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How Small Saints Crafts a Custom Laser-Engraved Portrait Box

Wood, glorious wood!

The first material used in the crafting of a Small Saints portrait urn is wood. Hardness, stable grain pattern and colour consistency are considerations when choosing the wood species and the lumber for our urns. Both the density and the resin content of the wood are important considerations also, because they influence the laser-engraving machine settings I choose when I do the engraving. However, like a live symphony performance, part of the beauty of the art is the difference in each production. In our urn making, this difference is due to the subtleties of the wood as a canvas. In this case, however, the canvas becomes a beautiful and integral part of the portrait itself.

red maple tree


Small Saints portrait boxes are locally handcrafted from honey-coloured maple. And by local, I do mean local, as my supplier is a 20 minute drive away from me. 


my supplier making pet urns


My wood wares supplier (Doug Plato and his team of young apprentices) is committed to producing quality products created in an respectful atmosphere of gender equality.  (There will be more on this extraordinary team in a later blog).

By special request, Small Saints can also make urns in your preferred choice of wood. Any lighter coloured wood with warmth and lustre works well for this process.


Small Saints blank portrait urn hanging on the wall


Small Saints Pets Urns and Keepsakes has an exclusive urn design which allows the urn to hang on the wall, just as portrait art would. This ‘blank’ urn, above, is shown hanging on the wall. It is destined to have a pet portrait laser-engraved on its surface.


 the back and inside of a Small Saints hanging portrait urn


This is the back of a Small Saints urn showing the interior compartment. The compartment is accessible from the back, where it is set, flush, with small countersunk brass screws. The urn hangs on the wall by virtue of a pleasing, but sturdy, saw tooth hanger. Urns can be made and oriented in either landscape or portrait orientation, and this is usually dependent on the orientation of the pet’s photograph supplied by the customer.

"The countenance is the portrait of the soul, and the eyes mark its intentions" - Cicero

The next, most critical piece involved in making a custom portrait urn is, of course, the photograph of your pet!  In this workshop example, the photograph is one of Sandi, a delightful and kind dog who shared her life with a friend of mine.


portrait of a dog


Sandi’s original photograph was 1.9 MB in size, above the lowest recommended file size of 1 MB, and when I looked at the image, I could see that it was a close-up, had plenty of detail and was crisp and in focus. In short, it was the perfect image for a laser engraving.  Sandi's photograph also showed many aspects of her personality well.


Pet urn portrait digitally enhanced


I did notice that in order to make a balanced and centered portrait for the urn, I would need to fill in some areas that were not in the original photograph. Those areas included Sandi’s hips and the back part of her cushion. This is one of the tasks in which my artist’s eye, and skills with a digital image editor come to the fore.


pet portrait enhancedpet urn mock up


Because I had constructed some of the missing components, I wished to ensure that the customer was satisfied with the results. So, my next step was to take this revised image, and while still in my image editing software, convert it into an digital ‘etching’ and apply a wood layer over it, creating a digital mock laser-engraving. I sent this mock-up to Sandi’s guardian for her approval. Once I got approval, I proceeded to the next step.


test laser engraved urn portrait image


Critical to the production of a good laser engraving are small adjustments in an image editing software that will enhance the processing once the image is uploaded to the laser-engraving software. Much of this work involves eliminating large areas of black or extreme highlighting while ensuring there is adequate contrast and detail in the image as a whole. When these adjustments are made, the photograph is now ready to be uploaded into the laser-engraver software. From here, one or more ‘test’ engravings are run with Sandi’s image, on smaller pieces of maple, and I scrutinize the results. Any image, speed or power adjustments are made accordingly in the laser-engraver software, in order to get the best laser-engraved image. When I am satisfied, the most precious step follows!

This critical next step is engraving your pet’s image on the handcrafted urn. In Sandi’s case, it was a 10” X 12” maple urn. For me, it is the most exciting, emotional, and worrying step in the process.


Small Saints custom laser engraved portrait pet urn


Here is Sandi’s finished portrait urn.

I also offered to make a cloth bag into which Sandi's guardian could put Sandi’s plastic cremain bag. This customer opted for a forest green in satin fabric. We currently make these bags by special request.

The finished urn, well padded and packaged for the mail service, left Small Saints on it's journey to it's new and cherished home the in the Yukon, Canada.


 ashes and keepsakes inside a Small Saints pet urn


Sandi’s guardian sent me this photograph to show how she filled the urn compartment. Sandi’s ashes are in the Small Saints green satin bag, and the 10” X 12” urn size also allowed room for her collar and tags. Sandi's portrait urn now hangs discreetly on the wall in her own home.

Candidly I'll say, that as an artist, and a maker of these treasured urns and keepsakes, a little bit of my heart leaves with each one on it's journey home.




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