LASER ART: Etching an image on almost anything

May 21, 2004 11:00 pm
Rik Renfro shows laser-etched images ().
Rik Renfro shows laser-etched images ().

Pilot story and photos by BILL LUNDQUIST

"Do you expect me to talk?" said secret agent James Bond as the needle-thin beam of light came ever closer to burning off the only thing he valued more than a well-shaken martini.

"No, Mr. Bond," sneered supervillain Goldfinger in the 1964 movie of the same name, "I expect you to die."

That was how millions of American schoolboys were introduced to the laser. Shouting a collective "cool," they eagerly pumped their science and industrial arts teachers for information, hoping to build one at home.

Some boys learned for the first time that adults actually knew something interesting.

They learned that laser was an acronym for "light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation."

All well and good, thought the boys, but acronyms are of little use in destroying one's supervillain enemies.

They learned, to their everlasting disappointment, that lasers probably had a future in cutting industrial steel, but ray-gun weapons were still as far away as they had been in the days of Buck Rogers.

Flash forward 40 years, and not only has the military shot a bomber with a laser, the magic beams of light are used widely by jewelers, surgeons and photographers.

Participants in Jan Norwood's monthly HUGS program toured Brookings Laser Arts Monday morning to learn about lasers and what could be done locally with them.

Owner Rik Renfro told them he had long been interested in lasers, but his business was the result of bad and good luck.

Renfro said he had been a jeweler for 25 years, and found a position with Har-Brook Jewelers in Harbor when he moved to Brookings from Illinois in 2000.

The long years of constantly bending over a jeweler's bench had taken its toll on Renfro's bad back, however, and after a year and a half, he found himself facing a disability-forced retirement.

Sitting at home also made his back hurt, so he decided to do something with lasers. The leap from jeweler to laser artist was not as big as some might think.

Renfro said his boss's brother was also a jeweler, and used a $75,000 225 watt laser in his Klamath Falls store to work with brittle opals.

Renfro started out with a much smaller laser, a $7,000 35 watt unit, but said he is still discovering new uses for it.

So far, he has used it to engrave words, graphics and photographs onto plastic, metal, tile, wood, marble, leather, awards, plaques, trophies, gunstocks, knives, wine glasses, scrapbooks and logos.

He joked that a man off the street asked if the laser could remove tatoos. Renfro said he told him he could cut off the entire arm with the laser, which would cauterize the wound as it cut. The man could take the arm, complete with tatoos, with him. He decided to keep the tatoos.

Renfro said that for such a handy-dandy device, a laser is really pretty simple. Much like a good magician, it does its tricks with mirrors.

The light emitted from a light source of at least 80,000 candlepower is bounced back and forth between small mirrors until it is concentrated and powerful enough to go right through the two-way front mirror.

By then it is called "coherent" light, and James Bond had good reason to fear it.

Renfro said the government used Einstein's theories to begin work on lasers in the 1940s, though the United States did not introduce a laser to the public until the late 1960s.

The military is still working on laser satellite weapons, said Renfro, but they can so far emit only one blast because the incredible power destroys the front mirror as it finally passes through it.

The military has, he said, used a laser in an experiment against a bomber. One shot passed through the target's wing, fuselage and two engines, and kept going.

Traveling at the speed of light, said Renfro, a laser weapon could hit anything on earth in a direct line almost instantly.

"Buck Rogers, Jules Verne, it's all come to pass," he said.

Norwood wondered what else lasers could do, besides scaring her to death.

Renfro said they will soon be used in giant boring machines to superheat rock which will then be cracked with cold water.

The garment industry also now uses them to precisely cut through six-foot-thick stacks of cloth.

Surgeons use lasers to fix eyes and cauterize wounds as they cut. In industry, lasers have replaced nearly every other type of cutting tool. Lasers can also be used to transmit just about any type of information over fiber optic lines.

Renfro's laser is contained in a cabinet that looks a bit like a computer printer. He controls it with a PC and says the computer regards it as just another printer.

What customers really pay for, he said, is the design work he does on the computer.

It can even etch photographs on wood, metal, plastic or ceramic tiles. It's simply a matter of time.

Renfro etched a dinosaur into two floor tiles in four and a half hours. Permanent dye or gold paint can also be applied to the designs.

Any photo can be scanned in, said Renfro, but the best quality comes from digital photos.

Renfro has made awards for the Brookings firefighters, Curry County Home Health/Hospice and retired City Councilor Larry Curry.

He is also hoping his laser technique will eventually replace the painted signs for members of the Brookings Harbor Chamber of Commerce.

He wants to offer more retail works of art and souvenirs for the summer tourists, but believes his "bread and butter" may turn out to be floor tiles sold through the Internet.

"My machine needs to be running all day seven days a week," said Renfro. "It hasn't paid for itself yet. I'm going into the hole gracefully."

He hopes to turn that around as people discover his laser can etch everything from rubber stamps to names on blue jeans. He even did the laser lettering for the control panel of an experimental aircraft.

Renfro likes to buy his wood in Curry County, and his floor tiles from within the state.

"I'm trying to keep as much locally as I can," he said.

He admitted he had ruined about $3,000 worth of that local material while he was learning how to use the laser, but has completed his "short" learning curve now.

"The more I'm in the business, the more I find out what it'll do," said Renfro.

He didn't say if that included torturing secret agents.

Brookings Laser Arts is located just a few doors down from the Redwood Theatre at 617-A Chetco Avenue. Hours fluctuate by the season. Call (541) 469-3626 for more information.

Those wishing to join Norwood on her HUGS or Hospitality Tours adventures, free of charge, should call her at (541) 469-4909.