Step-by-Step: How to Create Hand-Drawn Vectors for Lasercutting

Guaranteed way to get a completely free vector image to use in your work 🙂

Laser-cut hand-drawn flower vector
Laser-cut hand-drawn flower vector

The previous article described how to use ready-made stock vector images for lasercutting work, but sometimes (depending on how the artist created the original image) it can still take several hours of ‘tweaking’ to make them suitable for your own project.

What if you already know the sort of design you want, and could draw it quickly by hand but you’re stuck with using a mouse or trackpad that doesn’t quite do the job? This article will show a quick way to create hand-drawn vector images for your lasercutting projects, that you know will be exactly right for your work because you created them. Plus they’re original and you don’t need to pay anyone for the rights to use them!

You will need:

  • White paper
  • Thick black pen (e.g. a Sharpie, or I just get cheap markers from Wilko)
  • Drawing software (e.g. I use CorelDraw, or you could use Illustrator or others)

Step 1: Use the thick black pen to draw your designs.

Flower shapes for lasercutting, drawn with a thick black pen
Hand-drawn florals: thick black pen on white paper.

Step 2: Scan or photograph your hand-drawn image, and save it somewhere that you’ll be able to retrieve it from your drawing application.

Step 3: Open your drawing software and import the image (in CorelDraw use Ctrl + I, and in Illustrator I think it’s File > Place)

Photo of hand-drawn flowers has been imported into CorelDraw
Photo of hand-drawn flowers has been imported into CorelDraw

 

Step 4: Now you basically need to get the software to turn your photo (millions of pixels) into vectors (hundreds of coordinates), so you’ll be able to create a design that your laser can cut. In CorelDraw you can do this by selecting the image and then go to Bitmaps > Quick Trace. (In Illustrator it’s called Live Trace.) The software then simplifies blocks of colour and turns them into separate objects:

The black parts of the image have automatically been changed into black objects with smoother outlines.
The black parts of the image have automatically been changed into black objects with smoother outlines.

 

Step 5: (Optional) The software doesn’t always get the conversion exactly right, so you might end up with an object made up of a couple of layers of colour (in the case below, there is a solid black flower outline, with some grey petal shapes on top of it, instead of being made of thin black outlines). In CorelDraw it’s easy to ungroup the object (Ctrl + U), and then highlight the group of object (e.g. the flower in this case) and go into Arrange > Shaping > Back Minus Front.

Left-hand flower looks like one object ready for lasercutting, but it's actually made up of a big black shape with six grey shapes on top of it.
Left-hand flower looks like one object, but it’s actually made up of a big black shape with six grey shapes on top of it.

 

Hand-drawn flower vector ready for lasercutting. Grey shapes have been removed, so the flower is now one object made of black lines.
Grey shapes have been removed, so the flower is now one object made of black lines.

 

Step 6: (Optional) If you want, you can copy shapes and/or move or re-size them until you have the design that you want.

hand-drawn florals combined.gif

 

Step 7: If you want to cut the shapes then make sure they have a thin or hairline-width outline, but if you just want to etch the shapes then they don’t need the thin outline:

Hand-drawn flower vectors with thin blue outlines, ready for laser cutting
Hand-drawn flower vectors with thin blue outlines

 

Step 8: (Optional) If you have combined several shapes in one design, you may need to ‘weld’ them together before you cut them. The laser cutter will cut anything that has a thin outline, and so in the example above, the three flowers would be cut out separately. To make sure the laser sees all of the flowers as one design and not as individual objects to cut out, you can use the ‘weld’ function (in CorelDraw it’s Arrange > Shaping > Weld.)

Hand-drawn flowers with one outline, ready for laser cutting
Hand-drawn flowers with one outline (compare the middle flower with the previous picture), ready for laser cutting

The design should now cut properly.

Laser-cut hand-drawn flower vectors
Laser-cut hand-drawn flower vectors (smaller and larger versions)

Step by Step: How to Create Marquetry With A Laser Cutter

Marquetry is the art of applying thin veneers of wood to another (usually also wood) surface, to create a design. 

