimise burn marks cover the surface with a specific type of backing paper (workshops usually offer this) but if they don’t you can use low tack masking tape.

*this can be a bit time consuming if you have a lot of detailed engravings as the machine will cut them but you can weigh the benefits*

Usually you will have a workshop technician to guide you through the process and make sure you’re allowed to use that machine so if you have any doubts you can always ask them.

Leave a comment below letting us know what you think the best ways of using a laser cutting machine are, and tag us on Instagram with photos of your laser cut models to get featured!

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Towards a Sustainable Studio

Over recent years, sustainability has been a recurring subject in studio, practice, education, and research. People want to take part in creating a more sustainable world to live in, but there are times where taking on sustainability feels as a small but difficult task to do.

This is especially prevalent  in studio and academia, since it might seem as if there is no significant impact when the project – or discussion – stays as a conceptual idea. But, what if instead of talking about sustainable methods, one can find a way to practice it? Instead of leaving it at a conceptual state, there are ways where one can start making small, easy decisions that would expand how we understand and talk about sustainability.

Reuse, Reduce, Recycle

Almost every person knows about the ‘three R’s’; Reuse, Reduce and Recycle, which is what sustainability consists of, but there is another verb, to repurpose, which essentially sums up what these three words intend to do. Even though adding ‘repurposing’ to the repertoire does not change the scale or outcome of the projects, it serves as an active process of taking action on sustainability. 

When referring to an active process, instead of a passive process, it means that one is automatically looking for a reason to repurpose. Instead of recycling or reducing materials, if you actively decide to repurpose something, you are challenged to think on how something will be transformed and given another use or meaning. When using the phrase “to repurpose”, one explicitly determines what will happen, where it starts and what is the outcome.

That mindset would start the groundwork for a different perspective on how to take on sustainability. Although, in academia, there may still not be a big or realistic result, it serves as an exercise for oneself that can, again, create a basis for a different mindset.The concept of repurposing already exists, be it remodeling a building, or historical preservation, those are ways in which architects take on sustainability by repurposing what they are working with.  

In the studio

How can students themselves act on sustainability within the circumstances or pressures the studio or academia puts on them. The immediate thought when it comes to architecture studios, is the fun, but sometimes dreadful and expensive model making. One thing students sometimes underthink or do not analyze much is how model making can actually serve as an experimental tool for the design.

Most of the time, students imagine and tell themselves that the models need to be an exact physical representation of what the project is. Which, really is not the point. Instead, students should re-imagine and experiment with the different ways things can be represented. And this is a great example of where one can repurpose materials or objects. 

On a more personal note, one of my previous studios had a big part of the semester concentrated in models for the sake of models. This allowed me, together with my other architecture students to experiment freely without many limitations other than the ones that exist when modelmaking, resources, money, and of course, gravity.

It also let me create models of materials that are not that common or standard in architecture studios. This allowed me to create the model that I am most proud of; a model made out of more than 3,000 toothpicks. Yes, it does not actually serve an architectural purpose, but the possibilities are endless. 

So what can we do to be sustainable?

Now, before deviating from the main purpose of this article, what I want for readers to take from this anecdote is that if you want an opportunity to act, or a sustainable approach, try creating a model out of repurposed materials. Look at the resources you have, and ask yourself how this can turn into a representation of the project.

The toothpicks idea was far from representing architecture. But that is where you need to challenge yourself on how you can transform or use something to your advantage. And simply enough, that is repurposing. And if the start of this article did resonate with you, then you already know that repurposing is just the start of acting sustainably and there are a million ways to take it further.

This article was written by a community member!

Learn more about José Alfredo López Villalobos on our Writers page.

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Beginner’s Guide to Model Making

Concept model for the Sir John Soane’s Institute of the
Picturesque (3rd year’s project).
Materials: White thin card paper, PVA
All details cut by laser cut.

There have been a lot of discussions going on in terms of architectural drawing as a primarily media for architectural education. While model making seems undertaught in architectural education, it is a brilliant skill to have for your further career in architecture. Model making is one of the most effective ways to present the proposal in competition layout and is used heavily to ‘win over’ the client. As I have been working in model making previously, I would like to share some knowledge and some tips to boost your skill in model making.

Where to start?

Model making can be intimidating to a lot of students who prefer to work through drawing or 3D modelling software. It can take a lot of time and materials do cost money. I like to remember the saying, ‘think seven times before you cut’, which is one of the good principles to set your mind to in model making. 

Don’t try to fit all in one.

Similar to architectural drawing, models also serve different purposes. It can be a concept model to convey your idea, it can be a technical model, it can be a proposal model for a competition etc. It is important to understand what purpose your model will serve before you start making it. Don’t try to fit the massing model within a final proposal model.

