Mini-Review: Elecrow Laser Engraver Tool

Elecrow Laser Engraver Tool - 3/4 View

Disclaimer: Contains Amazon Affiliate and direct links

For $130, what could go wrong? Naturally we ordered two of this tiny, 1W laser engraver tool, because that’s just how we do things. One device arrived DOA (seemed to be the controller board), one worked (as well as expected, that is to say, there’s no comparison to a real machine).

What’s in the Box

The laser machine, some sample materials, a 5V 2A power supply, and a USB stick, because who wouldn’t trust a USB stick, amiright?

Fit and Finish

On the working device, while the laser head was attached, it wasn’t attached well. Two screws were complete missing (the top two), the bottom two were quite loose. Tightening them required moving around the head using the included software and a small screwdriver–this is not a machine built for trivial fixery.

The top is removable via plastic tabs, but it’s a pain. The top is more or less required for reliable operation since it keeps the Y axis rails in place–if you take off the top, before doing much printing, you’ll either need to put it back on, or replace it with something that’ll hold the rails.

It comes with a 5V 2A power supply with a too-long barrel jack that occasionally falls out. The USB port is far enough in that some cables won’t fit, meaning it also fell out. We didn’t mean to lose connection 🙁

Once both USB and power are plugged in the laser turns on (low) for help in positioning. We needed to re-focus ours; just turn the lens cap until it’s as close to a pinpoint as possible. Use white, non-shiny paper for this step.

There’s an acrylic piece you can put on the front, which is great for keeping your eyes safe(r), but there are no side panels. Even though it’s just a 1W laser, you can be hurt by even scattered light, so be careful… None of us are blind yet, but we did occasionally get zapped with scatter enough to notice it.

There’s an “exhaust fan” on the back which does actually pull out smoke from the cutting area (more or less) but it’s not going to save your life or anything: cut responsibly.

The Software

Well, it’s software, sure enough, but holy smokes, you sure can’t do much with it. And what you can do is largely guesswork, at least on the Windows version. We haven’t tried the OS X version yet, and our Linux machines are left in the lurch.

The Software
The Software

There’s a collection of sample images we used for our initial testing. You can scale the images using the “Scaling” slider (upper-left) and if you don’t, you’ll get tiny, burned chunks. Larger, clean images will work best. You can add text using whatever fonts you have installed, but with zero means to align anything anywhere, your composition options are limited.

Laser Etched Samples
Samples

Homing the machine? It just moves until it grinds in the corner then pops out a little bit. Laser intensity? “Depth adjustment of engraving”. About 5-10-ish is decent enough, and it takes about three minutes for their sample Lexus logo image to etch on cardboard, but again, finding the sweet spot for the material being etched is sketchy, especially since you can’t enter a number directly–sliders all the way, baby!

It often failed to print the entire image for no reason we could discern, like the Big Bang Theory image. Sometimes it would skip parts of an image, as in the Bentley logo’s “L” and part of the “N”. Again, finding the intensity sweet spot was very hit-or-miss.

Cutting paper seemed… essentially impossible with the software. Fine for us (although it’s a potentially handy feature) but doesn’t make any sense for even the simplest of laser devices. We couldn’t find any way to do much of anything except raster images, which could be used to cut, but it’s slow, and even a 1W laser should have no problems cutting out hairline vectors.

Our Advice

Either try the higher-powered one (a clone with 3W laser) or get a real laser. This might be a useful toy, but as shipped, it’s not worth the effort we’re putting into it.

Next Up

Total hackage, of course: since we had a working device for testing, and a non-functional device, we wanted to bring it into the fold of devices we could use across our operating systems and usecases.

Unfortunately, the computer doesn’t talk GCode to it, meaning that either (a) the protocol had to be reverse-engineered, or (b) replace their controller board with something more-standardized that would work with other software out-of-the box. True to form, we chose (c), all of the above.

In Part II we’ll look at their native comms protocol and see if it’s worth dealing with at all (hint: nah). Then in Parts III and IV we’ll take our dead unit, graft a controller onto it, and turn it into the device we wanted in the first place: take it to a workpiece, burn it with lasers, and run away.

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Mini-Review(s): Box Cutters

Disclaimer: Contains affiliate (and direct) links to some reviewed products.

Have boxes? Want to open them? Get you a box cutter for a great good! TSA aside, box cutters are great: yes, we all have our multitools and combat knives strapped liberally around our body, but for all-round utility, it’s hard to beat the simple box cutter. (And they make serviceable weapons in an emergency, and raise fewer eyebrows than a wave-opening Emerson Karambit, our go-to death-dealer of choice.)

From simple to elaborate, from light to heavy–we’ll give a quick overview of the ones we have laying around the shop, and discuss why some are better than others, what our daily carry is, and why.

(We won’t discuss scrapers, which are something different, but maybe some other time–they’re also super-useful, but not as fun for… cutting boxes.)

MOAR BOXCUTTERS!!1!

A pile of box cutters
Pile o’ Box Cutters

These are a few of our around-the-shop cutters (tragically this is not all of them; we have more tools than sense). There are three main “classifications” of box cutters: flippers, sliders, and “always-on” (those come with sheathes). We’ll work in reverse-order.

Always-On

Pull them out of the sheath, cut a box: it’s as simple as that. The problem with them is that they essentially require a sheath or container. They may be suitable for bench mounting (and we have one stuck on to one of our CNC tables) but for daily carry it’s a non-starter. Why?

