One of the first things we learn about CO2 laser engraving machines is that they don’t engrave metal. As with most things, however, there are exceptions to this rule. CO2 lasers can mark anodized aluminum and coated metals such as colored steel plated brass and aluminum. They also mark uncoated steel, chrome, brass and aluminum when a chemical is applied before lasering. Now, there is yet another exception with the introduction of IKONMetal, which isn’t really a true metal but it looks and feels like it is.
IKONMetal (patent pending) is a metal-matrix composite material which is engineered to accommodate engraving, routing and sandblasting—technologies commonly used for the creation and decoration of custom signage, trophies, awards and plaques. The material has a brushed satin finish that can be polished to a low luster and is intended for both interior and exterior applications. It was developed by IKONICS Corp., a Duluth, MN, imaging technology company also known for its Chromaline screen printing products and PhotoBrasive brand sandblasting products.
While this unique material was originally designed specifically for sandblasting, it has become popular with CO2 laser engravers due to its versatility and metal-like appearance. The product has also been improved and can now be shaped, carved, etched and sculpted using common rotary engravers. IKONMetal is not like any metal you’ve ever seen before. It’s like you’re working with wood or plastic, yet it looks, feels and weighs in like ordinary metal.
To give an example of how unique this product is, it can actually be cut with an ordinary table saw. A 50-60 watt laser can also cut a piece of ¼" thick IKONMETAL in a single pass. (The samples I used were actually .2" thick plus or minus .006") Likewise, it can be engraved with a 25-35 watt laser, although 50 watts is far superior and ensures much more depth.
Uses for IKONMetal
After seeing the product and the price, (it isn’t exactly a low-cost material), my first question was, “What cost-effective products can I make with it?” Clearly, the high price of the material would limit its use for signage applications, especially since other materials can be used with a much lower price tag. For this material to become a hit, I figured it would have to fill a niche of its very own. I found my answer from Darin Jones at IKONICS who suggested using IKONMetal to create etched “metal” plates.
Etched metal plates can refer to a variety of items, from chemical etched plates made of magnesium and tin to forged plates made from brass, bronze or aluminum. The cost to produce plaques with these types of plates can be quite expensive and commonly takes between six to eight weeks to deliver. For customers who can’t wait that long or don’t have the budget for these more expensive plates but still wants the look of metal, IKONMetal becomes a viable alternative.
I expect that as time goes by, professionals within the industry will find many uses for this material. One use I can already see for IKONMetal is in the making of specialized coins. I often get requests to create metal coins to celebrate or commemorate a variety of occasions. These are commonly made by a stamp and die process, which takes a couple of months and requires an order large enough to absorb the setup fees. IKONMetal is the perfect alternative for those who either need the product quickly or who only need a small quantity. An additional advantage to using this material is that it can be laser engraved, making it possible to personalize or serialize the coins—something die stamping cannot provide.
Laser engraving IKONMetal is just as easy as lasering wood or plastic, if not a bit scarier. The material tends to produce a considerable number of sparks as it’s being lasered, similar to placing an aluminum package in a microwave oven. The sparks seem to do no harm, however, and other than producing a mini lightshow as you’re lasering, the material engraves surprisingly well.
I would recommend a 50 watt or larger laser for lasering IKONMetal, however, multiple passes with a 25-35 watt laser will produce similar results. The secret to lasering this material is to run the laser hot and slow to produce adequate depth. This is especially important if you plan to paint fill the engraved area.
I tested IKONMetal on three different lasers—a Universal 25 watt, a Universal 50 watt and a GCC 60 watt. Clearly, the 50-60 watt lasers did a much better job in less time. The manufacturer recommends 100 percent power at 25 percent speed for a 50 watt laser. In test cuts, I used the same settings that I would use to make rubber stamps. This seemed to produce adequate depth without slowing down the process too much. For deep engravings, I found I could slow the laser down to as much as one percent and still obtain the desired results in a single pass. I even created a 3-D engraving at five percent speed (100 percent power) with acceptable results. Multiple passes would add significant depth but I felt a single pass was adequate.
I found no need to do anything special when lasering IKONMetal, although the process does produce a significant amount of heavy metal dust that finds its way into all of the cracks and crevices of a laser system. Regular cleaning to prevent undue wear on mechanical parts is recommended. Most of the dust tends to fall onto the face of the engraving and can be removed quite effortlessly once the job is complete. A good exhaust system is always important and, in this case, air assist is also very helpful. If your laser has a fire sensor, you may need to turn down its sensitivity while engraving this material.
Although IKONMetal may be capable of dulling cutters much faster than plastic, it actually engraves about the same. I used conventional Flex or “V” cutters and had excellent results. In time, I’m sure someone will determine the best cutter configuration to use with this material but in the meantime, I used standard plastic (60 degree included angle) cutters and had no difficulty.
