House of Sandcarving

Copyright © 2004 by Davis Multimedia, Int'l. All Rights Reserved.
As Printed in November 2004, Volume 30, No. 5 of The Engravers Journal.
By Jackie Zack

     The People’s Choice Awards is a glamorous entertainment event that recognizes the top vote-getters in 15 different categories of TV, film and music. The really exciting part of all this, though, is the award itself. The flame-shaped award is hand-crafted out of pure leaded crystal, weighs 14 pounds and is considered a prestigious work-of-art (with a prestigious $3,000 price tag).
    Although not every crystal award receives national attention like this one does, people do take notice of glass and crystal awards and that’s why this is one of the most popular and growing areas of our industry. And fortunately, as with other areas of the industry, the art of sandcarving has experienced some new and exciting changes. We now have new options in sandblasting equipment, new options in photo resists and new techniques for marking glass and crystal, including laser engraving and laser-assisted sandcarving. Plus, there are a lot of affordable high-end glass and crystal pieces available today that are truly remarkable. Here’s a look at the latest trends in these areas.
Sandcarving Equipment Updates
     A variety of sandblasting equipment is available for decorative sandcarving purposes in this industry. Sandblasting cabinets range in size from small “desktop” units to larger freestanding cabinets. A typical sandblasting system also includes a vacuum system and an air compressor that forces the abrasive out of a nozzle and onto the piece to carve the design.
     Selecting an appropriate cabinet size will depend on the type and size of work that you will be doing. “Predominately, people are using the full-size cabinet,” says Robert Gaertner, PhotoBrasive Systems, Duluth, MN, a supplier of sandblasting equipment and supplies. “They find that the larger cabinets are actually cleaner and easier to work with.”
     April Mitchell, Rayzist Photomask, Vista, CA (also a supplier of supplies and equipment), agrees that many engravers feel the need for a larger cabinet, at least at some point. “Shops that start out with smaller desktop units quickly see the need to upgrade to larger, more powerful units if they begin to move beyond the occasional small job or desire to sandcarve harder substrates like ceramic, slate, granite, river rock, etc. Ultimately the retailer will need to decide if the equipment used is efficient enough both for present work and intended growth of the business,” she says.
     Equipment options in this industry have remained essentially the same over the years. However, manufacturers have introduced some new convenient and time-saving features to their basic sandcarving equipment.
     Another notable design change that most vendors are now offering is an “automatic recycling” unit, which eliminates the need for the user to recycle abrasive manually. “This welcomed convenience not only abolishes the requirement to lift heavy abrasive, but also reduces ambient dust in the shop and ultimately speeds up production,” says Mitchell.
     “Another trend is that sandcarvers who started off with table-top units or used equipment are looking to upgrade their units. Rayzist Photomask, for example, offers numerous retro-fit kits designed to improve our older style models,” Mitchell continues. Rayzist’s “Reclaim Retro-fit Kit” transforms these models into an updated automatic recycling unit. “As many carvers are finding out, upgrading equipment improves production and efficiency, quickly increasing their bottom line.”
     Rayzist has also introduced three new features to its equipment line: “air-streamed” viewing glass, a re-designed dust collector and recessed halogen floodlights. According to Mitchell, the “air-stream” feature forces a stream of air across the viewing glass to deflect abrasive, improve the viewable work space and increase the longevity of the innermost pane of glass (a wear item that eventually needs to be replaced due to “fogging up”). The re-designed dust collector helps improve visibility by reducing ambient dust, and the recessed halogen floodlights increase your work space.

A beautiful example of laser engraving on a glass from Trotec Laser Company, Ypsilanti, MI. This award from Topmost Designs, Inc., Montclair, CA, is made with K9 Optical Crystal and has been sandcarved by Mike Acklin of Crystal Gallery.   The circle award from American Acrylic Awards & Gifts, Walnut, CA, comes ready to sandblast or laser and is available in clear, blue or jade.

