Glass & Crystal: A Beginner's Guide

 
This optical crystal Rising Star award is a top selling crystal award from Topmost, Montclair, CA.

Copyright © 2007 by Davis Multimedia, Int'l. All Rights Reserved.
As Printed in May 2007, Volume 32, No. 11 of The Engravers Journal

 
 
  This sit-down cabinet system from Glastar, Chatsworth, CA is shown here with a 100S Blaster 100DC Dust Collector and Cyclone Dust Separator.  

     One of the most interesting aspects of the Recognition and Identification industry is the many different directions a retail business can take. Maybe you’re interested in selling trophies to sports teams or high-end awards to the corporate market or possibly engravable gifts to the general public. Regardless of your business direction, have you ever considered selling glass and crystal products? One of the great things about glass and crystal merchandise is that it can fit neatly into any or all of these market avenues and it could even end up being one of your best selling product lines.
     If you are just starting out in the glass and crystal business or thinking about getting into it, here are some basics about the business that might help you make up your mind or get you headed in the right direction.
Glass & Crystal—A Review
     Although the terms glass and crystal are often used synonymously, there are some notable differences between the two materials. Generally speaking, there are three types of “glass” used in the manufacture of awards and gifts: glass, crystal and optic crystal.
     Glass is the least expensive and least clear of the three materials. Made from silica sand, glass awards and gifts are commonly available in crystal clear glass and jade glass. Crystal clear glass is a high quality “float” glass that is clear and closely resembles crystal. Jade glass has a higher percentage of iron ore which gives it its characteristic green or bluish-green tint, something that is especially apparent when you view the edge of the glass. Both crystal clear and jade glass are very hard materials, although crystal clear is slightly softer. A major difference between the two is price; crystal clear is about double the price of jade glass.
     In this industry, you can also find awards and gifts made from lead crystal or optical crystal. Lead crystal has the added element of lead oxide which softens the glass and gives it sparkle. Optical crystal (also referred to as “optic” crystal) is short for ophthalmic crystal, which means “lenses.” (As such, optical crystal is used in the Hubble Telescope.) During the manufacturing process, optical crystal is heated to a very high temperature and then allowed to cool very slowly, a process that eliminates bubbles and imperfections. The result is a very hard material that is much clearer than glass or leaded crystal (and more expensive).
Is It Selling?
     If you’re thinking about venturing into glass and crystal awards and gifts, your primary questions will be “Is it selling?” and “Who is buying it?” By most accounts, glass and crystal merchandise remains a hot seller in both the award and the gift segments of the industry. The sparkle, shine and sleekness of these products gives them high-end appeal that is attractive to customers with bigger budgets, such as those found in the corporate market. “Corporate buyers look for higher-end, timeless awards to recognize top performers in their organizations,” says Diana Shih of Topmost Designs, Inc., Montclair, CA. “Glass and crystal awards express ultimate appreciation and are associated with excellence, making them very popular in this market.”
     Thanks to a variety of price ranges and styles, however, glass and crystal are not limited to customers who have more money to spend. Even customers looking for a more economical option in awards and gifts can find something affordable in glass and crystal, including sports teams and personal gift buyers.

 
 
  This optical cut round crystal with star award from Classic Medallics, Long Island City, NY.  

