Laser Cut Maker Puzzle

by Schac_attack, published

Laser Cut Maker Puzzle by Schac_attack Apr 12, 2017

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The ultimate homage to Making! This original laser cut plywood jigsaw puzzle was launched as a scavenger hunt on Tested.com in collaboration with Adam Savage for South By Southwest 2017. Each piece features an invention, tool, and historical figure representing nine realms of making.

The design files are separated into layers - to be cut, stacked, glued - and interlocking into a 3-dimensional puzzle. Complete assembly instructions, settings, and tips are below.

For more details about the original project, check out:

Watch Norm and Sean from Tested build the puzzle piece-by-piece, and get technical about laser cutting! The first segment (of piece #5) can be found here: http://www.tested.com/art/makers/614404-laser-cutting-maker-puzzle-part-1/#comments

Files and Material Choice

Working with design files

  • The design files for each puzzle piece are available to download in both .AI (Adobe Illustrator) and .SVG (Scalable Vector Graphic) format.
  • Each .AI file is fully editable in Illustrator or Inkscape, and includes a composite of each piece, as well as a separate artboard for each layer. Feel free to download and remix (with attribution please) and show us what you create!
  • Some laser cutter software is compatible with .SVG files. For others, the files may need to be converted to .DXF format.

Pro Tip:
To get the most out of your material, the shapes can be rearranged to use up the entire area of each plywood sheet.

Choosing materials

  • We chose three finishes of 1/8" thick, veneer plywood (maple, cherry, and walnut) to create depth and tonal variation between the puzzle layers. The finished product came out looking great, but the material proved to be very difficult to work with! Veneer plywood is more prone to warping when heat is applied, and the small pieces curled and twisted, making them tricky to glue flat.
  • My recommendation? 1/8" thick unfinished baltic birch plywood. I made the prototypes with this and it was (comparatively) a dream to work with. It's also widely available online and at most craft/hobby stores. If you order online and can't handpick good, flat pieces, there might be some minor warping out of the box, but it can easily be flattened down on the laser cutter bed with weights, and the glue-ups are much simpler. Baltic birch will also take paint and stain very nicely and sand up for a uniform finish.
  • If you're feeling ambitious and really want to try different wood varieties, I recommend looking for solid 1/8" sheets instead of veneer or plywood. My guess is that the varying wood types sandwiched together with the veneer, reacted differently to applied heat and stress, and warped dramatically. So look for thin solid sheets instead - more expensive, but you'll avoid the frustration later.

Laser Cutting

Setup and Tips

  • It is essential that the laser is focused correctly to maintain fidelity and avoid scorching on fine engraving work. Plywood has a tendency to warp, especially when heat is applied, so first ensure your material is flat. Use weights, magnets, or secure the plywood to a rigid wasteboard.
  • Make sure your lenses are clean, and re-home the Z-axis for each new piece of material. Focusing manually is preferable as it is often more accurate than auto-focus.

Securing plywood to a wasteboard using a pneumatic nail gun and plastic fasteners

Laser settings

  • Because settings vary greatly by wattage, machine type, and material choice, test a range of speed, power, and scan gap settings using a small sample file on a scrap piece of the material(s) you plan to use. The ideal cut settings are the lowest power and highest speed that will cut cleanly and fully through the material with the least scorching. The ideal engrave settings maintain a level of detail while also achieving the desired depth and darkness effect. I found that a lighter engrave caused the least warping.

These are the speed and power settings I used on a 60w laser for 1/8" veneer plywood:

Scan (engrave)
Speed: 200
Power: 30
Interval (scan gap): 0.065

Speed: 35
Power: 70

  • Important note about layer settings: on the ORANGE layer of each puzzle piece, there is a purple outline of the next layer, to be used as a registration mark when gluing. This outline should be set to CUT rather than engrave, but do NOT cut all the way through the material. Test settings for your machine that will only mark a faint outline - just visible enough to align the next layer (think: lower power, higher speed than the full cut settings).