Photo Mask Developments
     Photo resists have been the dominant masking/stenciling method when it comes to traditional sandcarving applications. You can order stock or custom designs from suppliers or purchase the equipment and make your own. The traditional process involves: placing a film positive of the stencil artwork on top of a sheet of photo resist material; exposing the material to UV light; “developing” the image by spraying the material with water (the unexposed areas of the material wash away, leaving the stencil); applying the stencil to the piece to be blasted.
     Suppliers have introduced several new photo resist products aimed at making the process less costly and less labor intensive. PhotoBrasive now offers a new photo resist material, called RapidMask, that doesn’t require the washout step. When exposed with a film negative, the exposed areas of the mask become brittle and can be easily blasted away with abrasive during sandcarving. Rayzist Photomask has introduced SR3000™ Self-Stick film that is designed to wash out quickly and holds up better than traditional photo resist materials during blasting.
     One of the main advantages of photo resists is that they can be used for etching intricate detail, including fine lines and true halftone photographs. The process is a very good choice for very high quantity production because it essentially requires the same amount of time to make one mask as it does to make 100.
     On the flip side, however, photo resist stencils are not a cost-effective option for “onesies” and “twosies” because of the time involved in the multiple-step process. Also, for in-house mask-making, you do need to invest in equipment, including the supplies for making photo positives/negatives, an exposure unit and a washout system. Plus, the masking material itself can be somewhat costly, depending on the type of job you’re doing. For an application such as one large sign with bold artwork or text, for example, another stencil-making method would be a better choice in order to keep material costs down.
     For this type of work, you might opt to use a vinyl resist film such as those available from Venture Tape, Rockland, MA. These films can be hand or machine cut (with a computerized plotter), “weeded” to expose image areas and applied to the piece to be sandblasted. Vinyl resist films are available in sheets and rolls in various thicknesses and can be applied to glass and a variety of other substrates.
     Today, there are additional personalizing methods being used in the industry for glass and crystal awards and gifts. Two of the most popular right now include laser engraving and laser-assisted sandcarving.

From Rayzist Photo Mask Inc., Vista, CA, comes this new Wood & Iceberg Glass Wall plaque blank ready to be sandcarved. These beautiful optical crystal blanks from SCT Crystal, South El Monte, CA, can be laser engraved or sandcarved.

Laser Engraving
     Laser engraving is a viable method for personalizing glass; it’s fast and easy and is basically a “hands-off” process, i.e. you place the glass blank in the laser engraving machine, press a button and walk away. There is no mask-making involved; you create the artwork on your computer and laser engrave it. (For the record, CO2 lasers are recommended for laser engraving glass. The wavelength of a CO2 laser’s heat energy is absorbed into the glass, which creates the mark. YAG lasers won’t engrave on glass because the beam shines completely through the glass.)
     A notable difference between laser engraving and sandblasting, however, is the look created by each of the processes. “They are two totally different looks,” explains Mike Fruciano, LaserBits, Phoenix, AZ. “Laser engraving uses the heat energy from the laser to microscopically heat up the glass, and it chips away the surface. You can get good engraving results on glass with a laser; however, it’s a different look and it doesn’t have much depth. Sandblasting has a certain smoothness and you are able to etch deeper.” Because laser engraving produces a surface etch, you cannot use it to reproduce some of the more creative sandcarving techniques, such as multi-stage carving. In any case, experts note, when you compare a laser etched piece and a sandblasted piece, there’s a very visible difference, so you need to know what your customers want or expect.
     Laser engraving is most commonly used to etch text and designs on glass products. Leaded crystal can be engraved, although it does require some skill and practice. “There are customers who are engraving crystal successfully with a laser,” says Fruciano. “It does require a different technique than engraving on glass and some different settings. What makes a difference in crystal is that there is lead in the glass and the higher the lead content the more the glass retains the heat from the laser, and in this particular case it would be detrimental because if the glass heats up too abruptly it will break.”
     For engravers who want to successfully laser engrave leaded crystal La serBits recommends, first of all, that you never attempt to work with customer-supplied crystal. Instead, Fruciano says, buy a case of leaded crystal from a supplier, experiment with the power settings and then offer this brand and shape laser engraved once you dial in the power settings. “With leaded crystal it’s not uncommon to break three or four glasses before you get the power settings correct,” Fruciano warns, “because optic crystal (a superior optical lead-free crystal) is actually a harder material, so it usually does not present any unique laser engraving problems.”
     Fruciano says one question that usually arises when it comes to laser engraving glass is color filling. (With sandblasting you can etch deeply enough to use traditional color filling options, such as paint.) Currently, there aren’t any viable options that provide both an attractive look and durability, but that could change in the near future. “There are some new products that will allow some basic primary colors to be fused onto glass using a CO2 laser,” Fruciano says. “Right now, you can do this with a YAG laser and the difference is the YAG laser beam shoots directly through the glass.”

