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Exploring Life & Business with Vance Challoner of Salt Lake Laser Etch

Today we’d like to introduce you to Vance Challoner.  

Hi Vance, we’d love for you to start by introducing yourself.
Originally born in Australia to English parents, I started my globetrotting adventure at age 6, when we moved to Scotland, then back to Australia, and finally, to the U.S. All of this travel was done by ship, so I had visited many different countries and seen many different cultures before the age of 10. One fun fact, the ship that brought us to the U.S. was the Pacific Princess or as any child of the ’70s will know it as, the “Love Boat”. It was the last cruise the ship took before the television show started, so it was very fun to see the ship on the TV, but it was a very different look than what we experienced. For us, it was all old couples from bow to stern! 

The family finally settled in Utah, where I attended Junior High and Olympus High School, then onto the UofU. I was always good with my hands, building things, and started to get my degree in Engineering. At the same time, I also joined the Air Force Reserves with my brother. I took a job in Airframe Repair or “sheet metal” to give me some practical experience with aircraft design to enhance my school studies. I started in the 405th CLSS up at Hill AFB, working on F4s and preparing for the next conflict. Life had other plans for me though; I got married and very soon had a child of my own on the way. Being a poor college student was not very conducive to raising a family, so I looked at all my options and decided to go active duty, which started me on my second globetrotting adventure. 

At first, I continued in my job working on and fixing aircraft, such as F-15s, F-16, and the occasional Harrier jet or other jets that had to make an emergency landing. This gave me more practical experience building and fixing metal structures than I could have ever wanted. Not too many people have had the experience of climbing into the back end of a jet engine right after the jet has landed to make a repair, so it could take off immediately for another flight. Working in the Arizona sun is hot, but that engine was hotter! 

My wandering nature got the best of me however and I ended up cross-training into a new career field, which monitored the nuclear test ban treaties, amongst other things or a similar nature. This was a very specialized career field which involved many different disciplines; amongst other things, I was a Forensic Microscopist (processed samples and did an analysis with a microscope), a systems engineer, and designed, built, and maintained cryogenic systems and many different air samplers and ran shops of international maintenance crews. I was constantly traveling to obscure and remote places such as Alert, Canada, the northernmost inhabited place in the world to Santiago, Chile, and all points in between. Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and even Heartbreak Ridge in Korea. I have lost count of the countries I have visited, and the only continent I have not been on is Antarctica, which hopefully I can do one day. There were years I was gone several hundred days out of the year, which is obviously hard on the family. Despite all the travel, there were many fun and unique experiences; one of my first digital pictures is of my kids jumping on the trampoline in the backyard as the Space Shuttle carrying John Glenn takes off in the background. We were stationed at Patrick AFB just south of Cape Canaveral at the time, and it was a perfect confluence of events. They also got to experience the Japanese culture for 4 years while I was stationed there. Wherever I was at, I tried to get out and experience the local area and people. 

After 23 years in the AF, I retired and eventually ended up working for IM Flash in Lehi as a technician working in their cleanroom. While there a very dear friend I knew from Junior High grabbed me and we decided to go back to school. Neither one of us had finished our degrees; me because I was traveling so much, I never had the chance, and it was a lifelong goal for both of us. So, 2 50-year-old students went back to college to fulfill our dreams! I ended up getting a degree in Multidisciplinary Design. This was a brand-new degree program that was developed in the Architecture department and I was in the very first class to follow this new tract. My friend got her degree in Intermedia Sculpture and Art Technology; this is important! During the course of my studies, I had to build many different models/designs and there was a shop for the entire architecture/design programs to use. As you can imagine, it was very crowded as all the different students were trying to use it at once. I was used to very big shops and having all my own tools, so I did a lot of work on my own. There was a project that needed a lot of cutting, and instead of using an exacto knife like everyone else, I found a former student who had a laser in his business and he cut the project for me; I WAS HOOKED!!! I needed my own laser. I priced them out and $50,ooo was quite a bit beyond my means at the time but you know what I did have… lots of experience creating, maintaining, and building machines! So, I took to the internet, found lots of plans, tweaked and improved them to what I wanted and I built myself a laser! 

I only made it for my own use in doing my design projects, plus I have always wanted a laser, but slowly the word got out. At first, it was my friend in the Art program…” hey, can you cut me this,” “hey, I need this etched” then it was her friends asking for things to be cut or etched and my fellow students asking for things and then other students in the architecture program who needed things cut; next thing I know I had regular people and businesses asking for services. This was all before I had even finished school! I kept things low-key because I was trying to finish my degree, but I also started the process to create my own business, so when I graduated, I hit the ground running and opened up shop! 

