Software

My laser cutter came with NewlyDRAW software but I've since replaced the controller circuitry and switched to using Mach 3. If you're using, or planning to use NewlyDRAW, or one of it's clones, then you might want to refer to my page about my initial setup, where I've made some notes about NewlyDRAW.

Google SketchUp

Right from the start I wanted to use Google SketchUp as my main drawing program so that any of my buddies on TerraGenesis who wanted something cut, could send me a SketchUp file, made using the free version. If you need to learn how to use SketchUp, it's worth being aware that there are some very good tutorials on YouTube. I'd go so far as to say they're essential viewing because there's a lot of VERY useful stuff in SketchUp that you'll probably never even realise is there if you don't view the tutorials.

Of course SketchUp's .skp files needed converting to .dxf files so they could be imported into NewlyDRAW (the same step is required now that I'm using SheetCam and Mach 3), and I thought I might invest in the pro version of SketchUp (which can do this). However, as it was the only functionality that I needed from the pro version I went in search of, and found, a freeware plugin that allows SketchUp to save .dxf files. The plugin is in the form of a Ruby script which can be downloaded from here:
http://www.guitar-list.com/download-software/convert-sketchup-skp-files-dxf-or-stl
and should be copied, on a Mac, to:
Macintosh HD/Library/Application Support/Google SketchUp 7/SketchUp/Plugins
After doing that, an extra option appears on the SketchUp's Tools menu.

The plugin for making .dxf files has handled everything I've thrown at it so far (and I'm still using it now I've done away with NewlyDRAW and am using SheetCAM and Mach 3), however it does seem to have a quirk whereby there are occasions when it just refuses to work until I quit SketchUp, and reload it. Another thing to be aware of is that it doesn't seem to be able to output stuff in layers; so I always output as a single layer.

Still on the subject of DXF files, it's worth knowing that it's possible to add the ability to import them into SketchUp 7, free of charge. Details here.

Two other plugins that I'm using (and that I paid a small amount for) are Flatten.rb and LinearLength.rb, both of which came from http://www.smustard.com/. Flatten squashes selected objects onto the Z plane and is a great help in turning a 3D object into shapes that can be cut from sheet. LinearLength calculates the total length of selected lines which, for a design that is to be laser cut, indicates the total length of cutting that the laser will do. A useful figure to have for costing purposes.

Another SketchUp plugin that I've used, for unfolding objects, is available here:
http://sketchuptips.blogspot.com/2007/08/plugin-unfoldrb.html

Inkscape

Google SketchUp works fine for most of what I do however it's quite limited in the way it handles curves. I found a solution in Inkscape, which also has the ability to turn suitable bitmaps (silhouettes are great and can be found on the Internet) into vector images. Note that Inkscape is an incredibly powerful and complicated tool but working though the introductory exercises in the online manual gave me a good grounding.

I also installed an add-on called Better DXF Output to, erm, well I'm gonna leave you to guess what it does. :-)

SheetCAM

When I first converted to using Mach 3 I used LazyCAM (which came with it) to turn SketchUp's .dxf files into the G-code (required by Mach 3). Although it seemed okay with my Micro Milling machine I found LazyCAM a bit awkward when used for use with the laser. So I did some research into what else was available and saw nothing but good reports about SheetCAM. Everything went well with the demo version (limited to 180 lines of code), so I bought a licence. Well worth it in my opinion.

Mach 3

Mach 3 probably needs no introduction but I've made a few notes about setting it up on my page about how I converted my laser cutter to use Mach 3.

Hover over a title for a little more info about the link.

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