Metal Nameplates

One main method being used to create metal tags, plaques, signage, etc. is MetalPhoto.
Photo courtesy of Horizons, Inc., Cleveland, OH.

Copyright © 2006 by Davis Multimedia, Int'l. All Rights Reserved.
As Printed in February 2006, Volume 31, No. 8 of The Engravers Journal
  This etched brass plate has been fabricated to look like a thick piece of metal. Photo courtesy of Pella Engraving, Pella, IA.  

     If you’re looking for substantial selling opportunities and the potential for expanding into multiple market areas, then consider selling metal nameplates. In this context, “metal nameplate” merchandise encompasses a variety of products and applications, including product ID plates, property ID tags, data plates and tags, schematic plates, control panels, architectural signage and high-end plaques, all crafted from durable, high end metal.
     The quality and selection of metal plate products available in this industry create some remarkable marketing prospects for you. For example, if you happen to visit Washington D.C., be sure to check out the etched dedication plaque that one dealer sold to the White House (created by Pella Engraving Company, Pella, IA). Or the next time you’re in a Boeing Aircraft, take a look at the cockpit control panels; they were probably manufactured using Horizons’ (Cleveland, OH) MetalPhoto process. At your local YMCA, you might see a state-of-the-art donor wall made by Trademark Designs, Minster, OH. The market for metal plates is filled with mainstream customers like these as well as hundreds of interesting niche opportunities.
     These types of metal plates and tags are unique in that most customers are looking for a specific product that meets specific characteristics. “Someone who’s asking for metal is asking for it because they either want the appearance of a quality, higher-end product or they want it to last,” says Randy Uveges, at Horizons.
     Meeting specific customer requirements for these types of products can represent a challenge for many R & I businesses. For instance, in the earlier example, the White House needed a plaque that looked like cast bronze, complete with text and a detailed portrait, but they needed it within just a few days!
     Other regular customers include hospitals that require equipment identification that will endure harsh cleaning solvents, and golf courses that need metal signage able to withstand sunlight, rain, sleet and snow. Mainstream marking methods such as sublimation, mechanical engraving and laser engraving can meet some of these requirements but in many cases, not all of them. In these instances, marking methods such as chemical etching, casting and the MetalPhoto process might be a much better match.
     If you’re interested in working with metal nameplate customers, one option is to outsource the work to one of several reputable industry suppliers. These companies are all well established and are committed to working with you to meet the needs of your customers and, hopefully, expand your client base.
     Bruce Van Wyck, Pella Engraving, explains the benefits of working with a supplier. “The beauty of our product is that there’s no investment on your end. No equipment to buy, no inventory to hold. You want to offer your customers a different product line, let us do it for you.”
     The main methods being used to create metal tags, plaques, signage, etc., are chemical etching, MetalPhoto and casting. Here’s a look at each of these methods and what you can expect when working with a supplier.

These etched zinc plates are extremely popular for recognition applications. Photo courtesy of Trademark Designs, Minster, OH.    

This cast bronze plaque has been drilled and tapped to receive 24 add-on nameplates and has a light oxide stain background with a leatherette texture. Photo courtesy of Matthews International, Pittsburgh, PA.

