BROCKWAY — For decades, science fiction movies and books have presented lasers that can carve, write, draw, and trim. Some science fiction becomes science fact, and now an Epilog Laser Fusion M2 sits in Brockway Area Junior-Senior High School Teacher John Barrow’s classroom.
It does not just sit. Since arriving in Barrow’s room, the laser has improved guitars, cut out Christmas ornaments, printed signs, etched drinking mugs, etched a plexiglass paperweight, and carved out the Mayan calendar.
Barrow got the idea as a chance to enhance his guitar-building class while attending a STEM guitar-building conference at Butler County Community College.
“I am a member of the Technology Engineering and Education Association of Pennsylvania, and I get many ideas from there,” he said. “I saw them using these lasers to put designs on guitars. I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to have one of those in my shop?’”
Barrow talked to the salesperson and discovered that the particular model he was seeing was part of a line that could run from $4,000 to $100,000 dollars. This was not something the school could just pick up at Walmart.
“I didn’t know if I could find an organization to help me out with a purchase like that,” Barrow said. “I contacted Senator Joseph Scarnati’s office to ask for help in locating a donor and told them about my idea. I waited a little while and then got a call from his budget director. He asked me how much I needed!”
Barrow was not sure Scarnati’s people could come up with the grant money, so he suggested what he thought was a longshot number. Before he knew it, he had the go-ahead to find a laser engraver.
“Their grant helped me get the engraver,” Barrow said. “Once we got it in and had it properly installed and vented, we produced signs, Christmas ornaments, and more! I etched a paperweight, just to try it out.”
The engraver has a laser in the bottom, brought up to the cutting surface through mirrors. Students manipulate images in Corel Draw, which requires Barrow to teach more than just managing the laser.
“They have to learn how to use Corel Draw to make the image something the laser can cut,” he said. “They have to change color images to grayscale and work with it to get a good contrast. They also have to measure the surface they want to cut.”
A complex project was a newly-built guitar. Junior Justin Smith wanted an American flag on the front of his guitar, so he researched several designs before settling on one.
“I tried some ideas on scrap wood,” he said. “The flag design we chose was the one that turned out the best.”
Smith and Barrow had to trace the design, measure it, figure out the depth it needed to be, and then calculate the settings on the machine to get it to burn correctly.
“I was nervous,” Smith said. “I was my first guitar and didn’t want to ruin it! It turned out great.”
The laser engraver can do more than just dig into wood. For instance, Abigail Alford wanted to put a Celtic design on a sword plaque she made for Brockway Director of Bands Justin Salada.
“I made it in Corel Draw,” she said, “and sent it to the engraver. The machine printed the Celtic design and was engraved in 3D – the design sticks out when you run your hand over it. I’m very happy with how it turned out.”
Alford had to design the artwork so parts of it bled over the actual plaque. This gave the design a flowing look. Barrow showed the pieces of wood that had the remaining designs with the cut in the middle of the plaque.
“The engraver can work designs in, and then cut the piece out,” he said. “We just have to set the depth of the cut. This is where some math comes in.”
Barrow showed pieces of glass and metal etched with the engraver. He also had several wood pieces that had text or art.
“We used to have to do text with a woodburner,” Barrow said. “This is so much more precise.”
Barrow can do paper, plastic, wood, clay, leather, metal, cardboard, rubber, glass, and ID numbers on tools. Currently, he and the students are experimenting with 3D wood images, dog tags, and signs.
“I wanted to give my students an opportunity to work on an industrial machine,” Barrow said. “They need to see what people are doing out in the ‘real world.’ It’s amazing what people who work hard in school and pay attention in math and science can do. People are designing new machines like this and starting businesses.”
Smith appreciated that opportunity with his guitar, which he holds from a wire because he just sprayed polyurethane over it.
“This was amazing,” he said. “I never thought I’d get the chance to do this.”
“I’m so impressed by it,” Alford said. “I intend to use it for more projects – something that needs a design applied to a larger area.”
The students’ enthusiasm for the product is exactly what Barrow wanted to hear.
“Now that we have it, I want it to be used,” Barrow said. “We have classes using it for little projects and we’re even etching cups for [Superintendent] Dan Hawkins. There’s so much we can do.”