Laser Cutting Worbla – Part 1!

The Dangerous Ladies gave us this fantastic writeup on the process of Laser Cutting Worbla and what they learned. With pictures!

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So! Last week I was invited to visit Toronto Laser Services and try out laser-cutting worbla. Fun stuff, right? We had discussed it in the past and wanted to put worbla through its paces and see what it could do, and the answer is, obviously, some cool stuff.

Time for some preamble.

What is laser cutting and how does it work?

You’re basically using a laser to cut and engrave things. Imagine it sort of like a big metal box with a platform inside that can be raised/lowered as needed. This platform has a metal grate that the material sits on. Above the platform is an arm that can move across the entire surface (in this case, 28″x17″) and then a top plexiglass lid that opens and closes to access the bed. There’s a ventilation system underneath as well to draw smoke, fumes, etc, down and away.

Laser cutting is done with vector and raster files. Vector is for lines (say, the outline of a piece) and raster is for engraving (say, etching “Gary was here, Ash is a loser!” onto a piece of wood, plastic, metal, etc.) Vector is fun to watch because the arm just follows the path however it likes, and very quickly at that, while raster is very much like a printer –– it works side to side and is much slower. The intensity of the engraving laser can be changed, too, to make really shallow cuts or really deep ones.

Why would I do this?

Have you ever had a project that involved cutting out a lot of things really, really tediously? I’m sure most of us have, and there’s almost always a point in that project where one is tired of hand cramps and is looking down at a piece with a jagged line and thinking, “Fuck. Well, at least it’s useable!” and hoping no one notices. When you’re cutting stuff out by hand, the first one almost always looks immensely better than the last one: you get tired!

Laser cutting does away with that, and at lightning speeds and unparalleled precision. If you need 900 silk organza leaves cut, laser cutting can do it in an hour while you sip margaritas and occasionally reposition. If you need a bunch of intricate stuff cut out of wood, lasers can cut it out immaculately without ever having to get your fingers near a blade.

What can I cut with it?

Theoretically, almost anything that can be burned through – realistically, anything that your particular laser can achieve. Paper, acrylic, leather, fabric, wool, foam, craft foam, and now… worbla. However, certain things give off certain fumes when you cut them –– you can’t cut sintra because it contains chlorine, and chlorine will kill you. So that’s out, unfortunately.

Can I get one at home?

Not yet. At-home models are rare, still expensive, and backordered for literal years.

So where do I get things laser-cut if I don’t have access to one in my living room, Jenn? How is this helpful to me, Jenn? You’ve got me all excited but now I’m being teased, Jenn.

You go out and find laser-cutting services like I did. Obviously some cost is involved, but I’d sooner spend $15 to get a bunch of tedious stuff cut rather than spend 6+ hours doing it myself. Plus: cosplay with lasers.

Also, for low-end cutting things like paper, fabric and other super lightweight stuff, you CAN get a Silhouette Cameo, which uses blades. We are getting one soon! Isn’t that exciting?! It’s not nearly as cool as lasers, but I guess blades are still cool in a medieval sort of way. But it can’t cut worbla, so… :’)

Get to the worbla!

I’m there! Yeesh.

Theory

Last night I got to play with lasers with Edgar from TLS for four hours. Four. We spent half of that cutting things out of wood (that’s another post) and leather (that’s another post too) but there was lots of worbla too.

I initially got the idea to laser cut worbla after having seen Tiki’s bracers (and Kat laboring over them) and then seen that Volpin had already done it on his Skyrim armor. Of course Volpin had already done it! Why wouldn’t he? But that gave me incentive to be like “Hey, Edgar from Toronto Laser Services, have you cut worbla before? I hear it works and is safe, unlike sintra.”

Volpin’s notes on it were pretty limited, though. They were as follows:

  • It gets really hot so don’t try moving it until it’s cooled down again, lest it turn into a tangled gob of soft worbla as you pick it up.
  • It puts off a lot of smoke, so clean your mirrors.
  • It saves so much time.

He also did it before Black Arts even existed, so his cutting was limited to the original Brown stuff. Time to experiment, so we tested both Worbla’s Finest (I can’t write that with a straight face) and Worbla’s Black Arts (I can’t write that with a straight face either.)