Chemical Etching
     Chemical etching is used to create just about any metal plate product you can imagine, whether it’s an order of machine tags for an industrial plant or an outdoor memorial wall for the military. Chemical etching typically involves using metals that have a special, photosensitive (resist) coating. When a negative or positive is placed on top of the metal and exposed to UV light, the UV light hardens the exposed areas. You run the plate through a developing solution, which washes off the soft photosensitive resist. Next, you place the plate in an etching machine which splashes acid onto it and eats away the unprotected metal. The result is a plate with either raised or recessed images or a combination of the two. Chemically etched plates can closely resemble cast bronze products but, because the process is somewhat less complicated, they are typically less expensive and can be completed in a shorter time period.
     Suppliers offer a variety of metals and thicknesses to choose from and will also create custom shapes to your specifications. Since the chemical etching process is photographically based, just about any type of image is possible, ranging from detailed text and graphics to halftone-quality photographic images. A donor plaque requiring hundreds of individual names is one good example of how the process can create a lot of small but still legible text. Photographs and logos can also be easily incorporated onto these plates. For applications like memorial plaques, a supplier can actually chemically etch a halftone photograph or, as another popular option, reproduce a photograph as line art to create a realistic portrait. Suppliers also offer a host of other special options, including auto serial numbering and Braille as well as a variety of mounting options, such as mounting holes and concealed studs.
     Plates can be left in their “natural” metal color or a color can be added by paint filling the backgrounds or etched image areas. Most suppliers use automotive polyurethane or a high-grade industrial paint that is formulated to hold up to exterior conditions or, in the case of machinery tags, other environmental circumstances such as extreme heat or cold.
     One of the most notable characteristics of chemically etched plates is their durability. In order for a plate to withstand chemicals and/or exterior weather conditions, both the metal and the printing process have to have durability characteristics, something that some other marking methods, such as sublimation, don’t have. The chemical etching process is a permanent marking method and, provided the proper metal is used, chemically etched plates will resist all kinds of exterior conditions and harsh chemicals. For example, Pella Engraving’s magnesium plates are strictly an interior product, but all of the other metals in the company’s line can endure severe interior or exterior elements.
     Linda Erb, Trademark Designs, Minster, OH, says that they make metal plates that are excellent for outdoor environments, as well as those in which a variety of chemicals and cleaning solvents are used. “We’ve done a lot of jobs for people who are putting them in humane societies on the cages, so the plates are exposed to a lot of chemicals because they are cleaning the cages all the time.”
     Bob Conners, Identification Plates, Mesquite, TX, recommends using aluminum or stainless steel when durability is a concern. “Our etched or printed products hold up extremely well with these unlacquered metals,” he says. “These products are also very popular in an industrial environment since they’re easy to clean and resistant to many of the contaminants found in factory locations.”
Who’s Buying Etched Plates?
     The applications for metal plates are extremely wide and varied, which is part of the reason selling these products is so appealing. The industrial side of the market includes products such as control panels, schematic plates and product identification plates for machinery. Etched metal plates are also extremely popular for recognition applications, such as awards, plaques, memorials, dedications and donor walls. The ability to incorporate raised lettering, photographs and graphics with a recessed background makes for a product that looks heavy, expensive and like it’s made to last.
     “We’ve seen a growth in donor walls,” comments Erb. “It normally takes a little work to get that job up and going and completed. It can be up to a year or more. But it’s a great opportunity for a trophy company or a sign shop because it opens the door for other opportunities. Hospitals, nonprofit organizations, colleges, universities and YMCAs all have donors to recognize and they always like to display something to acknowledge these donors. Another product application that’s become popular is putting an etched plate with a photo or a special message on cemetery markers.”
     Etched metal plates make excellent signage whether it’s for an indoor application, such as an office building, or for outdoor use at a zoo or park. The ability to include Braille and raised lettering also makes it suitable for manufacturing ADA compliant signage. Beyond these market areas there’s also the opportunity to expand into what could be some very profitable niche markets that never even occur to many dealers. “We just did a horticultural trade show in Chicago,” says Pella’s Bruce Van Wyck, pointing out that nursery owners and garden centers are looking for plaques to dedicate plants and trees and, therefore, make excellent prospects.

Identification Plates, Mesquite, TX, main product line includes various sizes and shapes of perpetual plates, badges, business cards, key tags, golf bag tags, luggage tags, dog tags, commercial tags, plaque plates, commercial nameplates and metal signage.  

