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Geeky Coasters

All of this started when I signed up for another RedditGifts exchange.

If you've never heard of RedditGifts, well, you should go check it out. Picture secret santa, but themed around your favorite fandom/hobby/what have you and at random, non-Christmas times of year. There's an actual Christmas/winter-holiday-of-choice themed exchange, which is I think how the whole site started, but it's expanded a lot since there. This is my third exchange and I'm so stoked, for these reasons:

  • The exchange is Game of Thrones themed. I've read the books and I love the show and I'm pretty excited to see what a smaller, more narrowly-themed exchange is like.
  • I had the greatest idea for my gift. ;More on this later - it'll probably be its own post. But I'd already been thinking of a great GoT-themed present, with nobody to give it to because most of my friends aren't nearly as nerdy about GoT houses as I am, when this exchange was announced. Which brings me to point 3...
  • My match is fantastic. I'm not going to post too much about her here, partially because she deserves some privacy and partially because that's a matter for another post. But she filled out a lovely, long profile that really helps pick out an exciting gift, and she pretty much explicitly stated that she would be down for the gift I had in mind. It's almost like she knew.

Anyway, this all started when I signed up for the Game of Thrones exchange, but this post isn't really about that. Long story short, I was worried I wouldn't get her real gift in the mail in time, so I came up with a quick craft I could send her so she'd know I didn't forget about her and also so that I wouldn't get kicked from the exchange. That's where these coasters come in.

laser cut wooden coasters for houses baratheon, martell, targaryen, lannister, stark, arryn, greyjoy, and tyrell

I love the house sigils from the A Song of Ice and Fire series. Seriously love them. I tend to geek out over heraldry in general, but the lore behind the house sigils and their words will keep me locked on a wiki walk for hours on end. And seriously, the house words? Some of them are badass. "We do not sow." "Unbowed, unbent, unbroken." "Ours is the fury." True, some of them are less than stellar. The Arryn coaster got a lot of laughs from the friends who helped me out with this project; there were stoner jokes. And Lannister... well. "Hear me roar" sounds a lot better in a Katy Perry song than on the banners of one of the most powerful houses in Westeros.

I've laser cut stained wood before, for some wooden coins I used as boon tokens in a LARP I'm in. I might post photos of those later on. I loved the look and wanted some coasters for my house anyway, so I decided to tackle this as a quick gift for my match, while I worked on my real project.

The Wood

The coasters started life as some cheap 1/4 inch plywood from the hardware store. This stuff comes in massive (for coaster purposes) sheets, and can get pretty fancy. I've heard the slightly pricier birch ply takes stain and cutting a little easier, but I just went with the cheapest quarter inch sheet I could buy that wasn't MDF. It was pre-sanded too, which was a nice bonus, but I ended up sanding it some more anyway because i like sanding I'm a little paranoid about my crafts. The nice man at the hardware store cut it into thirds for me, which was a much more manageable size for this project.

a stained sheet of plywooda jar of wood stain and a roll of paper towels

I also picked up a nice dark walnut stain, since the reddish stain I already had wouldn't really fit the theme - at least not for all the houses. (If I was going to make a set that was all Targaryen, I'd definitley consider it.) I played around with a few different staining methods, but the one I liked best (which is the one in the photo) was also the simplest and the cheapest - blot some stain on a wadded-up paper towel, rub it all over the wood, then rub off the excess with another clean paper towel. You'll want well-sanded wood before you do this, and you might also want to wear gloves, because you'll probably get stain on your fingers. I don't mind getting my hands dirty, and I like the results from the towel a lot better than the darker stain you get from using a brush.

Safety note: Some wood treatments and stain will vaporize into very toxic fumes in the laser cutter. If you're going to be laser cutting treated or stained wood, be very careful to read the labels of your stain and consult with some laser-cutting experts. This is one of the reasons I didn't seal the wood before I etched and cut it.

The Pattern

Next I needed a pattern for the laser cutter. I got this sweet template from Epilog's website, which I used as a jumping off point. It includes cuts for a box to hold the coaster, and is sized for 18" x 12" plywood. My sheets were a fair bit bigger - closer to 16" x 24" - and I wasn't in love with the box. I also had some issues with the wood catching on fire during the cutting phase and searing all of the nearby coasters, so when I revisit this project I'm probably going to remove or rework the box cuts and space out the coasters a lot more.