So I trekked to TLS with a length of both. I had set up a testing file that morning with a bunch of different textures and shapes and engravings, and that looked like this:
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The red lines are cut lines (vector) and the black lines are engraving lines (raster.) Edgar fixed it up so it wasn’t, you know, CYMK and all crammed on one thing, but I didn’t take a picture of the rearranged file, so that’s what you get.

Our aims was to test a couple things:

  • Adding texture to worbla; could you engrave a dragon scale pattern into it? How about a quilted pattern? We were intrigued by the idea of being able to make worbla that comes in “patterns”.
  • Engraving worbla; could you engrave details into it without compromising the structure? Could they be deep enough to last the finishing process?
  • Cutting worbla; we knew it could be done but are there rules? A learning curve?

    So let’s jump into it!

    Texturing

    Texturing is neat. It lets you turn blocks of wood into stuff like the first image here, all with illustrator files and a laser cutter:
    tumblr_inline_oambzbRk3t1qhj9wo_500
    So why not try it with worbla?

    We decided to test black first with texturing, which is just an all-over engraving. Worbla isn’t terribly thick to start with so we wanted to see how far we could push it. It ended up being a bit of a balancing act –– worbla will take shallow engraving quite well, and quite beautifully, but worbla also requires a fair bit of finishing, so the worry was that any shallowly engraved detail would vanish when filled, primed and sanded. So we turned the laser intensity up to the other end of the scale… and ended up cutting right through it. Whoops. Dialed it back down a bit and found a sort of happy medium. Here’s some photos of what we ended up with:
    tumblr_inline_oamc1lTyzb1qhj9wo_500
    The second one looks a little funky there; that’s because Edgar was dialing up the laser strength as we went to see what happened. Check out the melt over the top edge of the raised parts.

    Here’s the thing, though. When you engrave worbla (and my god, is there a lot of smoke off the black stuff) you’re just burning away the surface rather than compacting it. The result is a durable but almost paper-thin worbla; not so bad if you’re just putting in some details, but if you’re trying to texturize worbla to have, say, dragon scales on it, you’re really just making the worbla untenably thin, and there’s no knowing what will happen to that pattern when it’s heat formed and shaped. You have to texturize it first, so it could get dicey.
    tumblr_inline_oamc3mXTJn1qhj9wo_500
    As such, we decided that texturing worbla is maybe not a super realistic goal. Edgar and I had the thought that it would work very very well for small detail pieces, but wouldn’t really be tenable (yet) for all-over texture. We did think, however, that laser-cutting a textured stamp with which to stamp the worbla could be a tenable alternative.

    Engraving

    Right out of the gates, I’m gonna say this is super viable. I was pretty thrilled by the results; a 1pt line looks wonderful engraved in worbla, particularly if you do it deep enough that it will survive the finishing process. (Assuming you’re one of those people that finishes the worbla surface, anyway.)

    We used a variation on my Marth mask pattern for this, one where the raised yellow details are actually engraved lines differentiating the segments. We engraved first – you always want to engrave first or work from the outside inward, because cutting a piece free from the rest of the material potentially shifts it, and you don’t want to engrave on something that’s shifted. It took maybe 5-7 minutes to do the engraving, as the laser works like a printer does, side to side, but it was neat to watch.

    We did two different depths on this one; the upper part of the mask has a shallow engrave, and the bottom part has a more dramatic engrave. I think both look nice but the top one is definitely more subtle and the bottom is far more likely to survive the process of surface finishing.
    tumblr_inline_oamcabopvD1qhj9wo_500
    And you know, I think this is wonderful for worbla. Think of all the projects where you’ve stacked craft foam, cut out these finicky little lines and then pressed worbla into those seams. That’s basically gone with this! You can just engrave, cut, adhere to your craft foam, and bam. Lots of little detail but much, much, MUCH cleaner and thinner – no need to stack craft foam, adding unnecessary bulk.

    Cutting

    Holy shit is this ever great.

    I remember working on Olivia’s neck piece and being super frustrated. No matter how tiny my embroidery scissors were, I just couldn’t cut clean, tiny curves for the details of her neck piece. They ended up somewhat choppy and I hated the way the edges looked.