Scan (engrave) settings

Cut settings

Glue-up & Assembly

Assembling prototypes with Adam!

Gluing each layer

  • Starting with the background layers first, apply wood glue generously to the back of each piece. Spread using a brush if desired, being careful not to apply glue too close to the cut edges to prevent seeping out the sides.
  • Use several clamps to carefully apply pressure on all sides, and readjust the alignment (pieces often slide out of place because the glue is slippery).
  • When glue is set (usually about 20-30 minutes), unclamp and sand gently with fine grit sandpaper to buff off any scorch marks.
  • Begin applying the next layers, working from background to foreground, and making sure to wipe up any excess glue that squeezes out using a cloth or blade to reach into small crevices. It is MUCH easier to remove glue while it is still wet than trying to cut and sand it off after the fact!

If some of the smaller, more delicate laser cut pieces come out warped, clamps may be too big or cause the the pieces to slide out of place when gluing. Carefully set a flat piece of scrap wood on top and weigh it down with something heavy like a textbook. For larger pieces that are very warped, I glued and clamped down one side first, waited for it to dry completely, and then bent down the other side.

Design Process

Play the Puzzle Hunt


Solve the riddles below to reveal the people, tools, and inventions featured on each puzzle piece:


  1. "Amazing" woman who left her Mark on Common Business Oriented Language.
  2. Lilliputian in scale but not in function. Boone and Cochran engineered an early model of these.
  3. Your 1's and 0's and your _ 's. Forerunner to the ENIAC.


  1. Ubiquitous adhesive of Elsie’s bovine counterpart.
  2. From household to factory, it has a foot, arm and eye.
  3. She frocked the likes of Hepburn, Taylor, and Fonda.


  1. The Mission, 1970’s. They might be found pinceles en las manos.
  2. “Where the water cuts through.” Known for their black-on-black pottery technique.
  3. Iconic seating silhouette of leather and molded plywood.


  1. Sutherland’s CAD ancestor program, AKA:
  2. Additive manufacturing process. Stratasys has a corner on the term.
  3. Scheinman’s early robotic appendage.


  1. Modern material of the original interlocking brick.
  2. Thompson's implement - actuates a rotational inclined plane.
  3. Descendant of samurai, known for live-edge boards and conoid chairs.


  1. Jazz saxophonist of three and four-tonic shifts.
  2. Digital sonic synchronicity, with the stroke of a key or a touch of a pedal. Smith is considered its father.
  3. Jenkins and Armat's disputed projection apparatus.


  1. Stores energy from our closest star to power everything from calculators to satellites.
  2. Ladder rungs and spiral stairs - the curious shape of nature’s blueprints.
  3. She studied the effects of breaking the sound barrier while breaking ground in her field.


  1. Breeder of wheat, father of the divisive “Green Revolution.”
  2. Home to leftovers, changed the food industry. Marshall secured the first US patent on these.
  3. Kentucky barrel-aged corn spirit.


  1. Jamming of letters too close together is the reason we have these today.
  2. Short story by a grim poet that gives new meaning to “suspense”.
    3. Cut n’paste feminist punk publication.



  1. Admiral Grace Hopper
  2. Microcontrollers
  3. ABC Computer


  1. Elmer's Glue
  2. Sewing Machine
  3. Edith Head


  1. Las Mujeres Muralistas
  2. San Ildefonso Pueblo
  3. Eames chair


  1. Robot Draftsman
  2. Fused deposition modeling
  3. PUMA arm


  1. Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene
  2. Phillips screwdriver
  3. George Nakashima


  1. John Coltrane
  2. Midi controller
  3. Phantoscope


  1. Solar cell
  2. Double helix
  3. Dr. Christine Darden


  1. Norman Borlaug
  2. Refrigerators
  3. Bourbon whiskey


  1. QWERTY keyboards
  2. The Pit and the Pendulum
    3. Riot Grrrl

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this looks sooooooooooooooooooooooooooo awesome