Who’s Selling Etched Plates?
     There are several companies in the industry that offer chemical etching services to the trade. Pella Engraving specializes in chemical etching on magnesium, zinc, copper, brass and stainless steel. For instance, the company offers magnesium plaques in various thicknesses: 1/16" is recommended for pieces up to 11" x 14" and for mounting on wood plaque boards or sign substrates; 1/8" thick is best for larger pieces; and 5/32" is ideal for items to be mounted directly on a wall. Blanks that are 1/4" thick work well for mounting on a wall to simulate bronze castings. Pella Engraving also offers an interesting option that involves bending a metal plate around the edges, “folding” it under and welding it in place; this gives thin metals the appearance of being thicker, e.g. a 1/16" thick plate can appear to be 1" thick.
     Pella offers background finishes in standard colors, such as brown, black, blue and hunter green and they can color fill etched areas. They can also “tip” raised images with white or black paint to create a very unique look. Additionally, Pella Engraving has begun using sublimation as a “complementary” process in lieu of color filling. “We recently purchased sublimation equipment to combine the two processes to create a finished product,” says Van Wyck. In these instances, they sublimate the logo, photograph or graphic on a separate plate and attach it to the etched plaque. According to Van Wyck, this allows reproducing exact colors, as might be required in a corporate logo, easier than applying paint over gold-colored metal.
     Trademark Designs offers chemical etching on 1/4" thick zinc plates up to 20" x 24" (larger metal can be special ordered). Although silver is the natural color, the company can tint the metal to make it resemble bronze, if that’s the look your customer wants. Untinted zinc can be used indoors or outdoors. The company also offers special shapes, color matching and will etch raised and recessed photos, logos and text, as well as Braille.
     Linda Erb says that Trademark Designs is also investigating ways to offer customers more custom options. “We’ve been working with different ways to finish the background. Right now we have a very smooth background that we’ve been looking at, trying to give it more of an antique look and maybe a little bit more of a texture to create a very unique look.”
Identification Plates offers various types of metal plates, including aluminum, brass, copper, steel and nickel silver. Plates are die cut or sheared from 12" x 24" sheets. These products can be purchased blank or imprinted through various means, including acid etching, screen printing and four-color process printing. (Processes can also be combined on one plate.) Identification Plates’ main product line includes various sizes and shapes of perpetual plates, badges, business cards, key tags, golf bag tags, luggage tags, dog tags, commercial tags, plaque plates, commercial nameplates and metal signage.
     The company also offers what they call their “etched and frosted” technique. A resist coating is screened onto a piece of bright finished metal in the areas that are not to be etched. The plate is placed in an etching machine where the unprotected areas are etched away with an etching acid. After the plate is washed, a second chemical agent is applied to create a frosted look on the etched area. When dry, the resist is washed away, revealing the bright metal (the areas that were protected during the entire process). The result is contrasting image areas using only the base colors of the metal that creates a very elegant and unique look.
     Nutron Nameplate also offers etching services in addition to various other metal decorating processes such as screen printing, anodizing, embossing and indenting. The company specializes in creating thin or heavy gauge brass, aluminum and stainless steel nameplates, panels and tags designed for permanency, heat and abrasion resistance and quality. The company can die cut or laser cut plates to your specifications using a customized state-of-the-art laser and CAD software.
     These laser-cutting capabilities allow them to generate just about any plate shape imaginable. According to Nutron’s Russ Butchko, “our laser can easily do custom cut out shapes in stainless steel and other metals, even in smaller quantities, a lot more affordably than using mechanical fabrication methods.
     Matthews International, Pittsburgh, PA, offers etching services as well. Aluminum, brass, bronze, copper, magnesium, stainless steel and zinc are some of the materials the company uses to create a wide variety of products from memorials to dedication plaques to architectural signage. According to the company, stainless steel and bronze are the most durable metals, but polyurethane coatings can be applied to others for exterior applications. Matthews is very well-known for their cast bronze products as well (more about this later).

MetalPhoto plates make excellent signage for indoor applications or outdoor use at a zoo or park like this example from Horizons, Inc.   This sign from Trademark Designs was chemically etched using .125" zinc, then color filled.

