October 3, 2017

The Glowforge Laser Cutter


After 2 years eagerly waiting, the Glowforge laser cutter has arrived.  This remarkable machine can etch, engrave, and cut a wide variety of materials with an enormous amount of precision.  But what truly makes this tool special is how easy it is to use.  The most difficult part perhaps is connecting the machine to wifi.  It is unable to connect to the UW network, so any time we use it we must set up some device as a mobile hotspot and go through the process of connecting to the machine.  Once we find a more permanent solution I will make a post about it.

Once connected, the Glowforge user interface is remarkably easy to use.  There is no need to install any software, the Glowforge User Interface (GFUI) is accessible via web browser, and is connected to the camera inside the Glowforge so we can see the material we are printing on, and drag and drop the images we desire to print or cut directly onto it.  To demonstrate we follow the first tutorial and select the ruler from the library on the homepage, and put hard maple inside the machine.  We see the following on our screen:

Click print, and 5 minutes later:

But within the GFUI we can also make edits to our images, upload new images, and even add several layers to one file which can treated differently by the laser cutter.  To illustrate this let us walk through the process of making the fractal coasters in the image at the top of the page.  First we select the blank hex coasters (set of six) from the Glowforge app homepage, which takes us into the GFUI where the red outlines of 6 coasters appear.  I then did a simple google image search for each fractal, and downloaded the images that looked best without worrying too much about size, or even file extensions.  Then the the GFUI I selected the Add Artwork button, and chose the fractal images, dragging them and resizing them to fill the empty hexagons:

Notice on the left hand side, under each layer it says ignore.  I will go into this more in a moment, but for now know that this is where you change the printing settings for this layer.  What was incredible, is that of these 6 images, I only had to do any image prep on one of them before uploading to the GFUI.  Once in the GFUI, select your desired settings (I will go into the specific settings I used for each layer below), insert your desired material to the Glowforge (I used hard maple plywood), and click print.  Then if you’re like me and look down at some grading to pass the time, you may glance at the Glowforge a few minutes later and have your jaw drop:

This was the first time I attempted anything so detailed, and not only that, this Julia set was a black and white PNG that I downloaded from google images without really worrying about the size.  This was also the first try, and I was expecting to have to fidget with the settings before getting anything nearly this nice looking.  And as the printing continued each image came out in beautiful detail, whether it was a PNG, JPG, or SVG, with no outside prep whatsoever!

After it engraved each image, it cut out each hex coaster leaving us with the beautiful set.  The whole process took maybe 90 minutes.

Settings By Layer:

I’m not even exaggerating, the setting selections were really as minimal as they look.

Mandlebrot Set:

100 KB PNG file

Engrave manual, speed: 1000, power: 90%, fill with dots.

Flower of Life:

89 KB PNG file

Engrave by color: dark.

Koch Snowflake:

1.3 MB SVG Document

Before uploading to the GFUI, I opened the file in Inksape, and just edited the path, deleting the stroke and adding a light grey fill.

Once in the GFUI I chose engrave by color: light.

Metatron’s Cube:

103 KB PNG File

Engrave by color: dark.

Sierpinski Triangle:

47 KB PNG File

Engrave by color: dark.

Julia Set:

454 KB PNG File

Engrave manual, speed: 1000, power: 90%, fill with dots.


So in all honesty I lied when I said above that I selected layer settings and clicked print.  I believe that this should work, but the image processing was taking too long and I was getting impatient, and I believe it is because there were too many layers increasing the time of the image processing steps.  So instead I printed each layer one by one.  To do this, we choose the layer we want to print next, decide on the settings for that layer, and set every other layer to Ignore.  Print that layer, and then without opening the Glowforge, just set the printed layer to Ignore, and decide on the settings for the next layer you would like to print.  I saved cutting out the coasters for last so that all the engraving would be done on one solid piece of wood.