Add a Splash of Color to Your Products

Copyright © 2008 by Davis Multimedia, Int'l. All Rights Reserved.
As Printed in June 2008, Volume 33, No. 12 of The Engravers Journal

Figure 1: Multiple colors are easy to achieve by paint filling reverse engraved plastic material.

Figure 2: The logo on this name badge was color filled using a common gold paint pen available at most craft stores. Figure 3: Here is the back of that reverse engraved panel from Figure 1. It’s not too pretty but it works.

   Are you the kind of person who's tired of doing the same old stuff? Let's face it: engraving two-color plastic can get boring if that's all you do day after day. Sometimes even the smallest splash of color can turn an ordinary product into an extraordinary one in the eyes of the beholder. Best of all, it's often easy to do and very profitable.
   Whether you use rotary or laser engraving, there are many opportunities to add color to your work even without getting into sublimation or some other high-tech color process. Some of these can even be done without buying any new equipment or learning any new skills. It can add a lot of interest and increase your profits with very little additional work. Other methods might be a bit more involved, but they have stood the test of time and can be done either in-house or outsourced to hold down costs.
   Why add color? Because of the simple fact that "color sells." It may be a cliché but it's true. Color, even the smallest amount, gives a project far more appeal, interest and intrinsic value. Just think about it. How long has it been since you or anyone you know has purchased a black and white TV? Why would you when you can have color for about the same price? We have become a color-oriented society and consumers are not willing to settle for something less if they can get more, even if they have to pay more money to get it.
   Remember when white was the only color available in most appliances and consumers were content with that? If you have walked through an appliance store lately then you know this is no longer the case. There is practically every color in the rainbow represented these days. Will a blue washer or dryer work any better than a white one? Of course not, but people want color and it's no different in the R&I industry. People like color in our products too. A color logo, picture or some ornate decoration can change a humdrum plaque or name badge into something spectacular.
   For the most part, this article will discuss "spot color" processes. That's when there are just a few (even as few as one) colors added to a job to increase interest or value. Most logos, for instance, work fine using spot colors. This is partially to allow for easy reproduction of the logo on large signs and printed materials, but it works to our advantage as well since spot colors can be added to engraving jobs using a wide variety of methods.
   It wasn't that many years ago that adding color to award products was a big deal. There were only a few methods available and those were either expensive, required special equipment or demanded large quantities. While those methods are still viable today, there are additional methods now available that don't require a large investment. Some of these methods can even be done with equipment and materials you may already have in your shop. This article will examine some of the most common methods for adding spot color to your products, including how they work, how much they cost and any other information that may be helpful to know about them.
   Color Filling: Color filling your engraving jobs using paint or other fillers isn't nearly as difficult as it might sound. Need a black and white name badge with a "metallic gold" logo? No problem. Need a burgundy badge with bright yellow lettering? Not a problem. Need a sign with several different colors and don't have access to sublimation or direct printing? I know they don't make engraving plastic with three or four colors, but you can achieve this by paint filling without a problem. Here's how it works.
   The types of products you can make by color filling are almost unlimited. One of the easiest and most common materials that engravers use for paint filling is reverse engravable plastics (usually a clear or frosted acrylic sheet over a thin colored sheet of plastic). To prepare this type of material, engrave your text and/or graphics from the back until the colored plastic is removed, exposing the clear or frosted cover sheet. Then you simply "fill" or apply the paint into the voids created by the engraver. Because the cover or face sheet is clear, the paint will show through to the front of the material (Fig. 1). You can include as many colors as you need as long as there is some division between the colors.
   Paint filling on the face of a job is a bit trickier than back filling, but it certainly is do-able. Special tools are available at craft stores for this, although I generally just use some acrylic paint and a toothpick. Gold and silver inks can also be applied to the face of products quite easily simply by using a felt tip marker and wiping off the excess (Fig. 2).
   Color filling is the least expensive of all spot color methods. All that's required is a small bottle of paint or a paint pen, a toothpick or small paint brush, some solvent (the solvent depends on the type of paint you are using) and an old telephone book. As mentioned, reverse engraved plastics are much easier to color fill than face engraved products since you usually don't have to worry about cleaning the excess paint off the surface. (Fig. 3).
Keep in mind that some materials are more difficult to paint fill than others. The tricky ones include materials with a textured surface, porous materials like wood that absorb paint and materials that can be damaged by the solvent.

