Buried Alive

Copyright © 2004 by Davis Multimedia, Int'l. All Rights Reserved.
As Printed in February 2004, Volume 29, No. 8 of The Engravers Journal.

     Right around the middle of October every year we in Rowmark’s marketing department get together and start tossing around ideas for the coming year’s trade show circuit. Our first task is to pick a theme that the booth will carry throughout the year. With the theme chosen, I can begin working on our booth’s creative sign designs.
    The theme of the upcoming ARA Las Vegas Show has already stirred some creativity and I’m expecting the final result to be very interesting. The plans for the Rowmark trade show booth at the Las Vegas Show are usually somewhat secretive, but I am excited to give you a sneak peek at one sign that has been designed for this year’s display.
    The sign is loosely based on a poster that promoted one of Houdini’s most famous and most dangerous escapes, the illusion of being buried alive. I chose to use Houdini as the subject of my first sign for two reasons. First, I find it amazing that seventy-seven years after his death, Houdini is still recognized throughout the world as one of the greatest showmen who ever lived. Secondly, Houdini was known as a master of self-promotion. He created magnificent posters to advertise his escape challenges, which are very interesting from a design standpoint.
    The “Buried Alive” sign is one of many designs created for display in which I get the chance to experiment with the combination of different engraving techniques, as well as shape, surface and color combinations. The techniques used to design and construct this sign will be very useful to sign makers looking for creative solutions to their projects. The process of laser engraving photographic images into plastic is one that may be of particular interest to engravers. In the following article, I will provide some hints to help you obtain quality results in your engraving, as well as the process that I went through to create the “Buried Alive” sign.
    Being buried alive has always been one of the most primal fears of humanity. “Terrifying” and “morbid” are the words that come to mind when I think of this particular stunt. In my design, I tried to convey what I felt when I first read about Houdini’s death-defying escape. Rather than doing a colorful sign I chose to go with the colors black, white and silver. For some reason, the choice of these particular colors seems obvious even thought the original poster contained colors like blue, red and gold. I felt the colors we’re using will help to express the cold helplessness that someone buried alive might experience.

The completed "Buried Alive" sign fashioned after Houdini's poster.

    Once the color combination was decided upon, I used CorelDRAW to begin experimenting with the layout and fonts. It seemed best to keep the layout relatively simple so it would be easy to control where your attention is drawn. A 24" x 18" rectangle would serve as a backer for the sign. On top of the first rectangle I drew a smaller rectangle, 23" x 17", the difference in size providing a half inch border which nicely framed the sign.
    I incorporated a lasered image of Harry Houdini that I found while doing research for the booth theme. Because of the shape of the photo and the layout of the sign itself, just placing the photo in the middle of the sign would not work. Instead I tried using the popular sign designer’s trick known as “emphasis by repetition” and repeated the image three times.
    To begin the production phase I scanned the photo into Corel PhotoPaint at 300 dpi using grayscale mode. Next, I made some slight adjustments to insure optimum clarity and detail. Because the majority of the photo was black, I decided to use a dark cap engraving material with a light core. To accomplish the correct tones, I changed the image to a negative by clicking the Inverse command. This action changed the highlights to black; the laser burned those highlights through the black cap to show the white core resulting in a normal appearance upon completion. At this point, I was able to import the photo into CorelDRAW.
    Once in Corel, I drew a 5.5" x 7.25" rectangle and centered it over the photo. By selecting PowerClip from the Effects menu, then choosing “Place Inside Container” I was able to PowerClip the photo inside the rectangle.
    At that point the photo was at the exact size I wanted. I made two copies and placed them on either side of the original. I drew a new rectangle, this time 18" x 8", and centered it vertically within the first rectangles, then moved it up 21/2" from the top of the 23" x 17" rectangle. Using the 18" x 8" rectangle and the Trim tool in CorelDRAW, I cut a hole in the 23" x 17" rectangle. This is where I placed the laser engraved photos spaced 3/8" apart and centered.
    The sign was really starting to take shape at this point so I began to assign colors to each piece. I came to the conclusion that the best material choice for the 24" x 18" backer would brushed silver/black LaserMax be. The 23" x 17" piece and the laser engraved photos would be best produced using black/white LaserMax.
    With most of the sign design now complete, I began to focus on the search for the perfect fonts. The headline of the sign would, of course, be the words “Buried Alive.” It had to be eye catching and the font used had to reinforce the fear evoked by the words. I chose John Handy, a font that is quite unusual. It looks like something you would see etched into wood or stone. By capitalizing every letter but slightly enlarging the first letter of each word, the headline became eye-catching and powerful with a look that supported the words it contained.
    I positioned the headline above the photos, where it could be engraved into the black/white LaserMax. The rest of the text would be positioned in the space below the photos. For the majority of the text, two lines boasting Houdini’s talents, I decided on a more neutral font, Avant-Garde, and engraved it into the plastic. By using a slightly heavier typeface, in all caps with a little extra space between each character, this text sustained a presence without becoming a visual distraction.

