I visited the San Francisco TechShop today, taking a basic class on laser cutting and engraving.


TechShop is a membership-based chain of public workshops. They seem to be well run and have a cooperative attitude:

TechShop is a vibrant, creative community that provides access to tools, software, and space. You can make virtually anything at TechShop. Come and build your dreams!

TechShop is a playground for creativity. Part fabrication and prototyping studio, part hackerspace and part learning center, TechShop provides access to over $1 million worth of professional equipment and software. We offer comprehensive instruction and expert staff to ensure you have a safe, meaningful, and rewarding experience. Most importantly, at TechShop you can explore the world of making in a collaborative and creative environment.


They have nine locations at present, including ones in TX (Austin), CA (Los Angeles, Redwood City, San Francisco, San Jose), AZ, MI, PA, and VA. The locations tend to be in industrial neighborhoods. The SF TechShop, for example, is located near 5th & Howard, about three blocks Southwest of the Powell St. BART station.


A month of membership costs $150 ($95 for students) and allows use of any of their locations, typically on a 24/7 basis. (I've asked them to consider offering another discount for senior citizens. :-)


The shops have lots of tooling, but I was there for the lasers. The SF shop has four Epilog Helix Laser Cutters and a few units made by Trotec and Universal. The Epilogs are entry-level units: medium power (40 or 60 watt CO2 laser), etc. Although they Epilogs can only be reserved for two hours per day, they can be used for longer than that if nobody has a conflicting request.

The Trotecs cost $10/hour, but can be reserved for several hours. I chatted with a guy who was using a Trotec to engrave slate coasters with football play diagrams. He thinks the extra cost is worthwhile for the Trotecs' power, speed, and availability. Also, because they get used less (and more gently), they tend to be in somewhat better condition than the Epilogs.

Each cutter has an associated computer running Adobe Illustrator on (sigh) M$ Windows. Despite my lack of familiarity with this environment, I was able to work my way through the prescribed set of control panels to setup and configure the "print driver" and produce my pieces.


At least one staff member is present at all times. They can provide help in using and maintaining the tools. For example, let's say an Epilog user notices that the cutter's mirror needs cleaning. Rather than trying to clean the mirror, the user is supposed to ask a staff member to do so. This seems quite reasonable, assuming adequate responsiveness.


TechShop offers several classes on laser cutting. I took "Laser Cutting Safety and Basic Usage - Epilog". This qualifies me to operate any Epilog at any TechShop location. IMHO, I got my money's worth. In fact, I went back for another course: "Advanced Laser Cutting and Etching Techniques - Epilog".

The Class

The class lasted for two hours and cost $80. It alternated nicely between explanations, demonstrations, and hands-on learning. The presenter had been using Epilogs for about three years and was very competent. Although he couldn't answer some of my pickier questions, I can't fault him for that: He's a volunteer, not an Epilog technical representative!

Safety First

I was a bit disappointed to learn that the cutters require constant supervision, meaning: don't walk off, sit facing the other direction, or try to run more than one cutter at a time. Apparently, cutters often set materials on fire; an alert user can put out the fire, call for help from the staff or 911, etc.

The site has lists of acceptable and unacceptable materials. This is a Good Thing; it isn't always obvious what will be OK. Some plastics, for example, give off Chlorine gas! Others sag badly, etc. Acrylic plastic, cardboard, and wood all work well (unless the user lets them catch on fire :-), so I expect to use them a lot.

Trial Runs

We were told to do a lot of tiny trial runs, noting combinations of settings that seem to work well. Once this is out of the way, a full run can generally be done with predictable quality, safety, etc.

Usage Modes

The Epilog can either cut and engrave (i.e., cut partway through the material). It has two basic modes: raster and vector. In raster mode, the carriage sweeps back and forth, enabling the laser beam as needed. This mode is only used for engraving.

Vector mode moves the laser on a specified path, cutting or engraving as specified by the combination of configuration settings and material characteristics. That is, material M will be cut to a certain depth by power P at pulse repetition frequency F, X/Y speed S, etc. It's also possible to cut deeper by making multiple passes.

We will be using mostly raster mode for Utiles. Basically, we'll "print" an image, telling the Epilog to cut away everything that we don't want in the finished Utile. So, for example, braille dots, streets, and buildings will rise up out of a flat surface. Then, we'll use vector mode to add 3-ring binder holes and finally cut the Utile free of the original sheet.

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: r5 - 13 Nov 2015, RichMorin
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