Major Laser: The Art of Slicing to a Thousandth of an Inch

Lightsmith Laser's 100-watt printer shoots heat instead of ink dots.

(Photo by Willie Clark)

Lasers — be they beams, blasters, or pointers — are often thought of as tools for destroying, not creating. And they’re probably not something most people would think of in terms of artistic expression, in the same company as brushes, paints, or canvases. But at San Francisco’s Lightsmith Laser, lasers have taken on other, more creative and artistic uses.

And sadly, there are no sharks with frickin’ laser beams attached to their heads.

Founded by brothers Seth and Dave Newsome, Lightsmith Laser opened up a little more than a year ago. Seth’s entry point was woodworking. Their dad was a carpenter, so Seth grew up surrounded by the tools of the trade. The roots of this upbringing soon bore fruit about five years ago, when Seth started becoming involved in local makers’ spaces like TechShop and The Crucible. He got into woodworking, while also becoming exposed to alternative methods of artistry, and later roped in his brother, as well. But it turns out that lasers and woodworking make for strange bedfellows.

“The traditional woodworking and lasers are kind of opposite in their approach,” Seth Newsome says, “and the woodworking is really patient and deliberate and, you know, if you’re into it, it can be kind of meditative.”

But lasers allow for a quicker process, and “one minute it’s just something in your head, and less than an hour later you can hold multiple things in your hands,” Newsome says, “and that’s really attractive, ’cause then you can iterate your idea really rapidly.”

Lightsmith Laser creates everything from jewelry to housewares. They make bracelets, pins, pendants, lamps, cutting boards, and keepsake boxes, along with art prints. They can deck out skateboards and do custom work on myriad materials. Taking lasers to a practice like woodworking allows Newsome to automate some of the less interesting parts of the process during design experimentation, or when doing more complicated pieces of work. Lasers can also provide extremely close attention to detail. Good machines can get down to thousandths of an inch, something that would otherwise rely on a person’s own hand-eye coordination if they were working with the wood themselves.

That’s not to say that laser-versus-hand is analogous to John Henry’s hammer battling a steam engine. For one, Newsome’s laser work tends to start in the digital realm. He says that, given the time it takes to create the file for the laser, it could take about the same amount of time to make a single product via laser as it does by hand. It’s when it comes to making multiple copies that the laser shines, though.

“And that’s why, you know, if there is some boring part of the process that you don’t really need your level of skill to do, you just need it to be done so you can get on to the more skilled part, then that’s really where it helps,” Newsome says.

Lasers don’t just work on wood, however. Most natural materials can be used, including plants, glass, and some stone, as can synthetic materials, including acrylic plastic. But Newsome does mention a word of warning with such materials.

“You’re burning something away. You’re basically vaporizing it,” he says. “So things that you don’t want to breathe — if they were to be on fire — might not want to burn.”

And burn things will. Newsome says that the laser he uses — Full Spectrum Laser’s P-series CO2 laser — runs at only 100 watts, although that energy is focusing on an area roughly three thousandths of an inch in size.

“So it takes just the energy of a light bulb,” Newsome says, “but it’s putting it at such a tiny point that it can burn away whatever’s in front of it.”

Despite how it may sound, lasers do have a low barrier of entry, meaning that even people with only basic computer knowledge are able to use them. The amount of time required for the laser to do its duty varies: Anywhere from minutes to hours, with that time difference coming down to how much detail is being captured.

“It works a lot like a printer,” he says. “It’s just shooting heat instead of ink dots.”

Sometimes that heat requires supervision, depending on what the laser is doing. During certain prints, Newsome is comfortable just checking in — “I wouldn’t ever leave the building,” he adds — and partially diverting his attention elsewhere. But during vector cutting — a process in which the laser is always on, making it more fire-prone — a trained eye is required at all times. Nothing drastic has gone wrong, but Newsome has had a few, well, “minor flare-ups.”

He hasn’t given up old-school woodworking for his pursuits of laser-fried designs, however. He still works with wood directly, with both laser and wood work hitting different areas of his emotional spectrum.

“I find that the laser gets me really excited, but the woodworking really relaxes me,” Newsome says.

And as for the potential fear that automating art diminishes the end product, Newsome doesn’t see it that way.

“Some of that fast production, it can feel like you’re competing or taking away craftsmanship, but I feel like when done properly, and not just cheaply running off a bunch of things. … It’s small mass production, and it can enable people who are doing things by hand to make their time more valuable,” Newsome says.

And even in a world that relies more and more on digital interactions and forms of communication, there’s still seems to be place for the more physical, tangible side of art.

“You could have a Facebook feed full of photos, you know, but then you take a favorite piece and you can turn it into a real thing that’s in your hand and it makes people really happy,” Newsome says.

And while most people still might not think about lasers in these terms, Newsome says things are changing.

“A lot of people in the Bay area are I find are fairly aware of lasering as some sort of production method, I’ve been to other parts of the country, some of my family, and they’ve just never heard of it, never seen it,” Newsome says. “But, it’s getting more out there.”

Lightsmith Laser can be found at Oakland First Fridays, Treasure Island Flea, and Jack of All Trades, as well as at lightsmithlaser.com.

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