I did find that cutting about .010" at a time did best although I did achieve very good results cutting as much as .030" deep in a single pass. Cutting at .010" is quite adequate for paint filling. For large, multi-stroke letters (over .65"), I used a .020 cutter, but this was too large for smaller text such as .18" single-stroke letters so I dropped down to a .005" cutter and found this to be adequate.
I also tested end-mill and quarter-round cutters with this material and found no difficulty other than the fact that they were unnecessarily aggressive. Traditional Flex cutters did just fine and, for the most part, I found that engraving IKONMetal is very similar to engraving plastic.
One thing I did notice while using this material is that it has a tendency to bow slightly and it varies slightly in thickness, which means if you don’t use a depth nose you may experience depthing variations, although probably not much different from what most of us would encounter when rotary engraving plastic. The samples I received varied by .045"-.060" in thickness, which is enough to say the material should definitely be engraved using a depth nose and a little extra pressure.
I’m sure there are many people out there who know more about sandblasting than I do, but I do know enough to muddle my way through a job using a material as easy as IKONMetal. That should give many sandblasting novices out there some hope because if I can do it, you most certainly can, too.
Of course, a stencil is always needed when sandblasting, and in this case I made my own stencil using my 25 watt laser and some laserable stencil resist tape. You can also make stencils using UV material, hand cut vinyl or brass.
For my tests, I used a silicon carbide abrasive at about 40 psi (IKONICS recommends 60 psi). To deep-cut a 2" x 4" test piece, it took only a few minutes. The material cut easily and evenly leaving a nice “bottom” suitable for paint filling. Multiple layer stencils could also be used to make some really fantastic 3-D designs.
The recommended method for cutting IKONMetal when unusual shapes are desired is to use a CO2 laser with 50 or more watts of power. Cutting at a very low speed (about one percent) with full power, it is possible to cut the material in a single pass. Air assist is a must in this situation. If a single pass fails to cut through the material, a second or third pass can be used. I set the focus of my laser about halfway through the thickness of the material to optimize the laser’s power.
As mentioned, IKONMetal produces a Fourth-of-July-type light show when being cut by a laser. The first time you see it, you may be tempted to stop the process thinking that you’re going to burn up your laser. Based on my tests, however, I could see no damage resulting from engraving or cutting this material. As mentioned earlier, however, there is a considerable amount of metal dust produced when cutting or engraving IKONMetal. And since these dust particles are quite heavy, they are not picked up by the exhaust system and tend to deposit themselves below the cutting table and on the laser’s mechanical parts. Be sure to take the time to properly clean your laser after using this material to prevent any premature wear to your laser’s mechanics or optics. An ordinary shop-vac will do the job.
IKONMetal can also be cut using a standard table saw. I would recommend using this method any time a square or rectangle is needed. A jig saw or band saw can also be used for cutting unusual shapes. I tried several types of blades including a combination blade (normally used for rough cutting of wood), a fine-toothed blade (normally used for cutting plywood, finish grade lumber or plastic) and an abrasive blade (normally used for cutting metal).
All of the blades worked just fine for this material. (The manufacturer recommends using a fine-toothed carbine-tipped blade, which would likely do the best job and show the least wear over time, but for cutting an occasional job each of the blades used in my tests worked equally well.) One last note on this subject deals with safety—always wear eye protection (full face protection would be even better) when cutting any type of material with a table saw.
When testing IKONMetal with a rotary engraver, I also attempted to cut through the material with a .060" two-flute end-mill cutter. I made four passes to keep from breaking the small cutter using a very low feed rate and the material did cut fairly easily. It also created a lot of dust that the chip removal system could not pick up. The more difficult issue, however, was determining how to clamp the material so it wouldn’t move during the cutting process. The only way I found was to cut only one side at a time. Since the table tape was not strong enough to hold the material while being cut, I was forced to use mechanical jigs to hold the material in place. In short, if this is the only way you have to cut the material, it can work but you’ll find it’s much easier and faster to cut it with a saw.
Next came the shear. While most small shops don’t have a shear big enough to cut materials that are ¼" thick, I did have access to one so I just had to give it a try. Of course, the IKONMetal cut like butter in the large shear, but it left a nasty edge that would have to be sanded and polished to be acceptable in most applications. So, in conclusion, although the shear was the quickest way to cut the material, it produced the poorest results.
Adding Color to IKONMetal
IKONMetal comes in three colors—stainless, brass and bronze, with each having a satin brushed finish. When engraved, the metal remains a constant color, creating very little contrast between the engraved and nonengraved areas. Adding color is both easy and desirable when using IKONMetal in order to create greater contrast so the results can be seen at a much greater distance. Once color is added, IKONICS recommends applying an overspray of Polyurethane to act as a sealer to protect from UV, weather, etc.
