Laser Engraving

A laser can cut or engrave various materials with extremely high precision and definition. However, small engraved features (e.g., braille dots) aren't as easy to feel (e.g., with fingertips) as relieved ones. If we scale things up enough, even engraved features become readable, but that wastes valuable real estate on the tile.

File Generation

Unlike 3D printers, which use the STL file format, most laser engravers rely on raster scanning of image formats (e.g., JPEG, Netpbm, PNG, TIFF). Using an image manipulation tool such as ImageMagick, we should be able to generate any needed raster format.

However, vector images give the engraver's support software a better starting point. For example, the software can change the stroke size on a line segment. Currently, I'm using SketchUp (a 3D modeling tool) to trace and annotate floor plans for a two-tower, multi-story complex (GDC) at UT Austin.

I export the information in PDF, which Adobe Illustrator can import, edit, and send to the engraver. I'm currently using multiple PDF files to distinguish different kinds of content. This makes it much easier to manipulate in Illustrator.


After experimenting (briefly) with birch plywood, I settled on thin (e.g., 1/16", 3/32") acrylic plastic. For an extended discussion of these issues, see Matter.


There are many ways to depict a geographic feature such as building or road. Here are a few basic ideas which could be used singly or in combination:

  • use exterior lines for boundaries
  • use interior lines for texture
  • raise or lower the entire feature

In the current project, I am only raising the features (e.g., lines, braille cells) by means of relief engraving.

Breakout Pages

These pages describe the process of generating a tile.

These pages discuss ancillary issues:


While waiting for my GlowForge unit to arrive, I have been taking courses and using engravers at TechShop. Aside from learning a lot and making good progress on the project, working with industrial-grade tools (e.g., Epilog's Fusion and Helix models) is making me a better judge of laser engravers.


This wiki page is maintained by Rich Morin, an independent consultant specializing in software design, development, and documentation. Please feel free to email comments, inquiries, suggestions, etc!

Topic revision: r75 - 10 Dec 2015, RichMorin
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