By Debbie Adams
The Vinton Branch Library now has its own Glowforge— a 3D laser printer which cuts and engraves a wide variety of materials. It is a crafting tool used to create decorative and artistic projects, although there are utilitarian uses as well, such as designing wooden, acrylic, or metal signs or making jewelry.
Theirs is the only Glowforge in the Roanoke County library system and will soon be available for public use.
Library Assistant Bryce Chalkley is the “unofficial Glowforge guy” at the library, although all the staff is learning how to use the new equipment with hands-on training.
Chalkley presented an introductory course for the community at the library on February 5, to “whet the appetite” of potential Glowforge users.
Unlike a 3D printer that builds up objects with tiny layers of material, such as plastic filament, in an additive process, the Glowforge works by subtraction. It reduces layers of whatever material is being used in cutting or engraving, carving out the desired product using laser light. Chalkley compared it to an artist sculpting marble.
It has been described by members of the online Glowforge community as a “top-down laser-powered sculptor,” in fact.
Glowforge uses a beam of light to cut designs from wood, fabric, leather, paper, Plexiglas (acrylic), Delrin (acetal), mylar, rubber, cork, Corian, foods (like chocolate), and more. It can engrave all of the above, plus glass, coated metal, marble, anodized aluminum, titanium, some phones, tablets, and laptops, and more.
“It’s limited only by your imagination,” said Chalkley.
He shared information on the Glowforge with those who attended the overview presentation. The Glowforge printer currently sits atop a table with a compact tube filter attached underneath for ventilation. Chalkley says he isn’t sure exactly where in the library the printer will be located permanently. That decision is still to be made. There is some minor detectable odor (like burnt wood) as designs are cut or engraved, so it is used with the tube filter in a well-ventilated area, or outside.
Its motorized laser head controls motion precisely up to 1,000th of an inch and can cut to the width of a human hair. Its mounted camera can recognize pen drawings or load a premade file onto the online app.
There are different ways to input designs for the Glowforge: onboard cameras can scan a drawing and then reproduce it in seconds; you can load pictures and graphics into the app; or you can create your own vector graphics with programs such as Inkscape or Adobe Illustrator. (Vector graphics involve 2D points connected by lines and curves to make digital images.)
Proofgrade materials are recommended for use in the Glowforge (wood, acrylics, etc.). It is programmed with preloaded settings for those through QR codes located on the materials. They are automatically recognized by the device through an app which identifies their hardness and thickness. Material settings are instantly configured so you can focus on what matters: your project.
For non-proof grade materials, the machine must be set manually.
You are not able to use the Glowforge for cutting vinyl, which will give off toxic chlorine gas. Crafters are advised to stick to the Cricut craft cutting machine for vinyl. A Cricut uses blades instead of laser technology so engraving is not generally an option with a Cricut and you can’t get the “exquisite detail” with a Cricut that you can with the Glowforge.
You also cannot cut PVC with the Glowforge.
Chalkley says there are many online forums for guidance in using the Glowforge and materials that could potentially be used. He advised caution when using leather to consider what type of oil or substance was used to cure the leather that might emit toxic fumes in the Glowforge.
Also, materials such as cardboard and pressboard that are not proofgrade might have air pockets which could result in flare-ups during cutting or engraving. All in all—proofgrade is best. A Glowforge is somewhat like a microwave in that putting the wrong material in it can damage it.
Those considerations will be part of the public use and safety guideline the library is developing and will complete before individuals are permitted to use the machine. The library anticipates selling the proofgrade materials to patrons but doesn’t believe at this point that they will be charging to use the Glowforge equipment itself.
The Glowforge appears fairly simple to use once you have your design. You basically load the design you wish to cut, engrave, or score via computer, push print—which focuses the laser head—and patiently wait for the printer to complete its assigned task.
Onboard cameras show you a preview of your design on your chosen material. You can position it as you please. The Glowforge has a fully automatic focusing system which allows for exacting precision with each design.
As you become more advanced, you can create multi-phase projects which will allow you to fit multiple pieces together outside the machine—“the sky is the limit.”
During the introductory class, Chalkley created an intricate acrylic heart for each attendee. It took about a minute and a half to cut each heart—about three inches in height and width. He noted that very elaborate jobs can take up to two hours to complete.
More Glowforge classes are coming up in March, in particular using the Glowforge to engrave tiles. You begin with a white tile and Sharpie markers. Tile Engraving is scheduled for March 10 from 6 to 7 at the Vinton Library. A Leather Engraving with the Glowforge is scheduled for April 15.
The Inkscape software program which can be used so readily with Glowforge is another topic of study Chalkley is well-versed in. He will be offering that course, Graphics Editing with Inkscape, on March 31. Inkscape graphics are scalable at any size and can be used to create high fidelity illustrations and produce them at any size.
More information on the Glowforge is available online at www.glowforge.com.