Laser engravers are extremely precise pieces of equipment, capable of engraving and cutting complex shapes and fine detail. There are several factors to consider when laser engraving and cutting that are essential for assuring high quality results. One of the most important factors is the alignment of your artwork and cut lines. Alignment can be especially important when the final product must be engraved accurately on both sides of the piece.

This article will review alignment and registration in the context of flat sheet material, though the same principles can also be applied to other objects as well.

Those experienced with laser engravers may know that each laser engraver is built with high quality and precision in mind, however each unit has its own unique differences. Lasers normally have an origin point, or “zero point” that often represents the corner of the engraving area in which a piece of material (or substrate) can be aligned to. Imagine the engraving bed as a chart with an X and Y axis- the X axis being left to right, the Y axis being up and down. Along the edges of the X and Y axis are normally edge guides where the edges of the substrate can be aligned to, ensuring that the material will not run off of the engraving/cutting area of the laser bed.

While aligning the substrate to the laser bed guides is a good starting point for effective alignment, in some cases simply aligning to the guides may not be enough to ensure the laser will engrave or cut precisely where it needs to, especially in the case of 2-sided substrates, where the substrate needs to be flipped to the other side for a second engraving. In such a case, it can be beneficial to “bypass” the subtle alignment variations often seen in laser bed guides and instead create your own “edge guides” that will be accurate to your current laser job.

Creating an “On the Fly” Jig

It is often the case that a laser engraving job may require many of the same object to be cut out and engraved. One of the fastest and easiest ways to ensure accurate alignment is by creating an “on the fly” jig. Follow these simple steps:

  • Cut out the required product blank shapes out of the material sheets needed for the job, except for the last sheet. Set blanks sheet scraps aside.
  • Place the last material sheet in the laser bed, aligning the sheet to the laser bed guides. Tape down the edges of the sheet that are touching the laser guides using wide tape to hold the sheet in place. Cut out the final set of product blank shapes.
    • Optional: Cut out a finger grooves in the sheet for each hole to make changing blanks easier and more efficient.

  • If necessary, remove masking from the product blanks and engrave the first side of the inserts.
  • Remove only the cut out product blanks, leaving the taped sheet with cut-out holes on the laser bed. Flip the removed blanks to the back side and remove masking from the back side if necessary. Replace the blanks into the holes of the sheet with the blank side face up.

  • When finished, remove the engraved product blanks that are now engraved on both sides and set aside. Leaving the sheet with cutout blank holes taped down in the laser bed, simply repeat steps 3 and 4 for the remainder of the product blanks set aside earlier.

Creating Custom Edge Guides

If a laser job requires a product blank that needs to be flipped after engraving the front side so that the back side can also be engraved, creating a custom edge guide may be the most simple and effective way to ensure the engraving will align equally well on the back side as it does the front. In a similar fashion to how the “on-the-fly” jig worked, “custom edge guides” can also be created specifically for the laser job. Creating a custom edge guide is most economical when using a scrap sheet of material to make the edge guide. Follow these simple steps:

  • Place a scrap sheet of material onto the laser bed, aligning the edges of the material to the edge guides on the laser bed. Place pieces of tape onto the edges of the scrap sheet to ensure it is held in place up against the laser bed guides.

  • In the engraving artwork, use the edges of the engraved product and position the lines within the layout space, away from the edges of the layout page.
    • Optional: To ensure the product graphic does not move, use the locking function in the layout software to lock the graphic in place within the layout space.

  • Draw new cut lines along the edges of the product graphic. Then, temporarily hide the engraved product graphics and send only the newly created cut lines to the laser.

  • After cutting is complete, remove the excess material from the laser bed, leaving the remainder of the scrap material taped to the laser bed.

  • Align the product blank material to the taped scrap material edge piece on the laser bed. The scrap material edge piece is now your “calibrated” custom edge guide for the laser job.

  • Once the graphic is engraved, the product material can then be flipped over and aligned again to the scrap material edge piece.

  • Use the scrap material edge piece as long as necessary to engrave as many engraving jobs as needed.
  • The scrap material edge piece can continue to be used as much as needed on future engraving jobs as long as the original placement of the scrap material cut lines are preserved in the artwork file and subsequent artwork files are positioned and aligned as needed along those same cut lines.