What Are They Buying?
     There are many kinds of glass and crystal products available from industry suppliers, ranging from trophies and plaques to vases, picture frames and desk accessories. One of those industry suppliers is Topmost Designs, Inc., Montclair, CA, which carries a stunning collection of crystal and glass award blanks. “We carry blank awards in 24 percent Italian lead crystal, optical crystal and glass,” says Shih. “We also carry gifts such as blank picture frames, paperweights, vases, ornaments and clocks in glass and some in optical crystal.”
Topmost Designs’ Star, Globe and Diamond award lines designed for corporate recognition have been popular for several years and, according to Shih, remain so today. Shih notes that optical crystal products are currently the most sought after of all the glass and crystal products available despite their higher price. “The optical crystal awards can be a three-dimensional solid piece with gem-cut facets to enhance reflection,” she says, adding that optical crystal is currently their most popular seller.
     Jenny Tang of SCT Crystal, So. El Monte, CA, agrees that optical crystal items are hot sellers in today’s gift and awards markets. “Our optical crystal awards with golf, globe and star motifs are very popular in the current market because this theme is ideal for recognizing employees, customers and top performances,” she says. “On the other hand, optical crystal blanks that have a large space for engraving are also popular because more and more customers want custom designs—they’re looking for something unique.” SCT Crystal carries a full line of beautiful optical crystal blanks, including awards, trophies, paperweights, promotional items, corporate gifts, globes and a sports series.
     Another trend in the industry is the availability of more “faceted” items, which give products a crystal-like effect. “You see a lot more faceting on glasses, awards, cups—all of these kinds of things,” says Lori Mitchell of Glastar Corporation, Chatsworth, CA, manufacturers of a line of sandcarving equipment. “Why? Because it looks more expensive,” she says. “Glass is wonderful in terms of throwing light. Even just plain bevels will throw more light than a flat pane of glass, and a piece with even more facets throws even more light.”
     Mitchell notes another trend she’s seeing is the mixing of materials, such as combining glass with stone, marble or ceramics, to cause various visual effects. “What I see of late and what I think will continue into the future is the mixing of materials—combining them together to make a very different and unique gift or award,” she says.
     On a similar note, Topmost’s Shih points out a current market movement towards products that combine traditional crystal with colored crystal, such as blue or black. “We have added black, blue and amber colored crystal, and we’ve also introduced an aluminum base or component to create a contemporary look for crystal awards,” Shih says.
     Tang says that although some customers still like the look of the traditional awards and trophies, there is an increasing interest among customers who are looking for something a little more fancy in the items that combine clear optical crystal with black or blue optical crystal. “The combination of clear optical crystal and black optical crystal is especially popular in the current market,” she says, “because this offers many creative options for personalizing the piece in each colored panel. It can be really dramatic and interesting.”

Glastar's new Micro Abrasive Blaster is designed to give the user the ability to sandblast with or without a stencil with its precise, even flow of abrasive.
   

