The (mostly) Complete Guide to Laser Engraving Wooden Promotional Products (and some tips)

  • Jul 27, 2019

You need your client’s brand presented perfectly

We get it, and we’re here to help.

This guide will walk you through our process for laser engraving on real wood and provide all the tips and tricks you need for ordering the perfect laser engraved promo products for your customers.

Laser Engraving Real Wood Promo Products is a Classy and Elegant Presentation for Your Client’s Brand

We know you have thousands of options when it comes to branded promotional products. But take a closer look at laser engraved real wood…

Wood promo products are different; they don’t fit every need or scenario, but in your search for something new, interesting and unique, real wood products deliver the unexpected.

Laser engraved wooden business card holders with logo branding

Laser engraved business card holders in Mahogany and Aromatic Cedar

Every tree is different

Of course, every tree is different; each one a beautiful and unique flower. But we mean something less philosophical.

Not only is every tree species different, but different parts of the same tree are different. Everything from moisture content to the amount of sap in that particular part of that particular tree is going to change its behavior under the laser.

All these different types of wood types react differently to the laser:

Mahogany and Shimmering Maple noticeably change color when engraved. These varieties are great examples of "Very High Engraving Contrast". Even complex logos and text heavy engravings can look great on these wood types.

When engraving Bamboo or Black Walnut, the laser just removes some material leaving a nice indention in the wood but changing the underlying color very little. Engravings like these are subtle at best, and difficult to see in low light at worst.

Some customers, prefer a subtle brand presentation and for certain items it may be more appropriate not to scream the brand name. However, we would not recommend these wood options with a complex logo or text that needs to be read (as opposed to obvious text as part of a logo). And certainly, thin font styles (especially script fonts) or very small text just won’t work at all.

In the middle of the pack is American Cherry, Purple Heart and Aromatic Cedar. All beautiful woods, and all can look great with low text applications and simple blocky logos.

7 Wood Species for laser engraving wooden promotional products

7 beautiful wood species; all great choices for laser engraving: Mahogany, Black Walnut, Shimmering Maple, Carmalized Bamboo, Purple Heart, Aromatic Cedar, American Cherry

Custom Shape wood coaster in aromatic cedar

Custom shape, laser cut, coaster in Aromatic Cedar

The “Laser Engraved” look

Wood is a natural material, and it’s not going to be uniform. 90% of the time, this is exactly what we are looking for; something authentic, unique and distinctly different than plastic, metal or acrylic. We like to call it, old-school wooden style.

Detailed laser engraving in mahogany on flask6 

The grains of the wood represent different types of growth in the tree (mostly winter vs. summer) and they each burn differently. In most wood species we use, the darker grains are harder and the lighter parts between the grain lines are softer. The laser head tends to remove more material from the lighter (summer) growth portions of the rings.

When “engraving” as opposed to laser cutting, the laser head moves back and forth in very small increments (just over ½ mm) and paints the image with short bursts of the laser. This action removes (vaporizes) some of the material and usually darkens the underlying wood. Lighter woods tend to darken more, and darker woods darken less.

Speed & Power

After the material is selected and the design is complete, we control for two variables: speed and power. We can make the leaser head go fast (at high power) or slow (at low power) and achieve a similar looking engraving. Varying those two settings allows us to control for the depth and darkness of the final product. The more detailed the engraving, the more likely we are to go “low and slow”.

Laser cutting is different than engraving

Cutting with the laser is obviously used to cut the shape completely out of the material. But we can also turn down the power and speed up the laser head. This results in a thin laser-cut-line but doesn’t cut all the way through the material.  

Cutting is also fast. Where laser engraving could take 3-4 minutes to engrave a small 3” image (up to two hours for a full panel of product), we could laser-cut the outline of the image or text in seconds.

The Kiss-Cut line - We often combine both of those techniques. For a laser engraving with nice, sharp, edges, especially for text, we will engrave the image, and then run a thin laser-cut line all the way around the border. This results in “sharp” engravings that to my eye, just look better and cleaner than a plain engraved image.

