In the fall of 2015 Julia Eigenbrodt decided to go for it. She invested $1,995, plus $99 shipping, to get a Glowforge, a consumer-grade laser cutter. Glowforge was in the midst of what would become a record setting crowdfunding campaign, raising $27.9 million dollars in 30 days and demand for the machines was surprisingly high. Eigenbrodt couldn’t resist.

Glowforge would go on to raise another $22 million in venture capital, but despite these capital infusions, the Seattle-based startup struggled to get orders out on time. Many crowdfunding customers waited a year and half or more to receive their machines.

Eigenbrodt’s Glowforge arrived right before Thanksgiving, 2017. She says it was worth the two year wait.

“I can’t get over how precise it is compared to my other making tools, especially for small details,” she says. “I’m still trying it out with new materials, but it can apply to so many projects. I’ve used it for cardboard, paper, fabric, acrylic, wood, and slate.”

Ornaments created by Julie Eigenbrodt with the Glowforge.

Photos courtesy of Julie Eigenbrodt

Eigenbrodt uses the Glowforge to make engraved wooden coasters, ornaments, and pendants in her home studio in Twinsburg, Ohio. “As a person who loves to make things, having my own laser cutter has opened up whole new worlds,” she says. “It has its own limitations like any tool, but it has quickly become my go-to favorite. None of my other tools can compete with the professional-looking, repeatable, and relatively quick results the Glowforge turns out on a regular basis.”

JOANN Investment

Now, Glowforge is about to become available to many more crafters, including those who can’t afford the hefty price tag (the retail price is $4,000, twice what it was during the crowdfunding campaign) and don’t have a dedicated space to house it. At the end of December the nation’s largest fabric and craft retailer, JOANN, announced a significant investment in Glowforge. JOANN has more than 850 stores across 49 states.

“We know our customers are looking for the best and latest creative technology, and we want to bring them the opportunity to try it first,” Stephen Caution, Vice President of Business Development at JOANN, said in a statement. “By investing in Glowforge and partnering to roll these amazing machines out to our stores, we’ll allow customers to test them out and create things they love. From custom acrylic floor lamps, to plywood drones, to leather shoulder bags, the possibilities with Glowforge are truly limitless.”

The Glowforge kiosk also offers custom framing, although these aren’t made using the laser printer.

Photo courtesy of Abby Glassenberg

Drink stirrers are among the products offered at the kiosk. Although the Glowforge is described as a “3-D Laser Printer” it’s actually a laser cutter.

Photo courtesy of Abby Glassenberg

JOANN Personal Records products include cork and slate coasters as well as wooden cutting boards. Etched business cards are free to take home as samples.

Photo courtesy of Abby Glassenberg

Personalized cake toppers are another product option.

Photo courtesy of Abby Glassenberg

Before rolling out the Glowforge in stores, JOANN has set up a Glowforge kiosk at the Natick Mall just outside Boston to do some user testing. During a visit on a recent Saturday afternoon, a salesperson named Drew who is currently splitting her time between the local JOANN store and the mall kiosk showed me the JOANN/Glowforge integration. Called “Personal Records: Make Memories in Minutes,” the program is available on an iPad where customers can select from products including cutting boards, coasters, cake toppers, and signs that can be cut or engraved to order. Various fonts, sizes, materials, and colors are available. The Glowforge was running and there was a 4-5 hour wait time that day due to a backlog of orders. Drew explained that the intended market for these products is celebrations including weddings, birthdays, anniversaries, corporate events, and baby showers. In the future, customers may be able to place Personal Records orders online and pick up the order in their local store.
Products printed at the Glowforge kiosk at the Natick Mall in Natick, Massachusetts just outside of Boston.

Photo courtesy of Abby Glassenberg

The Glowforge investment is part of a series of recent moves by JOANN to create more in-store experiences and increase customization options as a way to differentiate from ecommerce competitors. In December, JOANN launched MyFabric, a print-on-demand fabric service in collaboration with Durham-based WeaveUp. At the JOANN Concept Store in Columbus, Ohio which launched last year, customers can take classes in the Creator’s Studio, a community-driven learning and events space. Customers can also rent time on a Glowforge, a long arm quilting machine, and a Cricut Maker.

Is the Glowforge Ready to Go Mainstream?

It’s not clear whether JOANN has plans to sell the Glowforge machines at some point in the future. Although the Glowforge is a consumer-grade laser cutter, it’s still a hefty investment for most hobbyists and it requires specialized skills and setup. The machines require outside ventilation while they’re running; a duct at the back needs to connect to an outside window or hood. The Glowforge, like any laser cutter, must be monitored while in use. There’s always a chance of fire when working with lasers. (Watch this thorough review by Norman Chan and Jeremy Williams for more.)

Glowforge founder Dan Shapiro.
Jessee Maloney of Art School Dropout teaches laser cutter training classes at a maker space in Maryland on more powerful laser cutters, and owns a Glowforge at home. She has some reservations about the idea of JOANN selling Glowforge machines at some point, or even having them available for use by the casual JOANN in-store customer. “This weirds me out big time,” she says.

“Laser cutters require very specific training. Glowforges are class four lasers that require special glasses and precautions around them while in use. They are not toys like the Cricut or Silhouette. They are lasers!” Maloney warns, “If you place the wrong materials in them, off gassing could cause death. By putting them in a store like JOANN people are going to think they are toys.”

Eigenbrodt has her machine in her basement with it vented through a hose that connects to a small outside window. “We have found that when engraving for dozens of hours, we need to manually clean out the fan to keep the airflow high enough to prevent a smoky smell from invading the room it’s in,” she says. “We added a booster fan to help with the exhaust flow since our window is quite a bit higher than the machine and we do lots of engraving.” The Glowforge online forums have been a helpful resource for sourcing booster fans and problem solving other issues she says.

Despite the challenges, the machine really appeals to makers like David and Amber Benton who have a shop on Esty called Beech Creek Naturals where they sell handcrafted objects made from wood, including signs. A few years ago they bought a CNC machine which Amber describes as “kind of like a router on steroids.” “Every day we ask ourselves if we did the right thing by getting a CNC machine first,” she says. “We like the CNC, but there are so many ideas we have and we realized it would be much easier with a laser cutter.” The couple already has a 3D printer and a full woodshop. David has been closely following Glowforge since it launched. “I’m sure a Glowforge will enter the picture sometime,” Amber says.

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