This handmade 24% Lead Crystal cup used a deep etch sandblast “reverse out text” technique where a panel is etched and the text is left clear. This makes it a lot easier to read by bringing attention to the etched words. Photo courtesy of The Slee Corporation, Chicago, IL.

Laser-Assisted Sandcarving
     There is a new stencil-making technique that has emerged as the popularity of lasers has grown. In a sense, it combines the ease of laser engraving with the look of sandblasting. The process involves applying a masking material to the glass blank, using the laser to cut through the masking material to create the stencil, and then switching over to your sandblasting machine to etch the image.
     “We have customers that do both direct lasering on glass and laser-assisted sandcarving. It depends on the look that you’re trying to achieve,” says Fruciano.
     Laser-assisted sandcarving has been around the industry for a few years, but until recently there were some definite technological drawbacks to the process. The materials were difficult to work with because they were made of PVC, they were not flexible, were difficult to remove and they simply didn’t engrave well.
     “A lot of the materials available for traditional sandblasting were not laser-friendly,” Fruciano explains. “One reason is that these materials were primarily PVC-based and this is hazardous when laser engraved. Plus, engravers cite the drawback that the material was extremely sticky, making the mask difficult to remove and really only well-suited for flat items because of its inflexibility.
     Much of that, however, has changed. “This method has become more popular because the mask materials have gotten better,” Fruciano says. “The solution has been the introduction of polyester (non-PVC) based masking materials.”
     Rayzist Photomask has introduced LazerMask sandcarving film for this purpose, a water based, PVC-Free film that, according to the company, promotes fast burn times and easy clean-up. “Polyester mask products contain PVC which emit harmful gases and will eventually corrode the laser’s hardware,” says April Mitchell. “Because of this, leading laser manufacturers such as Epilog and Universal Laser Systems have endorsed our LazerMask sandcarving film because it doesn’t contain PVC, is easy to burn and peels off effortlessly.”
     PhotoBrasive has also introduced a new “laser tape” masking material designed for the process of laser-assisted sandcarving. According to the company, the masking material is very durable, so it withstands the blast of abrasive; it’s more flexible than the previous PVC materials and is easy to remove by soaking the piece in water for a few minutes.
     New innovations like these have helped laser-assisted sandcarving become a more viable glass and crystal marking method. “When we fast-forward to today, especially for medium to low production, there’s no reason why people can’t be doing laser-assisted sandcarving. It’s very easy,” says Fruciano.
     Advantages of the process include the fact that you can use the precision of your laser to create intricate, detailed resists for sandcarving, including halftone images, and it eliminates the additional labor, time and costs associated with making photo stencils. Plus, you can achieve the look of sandblasting without investing in photo film positive-making equipment—the quality should be every bit as good as that of a photo stencil.
     By all accounts, laser-assisted sandcarving is best-suited for one-offs or small runs. Whereas creating a sheet of photo stencils takes a minimum of 20 minutes, you can create laser-assisted resists in just a couple of minutes, depending on the design and the quantity. “Lasered stencils are best for low to medium production; for example, five of the same pieces,” says Fruciano. You can, for example, create a layout for five pieces in CorelDRAW and laser the stencils quickly and easily. “That’s the beauty of it. You can turn the jobs around fast because the production cycle is a lot less.”
     Eric Chen from Crystal by Design in Arcadia, CA, agrees “I think laser and sandblasting is the best combination for a small or medium shop. For larger shops the photo resist is still the best method for mass production.”



The unique award features an optical crystal circle with a chrome star. Photo courtesy of CIP Creation Corp., Garden Grove, CA. The Bramble is a glass handled cup that has been hand blown from Cobalt Blue glass in Europe, using old world craftsmanship. Photo courtesy of Toujours, Inc., Pico Rivera, CA.

