Jason Lefton’s BIG SECRET: Laser-Etched Design

When web designer Jason Lefton bought his first laser in 2010, it marked the beginning of a beautiful relationship. Little did he know that it would help him launch a booming creative business, known as BIG SECRET, that specializes in laser-etched designs.

Inspired to experiment with lasers by another artist who had engraved a laptop, Lefton’s laser exploration began with his own laptop, but quickly expanded to other materials. He uses multiple CO2 lasers to burn intricate designs into almost anything. And I mean almost anything, including leaves, shoes, grip tape, human bones, pancakes and baseball bats.

NIKE BAT “PHOTO COURTESY: TERRY BROWN PHOTOGRAPHY”

NIKE BAT – PHOTO COURTESY: TERRY BROWN PHOTOGRAPHY

“This technology and its potential as a creative tool felt unlimited,” Lefton said. I imagine it’s the way a blacksmith feels the first time they see a forge. I wanted to bring this tool to artists, art directors, designers, and my friends who would have amazing ideas for its potential.”

He started out with smaller jobs, but what was once a side project soon turned into his full-time career. Since BIG SECRET’s launch, he’s collaborated with clients including Nike, Jack Daniels, David Copperfield and Neil Patrick Harris. With such high-profile clients, much of Lefton’s work must be created in secret until they’re ready to be revealed, adding an “air of mystery” to his work, as he says.

Here, HOW talks with Lefton about BIG SECRET and the process of creating these elaborate laser-etched designs.

What kind of laser/equipment do you use? 

Before purchasing my first machine, I researched different wavelengths of lasers and found CO2 to be the most versatile. I was excited to experiment with a really wide variety of materials and it was important I could engrave and cut both organic and inorganic matter. We’ve produced projects with wood, paper, glass, plastics, fabrics, leaves, food, bones, basketballs, ostrich eggs—the list goes on.
DROPBOX DICE - Laser engraved maple dice for Dropbox with art by Justin Pervorse.

DROPBOX DICE – Laser engraved maple dice for Dropbox with art by Justin Pervorse.

MOORE AND GILES “PHOTO COURTESY: MOORE & GILES”LEATHER WRAPPED CROSLEY TURNTABLE – PHOTO COURTESY: MOORE & GILES

What additional equipment do you use?

The laser is a very modern machine, but during fabrication we use many traditional tools you would find in a wood or metal shop: table saws, belt sanders, crazy glues, and a million vice grips. There aren’t many projects where the laser is the only machine we use during production, but our business is centered around lasers.

Where do you find inspiration for laser-cut work?

I’m inspired by mediums and forms that utilize an extreme amount of intricacy because of the laser’s capacity for detail. Nature is a massive inspiration with its capacity for design and patterning. I also take a lot of inspiration from conversations with everyone I talk to. I try to not limit inspiration to people who are my age, in my industry, or who live nearby. The Internet helps to seek out new conversation, but it’s incredibly easy to overindulge or feel dejected by comparing your work to what’s out there.

GIFT BOX - PHOTO COURTESY: CHAPTER & VERSE

GIFT BOX – PHOTO COURTESY: CHAPTER & VERSE

THEORY11 “PHOTO COURTESY: THEORY11”

PLAYING CARD BOX SET – PHOTO COURTESY: THEORY11

What has been your favorite client project thus far? What about your favorite personal project?

We’ve been very fortunate to work on a lot of fun client projects. If I had to pick just one, I’d say the Nike baseball bats because of the unique challenge and the pleasure of working with Kevin Cantrell and Juan Carlos Pagan—two amazing designers. Fabrication of the bat was quite intense, considering that we decided to laser etch an irregularly shaped cylinder top to bottom. We took meticulous care each step of the way, from sanding and painting down to the satin polyurethane that gave them their subtly textured matte finish. The process was compelling because, to our knowledge, we were engraving a baseball bat in an entirely new way.

My favorite personal project is a pyramid-shaped box which held my wife’s wedding ring before I proposed. It has a piece of hollowed dowel rod which slides on a rail to reveal the ring and all five sides of the box are laser engraved.

JACK DANIELS “PHOTO COURTESY: BIG SECRET”

JACK DANIELS MAP – PHOTO COURTESY: BIG SECRET

How did you connect with Nike in regard to the bats? What about Jack Daniels for the whiskey barrels?

I had been mesmerized by Kevin Cantrell’s work for years and in 2013 he saw a post on underconsideration.com where a bit of our work was featured. He reached out about testing the waters for a personal project of his and we began building a relationship grounded in the mutual desire to produce work of the highest quality. In addition to how much I admire his portfolio, we trust and respect each other, which makes for a great partnership. Nike got in touch with Kevin and I told him at the beginning of the project that I was about 80% certain we could produce the bats and he said, “Great, because I’ve already sold them on it. So let’s go!” Completing a gratifying full circle, the bats were featured on underconsideration.com in 2015, two years after Kevin’s first email.

Daniel Messih, a senior art director at Arnold Worldwide, said he learned about BIG SECRET from friends in Brazil. He remembered our name while working on the 150th anniversary Jack Daniels project.

[Related: HOW’s 2016 Designer Gift Guide – 36+ Gifts for Designer | Close Encounters of the 3D Kind: The Rise & Future of 3D Printed Design]

How would you describe the aesthetic of your work?

Our work is modern, intricate, and tactile. It’s clean, and it’s fun. I appreciate attention to detail and keep a variety of our work flowing through a number of styles. It gets boring if every day is the same so I intentionally mix things up.

Who are some of your favorite designers and artists?

At the moment I’ve been enjoying the work of Wayne White, Allyson Mellberg Taylor, Francis Picabia, Wassily Kandinsky, Brooke Inman, Travis Robertson, Melissa Deckert, Yayoi Kusama, Irving Harper, Charley Harper, Ernst Haeckel, Steven Harrington and Alex Beck.

OREO BOOK “PHOTO COURTESY: MARTIN AGENCY”

OREO BOOK – PHOTO COURTESY: MARTIN AGENCY

What do you hope to accomplish in the future with laser-cut work?

I hope our work continues to delight people who interact with it. I want to inspire new friends to make their own goods instead of buying everything off-the-shelf. I want to teach my son, who is only 2 at the moment, and his friends to use our lasers, as I’m sure they’ll have mind-blowing ideas.

What’s your best advice for creatives looking to get into this particular discipline?

Have fun. Don’t limit yourself early on to one product or one material. Big and small risks alike keep you trying new things and from getting too comfortable. If you’re comfortable, you’re likely not moving forward. Listen to what other professionals and peers and friends and strangers have to say. Ask them questions. Form opinions and then challenge your opinions often. Keep growing and sharing what you love with everyone.


Looking to start your own creative business? Get ahead with HOWU’s online workshop, Getting Down to Business: 8 Action Planning Steps for Creative Freelancers.

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