There were two methods of paint filling that tended to work well during my tests. The first involved spraying paint over the entire surface of the material after engraving (make sure the engraved surface is clean before painting). Remove any paint left on the flat surface of the product, which can be done using a solvent or steel wool. When using steel wool, lightly apply prior to painting a coat of WD-40 to the surface areas that you don’t want paint to adhere to. This method leaves a finish similar to that used with bronze plaques. A cloth polishing wheel can heighten the sheen of the unpainted surfaces if so desired.
The second method that worked well for adding color was filling the engraved areas, such as lettering, with enamel. For very small areas, a hypodermic needle can be used as an applicator. For larger areas, an appropriate sized paint brush can be used. It is not necessary to confine paint to only the engraved areas since excess paint can be easily removed with a paper towel wrapped tightly around a block of trophy marble and moistened with solvent. When using this method, be sure to clean and polish the areas that will not be paint filled prior to painting. Once the finish and paint filling are suitable, an overcoat of polyurethane can be applied to further protect the finished product.
When I produced my sample pieces of IKONMetal, I wanted to see a bit more sheen on the surface so I set out to see how I could polish the material quickly. The solution for me came in the form of old-fashioned steel wool. By buffing the surface lightly with steel wool in the same direction as the grain, it was possible to increase the sheen slightly. Although it may not be necessary for many applications, I also applied a coat of clear Polyurethane, which, in my opinion, gave a very nice finish to the end product.
Once IKONMetal has been engraved and finished, there is one other issue to consider, and that is how easily the material can be mounted. Having a great product isn’t much good if you can’t mount it. Fortunately, that was not a problem with this material as it responded well to mounting to most surfaces using ordinary Silicone adhesive. As with other products, larger pieces will require being held in place until the Silicone cures, which typically takes about 24 hours.
IKONMetal can also be drilled easily to accommodate screws or bolts or it can be tapped from the back using a bottoming out style drill and tap. The advantage to using a drill and tap is that it creates a hanging method that is completely concealed. I believe this makes the most attractive mounting method, but there is one problem to consider. The .200" thickness of the material does not allow for many threads to be tapped. Although only a few threads are needed to hold a material of this weight, it does make the process a bit tricky. Even when using a drill press with a bottoming out type bit and tap, it is very easy to break through to the other side or to drill so deeply that the surface of the material deflects slightly over the hole. This remains my preferred method of mounting, but it must be noted that caution is advised. The end result is well worth the extra effort.
I have already hinted about the fact that IKONMetal can be somewhat costly compared to other materials. In my opinion, this is the only disadvantage of the product, which forces users to find a very unique niche in order to justify its high price. Although this is unfortunate, the material is still quite new and as time goes by, sales increase and technology improves, I believe the price will likely come down.
Currently, the cost of this material is somewhere between $115 and $138 for a 12" x 24" sheet, which comes out to about 39-49 cents per square inch. Be careful about pricing jobs based on the square inch, however, as waste will always factor into the overall cost of a job. Out of fairness to the manufacturer, if you’re producing a simulated bronze plaque using your laser, the price is really quite affordable, so the price is really only high in relation to thin plastics.
IKONMetal brings a totally new product to our arsenal that can fill at least a couple of niche applications that I can think of and perhaps many more besides. One of its greatest attributes is the fact that it’s a fast turn-around metal product suitable for exterior use and it can be produced totally in-house. Coins, medallions and even medals can be produced quickly with little or no setup expense and can even be personalized and offered “on demand”—something that, until now, was not possible.
IKONMetal can also be engraved or sandblasted in-house for use in high traffic, vandal-prone areas for products such as park benches, markers in botanical gardens or memory plates to commemorate a donation to a church, cemetery, Hospice House or hospital.
Overall, I was very impressed with this material, which probably has many applications “outside the box” of my experience and foresight. It is a tremendous feat for a company to produce a material like this and IKONICS should be commended for its achievement.
Granted, IKONMetal is more expensive than the typical engraving material, but that isn’t always a bad thing. As we find more applications that are suited for this material, the cost of the material will dictate the profit margin we might realize. This means that, at least for a while, IKONMetal will be considered a premium product that will fetch a high price and, therefore, solid profit margins for shop owners. Those illusive markets may be found in the area of industry or manufacturing more than the awards industry, but that may just spur some of us to diversify and broaden our potential markets.
What we must not do is ignore the opportunities that exist with this material simply because it costs more than plastic or some sheet metal. Although it is a bit messy, it is easy to work with, highly versatile, readily available and it has high exterior quality. The only thing missing is “the perfect application.” I’m confident that application will be found, most likely by someone tinkering around in their engraving shop that suddenly has one of those serendipitous moments. My only hope is that when that happens, this person will be kind enough to share it with the rest of us who still have trouble thinking outside the box.
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