Your Personalization Options
     If you’re going to sell crystal gifts and awards, you’re going to need a method to personalize these products. The three methods currently used in this industry are sandcarving, laser engraving and mechanical engraving. Each has advantages and disadvantages, and each provides a slightly different look. “It all depends on what you’re looking for when it comes to choosing which method is best for you,” advises Mitchell.
Sandcarving
     Sandcarving, a.k.a. sandblasting, is the process of using compressed air to force a stream of abrasive through a nozzle in order to etch or carve a design onto glass or crystal. A typical sandcarving setup includes an air compressor, a reservoir for the abrasive, a cabinet and a dust collector.
     Sandblasting is considered by many to be the best way to mark on glass due to its ease, versatility and the superior end results. With sandcarving, you can achieve just about any look you want, whether it’s lightly frosted images or deeply etched designs. You can also achieve three-dimensional effects by carving in stages, with each stage becoming progressively deeper. With an appropriate photoresist, you can even reproduce a realistic halftone image into glass, such as the face of a person or pet. In addition, many feel that the overall look of sandblasting is of higher quality than other methods.
     “Sandblasting is the most recommended engraving method for glass and crystal products,” says Shih. “Glass and crystal awards should be positioned as high-end products. Engraving approaches other than sandblasting can chip the crystal and lower the perceived value.”
     Sandcarving is a very versatile process. It works on all types of glass, but is certainly not limited to personalizing just glass. “Sandblasting is so versatile it will work equally well with crystal or with any type of glass,” says Mitchell. “It also works well with stone, marble, granite, tile of any kind, ceramic and, with a different abrasive, it also works with acrylic.”
     Equipment designed specifically for sandcarving is available from several suppliers in the industry. Glastar Corporation offers traditional sandblasting machines and supplies, including resists, various abrasives, pressure pots and cabinets. “We have a small bench-top unit, which is really tiny, all the way up to a large cabinet with a pass-through feature, which will carve items as large as a shower door,” says Mitchell.
     One of Glastar’s newest machines is a sit-down cabinet designed to accommodate most standard wheelchairs and operators who don’t relish the thought of standing at a cabinet all day. “That’s my personal favorite,” Mitchell laughs. “You can blast all day long if you want without wreaking havoc on your back or knees.”
     Rayzist Photomask also manufactures a line of sandcarving equipment, offering three different sizes of machines based on the customer’s requirements and intended productivity. “As a manufacturer of sandcarving equipment, our machines are specifically designed for glass and crystal and the awards market user,” says Billy Willis. “Our design development over the past 20 years incorporates the changing and specific needs of the glass engraver. The construction, components and designs are basically the same for each machine and incorporate built-in automatic abrasive recycling pressurized pots.” According to Willis, these systems are the most effective for glass, crystal and stone etching and for removing more surface material to achieve better “engraving depth.”
     As for new features, Willis said Rayzist has improved the containment of abrasive dust on its systems. “Rayzist’s 2034 is completely self-contained, which means the operator is not being exposed to the unusable abrasive dust and the system automatically recycles the usable abrasive,” he said. Other new features include consistent improvements in user function, performance and ergonomic design. “Sandblasting is very simple and we’re designing the equipment to be easy to use, affordable and dust free,” adds Willis.
     One thing to keep in mind when considering the purchase of sandcarving equipment, according to Mitchell, is that it does take up significant space due to all of the system’s components, including the pressure pot, the dust collector, the air compressor and the cabinet. Another thing to consider is the noise that is generated during sandcarving due to the air compressor. It can be a noisy process and is typically something you wouldn’t want to do in your showroom.
     Humidity is another factor you’ll want to consider while determining your equipment needs. High levels of humidity can interfere with the abrasive flow during the sandblasting process. “The needs of someone working in Los Angeles or Las Vegas are different than the needs of those working on the East Coast or in the Southeast where the humidity gets incredibly miserable,” explains Mitchell. “Our machines allow you to add extra water separators as needed.”
     Selecting a sandblasting machine that’s appropriate for your business takes some careful consideration. “Obviously, if a retailer wants to specialize in etching products, they need to invest in the proper system to facilitate that production need,” says Willis.
     Most R&I retailers opt for a medium-sized setup that will accommodate many different types of award and gift items. “Occasionally there are some that do very large items so they buy larger cabinets, and some that only do really small items or that don’t have a lot of money or space so they buy a small machine,” says Mitchell. “But most of what we sell are in the medium-sized range.”
     Once you’ve decided on the equipment to use in your sandcarving business, the next crucial component to consider is the sandcarving “mask” or “resist” you’ll need. This is essentially a stencil containing cutout areas of the design to be etched into the glass, crystal or other items you’ll be using. The three most common types of stencils used in this industry are vinyl, rubber and photoresists.
     Vinyl and rubber sandcarving resists can be made using a traditional vinyl plotter. If you’re purchasing a plotter for this purpose, be sure to get one that can handle thicker resists. “Only certain plotters are good for cutting rubber. Some plotters are better than others at cutting the thick er resists,” Mitchell warns. Vinyl and rubber resists are necessary for deep carving because they are a thicker, more durable material. They also conform easily to contoured or unusual shapes.
     If you’re looking to achieve ultra fine detail, however, you’ll need to use photoresists. Photoresists are the dominant stenciling method when it comes to traditional sandcarving. You can order stock or custom designs or purchase the equipment to make your own. Making your own designs is a photographic process that usually involves placing a film positive on top of a piece of photoresist material, exposing it to UV light and developing the image with water.
     A huge advantage of photoresists is that they can be used to etch intricate detail, including fine lines and quality halftone photographs. “With the new photoresists, you can get a realistic face of your dog, yourself or your child on a variety of materials,” says Mitchell, adding the quality has improved tremendously over the past year or so. “Even in the headstone industry, you’re seeing more and more sandcarving of people’s faces. You never saw that until recently,” She said. “There are even resists and certain types of procedures that give you a very three-dimensional kind of image. With the new materials and techniques, it’s just getting better and better.”
     Rayzist Photomask is one of the industry’s leading manufacturers of photoresist film. “Photoresist film still remains the most common form of resist to etch products. Our SR3000 Self Stick photoresist film is best known for its durability, ease of use and ability to quickly reproduce masks,” says Willis.