Ordering Etched Plates
     Ordering from these companies is straightforward. In most cases, you have the option of supplying your own digital artwork or using the supplier’s services. Most of these companies have creative art departments that are ready to assist you. Artwork and setup fees vary, depending on the amount of work required.
     Job costs also vary, depending on the specifics of the order. A notable point about etched plaques is that it’s a less expensive option than casting. While casting does have the capability of creating true relief designs (etching does not), etching does provide a close alternative. “It’s cost effective for someone who may be looking for a cast product where the budget just isn’t there,” explains Trademark Designs’ Linda Erb.
     Interestingly, most suppliers don’t require minimum quantities but, in some cases, the per-piece price drops as the quantity increases. Aside from artwork and setup fees, most suppliers charge by the type and thickness of the metal and then per square inch of material. For example, an 8" x 10" plaque in 1/16" thick magnesium from Pella Engraving costs about $48 whereas a 1/4" thick plaque in the same material would cost around $114.
     Turnaround time depends on the supplier and the complexity of the order but, for most jobs, is generally in the vicinity of one to three weeks. The companies we spoke to are very conscious of the need to get orders done as quickly as possible, especially when it comes to recognition items.
Doing It Yourself
     Business owners who want to move into the metal plate market area more aggressively should consider in-house manufacturing options. Masteretch Services, Northants, England, has been manufacturing etching machines since 1983. The company offers a variety of etching equipment, ranging from smaller, benchtop systems designed for a typical retail engraving shop environment to large, freestanding industrial machines. “We provide a service where we not only supply all the equipment and help them set up local services for chemicals and other supplies, we also come and install the equipment and provide on-site training. This is essential as many customers have not etched before,” explains company president, Liam Dullaghan.
     Masteretch Services first began actively marketing its equipment in the U.S. in 1998 and has since installed over 100 machines in 17 states. “Many customers are engraving shops who already have a laser, computerized engraving machine, etc., but in the true spirit of the small business owner, they want to do everything in-house,” explains Dullaghan. (For more information on in-house chemical etching, read “Chemical Engraving: the Product & the Process,” June 2003.)
     Another manufacturing method for metal nameplates is the MetalPhoto process, a technique developed by Horizons Inc., Cleveland, OH, and offered by various suppliers including Pella Engraving. “Our particular metal that we sell the most of and that we make the most nameplates from is our MetalPhoto product,” says Randy Uveges. MetalPhoto is a unique photographic process that can be used for making signs, badges, machine tags, control panels and many other identification products. The technique involves exposing the light-sensitive MetalPhoto aluminum material to UV light with a film positive or negative and then processing the metal to create a black image embedded into the pores of the aluminum. The result is a smooth surface and an extremely durable product that resists the effects of sunlight, chemicals and abrasion.
     According to Horizons, its durability is virtually unmatched. “It’s specified by Boeing Aircraft, it’s specified by the military, it’s on Navy ships, it’s on everything,” says Uveges “Wherever a label needs to perform in the harshest of environments, MetalPhoto can be used. Harsh might include a park bench for 20 years or golf course markers. People even make ID plates out of it in Zimbabwe.” MetalPhoto products have a 20-year outdoor life span and          
     Horizons also has a special heat resistant treatment for the metal so the message remains legible up to the melting point of aluminum. MetalPhoto products can be used in any industrial environment imaginable and is excellent in sterile environments; alcohol, solvents and other cleaning agents can be used without affecting the image.
     Beyond the durability characteristics, MetalPhoto products are chosen because of the imaging possibilities, which include everything from small text to high quality halftone images. “Because it’s a photographic product, it has super high resolution,” says Uveges. “We did the Daytona 500 Museum with our photographic metal that includes pictures of every driver from the start of the 500 in metal. I’m talking about perfect photography. This was incredible.”
This "etched and frosted" technique from Identification Plates uses bright brass. The background is acid etched and then “frosted” with a special rinsing solution.   This plaque is etched zinc with a textured background and color filled logos. Photo courtesy of Pella Engraving.