National Geographic logo in American Cherry laser engraved

This logo was laser engraved into American Cherry with a clean edge due to the Kiss-Cut or Outline-Cut technique

The only downside is corner burn. Where the laser pauses very briefly when changing directions and the spot of wood at the corner gets burned for longer. Sometimes this requires we “disconnect” the cut lines near the corners, and this process can be very time-consuming during setup. For larger orders, it’s no big deal, for smaller orders we may only outline important parts of the image and / or the largest text components of the logo. And corner-burn is most pronounced on small engravings. A 2” x 2” wood logo sticker with any text or with a complex logo, would not be appropriate for laser cut outlining unless the qty was very high.

"Actions on Google" wood sticker, laser engraved and outline-cut

Wood coasters in American Cherry with cutout logo and laser engraving

These wood coasters in American Cherry have both a cutout logo and laser engraving

What kind of products can we “wrap” in wood?

Aside from products that are already all wood including wood stickers, cubes and luggage tags, there are plenty of products that can be covered in wood.

  • Bottle openers
  • Flasks (see wrapping wood around corners below)
  • Phone cases
  • Mousepads
  • Wireless chargers
  • Powerbanks and more

All of these “underlying” products have one thing in common: A quick glance through our website or catalog and you can quickly see, they are mostly flat or have at-least one flattish surface.

Have a product or product idea you would love to see covered in wood? Shoot us a note and we will figure out how do it. There is nothing we love more than high-speed product brainstorming.

Wrapping wood around corners? Yep.

Wood veneer is thin but it’s still wood, stiff and certainly doesn’t like to bend with cracking or breaking.

Enter the “Living Hinge”. We can and do wrap wood around a corner.

Living Hinge Cut Diagram - laser cutting wood

To cut a living hinge: we start with a design like this and adapt it to the size, shape and scale of the product. 

The best example is our 6oz. Hip Flask. The wood on the front and back are solid panels, but around the sides where the flask curves, we place a series of almost overlapping laser cut lines in the veneer.

Living hinge in wood on a 6oz hip flask

A living hinge makes the wood flexible, and some would say beautiful.

For living hinge work, we always run the grain in the same direction as the wrap.

The wood does not mind bending in one direction (parallel with the grain) but it doesn’t like to bend against the grain or worse, bend in two directions at once. We tried this with a fancy battery case that had two curves (both down and to the side), the result was a mess of warps, bubbles and veneer that just wouldn’t stay down at the edges.

What’s the heck is a two-wood inlay?

Multiple wood inlays can be beautiful and dramatic. As the name implies, we use more than one wood to construct the final image, and then assemble it on the product.

2 wood inlay example on a 6oz hip flask

2-Wood Inlay in Bamboo and Aromatic Cedar on a 6oz. Hip Flask

2 wood inlay example world map on bottle opener

2-Wood Inlay in Black Walnut and Aromatic Cedar on the Industrial Bottle Opener

Inlay example with two woods, bamboo and black walnut on small bottle opener

2-Wood Inlay in Bamboo and Black Walnut (with it's natural reverse inlay) on the Keychain Bottle Opener

Offering maximum “contrast” we cut (rather than engrave) your logo or some simple types of text, then cut the reverse in a different wood type. Then we just put them together like a puzzle.

Inlays need to be simple. It’s tough to describe what works and what doesn’t. you kind of have to see it, but here are a few guidelines or at least a list of what doesn’t work.

No serif fonts. I know – technical jargon. But you don’t have to be an expert on typefaces.

There are basically two kinds. Serif, and Sans Serif. Sans means “without” the dangly, pointy things at the end of the letters. Serif fonts like “Times New Roman” and “Garamond” are hard on the eyes at low resolution and hence don’t work awesome for laser engraving and they don’t work great for multiple wood inlay projects. Sans Serif fonts are simpler, have no razor-sharp points and work much better for both engraving and wood inlay applications.