Figure 4: This plaque was color filled with black liquid shoe polish for the text, Rowmark Lights for the logo and laser foil for the word “GOLD.”   Figure 5: LaserDarc was used to add the gold color to the recipient’s name on this lasered plaque.

   Laser Colored Foils: If you have a laser engraver, you can add a variety of films, especially metallic films, to badges, signs and even plaques by using Laser Films. These are available from laser supply companies such as LaserBits, tape manufacturers such as Innotec and Specialty Tapes and plastic suppliers such as Johnson Plastics. These are self-adhesive polyester films that can be applied to any smooth surface and then laser cut and weeded, much like the process of using vinyl cutters. The resulting image is clean, crisp and fairly durable as long as the pieces aren't cut too small. The cost of this material may seem somewhat expensive, but it goes a long way when used properly. Note: Never laser cut vinyl films, which produce dangerous fumes!
   The process of using colored foils is fairly easy. Simply apply a piece of the film to the area you're going to engrave and then use your laser to vector cut the film. Remove any excess material and, just like that, you have a very attractive spot color on your product (Fig. 4). You can repeat this process to add as many different colors as you need, including metallic colors, so they add a lot of flash to the finished product.
   This material costs about $25 for a roll of film 6" wide x 25' long. Keep in mind, however, that this material is meant for interior use only. Also, be aware that it does show scratches fairly easily so some care should be used when applying the foils.
   LaserDarc: LaserDarc, produced by Smoke-Wood, is another product specifically made for adding color to laser engraved products. It’s intended to be used with wood or acrylic, but the best results are achieved with wood products. LaserDarc consists of a fine powder that is brushed into an area that has already been laser engraved. Once applied, the area is lasered again, causing the powder to melt and congeal, leaving a color mark that is very durable (Fig. 5).
   Basic colors are available, including red, blue, green, yellow, black and white, along with a metallic gold and silver. Colors cannot be mixed and more than one color cannot be applied without some divider between them. More than one color can sometimes be applied at the same time, although it is generally easier and safer to apply them one color at a time.
   To use this product, first laser engrave the entire job and then brush a layer of the powder into the area to be colored. After each color is applied, laser engrave only that specific area again and repeat this step as many times and with as many colors as needed. Excess powder can simply be brushed or blown away. If a lot of excess powder is used, the cost for using this product can increase significantly. If it is applied carefully, however, the finished cost for adding a color with this product can cost just pennies per job. LaserDarc costs $59 for a one-pound container, which is considered to be about a year’s supply with typical use. You can also purchase a starter set of three 4 oz. containers (your choice of colors), which also comes with three sets of brushes and a set of instructions.
   Applique: Many organizations have their own color products that can be added to a name badge or sign. Still others can be represented by using commercially available products such as lapel pins, 7/8" or 2" Mylar disks or decals you make for your customers, cloisonné jewelry and more. Generally speaking, if it’s small enough and not too heavy, you can probably attach it to a name badge or sign for a nice effect.
   Two of the leading suppliers of these products are Classic Medallics and Simba Cal. Each offers a host of 2" Mylar disks that represent various organizations (Fig. 6). Military units commonly have special cloisonné products made specifically for the purpose of attaching them to their name badges.
   The cost of using these types of products depends on several factors. For example, if the customer supplies the pin or disk, there is no cost. If the logo or crest they want to use is already available, the cost could run anywhere from one to five dollars, depending on the design and how it's made. If you're able to make your own disks using sublimation or laser engraving, the cost will vary but typically wouldn't cost more than a dollar.
   If the customer's chosen design has to be commercially made, then the cost can vary anywhere from one to 10 dollars each, and usually requires a minimum of 144 pieces as well as a setup charge of several hundred dollars and a wait time of 6-8 weeks. If this is your desire, you might be better off looking for companies that do soft enamel fill (soft enamel looks and feels like cloisonné but is much less expensive) with no setup charge. Note, however, that they are difficult to find because there are so few of them out there.
   Hot Stamping: Hot stamping is a process in which a heated metal die containing a raised image is used to transfer the die's image to a variety of hot-stampable surfaces. The color comes from the hot stamping foil which consists of a colored pigment adhered to a thin plastic carrier. When the heated die is pressed down against a substrate with the marking foil sandwiched in between, the pigment is transferred. The area where the die meets the substrate is where the ink from the foil is left behind, leaving some type of image or text. The most common substrates for this process are plastic and leather, but it also works on paper, wood and other materials

Figure 6: Attaching premade disks to badges, plaques and signs can create a nice, colorful effect.   Figure 7: This green engraving plastic badge was hot stamped with a metallic gold film. Photo courtesy of Johnson Plastics.