Mechanical Glass Engraving
     In addition to sandblasting, laser engraving and laser-assisted sandcarving, personalizing glass and crystal with your computerized engraving machine is also an option, and one that can produce beautiful results.
     You can create a glass-engraving setup on your machine, but many machine manufacturers offer glass engraving “kits” for certain models that quickly and easily adapt to those machines. Typically, you need a special, faceted diamond rotary cutter, a burnishing adaptor (that allows the cutter to “float” over the glass rather than dig into it) and a coolant system. Many manufacturers also offer special holding devices for engraving glass items such as wine bottles.
Trends in Glass & Crystal Blanks
     With several easy and affordable options for personalizing glass and crystal now at our fingertips, suppliers of blanks have taken notice and introduced more exciting items that you can customize. You can find everything from freestanding plaques to jade colored globes to crystal sculptures that can be personalized in-house with your marking equipment. “Many of our products are compatible with multiple personalization options,” says Doug Light, Toujours, Pico Rivera, CA., “We are seeing many more of our clients using laser engravers and have designed many pieces for that field.”
     CIP Creation Corp., Garden Grove, CA, offers a complete line of crystal blanks, including optic crystal, full lead and semi crystals. “We are probably best known for mixed media pieces with optic crystal and metal,” explains Chung-In Park. For example, one piece features an optic crystal golf ball on an optic crystal base with a chrome-plated metal connector.
     A common theme running through the industry right now appears to be stars, globes and golf. “Our most popular pieces right now are star-related pieces, golf-themed items and globes. Golf and star themes are probably the best sellers that we have. A lot of people are getting into golf these days,” says Park. One of CIP’s more unique lines is its abstract golf figurines that look more like sculptured art than traditional awards.
     Diana Shih, Topmost Designs, Inc., Montclair, CA, also says that their most popular products right now include star awards, globe-themed awards and golf awards, along with summit, tower and diamond shaped glass and crystal blanks. “We are also seeing a trend toward pieces with a wider engraving area and more height, both of which increase the perceived value of the award.”
     SCT Crystal, South El Monte, CA, carries a full line of optical crystal blanks for the awards and engraving industry. “Our optical crystal awards with golf, globe and star motifs are very popular in the current market,” says Mark Zhu. “But we still keep traditional awards and trophies in our line because many customers still prefer these types of awards. These customers like to use the same style each year for the same event. But we also add many new items every year to satisfy changing customer needs.”
     Toujours carries a variety of fine 24% lead crystal products as well as many optic crystal pieces. “Our golf awards are very popular, in part because they are available in three sizes to accommodate the usual 1st, 2nd and 3rd place finishers,” says Light.

This sit down decorative sandblast system is designed for use with a standard office chair and comes from The Glastar Corporation, Chatsworth, CA. Crystal holiday ornaments from Crystal by Design, Arcadia, CA, make a wonderful personalized gift and are ready for lasering or sandcarving.

Custom Blanks
     For the truly discriminating customer, there is always the option of having a design created to custom specifications, something that many suppliers in the industry do on a regular basis. Custom crystal and glass blanks can be really dramatic, unique and interesting.
     “More and more customers need custom designs because they’re looking for something unique and many prefer a larger space for the engraving,” says SCT Crystal’s Mark Zhu. “Today’s customers prefer more cuts in the crystal surface which reflect into the body of the piece to make the award look magnificent.”
     CIP receives requests from customers for custom projects on a regular basis. “I think people are trying to move away from the traditional pieces,” Park says. “They are still needed and everybody uses them, but people are looking for more interesting pieces. A few years back, people didn’t want to take chances with new designs but now they do it and they actually want to go further with designs. They usually ask for something really creative, something one-of-a-kind and then use that for a year or so.” One of CIP’s most recent orders for custom work was an award for a beverage company. “It was a Coca-Cola can with a splashing shape of crystal and a black crystal base. The hardest part was coming up with the splashing shape. It was quite a difficult project but it came out really nice. It’s a one-of-a-kind piece.”
     Many times, Park explains, customers will derive ideas for custom designs based on existing pieces. “What they usually do is take one of our items and then modify it so it’s a little bit of a variation. That seems to be our trend. Let’s say they take our ‘Fantastic Golfer’ and say, ‘Well, can you make it taller here and maybe add a globe there,’ and things like that.”
Gazing Into the Crystal Ball
     The future of the glass and crystal blank market looks strong. Suppliers have already begun working on new lines for 2005 to keep in tune with changing market trends. Here’s a peek into that future:
     “A combination of crystal/glass and other shining materials, like aluminum or chrome will be the trend for high-end awards and corporate gifts,” says Topmost’s Diana Shih.
     CIP focuses on new products each year to meet changing trends in the marketplace. “We do something new every year,” says Park. “We always come up with new designs and we do expand our line. We are going to have more stars, more globes and more golf. And we’ll probably be adding another media to our mixed media optic pieces next year.” CIP is well-known for its high-end unique designs, and that’s something the company plans to continue developing. “We’re trying to move away from straight line cuts by adding more shape to our pieces. Not just geometric pieces but more flowing lines; something that’s softer than the rigid crystal look,” says Park.
     According to Doug Light of Toujours, 2005 will see the addition of color. “Cobalt blue and ruby red vases and bowls will stand out next year,” he says. “Toujours craftsmen are continuously designing new products to stay ahead in our market. There are thousands of stock designs, carried by hundreds of vendors; we must strive to bring fresh ideas to the marketplace. As people search for new ideas, we will introduce products to fill their requests, such as our new figurines that incorporate a glass plate that can be sandcarved.”