The method below is a fairly quick and ‘cheaty’ way to make marquetry-effect designs with a laser cutter.

laser-cut marquetry heart
laser-cut marquetry heart

Marquetry is the art of applying thin veneers of wood to another surface (usually also wood), to create a design.

The method below is a fairly quick and ‘cheaty’ way to make marquetry-effect designs with a laser cutter. I may write a post later on a different method, but in the meantime:

First you need at least two different types of wood, in different shades. One should be a very thin veneer-thickness wood (e.g. approx 1mm or 1/32in thick). The other should be at least twice as thick as the veneer wood (e.g. approx 2mm or 1/16in thick).

For example, your thicker piece could be a light birch wood, and the darker wood could be a special veneer wood.

The wood I used in this case comes from www.wood-supplies.com.  I’m not 100% certain which wood I used, but I think it was a sheet of 1/8in thick mahogany and a strip of 1/32in thick boxwood:

1/8in mahogany wood sheet and 1/32in boxwood strip
1/8in mahogany sheet and 1/32in boxwood strip

You will need:

 

Step 1: Create a design with whatever software you happen to use for your laser system (e.g. I use CorelDraw). I am making a simple flower design here, so I’m going to draw a basic flower with a circle ‘insert’ for the middle:

Marquetry flower design for laser cutter
Marquetry flower design for laser cutter.

 

Note: As well as the design above, I also needed to design an ‘insert’ shape to put in the round hole above. So I duplicated the black circle and gave it an outline (see step 2 for illustration).

 

Step 2: Cut the insert shape from the veneer- thickness wood. (If it’s a very small piece, make sure you include a ‘sprue’ in the design, so it doesn’t drop through the cutting bed. For more info on creating sprues, please check out this article.)

Centre of laser-cut marquetry flower
Centre of laser-cut marquetry flower

Step 3: measure the thickness of the piece you just cut.

Laser-cut circle of boxwood is 0.79mm thick
Circle of boxwood is 0.79mm thick

Step 4: (Optional) If you’re starting from scratch then etch a test piece first. Measure how deep the etching is, then adjust the power/speed settings as necessary. You need to etch just a little bit deeper than the depth of the thin (veneer wood) piece. This is to take into account the layer of glue that will be used. So if your measurement of the veneer wood piece was 1mm thick, then you need to etch the design into the thicker wood so that the etched design is approx 1.2mm deep.

If there is too much charring or the etching doesn’t go deep enough even on 100% power, you may need to etch the same design again on top of the first etching, but perhaps on a slightly lower power setting. (e.g. if your veneer is 1mm thick but the etching is only 0.7mm deep, then you can etch the same design again but using less power the second time, or the second etching will be too deep.) Tip: DO NOT MOVE the piece of wood when you are measuring it, because if you need to etch again to go deeper then you want to make sure the second etch goes in exactly the same place as the first etch.

Depth of laser-etched circle has been measured with micrometer
Tip: To measure the depth of the laser-etched circle, you can use the little gauge that sticks out of the end of the micrometer.

 

Step 5: Etch the design (the small circle, in this example) into the thicker wood. As mentioned above, you need to etch very slightly deeper than the thickness of the thinner (veneer wood) piece, to take account of the glue later. So if your measurement of the veneer wood piece was 1mm thick, then you need to etch the design into the thicker wood so that the etched design is approx. 1.2mm deep. Tip: If you’re etching twice, DO NOT MOVE the piece of wood after the first etch, because the etched design will be out of position when the finished design is cut.

Step 6: Cut the outer shape (the flower shape, in this example) from the thicker wood. Again, my laser and wood will be different to yours so I haven’t given the power/speed settings here, but if you are cutting the thicker wood for the first time then try a test piece first.

Etch the circle to the correct depth first, then cut out the shape.
Etch the circle to the correct depth first, then cut out the shape.

 

 

Step 7: Apply a very thin layer of glue inside the etched design.

Spreading a thin layer of glue in the laser-etched hole in the wooden flower.
Spread a thin layer of glue in the etched hole

 

Step 8: Insert the thin veneer piece into the etched hole, and leave the glue to dry (time will depend on the glue manufacturer’s guidelines).

A circle of lighter-coloured wood has been inserted into the laser-etched circle shape in the darker wood.
Lighter-coloured wood has been inserted into the etched shape.

