The Shed Logo
Search
Close this search box.

Ponoko—a cut above the rest

While laser cutters are now practical for home-build projects, they are not something that everyone will want to run. They take up bench space, need care and feeding, get expensive in large calibres, and if you don't use one that often you might well be better off letting a company like Wellington-based Ponoko cut things for you. Ponoko stock a wide range of materials and are experienced with using their laser cutters on them. Handy, but scarcely unique given the number of engineering outfits that are out there that'll do pretty much the same thing.

How you can get laser-cutting done
By Vik Olliver
Photographs Andrew Labett 

David Ten Have with the laser cutter at his international company Ponoko, based in Wellington

While laser cutters are practical home-build projects, they are not something that everyone will want to run. They take up bench space, need care and feeding, get expensive in large calibres, and if you don’t use one that often you might well be better off letting a company like Wellington-based Ponoko cut things for you.
Ponoko stock a wide range of materials and are experienced with using their laser cutters on them. Handy, but scarcely unique given the number of engineering outfits that are out there that’ll do pretty much the same thing.
But founder David Ten Have wasn’t out to create just another cutting shop when he started Ponoko in 2007. He had his sights on creating a factory, materials supplier and shop front all in one. Anyone could come onto the website and make designs that could be private one-offs, bought by other people, or handed out for free under permissive licences such as the Creative Commons one.
So how would it work for your typical Sheddie? Well, assuming you wanted to make something that wasn’t already up for grabs on Ponoko, you’d download some free software like Inkscape from ponoko.com, which comes with the Ponoko templates for the size of the item you want to cut. Then you consult the Ponoko guide for 2D printing.

Laser cutter at work
Three-dimensional laser-cut light shade

Design
The basic procedure is: Draw your parts using Inkscape in different coloured lines, which the laser will follow just as if you’d printed it on paper—and that’s a good way of checking everything is the right size, incidentally. Blue lines get cut right through, magenta lines are lightly etched, green lines are singed more generously, and red lines are well done.
This engraving ability lets you etch assembly instructions or dimensions onto your parts, or your e-mail address etc. You are charged per minute of laser-cutting time, so you want to make sure you only go along a line once. Putting two lines on top of each other looks the same as one line on your screen and printout, but the laser will cut twice and you will be charged twice. Ponoko have a bunch of hints online to minimise this. Engraving takes much less time than cutting, so don’t be shy about using it.

Gears designed in Inkscape

Upload
Eventually, you may become satisfied with your design. At this point you actually need a Ponoko account. There’s a free one for occasional users and one that charges a monthly fee with discounts for those who do regular cutting. Either way, you upload the template to Ponoko, pick the material you’d like, and hit the “Go” button.
All being well, Ponoko then pop a sheet of your chosen plastic, wood, metal, leather etc. under the laser cutter, in one of the following sizes: 181 x 181 mm, 384 x 384 mm, 790 x 384 mm.
Lasers burn, smoke is generated, robotic equipment grinds and whizzes away, and your masterpiece is created. Then Ponoko slap a big sheet of sticky paper on top to hold all the bits together, pop it in a flat-pack box and send it out to you.

Laser-cut leather purse

Upload
Eventually, you may become satisfied with your design. At this point you actually need a Ponoko account. There’s a free one for occasional users and one that charges a monthly fee with discounts for those who do regular cutting. Either way, you upload the template to Ponoko, pick the material you’d like, and hit the “Go” button.
All being well, Ponoko then pop a sheet of your chosen plastic, wood, metal, leather etc. under the laser cutter, in one of the following sizes: 181 x 181 mm, 384 x 384 mm, 790 x 384 mm.
Lasers burn, smoke is generated, robotic equipment grinds and whizzes away, and your masterpiece is created. Then Ponoko slap a big sheet of sticky paper on top to hold all the bits together, pop it in a flat-pack box and send it out to you.

Coaster pattern cut by laser

Shop front
But instead of laboriously doing this manufacturing yourself, you can just as easily put your object up for sale in Ponoko’s free shop front, and let other people all around the world pay to use it. Or just give it away free if you’re feeling altruistic. Some designs really bend what is possible, such as the concept of cutting plywood with a laser to make it foldable and flexible. Brian Chan even went as far as creating a laser-cut, folding ukulele(See below and also see http://tinyurl.com/ponoko-ukulele).
If your design is beyond your personal capabilities, Ponoko host an open forum where you can request that other freelancers like Brian design it for you. Of course, they’ll want a cut. Ahah, ahah. Ponoko also occasionally host on-line seminars (“Webinars”) showing you how to use packages like Autocad123D.
The author creates his design files in SVG format using a range of free programs. This is an “Open” format that is used by a great many competing systems, can be relied upon to be stable and can be readily converted to other systems. Even years down the line, you’ll still be able to find software that will open your design and use it without complaining of old versions etc.