   Hot stamped name badges have been around for a very long time (Fig. 7). At one time not so long ago, it was the only way to get metallic colors on name badges, and this still remains a popular method. Hot stamping can be done in-house or jobbed out. The equipment needed to do hot stamping is fairly simple-just a specialized heat press that holds a small die. You simply attach a die to the heated plate, load a roll of hot stamping foil, pop an item in the fixture and you’re ready to go. The heated die is then pressed through a thin sheet of foil onto the substrate to be marked.
   Most people are familiar with the practice of having the name of a family or individual imprinted on the front of a Bible or leather briefcase. Hot stamping is typically the method used to do this type of imprinting. Foils available include hundreds of colors as well as metallic gold and silver. Unless you're planning to make thousands of products, the most economical way to approach this technology is to have someone else do the pressing for you. Suppliers such as Ability Plastics, Gravograph and Johnson Plastics all have divisions that offer this service.
   If you're making plastic badges, you can plan on paying about $1.25 or so (one color) per piece with a minimum of 100 pieces. This price includes the plastic badge. There is usually a minimum number required for this process, and there is usually a die charge involved for first-time orders. Multiple colors can be imprinted, but they're typically imprinted one color at a time. Most companies charge $20 or so for setting up repeat orders and add 20-30 cents per badge for each additional color. Setup fees run around $50 per color for first-time orders.
   If you're going to outsource your hot stamping orders, your responsibility is to provide quality art that can be color separated and made into a die (one die per color). Resolution of these dies can be quite remarkable, affording very small text and designs. Be aware, however, that hot stamped imprints can scratch and wear off over time, especially when used for "rough service" applications such as key chains.
   Pad Printing: Pad printing is a printing process that involves an ink image being transferred from a printing plate to another substrate using a silicone pad. This process is typically used for printing on otherwise difficult products, such as cylindrical items like ink pens and coffee cups, soft items or textured items such as golf balls. The unique properties of the silicone pad allow it to pick the liquid ink image up from the plate and transfer it by compressing down onto the substrate to be marked.
   Pad printing limits the use of metallic gold and silver, but does allow an almost unlimited number of spot colors to be mixed. Pad printers come in both manual and air-operated configurations and are easy and safe to operate. Provided the proper ink is used, the imprint is reasonably durable. Like hot stamping, some major plastic supply houses offer this service to their customers at a cost of about $1.25-$1.85 each in lots of 100 for one color and an additional $.20-.30 for each additional color. There is typically a minimum and a setup fee for first-time orders. Although the minimum quantity may be as low as 25, the price per item will be significantly higher. For all practical purposes, it's not worth the price unless your minimum order is around 100 or more. As the quantity goes up, the price comes down. Most companies that offer this service charge a setup fee of $20 or so for repeat orders.
   Pad printed images can scratch, but the images produced are typically more durable than hot stamped images, meaning they don't scratch or wear off as easily. Pad printing machines are available for as little as $1,000 if you decide you'd like to offer this service in-house. These manual machines do a good job and work as fast as you can load and remove the items being printed. Automated machines are also available but are considerably more expensive.
   The biggest problem with pad printing, like hot stamping, isn't the cost of purchasing the machine, but rather in the cost of having the plate containing the engraved/etched image (commonly referred to as a "cliche") made. Pad printing plates are less expensive than hot stamp dies, but it still gets expensive unless you have a way of making them yourself or know a supplier that can make them for you. For example, one company I spoke with charges $7.40 per color to make a plate for making name badges. However, if only one plate (color) is being used, there is still a minimum order of $37 so it would actually cost $37 for up to four plates, plus shipping.
   Thus far we have talked about "spot color" processes, which means using one or a couple of basic colors to reproduce a logo or the like. Spot color can liven up a variety of products, but for the ultimate in color reproduction, you can’t beat "full color." Also called "four color" or "process color," this method mixes the basic colors-cyan, magenta, yellow and black-to give you realistic color in thousands of subtle tones and shades. That's what we'll look at next.
   Direct Print: Direct print is a process where a specialized inkjet printer is used to apply an ink image directly to a product. These are actually specially designed printers very similar to what you might use in your office. The only difference is they apply ink directly to soft products such as fabric, shirts and, in some instances, to hard substrates such as metal, wood, glass and plastic instead of paper.
   Although direct print is still fairly new and its use is somewhat limited in the R&I industry, it is growing. One of the advantages to using this method is that it offers an almost unlimited number of colors and even the ability to transfer photographs. It does not, however, offer true metallic gold or silver images, although images can be imprinted on gold or silver metal.
   Another advantage to this process is that direct print machines work from a computer-generated file and print all of the colors at one time. This eliminates the need for a die or setup charge and even the need to require a minimum order. A few companies do offer this service on a wholesale basis (Accent Signage) but they are few. Most people who choose to offer this service own their own equipment.
   Printers with direct print capabilities are quite expensive, ranging anywhere from about $12,000 to $120,000, depending on size and type of ink used. Fortunately, they are capable of printing a wide variety of products, which can help if you’re trying to justify the investment.
   If you do own a printer capable of direct printing onto name badges, tags or even plaques, it can be very difficult to estimate the cost of ink since every logo or image is different. However, the cost is generally considered to be very low unless you have a printer that prints white first. This can cause the price of ink to increase rather significantly, especially for large imprints. To print a logo on a name badge, however, regardless of its color combinations, would only cost about 50 cents or less.
   One advantage of direct print is that you can cost-effectively change the copy for every item you make, like printing a different name on each badge, for example. Most of the spot color processes discussed earlier only shine for repetitive marking, such as applying a logo to many parts.