How on earth do you make wood veneer?

Wood Veneer is created either by "peeling" the trunk of a tree or by slicing large rectangular blocks of wood known as flitches. The appearance of the grain and figure in wood comes from slicing through the growth rings of a tree and depends upon the angle at which the wood is sliced.

Check out this great old-school video showing the full process of industrial veneer creation from picking the right tree all the way through the final product. There’s no narration – it’s kind of addictive to watch; little bit like the Primitive Technology channel. Or this weirdly spiritual veneer making video from a high-end German furniture maker.

Veneering is an ancient art, dating back to at least the ancient Egyptians who used expensive and rare wood veneers over cheaper timbers (just like we do today) to produce furniture and sarcophagi.

We don’t make our own wood veneer. WUDN buys 4’ x 8’ sheets of veneer (with 3M adhesive already applied), and have it cut into twelve 16” x 24” panels to fit the deck of our lasers.

Why must I send a “Vector” file?

You don’t “Have” to send a vector. In most cases, we can and will convert your art from a bitmap image to a vector for free. But for best results we encourage our customers to send us vector artwork.

What the heck is the difference between a vector and bitmap image?

Vector files are not “images” or “photographs”, they are mathematical formulas defining lines, circles etc. Including files like .AI, .PDF, or even .DXF, vectors are typically created by software like Illustrator, Inkscape, AutoCAD and Corel.

Bitmap files or images are a collection of individual pixels. This includes .JPG or .PNG files, created or edited with Photoshop, GIMP or even your phone. Bitmap images are fuzzy at the edges, they don’t scale very well, and except for some simple engraving, they don’t behave well on the laser.

Since vectors files include the actual mathematical paths or “vectors” (draw a line this direction, this far), they are perfect instructions for the path of the laser head. They usually convert into a laser file perfectly and resize or scale perfectly.

How do we treat laser engraved wood?

Our wood veneer is sanded and covered in one light layer of polyurethane. No additional chemicals or treatments are added. Your wood is left in (as close to) a natural state as we can.

It’s not normally necessary to apply any additional protectant over the wood, even after engraving. The only exceptions are products that are designed to get wet. For instance, wood coasters (especially if used in a commercial environment) will be covered in an additional layer of polyurethane after engraving. And heavily lacquered finishes, like piano finish on a plaque are not really our bag.

Bamboo Coaster for Brewery with detailed laser engraving and extra poly for commercial environments

After we laser engrave, cut and clean your wood veneer, we assemble the product and clean it one more time before packing.

Caring for your wood products

Wood is a natural material, and unlike plastic, glass or metal, it’s porous. That makes it a little more likely to absorb dirt and stains. Thankfully wood is easy and harmless to clean. A damp cloth will usually do. Something stickier? Spray the cloth with some furniture cleaner first.

What’s the upside of a product more likely to get dirty? Wood products will age and get better looking with time. Literally the exact opposite of plastic. Plastic, even metal and glass products can only get scratched, dinged and damaged; and they are unlikely to look better for the wear.

Wood is different: every fingerprint, coffee stain or light scratch adds character like a beautiful piece of antique furniture. The more you use it, the more the wood will look authentic and vintage. Some artisans actually use coffee to stain wood in beautiful mocha hues.

My favorite wood phone case¹, is the California Republic in Mahogany. After nearly two years, the engraving still looks sharp, and the Mahogany color is dark and rich. The wood has a couple of imperfections, and like the Japanese aesthetic, wabi-sabi, the wood is more beautiful exactly because it’s not perfect.

 

About the Author

Cameron Christian Owner, President-CEO, WUDN. After 25 Years in the corporate world, I am creating my own destiny. I bought the business so we can continue delighting our customers with real wood products that are beautiful and functional. Follow us on facebookInstagram, tweet to @cechrist or email me.

  1. While we have a thriving consumer e-commerce business (mostly the iPhone cases) we do not sell wholesale to business customers, only through distribution. You can be assured our focus is on making you happy and successful.

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