Vector cutting the black LaserMax. To 23" x 17". Vector cutting the brushed silver LaserMax

    The last piece of the puzzle was, of course, to add Houdini’s name to the sign. This sign seemed to cry out for a classic font, heavy enough to standout and neutral enough to complement the rest of the design. I found these qualities in the serif font Novarese. Bolding the font, using all caps and spacing out the characters helped me achieve the exact look I needed. In order to reinforce the magical and masterful essence of the name Houdini, I elected to have the letters laser vector cut from LaserMax, brushed silver/black, which would then be applied to the sign between the two lines of engraved text.
    Finally the design was complete. I filled in the colors of the text using white for everything engraved and silver for the name Houdini. This helped me get an idea of how the sign would look upon completion. Very satisfied with the results, I reached for the phone and called our Fabrication Technician, Steve Williamson, so we could get started right away.
    I would like to say that while I create the designs for the booth signage, my crazy ideas would never become reality without Steve’s expertise. He is a master of his trade who has taught me volumes during my time at Rowmark.
    We dove right into the project, starting with saw cutting a piece of brushed silver/black LaserMax to 24" x 18". Next, Steve wanted to complete the 23" x 17" piece of black/white LaserMax. He began by laser vector cutting the LaserMax to the needed size. Using a slower cutting speed and lower power helped to eliminate the risk of smoke residue and melting. By leaving the clear protective masking in place we protected the plastic from excessive burning. In this case, the laser made two passes before Steve was satisfied with the results. He cut down just far enough to snap out the needed pieces in order to prevent melting on the opposite side of the plastic.
    Once the vector cut was complete, Steve removed the clear protective masking material from the area to be engraved. He used a speed of 60 and a power of 30 to engrave the LaserMax in our 40-watt laser. Putting the laser out of focus, down .004, helped to insure a smooth melt. Remember that while these settings have proven to work well with our laser, they will not necessarily work on yours. Every laser is different! Work with your laser to become familiar with the settings and document those that work best for you.
    When the lasered text was completed, we pulled the plastic out of the laser and cleaned it using dish soap and water and a horsehair brush. Once Steve dried the piece, I added double-sided adhesive to the back of the plastic to mount it onto the brushed silver/black background panel.
    The next step was to vector cut the letters, which would be applied to the black/white LaserMax. I first applied double-sided tape to the back of a piece of silver LaserMax. With that complete, Steve was ready to send the job to the laser but before doing so, he used CorelDRAW to set up one more vector cut: a rectangle around the outside of the letters. Once the vector cutting was complete, I popped the letters out of the plastic. The rectangle that Steve drew was cut as a piece that could be lined up with the left and bottom edges of the black LaserMax piece and served as a template for placing the vector cut letters exactly where they needed to be.
     The last of the engraving that needed to be completed was the three Houdini photos. As I said earlier, we used black and white plastic with self-adhesive back for this portion of the sign. Steve set the dpi to 1000 with a power of 9%, a speed of 50% and a ppi of 1000. The power setting needed to be low in order to prevent over burning and the lower speed setting provided for the most accurate detail possible.

The material was engraved with a 40 watt laser using a speed of 60 and 30% power. A rectangle cut outside of the letters served as a template for placing the letters.

    Again these settings are just a guideline and may not work with your machine. It’s important for you to practice this process and become familiar with the settings of your laser to produce the best end result.
    Once Steve was satisfied with the results of the laser engraved photos, we applied masking tape to the engraved portion to pick up any residue left on the plastic. All that was left at this point was to piece the sign together. We carefully put the pieces in place and finally the Buried Alive sign was complete.
    Experimenting with different engraving techniques, shapes, surface and color combinations can produce very rewarding results. Today’s expansive selection of engraving materials and color combinations gives you practically limitless design possibilities. The techniques I have described here can benefit any engraver whether you are producing name badges, plaques or signage. If you take a chance and color outside of the lines a little you will stand out from your competition.
    Today’s consumers are looking for someone who can provide them with a truly unique product. You can be exactly what they are looking for. Try some of the ideas that I’ve discussed and you’ll be able to give your customers a quality product with a one-of-a-kind look.
    Be sure to stop by Rowmark’s booth this year in Las Vegas to check out the Buried Alive sign and the rest of the signage creations. We’ll be happy to provide you with the files to create any sign that we display.


Assembly of the lasered pieces completed the project.