Escher lizard coasters

February 8, 2011

Had you noticed we’re living in the future? :)

One of the best things about programming is how you can have a crazy idea one morning and have brought it to virtual life by evening. There’s the satisfaction of creating while only lifting a finger between keyboard and mouse, and the instant gratification from seeing what you’re building grow.

Now it’s even better news for those of us who perhaps shouldn’t be let near toolery for the safety of others: you can make real world stuff without leaving your computer, and it’s easy, fast and affordable.

So, clearly the thing which is clamouring loudest to be brought into existence is a set of tesselating lizard coasters.

Of course, CAD (computer aided design) and factories have been around for ages – but look at how easy it is now. You can come up with a design using free software, order online for it to be made in small or one-off quantities, at a (sort-of) reasonable price, and get the result delivered to your door. Within a week.

“Personal factory” websites like Ponoko can cut out 2D shapes for you from sheets of materials. You just need to send them the design in a vector image format, like SVG. They charge by the kind of material and by laser cutting time.

A tesselating design has certain advantages here :)

Drawing the lizards

The first thing we need is a program for creating vector drawings to send to the factory. That’s easy – Inkscape is a free SVG editor, and Ponoko provides templates to get you started. They also support Illustrator and CorelDRAW.

For this particular idea, it turns out the hard work has already been done: there’s a public domain SVG version of the tesselating lizard by Sean Michael Ragan. Check out his site, he also gives a nice explanation of how he constructed it from the original artwork.

This SVG can be copied straight into Ponoko’s Inkscape template, moved about and resized. (I also deleted the excess overlapping lines for adjacent lizards to minimise cutting costs.) Once you’re happy with the design, you just need to change the line size/colours to match Ponoko’s specification: that’s how you tell them whether you want a line to be cut through (blue), engraved (green), or an area to be ‘shaded’ (grey).

Ponoko provides three templates for different sizes of material: as this was our first try, I started off with a prototype of just three lizards on the smallest template to see if it worked. As the cost depends on laser time, tesselating lizards scale well, so the next run on a medium template worked out much cheaper per-lizard.

Define your reality

Next, you upload the SVG design to Ponoko’s website, choose your factory, and the materials to make your design from – you’ll get the immediate calculation of how much it’ll cost you.

Ponoko has factories in New Zealand, US, Germany, UK, and Italy, and prices and materials available will vary according to which you choose. Our local is RazorLAB UK in London, so I chose plywood. There’s a range of interesting materials available including metal, card, and plastic.

Once happy with your configuration, just submit an order!


The lizards arrived in 3 days, smelling extremely strongly of burnt wood, and we decided we quite liked the look of the singed edges. They fit together well, not too tightly, with about 1mm gap at the edges from the laser cutting. My design was for cutting a single sheet of plywood (Ponoko’s ‘P2’ size), but the lizards which arrived had clearly been cut from two different sheets, as the colours were slightly different – no idea why, but this worked well for us as we’d wanted some variation in colours anyway. The burnt smell faded after a few days ;)

To turn them into coasters, we stacked two 4mm plywood lizards on top of a cork base. We got some cork sheet from Ebay (fine grained stuff, intended for model railways), stuck the lizards onto it with wood glue and cut out the cork by hand, then filed down with sandpaper to get the edges flush. If the factory had offered cork as a material, that would have saved us a lot of time!

Finally, we painted each coaster 3 times with a clear gloss polyurethane varnish (Ronseal ultratough hardglaze), which gave a lovely glowing finish to the plywood.

Do it yourself

If you want to have a go at this yourself, here are the Inkscape SVG files (public domain, do what you like with them) in Ponoko’s format. You can also get them from my showroom on Ponoko.

Note that the lines are very thin so you’ll need to zoom in close to see them.

  • P1_lizard.svg: a single lizard, in convenient form for cutting and pasting. When you rotate and place copies next to each other, you’ll probably want to remove the overlapping duplicate line sections. Here’s a version without any internal decoration: P1_lizard_simple.svg.
  • P1_lizard_3_simple.svg: Three lizards, on the smallest (P1) size sheet, without any internal decoration (just the shape). (Making cost: $6.78, Material cost: $1.80, $2.86 per lizard)
  • P1_lizard_3.svg: Three lizards, on the smallest (P1) size sheet, with internal decoration – lines and eyes. (Making cost: $10.38, Material cost: $1.80, $4.06 per lizard)
  • P2_lizards_full_mixed.svg: 24 lizards, on the medium (P2) size sheet. As more line segments are shared, this is more economical for cost-per-lizard. Half have decoration, half are plain (because we chose to stack two lizards to make a double-thickness coaster). (Making cost: $42.31, Material cost: $6.33, average $2.03 per lizard)

Oh and for anyone who’s saving on postage by picking up their order from RazorLAB (WC1N 2NP) in person: it’s in a little alley off Northington St. The door to Cockpit Arts studio is on the left as you enter the alley; go in and up some metal stairs and you’ll be faced with a buzzer-board-of-doom. RazorLabs leave the items for pick up at the main reception, so use the buzzer for ‘Office’ on the left; ignore the main board! Once in, keep going straight ahead and the desk is at the end of the corridor on the left. As of late-2010, anyway.

Related work

Others have used the same lizard design for different projects: plastic lizards, thicker plywood lizards, foam puzzle lizards.

More generally you might like MAKE zine, Shapeways, MakerBot, Cory Doctorow’s Makers, and Dan’s Data: “Next stop: Hardware piracy” for a really thorough overview.

And finally: the marvellous lizard cars by Jasper Fforde.


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