I have been making 3D prints on the MakerBot for almost a year now (see my posts tagged MakerBot for more detail) and have always wanted to try doing things with a laser cutter, but felt intimidated. First off, to actually own a laster cutter is a pretty big investment — like a brand new luxury compact car investment. There are shops around that offer laser cutting services, but because they typically cater to industrial designers that know their stuff and not home hobbyists, going that route did not seem comfortable. TechShop opened in Portland, which was promising, until it quickly closed. But more recently, online services like Ponoko have made laser cutting much more appealing to the home hobbyist.
There are two things that make Ponoko less intimidating, and more appealing, than trying to find a machine shop with a laser cutter. First, they offer up free (and paid, too) designs to download. These allow you to look at samples that other people have designed and learn from them. You can just send one of those off to be printed if you really just want experience on the printing and materials side, without stressing out too much about the design. Second, their upload service performs some quality evaluations of your design. It checks for basic design errors and gives you an instant estimate. Add to those things a great community — blog, forums, and comments attached to designs — and you have an inviting place for laser cutting.
My “Hello World” design was half someone else’s and half mine. I started with a basic bamboo coaster holder plan. Someone else designed this, but they designed it for a material thickness that Ponoko no longer offers. I had to download the file and make some basic tweaks to the hole sizes so that the pegs would fit. I felt this was a nice and simple task within my current skill level. (And it was.) The other half of the project was a set of four coasters to fit in the holder. I designed these from scratch, though they are even easier. They take a heavy line for cutting the circles, and a lighter set of lines for engraving. I used shapes that I had on hand for the etching designs: the Sakkara Clothing & Costume logo and a few Unicode dingbats: a circled open center eight-pointed star (❂), biohazard (☣), and coffee cup (☕). The results turned out pretty well. And the burnt cork still smells like the wood-burning kit I had as a kid.