Where to begin?

Concept model for the Royal Doulton Pottery centre.
Inspired by the geometry of Art Deco. (2nd year’s
project)
Materials: Gray carboard, tracing paper, PVA glue.
All details cut by hand.

When you have decided what your model is for, test your idea in a sketch. I prefer to use gray cardboard for this exercise. The reason you should make test models is similar to drawing – before you make the actual model, it is important to consider if it will work. There is nothing more disappointing than starting a final model and running into unsolved issues. For instance, material thickness, joinery of the materials or change in design. As I previously mentioned, materials cost a lot of money and by making sketch models from cheap materials, it can prevent you from unnecessary expenses in architecture school.

Another reason why it is important to test ideas in sketch models is because it is a good medium to create conversation about your design. It also helps the staff of the university’s workshop to guide you if you are in doubt.

Construction

Do not underestimate the skill of constructing a model. Working in professional model making practice I have understood that model making is essentially constructing your proposal. I can agree that those students who tried to make their model for the first time without testing the idea first usually fail in this attempt as the construction part of the model was not thought through. Like building construction, you need to find the technique as well as the style of model that suits your proposal the most.

It also does not necessarily mean that you should start with the foundation. There are occasions when it is preferred to start building a model ‘inside – out’ starting with the most detailed part and moving towards peripheral details. Thisway you ensure that you can construct the parts that will be much more difficult to make after smaller parts are done. 

Come up with a good plan

Make a good, realistic plan for your model and leave some spare time daily. Constructing a model requires a lot of concentration and steady hands. Also, it is easier to make less mistakes when you are not rushing the process. Another reason to leave spare time and set realistic targets is inevitable mistakes that happen even to professional model makers. It is also less hard on your mental health if you have extra time to fix these mistakes.

How to choose the right materials? It is important to understand what materials would be suitable to your final model as well as the qualities of those materials and what you can do with it or represent.

For instance, if you would like to use concrete mix for your proposal model, you should research the ratio of mix to make sure it is structurally sound for your model. It also will need reinforcement bars as elasticity for concrete is very limited. 

Be resourceful with your materials! Being resourceful in terms of materials is very important. It becomes very important if you are assigned to make a model in your career path. If you are using laser-cut technology, which most architecture students do (to some extent), try to place your files (if not using full sheet) in a way that you can re-use the material. Talking from personal experience, it is upsetting to see students cut one small detail in the middle of a material sheet. It makes it much harder to arrange new details on the sheet if a student decides to re-use the material. 

This does not apply only to materials that students use for laser cut parts. Being resourceful of the materials will become very important if you will be assigned to make a model in your practice. 

Using technology in model making. It is common to use different technologies to speed up the process of model making. It is widely used in professional model making practices as well. Skill to know how to use this technology will become quite an important asset in your CV. Before using laser cutting machines, 3D printers or CNC, make sure you have enough knowledge in theory. Also it is a good thing to discuss your intended use of technology with workshop staff or manager. It will help you to understand the right way to model your details in software as well as what kind of 3D printing would be the most suitable to your intended outcome.

Technical model for the Royal Doulton Pottery Centre. (2nd
year’s project)
Used materials: MDF, Perspex, stainles steel tubes, brass rods,
spray paint.
All model made out of re-used MDF found University’s
workshop.

Make your files ready for the workshop staff! And double check them if they are in the correct scale beforehand.If you are using the University’s workshop, make sure your files are ready if you are going to use some type of technology in your model making process. There is nothing more frustrating for workshop staff than students who come unprepared or may not have a plan or any create the model that is intended. 

For laser cut – make sure your file is “clean” – make sure there are no double lines, lines are not overlapping, file is the right scale.

Material thicknesses and tolerances. Model making and modelling your proposal in 3D software are two very different things. Even if you have modelled a ‘perfect’ 3D model it might not fit together that easily when making it. It is better to test it beforehand as different machinery is set differently as well as different material tolerances can lead you to not so ‘perfect’ outcome as you see on your screen.

Joinery and adhesion methods. One of the most important aspects of constructing a model is to work out how materials will be joined. There are different ways of the joinery and adhesion methods. 

  • MDF + MDF = Gorilla glue/ super glue
  • MDF + Perspex = super glue
  • Plywood + Plywood = PVA/ Gorilla glue
  • Plywood + MDF = PVA/ Gorilla glue
  • Plywood + Perspex – super glue
  • Perspex + Perspex = plastic weld

Thank you to Elina for giving us some awesome tips on creating amazing models. We hope current and future students can benefit from some of this insight. If you have any questions or have made models using these tips, be sure to let us know over on Instagram.