Give it Soul: A Lasercut LED Typographical Planter

For the second Square Maker's Market event, I wanted to create another wall installation to celebrate the event. Initially, I had imagined something huge and wanted to build a typographical living wall. Since it was my first time experimenting with laser cutters, I was well-advised early on to "start small". I scaled my designs way down, which provided a completely new set of challenges. Instead of trying to figure out how to fit wall-sized laser-cut letters onto a 18"x24" laser bed (never mind how I might actually have to hang the thing), I was now challenged to make a small but sturdy structure wide enough to fit LEDs and plants, thin enough to fit into the condensed space, all in a cursive form.

Materials & Tools: 

- Adobe Illustrator (or your preferred design tool)
- Laser Cutter
- 18"x24"x0.25" MDF/Plywood and/or acrylic
- Acrylic cement
- Latex gloves
- Hypo-solvent applicator or syringe
- Small funnel
- Clamps
- 3M sticky velcro strips
- Moss
- LED light string & battery pack
- Sticky tack

Step 1: Designing & Sizing

Beginner's pro-tip: start with the size of your laser cutter bed. Prototype your designs on a small scale first, then you can start scaling it up. I used the 60 watt Epilog Laser Cutter at TechShop SF, which had a bed size of 18"x24". Be sure to leave 1/2"-1" around the edges for error. When laser cutting, especially with a public machine, the bed isn't always leveled, so the edges often come out uneven.

Choose your typeface and layout your type. I went with a custom hand-drawn typeface that I adapted from Xesy, a fun quirky font. To adapt the font, I roughly laid out the letters I wanted to use in Illustrator, and sketched it out on paper. By hand-drawing the letters, I could play with ligatures and make sure that the letters were thick enough, and connected in all the right places.

Vectorize your type. I scanned in my sketch (or... took an iPhone picture and imported it to Illustrator) and vectorized it. I typically recommend not using Illustrator's Live Trace, but rather outlining it by hand with the pen and pencil tools. Occasionally your photo will have enough contrast for Live Trace to get you started, but you'll often have to do a lot more work to simplify it appropriately. However you do it, vectorize your design, and make any adjustments necessary for consistency and size.

Since my final product will be just the outlines of the type, I set a 30pt stroke around the letters and aligned the stroke to the outside (see image above). When you're done adjusting your letters, go to Object > Path > Outline stroke. This will create another path for the outer stroke as well. Then change both stroke widths to 0.25pt (or whatever stroke weight is appropriate for your particular laser cutter).


Step 2: Laser Cutting

That time I thought I could make bigger letters and stitch them together later... #fail

Laser cutting takes a lot of time & patience at first. I highly recommend prototyping. There are plenty of other tutorials & classes out there detailing appropriate power and speed settings. I prototyped the first few prints on plywood to get a feel for the cutter, and to make sure that the design would hold up in real life. You can also use cardboard or paper for prototyping. 

Note on buying plywood: While TechShop and other laser cutting shops usually sell good quality plywood that works on their machines, I've found it's a bit cheaper at Home Depot. You buy it in large sheets, but they will cut it down for you. Whatever material you choose, make sure it will work with your laser cutter. 

Initially, I wanted my planter to be made entirely out of wood, but with the way I was layering pieces up for depth, acrylic looks much nicer than the burnt edges of plywood. My designs were a bit too detailed to spend much time sanding. (In the future, I might experiment with using a machine that can cut deeper than 1/4", such as CNC or waterjet, to get a thicker single-piece wood design.)

My design called for 5 layers of 80% translucent smoky black acrylic, with a solid bottom layer to hold in the moss & lights. For my bottom layer, I used a thinner slice of acrylic to save on weight & cost. If you're in SF, you can find all sorts of fun colors and materials at TAP Plastics.


Step 3: Acrylic "welding"

After having an in-depth conversation with a helpful person at TAP, I learned about an acrylic welding solvent that works way better than superglue. Be really careful with this stuff, since it actually softens the plastic and binds the plastic molecules together. Spilling or slipping can damage the material's surface, it isn't the most fun to get on your hands or any other plastic thing.

The cement will usually come with instructions. I found it best to clamp the pieces together lightly first, and glue around the edges using the hypo-solvent applicator. I recommend using metal over plastic clamps, since the solvent can weld the clamp to your material. Also be careful not to tighten the clamps too much, since they can also cause dents in the material if the solvent spills out. I recommend doing this a layer at a time, to prevent slipping. But if you're tired/lazy/crunched for time, you can clamp all of the layers together and wait a minute or two between each layer's application. It only takes a few minutes for the solvent to set, but a full 24-48 hours for it to permanently dry.


Step 4: Light it & Moss it

To make a really cool glowing effect beneath the moss, and around the edges (if you use translucent acrylic), get a small string of LEDs. The lights were spaced out every couple inches, so I bent them into loops to get more lighting per inch. Line the bottom of each letter with LEDs, and keep them stuck in there with sticky tack.

The acrylic that I used wound up being a bit too opaque, and you couldn't really see the LEDs during the day time, especially when I hung it on a bright window. Ideally, my design might have also been big enough to conceal the battery packs... But hey, there's always V2.

After I stuffed all the LED lighting in, I took a pack of lime green terrarium moss and packed as much of it in as I could to obscure the LED lights, but not so much that it was falling out.

Step 5: Hang it

Because the installation was only temporary, I had to make sure we could easily remove it. I got a few packs of medium 3M velcro strips and stuck them to the back of the acrylic. This worked well, and didn't fall during the event. It also allowed me to velcro it to another wall in the office after the event was over.

To conceal the LED battery pack, use electrical/masking/duct tape to fasten it somewhere nearby, but far enough away that it doesn't distract viewers from the sign. Turn it on and... viola! An LED-lit typographical laser cut planter wall installation.