Engraving Blues

By Jennifer McCready
Copyright © 1998-2003 by Davis Multimedia, Intl. All Rights Reserved.
As Printed in May 2003, Volume 28, No. 11 of The Engravers Journal.

    Ho hum. Another day, another engraving job. Not that you’re complaining about your work. After all, on most days you find working in the R&I industry a fascinating experience that is rewarding on both a personal and financial level. But as you engrave a seemingly endless parade of plain white badges, you can’t help but think that the job could be a little more exciting at times. There’s no question about it: You have a bad case of the engraving blues!
    But wait! You can beat those blues! With a few additions to your standard engraving materials and supplies, you can add some spice and variety to your usual engraving jobs. Tired of the same old brass plates? Try using some brightly colored, enamel-coated metals. Burned out on rotary engraving metals? Have you tried some of the laserable metals available instead? Sick of the standard flexible engraving laminates? Well, try some of the hot new options out there, like microsurface or ultra-thin plastics. Need a break from engraving in general? Take a stab at assembling your own badges or adding colors to those beautiful but unadorned awards you just created.
    Are you ready to learn how to add some “zip” to your work with changes to your engraving material and supplies? Well, read on to learn how to chase those engraving blues away!


    Metals, of course, are an industry standard. They are used for everything from trophy plates to plaques to freestanding awards. Despite their prevalence, though, there is quite a range of options available that can really add some variety to your engraving.
    Brass is perhaps the most common metal used in the engraving world. Its gold tone increases the perceived value in the eyes of the customer, which translates into greater sales for you. For many, there is nothing more prestigious than an elegant brass plate affixed to a plaque or trophy.
    One of the benefits of working with brass is that it can be exquisitely engraved in a variety of ways to produce different effects. It can be rotary engraved to some degree, as well as burnished or diamond drag engraved. If you have been consistently diamond engraving your brass plates, why not try burnishing them instead? Your customers will enjoy the sparkling, classy look and the change in method can add a little fun to your engraving.
    The best way to truly inject a little variety to your brass is to purchase one of the many different types available on the market today. Brass is offered in both bright and satin finishes. You can also purchase enamel-coated colored brasses rather than the normal lacquer-coated brass that you might have been using. Lacquer-coated brass describes brass that has a clear coating on it that allows the natural, gold color to shine through. Enamel-coated brass, on the other hand, has been coated with an opaque colored enamel, usually black or brown. When the enamel is engraved, the underlying brass is displayed. The contrast between the colored enamel and the brass is very attractive and customers are often willing to spend a little extra for this. Today, you can also choose from a variety of patterned metals having multi colors or even veining resembling marble and other stone materials.
    Bright finishes, satin finishes and enamel-coated brasses are all available sizes similar to standard brass, i.e., in sheets that are 12" by 12" or 12" by 24" and between .020" and .025" thick. Therefore, adding one of these more unusual brasses to your engraving repertoire should pose no problem in terms of equipping your shop or machine to handle them.
    If you need to engrave a metal, but brass isn’t quite the look you are going for, aluminum is another choice to be considered. Aluminum is characterized by a bright, silvery color. Its perceived value is slightly less than brass, but it is also less expensive than brass, so it can still be a great addition to your shop’s engraving materials.
    Aluminum also offers similar marking options as does brass. It diamond engraves beautifully and can be burnished to some degree. However, lacquer-coated aluminum is not recommended for rotary engraving, as it can produce results that are a little rough and “chewy.” Still, to a customer that is used to receiving rotary engraved brass, a diamond engraved aluminum plaque can be an exciting change.
    Like brass, aluminum is available with different coating options that can liven up your material selection. Lacquer-coating, which allows the material’s natural silver color to be utilized, is the standard selection. However, enamel-coating is available in a range of colors and the contrast between the opaque color and the underlying aluminum can be stunning.
    Anodized aluminum is another option. It is considerably more durable than normal aluminum, and its matte finish is often the look that you or your client is looking for. It is also more chemical- and weather- resistant than standard aluminum, which can be a benefit for outdoor applications. Its hard anodized coating increases its rotary engravability by resisting depth nose-related scratches.
    Trophy aluminums are available in sizes similar to brass, i.e., 12" x 12" or 12" x 24" sheets and are usually .020" to .025" thick. Of course, aluminum sheets can be cut and fabricated in your shop to the desired specifications, or you can purchase them in pre-cut blanks from the manufacturer.