This was 10 years ago and even though my first laser is still my main production laser, I have expanded from CO2 lasers to include Fiber lasers for metal etching and I use my Design degree almost every day. It might be as simple as choosing a font for some lettering or helping a customer take an idea scribbled on a napkin and creating a functional design that is then fabricated. I have so much fun prototyping or experimenting to see what can be done or figuring out the best way to accomplish a customer’s idea. Along the way of this adventure, I have done work for Black Diamond, The Utah Jazz, Maverick, The VA (near and dear to my heart), and even a couple movies that needed props and Relative Race, the BYU TV show, plus countless other businesses and people. I’ve done work in wood, glass, metal, leather, plastics, and even rocks! I like to think of myself as a mad scientist who can tackle just about anything and of course, I love my tools, so I have 3D printers and water jets and all the hand tools to carry on the sheet metal work that started me in the Air Force. I will never stop learning and have dabbled in blacksmithing and smelting, and next is welding. I might not become an expert in all these, but everything adds and helps improve the work I do on a regular basis, and I meet so many interesting and fun people along the way. I pride myself in tackling the obscure and hard projects and taking care of the people who come to me. I love working for myself and look forward to helping everywhere I can. 

Alright, so let’s dig a little deeper into the story – has it been an easy path overall, and if not, what were the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
Has this been a smooth road…. absolutely not! Firstly, I had not planned on going into business for myself, so there were many days of soul searching and panic trying to decide if I should quit my job and keep going on my own. I am working on a degree in Design, is this the best use of it, or again, quit my current job and try for something in the design field. Talk about stress… I was almost 50 and trying to decide if I was going to chuck everything and start all over again! 

Once I had decided to go out on my own, I also decided that I was not going to do the traditional business loan route. So, there were many years of scrimping and scraping and putting every dime I had into keeping the business going and growing it when I could. Quite a few times I almost had to take on a job to keep things going, but luckily enough work came in, just at the nick of time, so I did not have to. 

When they say that it takes money to make money, normally that is so true. Advertising, rent, equipment, and utilities, all take a lot of money to keep a new business going until they have enough funds to make it on their own. Without the normal business loan, doing all those things is very nerve-wracking and a huge risk, but it is also very freeing. I was able to do what I wanted to do, when I wanted to do it, and especially how I wanted to do it, without being held accountable by a bank or investor. 

The single biggest challenge is the sheer amount of learning involved with a laser. I fell into the same trap as most people in that I thought I could get a laser (or in my case, make one), and then I could just start making everything I saw on YouTube, but no! There is a huge learning curve and an enormous amount of technical knowledge needed to run everything on a laser. Every type of material reacts differently when hit with the laser. Not just plastic versus wood, but every different species of wood reacts differently, grain structure affects the results you get, even the sap content of the wood makes a difference. You can have the same type of wood, and the time of year it is cut will make a difference it how an etch comes out. Every plastic reacts differently, and every leather reacts differently; there is a huge amount of knowledge needed for every material out there. On top of that, you have the different variables of the laser; speed, power, dot pitch, etc.; changing each just a little can drastically change the image or cut you are trying to do. I have spent literal hours slowly adjusting the laser variables to get the required results. 

Part of this is getting the customer to understand that the laser is not magic and can’t just do whatever they think of. It can take many hours…. yes, hours…. just getting them realize that I can’t make it etch a specific color, like a printer, or if I cut that design, all the pieces in the middle will fall out because nothing is connecting them together. Then there are those who find something on the internet and want me to recreate it for cheaper. First, I won’t steal someone else’s designs, I know how much time and effort goes into creating them (not to mention the legality of using copyrighted material). Second, it is usually more expensive for me to do it from scratch than it is to just buy it from them. 

Customers also see the cost of mass-produced items from China, etc., and then just can’t understand why it can cost so much for me to design and fabricate a single item. They don’t see the hours of work that goes into creating a file that is usable in the laser or searching for parts that they want to use in their project. 

Next to the learning curve, dealing with customers can be the biggest challenge of being in business for yourself. Not to mention getting a license, doing taxes, invoices, permits, and all the other items required by the government. 

Thanks for sharing that. So, maybe next you can tell us a bit more about your business?
Salt Lake Laser Etch specifically deals with mid-level or what I call commercial laser cutting and engraving. To me, there are 3 levels of laser services: Hobby – people with small lasers such as a Glowforge, that usually do their own projects or small items for others Industrial – business that cut huge items such as cars, boats, etc., etc. or fully automated factories. I sit in between; I can handle production runs for business, such as putting on logos or serial numbers on items or doing the one-off custom pieces that you might need for a wedding, a shop sign, or an art piece for fun. 