I use Inkscape for all my laser-cutting work (and also my My Little Pony work, but that's a topic for another post). It's free and it's a very nice program, once you get the hang of it, and I highly recommend you check it out. For the house images, I shamelessly stole borrowed from Google images and traced some vectors the rest of the fandom was kind enough to provide. Inkscape has a handy tracing function that works fabulously for all kinds of laser cutting work, especially if you can find high-quality, black-and-white images of the designs you want to etch or cut.

The words I added myself, and I pretty much winged it as far as placement goes. For the rounder sigils, I tended to circle the house words around the image by setting the text on a circle path; for the square sigils I tried to make it look as nice as I could without making the words too small to read. I'm not a great designer, but I'm pretty pleased with the result anyway. But you may want to change it up if you decide to make these for yourself. Just remember to keep it simple - fancy fonts, with narrow lines and such, don't tend to cut well on natural mediums like wood, especially cheap plywood. The knotty grain just doesn't allow for a ton of fine detail.

The Laser Cutter

My town has the pleasure of hosting the fantastic Champaign-Urbana Community Fab Lab, which keeps not one, but two fancy laser cutters for community use. The second one is newer, in that I'd never seen it before I went in to cut this project, and I'm lucky it was there because my plywood sheets were actually too big for the older machine. It also has some really nice print settings, if you want different types of raster (etching) on the same job. I didn't use those really nice print settings, but it sure is nice to know they're there.

I'll post the files I used below. These are the files I took to the lab; they aren't what I used to cut. You'll have to change them up anyway before you print on your machine, because I'm willing to bet money that your laser cutter has different print requirements than mine. Talk to your friendly neighborhood Fab Lab employee or, if you aren't lucky to have one of those, read the manual of your machine. Generally you'll want to set a certain stroke width for vector/cutting and a certain fill color for raster/etching, but some machines, (like the new one I used) do everything by color, not by stroke width.

a photo of the laser cut job in progress, with four coasters etched

Here's your warning: these things take a long time to print. I probably could've sped up the job a bit, because I had no idea how to use the machine and let the Fab Lab folks set the laser settings for me, but even on my second go at these it took almost an hour to finish. You can chat with friends while this is going on, but you need to stay near the machine to make sure nothing bursts into flames while nobody's looking. It's cool to watch the etching happening... at first. Then it gets old. Bring some music and some snacks.

The Cleanup

Those charred edges I mentioned before? They're a huge pain. You need to waterproof these if you're going to use them as real coasters, and the finish won't take if the wood is covered in soot, so my friend Chelsea and I spent a long time cleaning up the burnt edges. We wiped them down with dry paper towels first, then cleaned them in a second pass of rubbing alcohol and more paper towels. You can watch TV while you do this, so it isn't worst; I did it while I was horribly sick and very drowsy on cold medicine. Just don't wear white clothes and wash your hands after you're done.

When the alcohol is dry, you're ready to seal the coasters. You have a few options here; I sealed some with an aerosol sealant, and that's what I'm sending to my RedditGifts match. This probably looks a bit nicer to most folks, and it's a lot easier than what I did for my own coasters. For my coasters, though, I wanted something that felt a bit sturdier, and I didn't mind sacrificing a bit of appearance for it.

two wooden coasters with a slight gloss finish

The aerosol-sealed coasters. I don't hate the finish, but it's a little too shiny for my tastes.

For my own set of coasters, I opted for a modge podge finish. This is time consuming, because you have to let each coat dry for twenty+ minutes, apply multiple coats, and let the finish cure for at least twenty four hours before you do any coastering, but I like how sturdy it feels. It's got a more matte finish, reminiscent of a summer camp crafts project, and it still feels a bit sticky, especially when used with hot drinks. But it's my house, and I really enjoyed summer camp, so I don't mind the look.

In closing...

Many thanks to the Champaign-Urbana Community Fab Lab for use of their laser cutter, and my friends Frank, Erik, and Chelsea who were terribly supportive of the frankly absurd amount of time I spent on the unimportant details of this project, from wood selection to finicky modge podge application. 

Find the files used for this project below. Feel free to use them in any way you'd like, including modifying them for a completely different coaster theme. I'd love to see what you make; send a link to your project through our contact form, and I might just mention you in this post!