Adding brass to plaques increases their perceived values. Photo
provided by JDS Industries, Sioux Falls, SD.

Plastics come in a range of colors and textures, such as this “granite” plastic from Rowmark, Inc., Findlay, OH.

Pre-cut blanks speed up production times and add exciting new shapes to your engraving capabilities. Photo provided by Identification Plates Inc., Mesquite, TX.

Laserable Metals
    Another way to get rid of those engraving blues, at least in the world of materials, is to add laser engravable metals to your offerings. How exciting would it be to actually use that high-tech laser sitting in the corner for metals, something that supposedly “can’t be done?” Normally, CO2 lasers cannot laser engrave on metal. The metal acts as a mirror and the laser beam “bounces” off, leaving you with little or no engraving. However, there are several metals on the market that are specifically designed to be laser engraved. They have a thin lacquer coating (typically colored) as a top layer which is lasered off to reveal the metal beneath. Victory, a Division of Planter of Chicago, Illinois, offers a double-coated brass called Laserbrite that can be lasered. Horizons Incorporated of Cleveleand, Ohio, sells AlumaMark, which is an aluminum that turns black when laser engraved. Both are excellent options if you would like to start laser engraving metals to add a new dimension to your business.
Die-Stamped Metals
    A final option to add some fun to your metal material selection is to offer die-stamped metal plates. These ready-made, inexpensive metal plates come in a range of shapes and sizes, ranging from shields to state outlines to the “notched” corner look. These are very popular additions to plaques and awards that are also fantastic timesavers. Die-stamped plates come in brass, aluminum and occasionally stainless steel, and can be marked according to the properties of the material, i.e., brass plates can be burnished, diamond engraved or rotary engraved, etc. Plates usually range in thickness from .020" to .025", making them easy to attach to most R&I products.