Step 9: Sand the surface of the marquetry piece so that the different woods are exactly level with each other and show no scorch marks from the laser.

Finished laser-cut marquetry flower. (I should have taken more care to make sure the two grains followed the same direction though...)
Finished laser-cut marquetry flower. (I should have taken more care to make sure the two grains followed the same direction though…)

That’s it! Hope you liked the article. If you have any comments or questions, please feel free to share them in the comments section, or via the contact form.

 

 

 

 

 

Using “Sprues” in Laser Cutting Projects

How to fix common laser cutting problems: Add sprues to your designs…

Laser-cut paper shapes with "sprues" still connecting them to the paper.
Laser-cut paper shapes still connected to the paper via “sprues”

What is a “sprue”, and why should I use them with my lasercutting designs?

Sprues are most commonly seen in injection-moulded plastic toys. For a fuller description check out the Wikipedia definition, but briefly:

In the image below they are the little links that connect the plastic toy components. They are created as part of the moulding process, but the useful secondary function of sprues is that they hold the components securely in position within a plastic frame, until you twist or cut the components out. So in the image below, you can see that the actual toy pieces are held safely in place until the user needs them, rather than the pieces just rattling around in a box or falling on the floor and getting lost.

Example of injection-moulding sprues
Example of injection-moulding sprues. (Creative commons image – Please click photo for link to image information)

 

 

In laser cutting projects, you often need to cut small pieces out of a light material such as paper, card, plastic or wood. But if they are smaller than the holes in the cutting bed of the laser machine, the pieces often fall through the holes and are lost as soon as they have been cut. Similarly if the machine blows or sucks air as part of the cutting process then very small pieces can just fly away.

Oh no! 75% of my laser-cut wooden circles have dropped through the cutting bed!
Oh no! 75% of my circles have dropped through the cutting bed!

So we need a way to cut the pieces, but to stop them falling down or blowing away. One solution is to include sprues in the cutting designs. (Generally speaking, they will be useful if the piece to be cut is less than 1cm squared, or if anything is being cut from a piece of paper.)

Sprues can be created very quickly and easily in most vector-based drawing software (e.g. Photoshop or CorelDraw). I happen to use CorelDraw, but the principles are the same for most other apps/programs:

Step 1: Make sure that you can edit curves and manipulate/add nodes on the cutting path of the design. (In CorelDraw it is the “Shape Tool” that allows you to do this.)

CorelDraw shape tool screenshot
CorelDraw shape tool screenshot

 

Note: If you can’t see any nodes to edit, you may need to convert the shape to curves first (e.g. by right-clicking the mouse and selecting “Convert to Curves”):

Screenshot of CorelDraw "convert to curves" function
Screenshot of CorelDraw “convert to curves” function

 

Step 2: Zoom in really close to the object (e.g. so that a 3mm line fills the whole screen), then add two new nodes as close to an existing node as you can manage:

Screenshot of CorelDraw adding nodes to curve
Screenshot from CorelDraw: adding nodes to curve

 

Step 3: Select the middle node of the three nodes that are very close together, and then break the path of the curve. (e.g. by right-clicking and choosing “Break Apart”):

Screenshot of CorelDraw adding nodes to curve
Screenshot from CorelDraw: breaking a curve

 

 

Step 4: That middle node should have broken in two, so take one of the two resulting nodes and drag it about half a millimetre outside the curve. Then do the same for the other new node. This creates a small break in the cutting line, so that when you the cut piece it should now remain fixed in place until you are ready to push or tear it from the material you were cutting.

Screenshot of CorelDraw with broken curve
Screenshot from CorelDraw with broken curve

 

Screenshot of curve with sprue at the top
Screenshot of object with sprue at the top

 

Step 5: Push or pull the object out of the sheet of material that it is fixed in.

(You may need a knife or scissors to help cut it free, and then a file or a knife to cut away any extra material that is not required.)

Extra material at the top of the laser-cut paper flower can be cut with scissors
Extra material at the top of the flower can be cut off with scissors

 

That’s it! I hope you liked this article. If you have any comments or questions, please feel free to share them in the comments section, or via the contact form.