 
 
  The optical crystal Super Five Star Diamond award is from Topmost.  

Mechanical (Rotary) Engraving
     Computerized engraving machines, or mechanical engraving, is a second option when it comes to personalizing glass and crystal gifts and awards. This method is gaining in popularity as machine manufacturers have made the setup process for engraving glass much easier than it ever has been. This process can also produce some exquisite results.
     Many machine manufacturers now offer glass engraving kits for certain models, while some even have machines with built-in glass engraving capabilities. Basically, all you need is a faceted rotary diamond cutter, a burnishing adaptor that allows the cutter to “float” over the glass and a coolant system. Most manufacturers also offer special holding devices for engraving glass items such as wine bottles.
     Mechanical engraving is especially useful for personalization involving text (names and dates, etc.) as opposed to custom graphics such as photographs and complex logos.

 
 
  The Mandalay award from R.S. Owens features starfire bowed glass on a satin nickel base.  

Laser Engraving
     As more and more shop owners purchase laser engraving equipment, more are also delving into etching glass. “CO2 lasers are an excellent choice for engraving glass,” says David Wilhite of Universal Laser Systems, Scottsdale, AZ. (Note: CO2 lasers are recommended for engraving glass because the wavelength of the laser’s energy is absorbed into the glass, thereby creating a mark. YAG lasers won’t make a mark because the beam shines completely through the glass.)
     Laser engraving is highly regarded for its simplicity. Because this is a noncontact process—the only thing that touches the glass is a beam of light—you don’t have to worry about clamping or water cooling the glass as you do with rotary engraving or preparing a photoresist mask or stencil when sandcarving. “This makes laser engraving more convenient than competing methods,” says Wilhite. “Since fixturing is not required, except on cylindrical objects, laser engraving offers faster setup and faster processing times than the other two methods. And as everyone in this industry knows, time is money. If high volume output is important to you, laser engraving is definitely the way to go,” he says.
     Laser engraving can be used to mark on a wide variety of glass and crystal gifts and awards. For example, if you plan to laser engrave a cylindrical object, such as a wine bottle, glass or cup, some manufacturers offer a rotary attachment fixture. “We offer a rotary attachment that holds the part between two cones that adapt to a variety of cylindrical shapes and can also accommodate tapered items,” says Wilhite. “Our rotary attachment is computer controlled and can engrave an entire 360 degrees around an object or more if overlap is needed.”
     Keep in mind, however, that laser engraved glass looks considerably different than glass marked with other personalization methods. You can get quality engraving results, but it does look different and you can’t achieve any notable depth. “In most cases, CO2 lasers work by vaporizing the surface of the material you are engraving. However, in the case of glass, the laser microscopically shatters or fractures the surface, which can leave behind very tiny flakes or chips that may cause an uneven appearance on fill areas,” says Wilhite. “When this occurs, you can sometimes smooth out the roughness using very fine sandpaper, steel wool or a Scotch Brite pad.”
     The type of glass being lasered can also affect the end result. Glass varies in lead content in the form of lead oxide. Higher lead content will produce more heat, which can lead to excessive chipping, flaking and even breaking. “For best results, look for glass with low lead content,” says Wilhite, adding some old-school laser engravers say it’s helpful to apply dampened newspaper to the glass before engraving to help draw away heat.
     According to Wilhite, laser engraving glass successfully requires a skilled operator, the right kind of glass and some experimentation. “But when the focus, speed, power and other settings are just right, laser engraved glass can look spectacular. Laser engraving produces a three-dimensional frosted appearance on glass that, when properly executed, is quite attractive,” he says.

 
 
  The Winners Cup from R.S. Owen's is hand blown and available in cobalt and smoke colored glass.  