Who’s Buying MetalPhoto Plates?
     As with etched plates, the marketing possibilities for MetalPhoto products are wide open. “If people were to make a marketing plan to target areas, they can look at any boat, ship, dock or water park. MetalPhoto would work really well in any of those places. Any outdoor applications, such as signage in National Parks, hiking trails, golf courses or on specialty vehicles are great possibilities.” Uveges adds that by establishing the value, longevity and performance of the product, you can easily convince customers who truly need a product that lasts to pay the price, and come back for more.
     Horizons also has a division devoted to plates requiring variable copy, an area that Uveges says is growing. “Barcode labels, serial tags, things like that are the fastest growing, biggest market right now. It’s growing at double-digit paces, primarily because of barcode requirements but also because there’s more and more customization than ever before.”
     Automobiles, for example, are no longer exact replicas of the one before it on the assembly line. Today, more and more cars are being customized. Many manufacturers are looking to put a particular serial number or part number on a product so they can track it for liability reasons. “The government has just required that all DoD (Department of Defense) suppliers provide a Unique IDentifying number on every single government-purchased item over $5,000,” adds Uveges. “So the variable information market, driven by software, driven by trends, is just crazy.” (For more details on UID checkout EJ’s series, “UID—A New Market is Opening Up” beginning May 2005.)
Ordering MetalPhoto Plates
     There are no minimum quantity orders but the per-piece price does decrease as quantity increases. As with chemical etching, you can supply artwork or use the supplier’s art department, and turnaround is typically two to four weeks for custom orders.
Cast Aluminum & Bronze
     Casting is another option when it comes to offering metal plates to your customers. This is a very specialized process that, while more expensive than other methods, creates an extremely high quality product that will literally last for centuries. The process involves casting raw ingot into sand molds in a foundry to create a cast aluminum or bronze plaque. Bronze is the more durable of the two materials; in fact objects that have been submerged in seawater for over 3,000 years are still in excellent condition!
     Matthews Bronze International is a well-established company that specializes in this process. Newman Brothers, Inc. Cincinnati, OH, has been casting plaques and signage since 1882. This company specializes in cast bronze, aluminum and brass plaques.
     The casting process allows you to choose from many different options to create a truly outstanding, custom piece. Some examples include various borders, background textures, background colors, finishes, letter styles and mounting methods, such as counter-sunk holes, hidden holes and decorative rosettes. Newman Brothers offers various background finishes including smooth, stipple, leather and natural sand finish textures.
     One of the best characteristics about casting is the ability to create various relief images, including flat relief (all images are raised the same height) and “bas-relief” (multi-dimensional reliefs, i.e. think of the image on a quarter). Both can be used to create incredibly detailed logos, graphics and portraits.
     Casting companies typically don’t require minimum quantity orders but quantities are an option. As with other metal plate manufacturers, they accept your digital artwork or you can use their art services. Turnaround varies with the job and generally ranges from around two to eight weeks.
     Casting is used to create a variety of high-end metal plate products, including plaques, signage and cemetery markers. Dick Stein, Newman Brothers, points out that one market area that’s booming right now arose from Y2K. Stein says that 35 or so years ago, a customer would purchase an upright grave monument with an etched birth date and, to save money, would also have the “19” pre-etched in the spot for the date of death. But in many cases these people lived into the 2000s. “Dealers will call us up and order a brass, bronze or aluminum plate with the birth year and the death year. Then they will sandblast a rectangle into the stone monument and then mount the plate flush surface with the stone. It has a really nice look and once they’re epoxied in, they don’t come out,” says Stein.
     Profitable prestigious jobs are also an option. For example, Matthews has filled a number of high profile jobs, including the six 108" x 60" plaques listing the Gold medal winners of the 1984 Summer Olympics that are displayed at the Los Angeles Coliseum.
     Stein says the opportunity to expand into various markets with cast plaques, memorials and signs is phenomenal. “We don’t have a category of business that we don’t do business with. People need signage for offices; construction companies need bronze medallions to insert into the concrete after they finish a job. It’s wide open.”
     Stein also points out that while there aren’t necessarily any modern changes happening in this area of the industry, it’s one that continues to re-invent itself and, partly because of that, sales are up. “We have a theory that what’s old is new. We have a plaque that was used as a marker for deceased veterans prior to World War II. That marker was last made in 1945. Now, 60 years later, we’re making it again because a whole new generation has never seen these old classic patterns. So a lot of times old things can come back.
Nutron Nameplate, North Olmsted, OH, offers other metal decorating processes such as screen printing, anodizing, embossing (shown here) and indenting.   Etching machines are available in various sizes and are used for etching stainless steel, brass, copper and aluminum signs, labels, nameplates and awards. Photo courtesy of Masteretch Services, Northants, England.

The Market Looks Good
     Suppliers agree that the market for these products is on the upswing due to various factors, including the overall economy, the technology and the overall quality of the products that are available.
     “What I see is that we are getting calls for bigger jobs,” says Bruce Van Wyck, Pella Engraving. “After 9-11 it seemed like the resources sort of dried up and people were afraid to spend. Last year, we saw a lot more 50 to 100 piece jobs whereas 2001-2002 and part of 2003, onesies and twosies were more common.”
     Linda Erb, Trademark Designs, adds that the qualities of processes like chemical etching are making a product that’s growing in demand. “I think what people are finding out is that etching provides durability, quality and the ability to get very good detail, and it is affordable. You can get a lot of detail on a 4" x 6" plate with a photo and some wording.”
     “From our vantage point, it appears sales of metal products were up in 2004,” says Bob Conners, Identification Plates. “Our company showed an increase, as did the majority of our large customers. We believe the most significant trend in the industry is the growth of sublimation as an imprinting process. This will be enhanced by the continued development of high quality sublimation metals. We see an increase in the quantity and quality of sublimation. There’s also been an increase in the etching of aluminum. It creates a great look and represents a more affordable choice over other metals.”
     Metal plates have a definite place in the industry and in society. Whether you choose to use supplier services or do it yourself, and whether you choose to target industrial companies or golf courses, chances are good you’ll find a market that’s ready and waiting for high quality metal plates.

These six cast bronze 108" x 60" plaques that list the Gold medal winners of the 1984 Summer Olympics were created by Matthews International.