I am one of the few people in the valley that have both CO2 lasers and Fiber lasers. Most people know about CO2 lasers, which are great for wood, acrylic, glass, etc. but can be problematic with metal. Fiber lasers are a different wavelength of light and are great for etching and engraving metals. Having built my first laser, I have an in-depth knowledge of how they actually work and not just how to use one. 

I also have a degree in Multidisciplinary Design, so I help creating files, taking ideas, and figuring out how to manufacture them, even if it is not with the laser, prototyping and guiding a project thru its creation. You wouldn’t believe how many people come to me, hand me an object or idea and just tell me, “I don’t know what to do…you figure it out!” 

That is what I do…figure s**t out! 

Noteworthy customers: 

Black Diamond – I used to etch all their ascenders until they moved production overseas. They still come to me for jobs they can’t do in-house. 

Utah Jazz 

Deer Crest Club 

Veterans Administration – to all the vets out there; when you pick up items at the pharmacy, and you see those metal discs in the windows… I did those! 

Secret Service 

Highwest Distillery 

SL County Public Library 

Apple Beer 

Back Country 

Hollow Tree Honey 

DXDT Racing and many other local businesses, they are all noteworthy and important, but the list would be pages long! 

There are also countless many local people I’ve done custom orders for, but the most noteworthy would be the custom etched box done for Mark Hamill (yes, Luke Skywalker); it was made to hold a replica lightsaber that was presented to him when he visited for Comic Con back in 2016. Being a big nerd myself, that was definitely a highlight of my career. I just wish I had been able to present it myself! 

Risk-taking is a topic that people have widely differing views on – we’d love to hear your thoughts.
Risk is an absolute ingrained part of life, even though most people don’t think about it. Every decision you make on a daily basis involves some part of risk. Risk is the unknown factor that we deal with every day. We might try to mitigate that risk by holding to a routine or keeping things “known” or safe, but life can always throw us a curveball, and how prepared we are to deal with that curveball can be viewed as how apt we are to take risks. 

I am not an arbitrary risk taker; in other words, I don’t race around speeding in my car just to do it. I am not scared of risk though and have been faced with and taken many risks. When I first got to college, I actually started in computer programming; it was the 80s, and everyone wanted to be the next big programmer. I enjoyed it, and was pretty good, but I felt something was missing. I could have just plugged along and kept going down that path, but I took the risk and jumped into a different degree path. I had always been told that I was going to be a great scientist, so I tried, Chemistry and Physics and all were fun and interesting but all lacked something for me. I took the risk and pushed aside the pressure from what everyone expected me to be and followed the path I felt was right. Working with my hands and creating something will always by my passion and joy and no matter what others might think, taking the risks that improve you is will always be the right thing. 

Next was finding out about my daughter being on the way. This was not part of the plan! I was stretched thin as it was, being newly married and trying to keep my schooling going. What to do with a child on the way as well. I could keep plugging along the path I was or drop school and just get a job to support us all (a risk in itself) or take a huge risk and take a new path of going full active in the military. Did I know what was going to happen, no! Did I even know how to make it happen, no! Was it the best decision; who knows?!?!? But I looked at every option I could think of and decided this was the risk I wanted or needed to take. Maybe that is an integral part of risk… you can have all the options you want, but if you aren’t willing to actually take a different path, then you aren’t actually taking a risk. 

Cross-training into a different career path was a big risk. Sheet metal was a safe secure career path and easy to make rank, but I would never have had the adventure of being in the Artic Circle or handling nuclear materials or being in the insane unique situations that I ended up being in. 

Going back to school was a HUGE risk! I had a safe secure job, that I could have done for many many years; why on earth would you want to go back to school! I know we said it was just to fulfill a lifelong dream of getting a degree, but I think, deep down, I knew I was going on my next adventure. Maybe those who take what others would call risks are just not settled yet. Something inside them is missing, and they will keep risking new paths, new adventures, and new careers until they find what it is they are missing. 

I have never lived a normal secure life; I attended 10 elementary schools, 2 Junior Highs, and 1 High School; moved so many times I have lost count, between several different countries, so taking risks is just second nature to me. What’s funny is the military was actually a more sedate life (except for the TDY’s or business travel) than my regular life. I moved more before I was a teenager than I ever did my whole military career. Taking risks for me was easy because I was so used to change. I didn’t have the fears of upsetting a “normal” life or what others expected because not too many people could say that they had circumnavigated the world by sea before they had even turned 10! 

Contact Info:

  • Instagram: salt.lake.laser.etch
  • Facebook: Salt Lake Laser Etch
  • Twitter: @sllaseretch

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