    Laser cutting blows that out of the water. I intentionally set up our test file with some obscenely small, elegant little curls, and the laser cutter went through them like nothing. The result was a zillion tiny little filigrees that just need to be heated up a bit and adhered to the surface of the armor. This easily was the most impressive thing of the night –– it honestly makes me want to make a thousand little things and make delicate, intricate armor textured with laser-cut filigree. They’re so perfect, 100% identical and even, and the laser cutter doesn’t damage the adhesive nor warp them terribly. It’s incredible.
    tumblr_inline_oamcebTJGc1qhj9wo_500
    Do you remember that Daenerys dress from Game of Thrones? The blue one with gold details, the one with the gold filigree belt and shoulder pieces? Qarth or something? I remember reading cosplayers’ how-tos years ago, wherein they manually cut every little hole out with manicure scissors, all out of worbla. Kat used a similar technique with craft foam on Tiki’s bracers, but that was craft foam. Worbla is tough and frustrating to cut cleanly –– the fact that I could vector it and run the pattern through a laser cutter and end up with immaculate, symmetrical entirely-filigree belt and shoulder pieces in under an hour is mind-boggling to me.

    Standing over the laser cutter, holding these tiny little things in my hand, I thought damn, I’d seriously offer commissions on these. They’re so cool, and so very, very, very time saving.

    Also, small shapes you need a million of? Laser cutting can do that. If Kat ever wants to make another set of hand plates for a gauntlet, we can just vector and cut –– it takes 30 pieces of worbla to do a set of finger plates like our Pegasus Knight ones, and instead of taking hours to manually cut it all out, we could cut it all in literally minutes. Amazing.

    Some other discoveries

    Heat radiates in worbla quite a bit. When cutting wood, pretty much only the spot that the laser hits will burn, but with worbla, the heat sort of spreads just enough to soften the worbla. It’s not the end of the world, but it does mean that you need to wait for it to cool almost completely before handling it, lest you warp everything.

    It’s also not a super clean cut like wood or other materials. When worbla is heated it softens, so tiny residue on the edges of the cut will spread out to each other and touch just a tiny bit, meaning when it cools, it bonds again. Comparably, wood just slides away from itself and doesn’t have any adhering properties. So when you laser cut worbla and let it cool, you then need to remove the pieces from the “frame” with a tiny bit of force; pop pop pop. It doesn’t damage them, as they’re plastic and can handle a bit of pressure, but it does mean popping them all from the frame instead of just poking/dropping them out.
    tumblr_inline_oamcjjw0C11qhj9wo_500
    You have to space worbla apart a little bit more. While wood and other materials can go edge to edge –– some of my Camilla pieces were nestled so close that the lines almost touched –– worbla needs space so it doesn’t melt/overlap other pieces as the heat spreads. It’s not much space, but even a little bit of buffer helps.

    Safety.

    We did some burn tests on both kinds of Worbla to make sure they were safe to use –– lots of plastic products use chemicals like chlorine, and that’s dangerous to inhale. We found that black worbla is actually very different from regular worbla, as far as make-up goes; if you burn it with a lighter, it will eventually melt into a liquid form and just drip, and the flame is very unstable, suggesting the presence of some not-so-fun chemicals. It passed for chlorine, though, which was a positive. Regular worbla was a hell of a lot more stable; it just burned, no dripping.

    But that said, there are some other issues fume-wise. Both have a very strong smell, black worbla in particular. Volpin had warned about smoke on brown worbla but we found the smoke wasn’t too bad on it… but the black was atrocious. That stuff smoked up so much it actually obscured what we could see through the plexiglass.
    tumblr_inline_oamc8iPtS21qhj9wo_500
    Compare that with cutting wood:
    tumblr_inline_oamc98C2bx1qhj9wo_500

    Wait one second, Jenn, how much does this cost?

    Toronto Laser Services charges a $15 set-up fee and $1/min for laser time. For engraving this can take a fair bit of time, but for cutting, it’s lightning fast. I mean, those 14 filigrees in the images/gifs above took about a minute. That’s pretty damn affordable. That’s very much worth my time if I don’t have to cut that stuff myself with my own two crappy hands.
    Conclusion

    Lasers are fun. That’s all. I hope you enjoyed how much fun lasers are.

    Many thanks to Edgar and the rest of Toronto Laser Services for making this lunacy possible. Many thanks to Shazz, too, for helping me vector a bunch of shit last-minute for the wood, as well as vectoring the filigrees!

    – Jenn

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    Part two is now up and can be found here!
    This is part of our Laser Cutting Worbla Resources list! You can see more here.

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