Project - Dad's Urn

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My father passed away on March 31, 2012. While visiting with my mom that summer she asked that I help her to select and urn for Dad. She wanted something that had his picture on it, along with an inscription and some key information. After seeing the prices, which ranged from $250 - $500 I offered to take a crack at doing something. My son Chris and I had recently joined the TechShop in Raleigh, and we now have access to an enormous array of tools for working: wood, metal, fabric & electronics. I started the project in late September, and finished it on October 20th.

I crafted the Urn for my dad in several phases:

  • To start I permanently sealed up the PVC box Dad was shipped in using packing tape.
  • Then I created a 1/8" Plywood box to house the PVC Urn, and act as a foundation for the final Urn. The PVC Urn has a smaller base then top. This plywood box was cut using a 40 watt Epilog Laser, then glued together with two different glues to ensure lasting adhesion. I also stained the front and back surfaces to see if the eventual glass picture would stand out, which it didn't. I also toyed with etching the plywood used to make the box with Dad's picture and the text, but it just looked to generic.
  • Next I created a second box built using 1/4" teak. Dad always loved boats, and teak is the lumber of boat builders. I had considered using the same tabbed pattern that was used for the plywood box, but first I thought it might look too tacky. Then I realized that the 40 watt laser was just barely able to cut the teak, and often the planks we cut needed a bit of persuasion to snap free. I had slowed the laser down to a crawl and then ran the cut a second time to burn through as much of the depth as possible, and even at that rate there was a constant flame as we cut with the grain. Clearly the teak was recently milled and still hadn't thoroughly dried.
  • Again using the laser, this technology is awesome, I etched a picture of Dad on a pane of glass. Actually six different panes of glass using two different pictures and varying the laser intensity and dither pattern with each run until it was perfect. Finding two suitable pictures of Dad from the 10's of thousands of pictures I keep took nearly a whole afternoon. Then editing those candidates into the proper black and white format and cleaning them up added several more hours. Finally, I used the laser to score the last four pieces of glass so it could be broken to size, three were practice. The lasers can etch chocolate, and cut through 3/8" of wood, but they can't cut through 1/16" glass.
  • In parallel Chris cut, sandblast and powder coat an 18 gauge sheet of steel to work as a high gloss black backdrop for the picture.
  • Finally, Chris & I etched Dad's name, the inscription, the Marines logo, and a sketch of his boat on the front teak board and cut out an oval to expose the pane of glass and high gloss black backdrop. All the etching had to be done several times due to the nature of the teak, the boards were recently milled and hadn't dried completely.

Chris provided some excellent feedback in real time as I tested different pictures, approaches, and techniques. He also created the backdrop, and made some valuable suggestions along the way. Although I did most of the hands on work, it was a father son project.

I'm happy with the final product, but not thrilled. There are some fit issues that were a result of my decision to use the laser to cut all, but the last plank. This approach required too much sanding to remove the burnt edges and it dramatically impacted the final sizes of the pieces in unpredictable ways. Had I used the sliding chop saw, which I had used the last day for the bottom piece the fit and finish would have been much cleaner. I feared the chop saw would splinter the wood more than it actually did. Also the CorelDraw program that drives the laser created an error that produced three improperly cut planks. I was able to reuse most of the wood. As you can imagine 1/4" x 6" x 72" teak is not common. It took a week to get, and it was fairly costly (20X that of the plywood), so this error really shook me since I didn't have much slack to waste. I ended up having to seam the bottom together to finish the project. All in all, it turned out ok.

Bye dad, I'll always miss you.

Below are pictures of the 1/8" plywood box and the original plastic urn. You can click on any picture to see a higher resolution version of the photo.
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