Join me on a tour behind the scenes for a peek at my process making Little Button Blue wooden storage and organising labels. I first had the idea for creating timber labels for organising toy storage, baby’s nursery, and children’s clothing a few years back now (you can read about that here), but it’s only the past year or so I’ve been making them completely myself, including the whole process of lasercutting.
Here’s a bit of a rundown on how I do it, bringing the designs into being through the fabrication process, lasercutting and finishing the etched wooden discs, and the materials I use.
The materials I use to make wooden labels
The wood I use for my labels is 3mm plywood made specifically for lasercutting. This is important to me as it means the adhesives used between the layers of plywood are laser-friendly and safe.
To achieve the Scandi style look I’m after, my preferred type of wood is a light coloured wood with low grain. The first few batches were made from hoop ply but I now use poplar plywood to get that smooth, uncluttered look with a consistent finish and minimal distracting features in the wood behind the etched designs.
The plywood I use is plantation grown, sustainably sourced from reputable suppliers, and FSC-certified. I source both the wood and ribbon cord from Australian suppliers.
Designing labels for organising kids stuff
One of the things I love most about my wooden picture labels is the gorgeous illustrations. I’ve worked with local Hobart-based graphic designer Becksi Design to create the images for each category and I’m so happy with Bec’s designs and how she has brought my ideas to life!
I love Bec’s style but one of the other reasons I approached her was because I knew Bec had experience with lasercutting and already knew how to create designs that would be suitable for that type of fabrication process and prepare the files ready for lasercutting.
Sometimes I take custom orders for labels with pictures and words that are different to the sets that are already designed. To keep costs down for the customer I do these designs myself. It takes quite a bit of time and effort to create new designs, which is why I charge more for this type of custom order.
Preparing designs for fabrication
Once the designs are ready they need to be imported into the lasercutting software. My machine is an Emblaser Core. It came in pieces and I put it together myself. I was quite proud of that! The machine also came with a computer program to install called Lightburn. You can do simple designs in Lightburn but mostly my designs are created in Adobe illustrator or provided in a pdf file ready to import.
After importing the designs into Lightburn you have to choose all the settings for the cut, including how thick the wood is and the support base it’s sitting on (I use silicon mats to keep the wood off the metal base of the machine and take the laser as it burns through the wood); the speed and strength you want the laser to use for the burn; and some other technical things which I won’t go into.
You also need to tell the machine which lines to cut and which to etch. When etching the laser burns only part way through the wood, leaving marks on the surface, while cutting means the laser burns all the way through. Etching is essentially filling between two lines with horizontal markings or light burns, back and forth to create a shaded effect. Cutting is directing the laser along a line in any direction, usually at higher strength so that the laser burns all the way through.
The images and text on the labels are etched first before the ribbon hole is cut, then the outside circle shape of the label is cut last. I set it to do the etching first to make sure the design is placed correctly because once the circles are cut, the wood may have moved.
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The process of lasercutting wooden labels
Before I start lasercutting I put on my safety gear – goggles and mask. You can’t tell in the picture above but I’m actually smiling under the mask! I also open the windows and get a fan going to maximise ventilation. Until I can one day afford my own studio or workshop I have to make do with placing the machine right under a window with a fan directly in front of it to blow straight out the small amount of smoke and sawdust it produces. It can be a pretty chilly job in the middle of a Tasmanian winter!
I check to make sure my wood is lined up correctly and that the laser is located where I want it on the wood. A quick preview shows how long the lasercutting will take. Depending on the designs and whether there’s more etching or cutting involved, I’ll set up the sheet to do all the labels either in one go, or in batches. Sometimes it’s quicker to do one or two labels, or one row at a time, due to the distance the laser has to travel between each design. The greater the distance the longer it takes.
Once I’m happy that it’s ready to go, the lasering begins. Each individual label takes approx. 5-12mins depending on the design and whether the wood needs a slower burn or can cope with a faster laser. Lately I’ve been setting up a row at a time, which takes around 50mins or so to etch and cut. I don’t like to cut more than a row at a time in case anything goes wrong and the whole job has to be started over – like the computer link to the machine being interrupted or the air assist tube coming loose, resulting in bad scorch marks. To cut a whole set usually takes at least a couple of hours and a lot of back and forth. I’ll keep experimenting with settings to try and find a faster cut that still gets the best results.
After the label or row is done, I set up the next one. If you leave everything in place (ie. don’t remove the finished cuts and don’t move the wood) the set-up involves a few minutes of changing the colour of lines and shapes on the computer, telling the machine which designs to etch and cut next, and in which order. Each colour represents a different task for the laser with its own settings attributed.
Often the set-up will also involve framing again – checking the outline of the new cut with the laser on but not cutting, to make sure it doesn’t overlap the edge or any previously cut shapes. This is particularly important if the wood has been moved or the file changed, especially as I like to cut the shapes as close together as possible to minimise waste.
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Finishing the labels after lasercutting
After the labels have been lasercut they need some finishing touches to make them presentable.