    Another way to dispel those engraving blues is to broaden the range of plastics that you offer. Most shops carry at least the “conventional” flexible engraving laminates. This type of plastic, introduced in 1963, consists of two separate extruded sheets, a cap and a core. The cap, which is about .010" thick, is laminated to the core. Flexible engraving laminates occasionally come in a 3-ply variety, as well, which consists of a cap, core and another cap layer. Both varieties come in 1/32", 1/16", and 1/8" thicknesses.
    Flexible engraving laminates remain popular because of their flexibility and ability to be fabricated. They can be sawed, sheared, thermobent, die cut and hot stamped, to name just a few options. They are easily rotary engraved, although the wide line widths associated with deep cuts with a tapered cutter makes finer engraving difficult on this material.
All this information may be very true and useful, you say to yourself, but it still sounds like boring old plastic to me! Well, that’s because you haven’t taken a look at the vast array of color combinations and finishes flexible laminates are available in today! Both 2- and 3- ply flexible laminates come in a nearly infinite range of color combinations. Engrave through a red or mauve or forest green or silver cap to expose a white or yellow or blue or silver core… you get the idea! These exciting colors, added to the woodgrain, satin and matte finishes now offered, can turn dependable flexible engraving laminates into a real hot material in your shop!
Microsurface Flexible Engraving Stock
    Most of the excitement surrounding engraving plastics has centered around microsurface flexible engraving stock. The main difference between microsurface and laminates is the cap layer; it is much thinner (about .002") in microsurface plastics. This thinner cap allows for finer detail when engraving, because a much shallower cutter depth can be used. So microsurface plastics can be a great addition to your material selection, especially if you are looking to broaden the quality of engraving you produce on plastics.
    What’s really exciting about microsurface materials is the practically limitless expansion in the selection of colors and designs available — everything from designer colors to marbles to granites to suedes — you name it, it’s available in microsurface plastics!
“Ultra-Thin” Flexible Engraving Stock
    Looking for an even more exotic type of plastic? How about “ultra-thin” flexible engraving stock? This plastic is really a very thin gauge microsurface material with an overall thickness ranging from .010" to .030" and a cap coating of less than .003". This plastic is so thin and flexible, that it sometimes comes on rolls instead of sheets!
    But what’s the advantage to such a slim plastic? Well, its extreme flexibility allows it to be attached to irregular or oddly-shaped items like pens, thermoses and flasks. It simply molds itself around these items like a piece of vinyl. Most ultra-thins can also be both laser and rotary engraved, and the thin cap allows for the same detail level as standard microsurface plastics. Like the other plastics, it comes in a huge selection of colors, as well. Spectrum Lights, a self-adhering ultra-thin plastic that has nearly limitless applications, is a popular variety of this plastic.
Weather-Resistant Plastics
    While we’re on the subject of plastics, what about the customer that wants an engraved plastic sign to display outside of his business? Most plastics will not hold up to the elements over time; you would have to regretfully inform this customer that you can’t supply him with what he needs. How depressing is that? However, if you had purchased some of the weather-resistant flexible plastic stock now available, you could not only make the sale, but you could turn a potential “engraving blues” situation into a very positive experience!
    Weather-resistant plastics are generally acrylic-based laminates. Their outer cap is treated with UV-absorbing chemicals, which prevents fading from occurring. The normal hazards that go along with the elements, light and pollution, are thus minimized. The cap is also relatively thin, .010", so fine engraving is possible. All these attributes, along with the large number of colors available, make adding weather-resistant plastics to your shop’s materials a sure-fire way of making both you and your customers a little happier!
    With all these exciting, high-tech plastics on hand, it’s easy to overlook some of the old “tried and true” options out there. One old standby is phenolic (or melamine), which has been around for nearly a century. This sturdy, rigid plastic is great for industrial applications such as panels and plates, because its inherent characteristics make it resistant to chemicals and heat. Since it is manufactured using heat and pressure, it will not melt when heated. This makes it ideal for industries where temperature is a major concern.
    Phenolic can be obtained in three or five ply laminates with a slew of color combinations and finishes. It is easily rotary engraved, and its hard surface resists the shadowing and polish marks that often occur when using depth regulator noses on more pliable surfaces. It can be fabricated “in house” to a certain extent, but its very hardiness can make this more difficult than the other plastics on the market. In general, phenolic must be cut and engraved with carbide tools. All in all, it is a sound choice for industrial work where a heat- and chemical-resistant material is needed.

Laser engraving on microsurface flexible engraving plastics allows for a great deal of detail. Photo courtesy of Innovative Plastics, Inc., Algonquin, IL.

Adding sign holders to your offerings can increase sales of your more routine engraved signs. Photo courtesy of Gravograph-New Hermes, Inc., Duluth, GA.

Rotary engraving on a microsurface plastic exposes the white core beneath the colored cap. Photo courtesy of Innovative Plastics, Inc., Algonquin, IL.