Model plane in the style of a P-38 Lightning
Wine rack

Kiwi start
Ponoko started off in Wellington where it has roughly half of its 12 employees and one of its laser cutters. It has since spread to the United States where it has another couple of laser cutters and alliances with some very interesting partners: Sparkfun, Arduino and so on. These aren’t directly available from New Zealand, though there are local stockists of Sparkfun gear such as Mindkits.
It is very interesting that David seeks to combine the fabrication process with the availability of electronic and mechanical components so that one can produce an entire kit and put it for sale online without holding any stock oneself.
I asked David what his favourite Ponoko item was. He replied that this was a bit like asking a father which was his favourite child, but he says he enjoyed helping make the RepRap 3D printer: “I got a huge kick from making that happen. There was something delightfully meta about the whole exercise.” No surprise then that Ponoko also do 3D printing but that, as they say, is another story.

David with examples aplenty

Folding ukulele
MIT graduate and Massachusetts-based origami expert Brian Chan used laser-cut bamboo plywood to create a folding ukulele from multiple flat pieces that are made up into a three-dimensional instrument. It is a soprano-like ukulele, approximately 330 mm long, and 241 mm long folded. Brian Chan writes:
“I enjoy learning musical instruments but often must travel. The need to travel light clashes with my desire to bring instruments along to practice. Inspired by sci-fi animé, I began designing instruments that can transform into a much smaller form for portability.
“One of the great things about stringed musical instruments is that they are composed mainly of empty space, theoretically allowing for a high compression ratio. This was not intended as a concert instrument but more as an instrument for road trips and emergency music-making. The tone is sweet but about half as loud as a similar soprano ukulele, due to the material.
“For my first production model, I decided to design a folding ukulele, for several reasons. First, the ukulele is the kind of instrument you would bring almost everywhere. Secondly, because the ukulele has only four strings at low tension, it is less likely to bend too much and easier to string (its compact folded form needs to be unstrung and this results in the smallest package; restringing and retuning takes just a few minutes).
“I also feel that a new-fangled folding instrument will be less likely to invoke the disapproval of strict traditionalists, which is always just plain silly. Unlike my previous folding and non-folding instruments, I designed this one to be cut almost 99 percent out of laser-cut bamboo plywood so that it could be made into a production item rather than a one-off.
“This necessitated a polygonal design; to further simplify the design and construction, I use only right-angle and 120 degree joints. These simplifications led to a form based on the hexagon which is one the most beautiful of the polygons.
“I wanted to be economical so I had to be creative in certain parts. For example, instead of using fretwire, the frets are formed from staggered “steps” set at an angle. Like many first projects, I expect this instrument to evolve and give rise to other, perhaps more foldable instruments.”
Brian Chan is also known as chosetec, the name under which he is represented with his designs on the Ponoko website. The kit is available for purchase online at: http://ponoko.com/showroom/chosetec

The back lifts off and the unstrung ukulele folds inside itself
The production model shown is made from bamboo plywood
The head of the instrument is modelled like that of a violin
The folded instrument measures about 9.5 inches (241 mm) long
There are no wire frets but staggered “steps” at an angle in the wood
The laser-cut bamboo is etched with the maker's mark

Share:

More Posts

Kaizen in wood

Kaizen is Japanese for a philosophy of continuous improvement, or working methodically seeking to achieve small, incremental changes in the process of improving. This term has been particularly championed by Toyota Motor Corporation as a process to facilitate change within that organisation.
For me, it epitomises my woodworking journey since retirement. I had dabbled in bigger stuff—from building and construction to boat-building (three launches) and fitting out—as sidelines and sanity savers during my years in corporate life.
But when I turned to small and delicate it necessitated a rethink. Thus “kaizen,” which seems to have been driving incremental changes in what and how my projects have evolved.

New life for old stuff

Broken blades, tired tools, worn washers, grimy gears. These are sorry sights for most sheddies, but for Bruce Derrett they are the treasures of his trade. The Motueka metal artist combines his skill wielding a MIG welder with a highly fertile imagination to turn other people’s junk into quirky creatures, funky furniture, and striking sculptures.
Bruce, who ironically failed metal work at school, has always had an eye for mechanical bits and pieces. “As a kid I was always pulling things apart, like clocks and radios. It used to really frustrate my mum,” he says. Now he puts things back together again, albeit it in a very different form.

Bow making – take aim!

Archery is a satisfying sport that has its roots fixed in the primal skill of hunting. As a woodworker it is an added bonus that you can make at least part of your own bow yourself. A bow like the one in this project is called a recurve and consists of a handle, or riser, two limbs (the flexible parts that bend), a string and an arrow rest.