Every cut item needs sanding. I sand them all by hand, paying particular attention to any burn marks or charring that isn’t part of the design. Although I have an air assist on my machine it’s still common to get some light scorching around the location of a cut or etch, especially around small shapes like the ribbon hole. Sanding gets rid of any unwanted darker spots.
You can see in the picture below that there’s slight charring where the ribbon hole has been cut and along the top edge of the label, as well as a little bit on parts of the etched design. It’s only a little but burnt but I’m a bit fussy and want to make sure anything I’m selling is top quality and as perfect as possible! A light sand with a very fine sanding block takes care of these unsightly burns.
Sometimes the laser machine doesn’t make a clean cut and the edges need sanding to remove any jagged bits around the side of the circle. I use a slightly coarser (but still fine) sanding block for these bits (220 grit) compared to a more (very) fine grit (320 grit) for sanding the front of the label.
It’s oddly satisfying when you get a clean cut and the shapes just fall straight out of the sheet of plywood! Other times they need a bit of help and you need to push them out without causing any parts to splinter.
Even if there are no unwanted burn marks or jagged edges I still give the label a light sand to smooth the surface and make sure there are no tiny wood fragments that could catch on material or cause splinters. It just makes the wood feel nicer to the touch and gives a more professional finish.
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Protective tape vs sanding
Early on I experimented with protective tape designed to reduce the burn marks that can be left by the laser. Lasercutting can leave unsightly charring, especially on the underside of the wood, particularly in spots where the wood is touching the silicon mats underneath.
Before I got my own little laser machine I sent my designs to a fabricator interstate to get them cut. The labels would arrive with a type of masking tape on both sides which had to be peeled off. It was a bit time consuming, especially the designs with smaller details which had teeny tiny pieces of tape that were fiddly to remove.
When I began lasercutting with my own machine I invested in a huge roll of this special laser-safe tape. It was quite an effort to apply the tape and get it all smooth. Any air bubbles would cause burn marks so I’d apply the tape very slowly, smoothing it out with a credit card as I went. It was tricky to get it exactly straight too, as the tape was the same width as the wood pieces so if I didn’t line it up perfectly I’d end up with either a diagonally taped sheet with overhang on one side and an untaped section on the other, or big crease marks across it where I’d tried to straighten it out. Often it meant pulling the tape up and starting over multiple times to get it right.
Using the tape also left a sticky residue on the wood, which needed to be cleaned off. I spent a lot of time rubbing label after label with eucalyptus oil to get rid of the stickiness. It often meant more sanding too as some would need sanding before and after de-gunkifying.
Eventually I decided to try it without the tape and see how bad the charring might be. With a bit more experimenting and adjusting of laser settings, it turned out OK. The etching is a bit darker than I originally wanted, but after doing some market research I discovered that most people actually preferred the labels with a darker etch anyway.
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Applying the fastening options
Once the sanding’s done it’s time to apply the fastening option. By that I mean how the label is going to attach to the storage container. That usually means measuring and cutting ribbon lengths by hand, then tying each one onto every individual label.
Some limited edition sets have metal clips on the back that can slide onto the front of the basket. These are great for fabric storage boxes like the cube style you’ll see in some of my pictures. The clips are made from stainless steel so need to be affixed with superglue. I’ll take a few minutes to carefully measure and locate the exact place on the wood circle where the clip should be, before applying the glue to make sure it doesn’t result in a slightly lop-sided label. That would be so annoying to see everyday if it was just ever so slightly off to one side!
I don’t offer the metal clip as a general option just yet. It took many hours of research and negotiating with overseas suppliers to secure a small shipment of metal clips to test out first before committing to a large order. Then Covid hit and supply chains were completely disrupted. It was so nerve-wracking navigating global commerce and import systems for the first time and trying to make sure my tiny budget wasn’t wasted on product that didn’t turn out to be what I wanted, or worse if it never arrived at all. So I only have a small supply. When shipping and supply issues have improved, and if there’s demand for it I’ll consider offering the metal clip as a permanent option on all sets. I really wanted to source these locally but couldn’t find anywhere in Australia that make them. If you know of any Australian metal workers or fabricators that could supply these I’d love to know!
And of course you can order any of my wooden labels without ribbon holes if you want to stick them onto plastic containers instead of tying with ribbon. Again, after many hours of research and trying to source a suitable adhesive like double-sided sticky dots, it proved unviable to provide these as part of my product. Being able to order labels with no ribbon holes though means that customers can choose their own preferred type of adhesive, whether it be some kind of sticky dot, velcro, or whatever.
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And that’s how I make my wooden lasercut labels
Each set of my wooden storage labels is wrapped up with simple white tissue paper and placed in a box with a handmade thank you note. Depending on the order, they might be placed in a little calico drawstring bag as well.
I’ll show my full packaging process another time, but for now have a look at my Instagram or facebook pages to see the thank you notes I make with watercolour paints and hand lettering, and the calico bags sewn by hand.
How to order
So what’s the most interesting part of this process do you think? Are there any aspects that are surprising to you? I’d love to know what other behind-the-scenes content you’d like to see – process videos of the lasercutting, packaging, or design steps? Let me know in the comments below!
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