    Now that we have discussed a few ways to keep from “feeling down” when engraving metals and plastics, let’s talk about a couple of other material options that can add some variety to your engraving.
    Acrylic has been gaining in popularity for years. Its outstanding optical clarity makes it a big hit with customers who want the durability of a plastic but the beauty and distinction of glass or crystal. It comes in transparent, opaque and translucent varieties, with mirror finishes and many different colors are available. Since acrylics are made in solid colors, obtaining contrast in the engraving generally requires paint filling. Besides the obvious applications of awards and plaques, acrylics are also ideal for display fixtures and desk accessories.
    Like metals and plastics, acrylics are sold in both finished blanks and sheets. If you choose to purchase sheets, which are normally between 1/8" and 1/4" thick, remember that acrylic cannot be sheared. However, it can be sawed, routed, laser and rotary engraved and sandblasted. No wonder acrylic is in such demand! So keep it in mind the next time a customer wants “something a little different” for her badges or desk set!
Solid Surface Materials
    Solid surface materials, which are also known by brand names such as Corian, Avonite and Fountainhead, are another way to beat the “blahs” of normal engraving materials. These products look like stone or marble, but the color and pattern are uniform throughout the entire piece. These blends of polyester and acrylic resins are sold both as pre-made blanks and as sheets that can be cut to your specifications.
    Are you scratching your head a little, trying to think of uses for solid surface materials? Well, they make fabulous signs, plaques, nameplates, desk sets and donor walls, to name just a few of their more common applications. Pitching this unique material to a customer who is used to more “run of the mill” materials that other engraving shops offer will surely peak his interest, and yours, too! Since solid surface materials are of uniform consistency, they require paint filling to make the engraving contrast with the background color.


    Are those engraving blues receding a little yet? Changing the types of engraving materials you offer is a pretty good way to make life at the shop more interesting and profitable, but you can also add some variety by increasing the amount of “peripheral” engraving supplies you offer. These are the things that elevate an engraved badge from “nice” to “wow” or boost the sale of a sign from just the “bare bones” to a whole sign system. Read on, and we’ll explore a few of these exciting options!
Sign Frames & Plate Holders
    Sign frames and plate holders? Admittedly, that may not sound like it will add a great deal of pizzazz to your engraving experience, but simply adding a feature or product that you haven’t carried before can do a great deal to spice things up. They can also boost the sales of your engraved signs and plates. If you start selling complete “packages,” i.e., engraved signs and frames together, you can really increase customer satisfaction and sales.
    Frames and holders are typically available in anodized aluminum, molded plastic, wood and marble, although they can be constructed of nearly any material. Frames for signs are often “modular,” i.e., they snap together around the engraved substrate to securely hold and display it. These types of sign frames are very popular for indoor signage, both temporary and permanent. This can include architectural signage, like building directories, or a sign in the lobby of the bank advising customers on the new branch hours.
    Nameplate holders are more commonly used to display small signs or employees’ names in an office environment. Freestanding desk nameplates (also called L-shaped holders) are very popular, as are easels, pedestals and desk bars. Given the high turnover rate in many offices, selling nameplate holders can be a very profitable addition to your engraving options.
Badge Findings
    Badge findings are another avenue that you may want to explore to add a little zip to your sales. Sure, most manufacturers sell pre-cut badge blanks with badge findings already attached. And these ready-made badges can definitely speed up production. But if you have the capability to attach your own badge findings, you can create custom-made, unique badges for those customers interested in something besides the standard 1" by 3" rectangular badge.
    There is a huge selection of badge findings on the market. Some of the most popular include safety pins, single and double clutch posts, alligator clips, bulldog clips, single and double snap clips and magnets. For a complete description of these findings and the pros and cons of each, see EJ’s article “Selecting and Attaching Badge Findings” (March ‘93). The point is, there are as many finding options as there types of badges, so you can really let your imagination run wild with them!
Tapes & Adhesives
    Tapes and adhesives are also a common engraving supply that you may be overlooking. Of course, every shop has a roll of all-purpose masking tape that is used for everything. But there is a whole world of tapes out there, specialized for a host of different functions. Adhesive transfer tapes are ideal for joining objects where a very thin “glue line” is desired. Double-coated paper tapes offer more strength and stability, due to the “carrier” that holds the adhesive. Double-coated foam tapes, where the carrier is made of foam, offer a powerful hold between heavy objects, because the foam permits more “give” between the items. There are different types of adhesives, too, which can increase the stickiness and shelf life of tapes.
    And why would knowing this information about tapes help chase away the engraving blues? Well, your blues could partly be a result of using the wrong type of tape for your engraving job. If you often find yourself frustrated because a nameplate you are engraving is shifting while you are engraving it, or because those trophy plates just won’t stay attached, then you need to find a tape more suited to these jobs! Check out EJ’s article “Tape 101” (Dec. ’02) for more specific details to guide you in your selection.
    You can also perk up your adhesive supply options by looking into liquid bond materials and solvent welding solutions. These are chemically reactive substances that fuse together receptive plastics. While these won’t hold down objects while you are engraving like a tape can, they will allow you to attach components of awards and trophies in a unique and effective fashion. They are especially helpful when you need a near invisible glue line on acrylic awards or transparent signs.

