Over the holidays I had the opportunity to build some Arrow of Light awards for a local Cub Scout troop. These are simple cherry boards with a routed edge detail that the Scouts will hang on their wall in their home. The plaque will have an arrow mounted on it, and the arrow will be painted with colored bands, each representing an achievement reached by that particular Scout. This award is used in the ceremony that transitions the Scouts from Cub Scouts to Boy Scouts, and there were 14 of them.
The Easy Stuff
I selected Cherry for this project and picked up some great pieces at Compton Lumber in Seattle. After selecting face sides of the lumber to hide any defects or sapwood I rough cut the pieces to length and let them accilimate. After a few days I milled the lumber to final dimensions and routed the edge and endgrain with a Freud Quadra cut bit on my router table. I was sure to route the end-grain first with a backing block, and then route the edge. This left a nice smooth cut with very little tearout.
Keyholes with a Plunge Router
To make these awards easy to hang on the wall I used a keyhole bit. With this bit you plunge into the piece creating room for the head of a nail, then move the bit along the upside of the back of the piece creating a recess for the nail and a slit for the shaft. There are cutters on the wide disc on the bottom of the bit and along the shaft of the bit. You’ll see how this works in the picture below.
I created a fixture to hold the boards securely and also guide the router in a straight line up the back of the piece with stops at the top and bottom. I used opposing wedges to hold the board against a fence, which worked better than any wacky creative clamping and was very low profile. There were 14 awards, and the jig helped me cook through all 28 keyholes quickly.
CNCs and Lasers – Oh My!
After completing the keyholes, it was time to add the Arrow of Light design. This was the most challenging part of the project because in the past the awards were laser engraved, and I don’t own a laser engraver. I contacted trophy shops in the area but there laser engravers were too small for a 34-inch long board, or they were going to charge outrageous prices.
A fellow online woodworker, Ralph Bagnall, offered to help by creating router templates for me. Ralph does some CNC work so I sent him the design. We had some conversations via phone and he quickly sent me some router templates. Ralph is a helpful, positive, and encouraging worker. You really should connect with him through his website or on Twitter @Consultingwood.
After trying the router templates, I decided to continue to look for laser engravers. It’s not that Ralph’s CNC skills weren’t awesome, it’s that the design just wasn’t suited for routing. Lots of corners on the design that the router just can’t get sharp enough.
Hackers, Makers, and Robots
Luckily I found Metrix Create:Space in Seattle. CreateSpace is one of those Hacker and Maker Spaces that has lots of gadgets and gear: 3D printers, laser engravers, CNC machines, robots, soldering stations, all kinds of cool stuff. Their prices are reasonable and they have friendly and helpful staff. I had 14 of these awards to laser engrave and it took about 10 minutes per award with help from the staff. I had to draw the design in Inkscape which is a free program, and it was very easy to use.
The laser engraver works like a giant inkjet printer, except for three main differences:
- The laser engraver is much bigger
- The wood stays still (with an inkjet the paper moves)
- It’s shooting a laser not ink
Here’s a video of the laser engraving an award. The smoke in this video is real, it smelled like a wonderful campfire in the workshop even with capable ventilation.
Even Machines Make Mistakes
Very rarely the laser would lose track of its position and the laser would engrave the wood in the wrong position. But it would do it perfectly and continue on, not knowing that it was messing up the award. When this happened I planed the surface new and let the laser take another shot.
Here’s what that looks like, compared to a correctly engraved award right out of the laser. The sap in the wood heats up and rises to the surface and the surface is left tacky. I cleaned that up with mineral spirits and then handplaned the surfaces crisp and clean.
Now Here’s the Fun Part
At this stage, the awards are ready for sanding and finish. Remember, there are fourteen of them. And they are for Cub Scouts matriculating into Boy Scouts. A day was scheduled at the Pack Leader’s garage, and I packed a road kit. I would deliver the awards and teach the Scouts to sand and oil their own awards. I chose Danish oil for the finish because it’s near impossible to get wrong. I brought my plane, my planing stop, sandpaper of various grits, rags, and Watco Danish Oil. I also brought the appropriate safety equipment including gloves and a bag to take all oily rags home.
After a brief tutoring session the boys were busy at work sanding along the grain, sanding the end grain to higher grits, and checking each other’s work. There were some boys who weren’t interested but for the most part the Scouts were really interested.
The Pay Off
It was a fun experience to share woodworking with some Scouts, and it was especially rewarding to see the kids who were genuinely interested in the work we did that day. It was fun to see these kids share this time with their Dads. Maybe I’ve started something in these kids and someday they’ll say “Hey Dad, can we do some woodworking this weekend?”