Sheathes add bulk, and unless it’s sized exactly right, and it’s a pretty tight clip, you either need to hold on to the sheath to deploy, or push down on the sheath while you draw the cutter. So why would you want one at all?

Rigidity: these are easily the solidest variety of box cutters. With a heavy frame and no moving parts you’ll break the blade before you have any other mechanical problems. They’re worth having on hand for that reason alone, but if you’re anything like us, you’ll use them only rarely, or only when you’re near where one is mounted. They’re also fine in a toolbox or tote, but in general, we think they’re more specialized.

We only have a few varieties of these, but we like the Stanley for overall durability, even if the sheath feels a bit cheap, and the belt clip… well, there’s a clip, it’ll go on a belt, but deploying is a bit of a pain.

Sliders

These push the blade out the front. They’ll either use a standard box cutter blade (the trapezoidal ones) or a custom blade, often with snap-off blades to get to the sharp part.

Mechanically they’re generally quite sound, and less prone to failure and breakage than a flipper (up next) because they just run on a track–there’s no pivot to get gunked up and even a pretty dirty one can be easily forced open.

The snap-off blades are a bit more specialized; they’re wonderful for foam cutting (hard to beat, in fact) especially if you sharpen them. For this variety we like the DeWalt (they’re yellow!) and a Kershaw sharpener. The downside is that they take only specific blade types and shapes. They’re also (generally) thinner than their “conventionally-bladed” counterparts so for heavy-duty use you’re better off elsewhere. That said, the blades are much longer (good for foam, bad for cardboard)/

Either type is fine in a pocket (as long as you remember to retract the blade… be safe, kids!) but don’t always include a belt clip. Without the belt clip, at least for us, their use as a daily carry is limited, but they’re great in a toolbox. The DeWalt snap-off cutter has a pocket clip that’s quite robust, and while we don’t carry one daily, when we need to, we can, with confidence.

For “conventionally-bladed” sliders we like the Stanley Fat Max.

For snap-off we like the DeWalt DWHT10038, and use a Kershaw stowable sharpener between cuts. (“Between all cuts?!” you ask? Depends; for foam, pretty much–but we have dedicated units for foam. For general cutting, not really. But for foam it’s arguably worth the extra effort.)

Flippers

For daily carry we like flippers, in particular this Milwaukee flipper, because it’s a one-handed opener, basically a gravity-operated switch blade: it swings really easy. This is also its greatest weakness–there’s a bit of rattle-and-shake when it’s in the locked position. But the convenience and extra functionality (a strap cutter and wire stripper) make up for it for most uses.

We’ll give an honorable mention to our pals at Home Depot for their Kobalt stainless steel flipper. Make no mistake–it does not flip; you have to want to open this bad boy. But when it’s locked it’s nearly as solid as any always-on box cutter, and we have several, mostly in toolboxes and glove boxes.

Products

The Stanley fixed-blade as we have it doesn’t appear to be sold any more, and since we don’t own any newer versions, we don’t know if we can recommend it or not, so no link to that for you.

The Kobalt Stainless Steel may be available at your local Home Depot, but searching for it proved… somewhat irritating, so we gave up. It’s not a daily carry anyway (too heavy, too hard to open) but man, is it solid.

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Print: Vacuum Dust Collector for Wall Drilling

Rounded version of dust collector

Disclosures: This is one of our designs; the STL is available on Thingiverse. There’s also Amazon Affiliate and direct links to the Rigid “toolbox style” vacuum mentioned because it has quickly taken over our “Oh we always need a vacuum right here” needs: we have one under our main work desk and one under the pallet rack where our 3D printers and one of our CNC machines live.

We had to do a bunch of drilling into the wall in an area that was already populated with furniture. The solution? Spend hours designing and tweaking a 3D-printed dust collector. The design went through two major iterations: an angle-y one, and a roundier one.

Design Process

We do most of our print designs in Fusion 360. For the most part, a great app (but often crashes on coils) and for relatively simple stuff like this, perfectly adequate. The plethora of online resources for learning and using make it hard to beat for the pro-am maker.

More angled vacuum dust collection attachment
First, angled version

The original design (more angled version) worked great, but wouldn’t stick to the wall by itself. Why was the air path not an oval? Not sure–that’s just how it started out. Why was sticking to the wall by itself valuable? When working solo it’s actually convenient when drilling into wall studs; when just plowing through drywall you don’t need two hands on the drill anyway.

Rounded version of dust collector
More-rounded version; sticks to the wall!

We corrected most of the airflow problems by un-boxing the air path to the collection inlet and de-complicating some of the geometry where the main dust collection hole is.

One issue we ran in to (and why there’s such an aggressive taper) is that keeping the drill from bumping into the DC attachment we had to rotate one or the other or both. While it definitely has an impact on airflow, it also means we don’t have to get all wrist-twisty to complete even deep holes.

What’s Next?

We’ll put up some designs for other hose diameters (notably a 1 7/8″ one for our new Rigid “toolbox style” vacuum, which we’re loving!) and we’re likely going to further widen and smooth out the main airflow path into the hose so it’ll be even suckier.

We’ll also be doing quick reviews of both our Ryobi One+ (18V) tools and cute little Milwaukee M12 (12V) tools, which we’ve started using for almost all of our work: they’re perfectly adequate for most “utility” drilling, lighter, and smaller than the Ryobis.

Why did we start messing with the Milwaukee M12 series? We specifically wanted something small, light, and versatile–and they had an M12-powered inspection scope. That started the buying spree, and now we’ve duplicated many of our Ryobis with the smaller M12 form factor, and couldn’t be happier. But we’ll keep using both.

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