Sign frames that allow for easy updates when information changes, such as this floor directory, can generate additional sales. Photo courtesy of Innovative Plastics, Inc., Algonquin, IL.

Microsurface engravable plastic and a nameplate holder combined create an elegant and popular freestanding desk nameplate. Photo provided by Innovative Plastics, Inc., Algonquin, IL.

The ability to attach badge findings allows you to create custom-made, unique badges for your customers. Courtesy of Magic Novelty Co., New York, NY.

Paints, Fillers & Foils
    Nothing adds more excitement to any engraved piece, whether it is a plaque, award or sign, than a little color. And one of the easiest ways to add color is by using paints, fillers and foils.
    One of the most common and easy to use coloring options are lacquer sticks. These crayon-like sticks of pigment are available in a wide range of colors, from brick red to black to canary yellow. They work best in rotary engraved grooves with a depth of .005" to .010" and a width of no more than .003". The lacquer does not stay well in anything deeper or wider. Simply choose a hue, “color in” the area you want filled, and presto — you have a color filled engraving!
    Opaque paint markers are another simple, effective way to add color. Like their name implies, they are similar to craft markers filled with paint. They are best used on smooth, non-porous materials like acrylic. One drawback to markers is that it can be difficult to control the amount of paint that is applied. Therefore, take your time and be prepared to do emergency “clean ups” as you go.
    Obviously, traditional oil-based paints are another way to insert color into your engraving. Although they may take a little more time than lacquer sticks and markers, due to application and drying time, they generally produce the most attractive and durable results. There are three main sub-categories of paints in the industry; oil-based enamels, latex paints and lacquers. For an in-depth analysis of these paints, check out “Your Options in Color Filling Materials” (Oct. ’97). Just remember when considering using a paint, that they often require a long drying time and proper ventilation is recommended for safety’s sake.
    There are a few methods of adding color in the engraving world that do not involve paints or fillers. Have you ever wanted to add color while laser engraving metal? Well, if you use CerMark, from the Ferro Corporation, you can! CerMark is a liquid applied to the metal before laser engraving. After the area has been lasered, a permanent black mark appears. Pretty neat, huh?
    Interested in adding metallic colors to those plain old boxes and plaques you have been laser engraving? Self-adhesive foils are the way to go then. These sticky, metallic foils are applied to the area to be lasered. You then engrave and weed away any excess material. What are you left with? A beautiful gold, silver or bronze design laser engraved onto your product!
    Finally, there is the old standby of oxidizing solutions. These solutions are used to add black to lacquer-coated, engraved metals. When the oxidizer makes contact with the bare metal, it turns it black. Simply engrave the metal, apply the solution with a cotton swab, wipe away the excess, and you are done! The once unadorned metal plate now has a black engraving where the lacquer has been removed.

Blues Be Gone!

    It’s a new day. The birds are singing, the sun is shining and you are a happy engraver once more. Why? Because with a little planning, you have restocked your shop with some exciting engraving materials and supplies. Now, every job you engrave can be personalized in a truly unique way that both you and your customers will enjoy. And that thought should definitely chase away those engraving blues!

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