Laser-Assisted Sandcarving
     Laser-assisted sandcarving is, as the name implies, a combination of laser engraving and sandcarving. This process involves applying a masking material to the glass, using the laser to cut through the material to create a stencil and then using your sandblasting machine to etch the image.
     Some advantages to using this process include the ability to create intricate, detailed resists for sandcarving, including halftone images. In fact, the quality can be every bit as good as that of a photo stencil. This process eliminates the additional labor, time and costs associated with making photoresists and it can achieve the look of sandcarving without investing in photo film positive-making equipment.
     “CO2 lasers are ideal for cutting detailed stencils for sandcarving,” says Wilhite. “Cutting stencils with a laser is fast, easy and economical and eliminates the time and expense necessary to create a photo etch mask. Laser cut stencils can be used for individualized one-off custom pieces or you can cut multiple stencils for volume production. This method can produce a nicely detailed, satin-smooth engraving.”
     When first used, there were some technological problems with this technique, most notably associated with the materials being used for the stencils. The original materials were difficult to work with because they were made of PVC. They were not flexible, they were difficult to remove, they didn’t engrave well and they emitted harmful fumes. Thanks to new innovations in masking materials, however, those problems have gone by the wayside.
     “Rayzist manufactures a laserable sandblast resist called LaserMask,” explains Willis. “LaserMask is similar to photoresist film in that it’s pliable and easily removed. As a mask with a water-based adhesive, it burns quickly and cleanly (free of PVCs). The real benefit is its cleanup. Unlike vinyl or polyester films, it softens in water so cleanup is a breeze.”
     Laser-assisted sandcarving is best suited for one-offs and small runs. “Retailers are utilizing their laser equipment and our LaserMask to minimize production time for quick turnaround items and/or small production runs. Lasers provide excellent detail and LaserMask is a simple and affordable resist,” Willis says.
Some Expert Advice
     When it comes to getting started in the glass and crystal business, there are several pieces of advice to consider. First, don’t skimp on equipment. Make sure the equipment you purchase is able to handle the work you plan to do.
     “You need to consider the different types of projects you’re doing now and the types of projects you’ll be doing in the future, then look for a sandblasting cabinet (or laser or mechanical engraver) that will accommodate where you want to go,” says Mitchell.

 
 
  This 13" Gold Eagle award from Classic Medallics, comes on an optical crystal base.  

     In terms of the products you plan to carry, be sure to shop around. There are plenty of beautiful pieces available and some of them may not be as expensive as they look.
     “Working closely with a few suppliers who have wide product selections is important to the success of a retail business,” says Shih. “If the supplier doesn’t have a strong inventory, retailers will lose business and their reputation for not fulfilling orders by the award-giving date. Product quality is also important to keep customers coming back year after year for their recognition needs. Retailers should choose suppliers who provide nice presentation catalogs or websites and who offer gift boxes, all of which helps make easier sales with a higher profit margin.”
     Another good piece of advice: Don’t be afraid to be creative. There’s so much you can do with crystal and glass that can make your awards and gifts absolutely stunning. For example, ULS’s David Wilhite explains the possibilities of engraving glass mirrors. “Laser engraving glass mirrors is an awesome application,” he says. “You actually engrave away the coating on the back side of the mirror, which means you must reverse the image before engraving or it will appear backwards. It’s very easy to produce stunningly intricate 3-D engravings on mirror glass.”
     Be creative when marketing your products as well. “Sometimes if you display a piece by itself, it’s not that impressive,” says Mitchell, “but if you put a glass item on a base or stand to set it off, suddenly it looks different and unique and it draws a lot more interest.”
Mitchell encourages engravers to think outside the box. “I know a lot of great stories, including one retailer who sandblasted a storefront window for the first tenant in a strip mall for free. Eventually, every one of the store owners wanted their windows done, too, and he ended up making some big bucks,” she says.
     Glass and crystal awards and gifts have a certain appeal that no other product can match. It glistens and shines and exudes “quality.” Customers can select from high-end optical or lead crystal to lower-end glass products and, in either case, the product can look expensive and classy, especially after it’s personalized. Glass and crystal is something that appeals to many markets and is something you should consider adding to your business if you’re looking to increase products and/or revenues.

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