This Crystal Award from Max Gift International, LLC, Tigard, OR, can be lasered or sandcarved. Visions Awards, Celina, OH, offers optic crystal, lead free products that can be sandcarved or lasered.

     Selling glass and crystal awards and gifts, and making a profit, requires some marketing ingenuity. Some of the best strategies involve offering variety and uniqueness at a price that customers can afford.
     “Offer more designs,” advises CIP’s Park. “If retailers can engrave more creative artwork, that should give customers more options. Also, try offering different services rather than just sandblasting, such as multiple-depth sandblasting. It always helps to have options. It’s also important to keep the costs down. Sometimes I see etchers who charge way too much. I know there are customers who will pay that but I think it’s better to market to a wider range of people rather than to just a few people who can pay high prices.”
     Many customers are looking for a higher level of customization. Instead of just text, many retailers are really doing more artistic kinds of work. They’ll take beautiful pen and ink drawings, sketches, things like that, and convert them over into a mask that they can then sandblast. One retailer, for example, is a portrait painter who uses her paintings to create halftone sandcarving stencils so she can etch the images onto the glass.
     “Variety in terms of engravable material and designs is important to satisfy end users’ diverse needs and preferences,” says Diana Shih, Topmost. “It’s important to feature unique designs for shop displays to impress people so they remember the shop when they have needs. Artwork design and sandblasting quality always play important roles in making customers happy and encouraging them to come back again.”
     Doug Light at Toujours recommends having plenty of samples on hand. “The most successful of our clients have a well-stocked showroom. There is no better sales tool than allowing the client to see and feel the product.”
Looking For a Supplier
     Finding just the right suppliers for glass and crystal blanks is vital to every aspect of your business, from the design standpoint to the carving to the marketing to the sale.
     “Reliability is really important,” says Park (CIP). “Make sure your supplier has a good level of inventory and make sure that they have creative designs and creative pieces. It’s important to know how the company functions—if it’s an honest company, if they follow through on what they say they will do. You want a supplier that’s not just out there to make money.”
     Shih (Topmost) offers this advice: “Retailers need a supplier who keeps large quantities in stock and has a short turnaround time so they can finish the engraving job on time. Especially for those fragile products, they need a supplier who offers quality guarantees and prompt replacement services. Finally, they need a supplier who keeps adding new designs to the product line but also maintains existing items to supply repeat orders. There are customers who are looking for something new; on the other hand, many customers, especially corporate accounts, prefer to give the same awards or gifts every year. If the supplier drops items very often, the retailers will have problems fulfilling repeated orders and will lose customers.”
     “On-time delivery is paramount,” says Doug Light (Toujours). “If the product isn’t in retailers’ hands when promised, they can’t fulfill their promises to their customers. Ours is a business where the product is often an award that is to be presented at a specific date and time, usually an awards banquet. These banquets cannot be rescheduled just because the vendor was tardy shipping your order.”

Branching Out & Growing
     Personalized glass and crystal blanks are one of the most popular award and gift markets in the industry right now, and one that appears to be growing and extending into different areas. “The market is branching out to more gifts and anything that’s related to gifts. Some do use crystal as home décor pieces. That seems to be creating a market on its own,” says Park, CIP.
     “Crystal award products continue to grow in the awards market,” says Zhu, SCT Crystal. “Customers need good quality, good prices and good service. I think the market is branching out beyond awards and gifts and into the home decoration arena because crystal products are being designed to be more lively and fancy. As a result, more and more people are collecting crystal pieces.”
     Selling sandcarved products, whether you use traditional sandblasting, laser engraving, laser-assisted sandcarving, mechanical engraving or a combination of processes, can be a lucrative and profitable avenue for your business. In many cases, the startup costs are low and the profit margins can be incredible. And there’s something about glass and crystal. Even though it doesn’t necessarily cost a lot more than other materials, people perceive it to be the utmost in high quality and prestigiousness. It’s that simple “Wow!” factor that can make sandcarved glass and crystal a permanent and profitable part of your business.