Figure 8: Sublimation provides full-color products for a relatively low cost. Photo courtesy of Conde.   Figure 9: Screen printing is an effective
way to add color to imprint R&I products like these badges.

   Sublimation: By definition, sublimation is the change of a solid substance directly to a vapor without first passing through the liquid state. In dye sublimation, heat–reactive dyes are printed onto a coated transfer paper. When these dyes are heated in contact with various surfaces, they vaporize and permeate the surface of the substrate before it returns to solid form. The result is full-color photographic images that won't fade or wear, straight from your printer.
   Sublimation is certainly a good way to produce very colorful products, including awards, name badges, name plates and signs. It does, however, require specific substrates that may not be suitable for your customer. Metal, FRP (Fiberglass Reinforced Plastic) and hardboard are the most common substrates used for this process. Each must be specially treated to accept the sublimation dyes. As long as these substrates will work for you, sublimation is an excellent and relatively inexpensive way to imprint full-color products.
   Sublimated products are usually not engraved, although some can be. A sublimated name badge (Fig. 8) is usually imprinted with all the information needed at one time, eliminating the need for engraving a name and title. Those who do choose to engrave a sublimated product usually work with the FRP product, which engraves white and can be paint filled very easily.
   The equipment needed to offer inkjet sublimation in-house includes a heat press ($600-$1,500), a specific model of an Epson printer ($79-$1,800), the appropriate sublimation inks ($400-$1,200), special transfer paper (15 cents per sheet) and a computer with graphics software. The cost to produce the average finished name badge using this method is typically less than a dollar.
   Badge Printers: There are a number of badge printers on the market and most, if not all, use some variation of sublimation, although no special inks, heat presses or paper is needed. The badge blank is inserted directly into the printer and the image is imprinted using a multicolor ribbon and a thermal print head.
   This method is commonly used to print items such as hospital ID badges and driver's licenses. Special blanks are required for this process but they are inexpensive and come in a wide variety of colors. The blanks are not intended to be engraved with this in-house process since badges are printed one at a time (automatic feeding systems are available). There are also no die or setup charges since the image comes from a computer-generated graphics file. The cost of these badge printers can vary considerably, with the least expensive machines starting around $1,000 and some of the most popular brands starting as high as $8,000.
   The number of colors that are possible to use with this process are virtually limitless and can include metallic gold and silver (although these must be imprinted separately using a special ribbon). Some of the more expensive printers can imprint color logos onto standard engraving plastic and even make tags and signs up to about 2" x 10".
   In my experience, badge printers typically do a nice job in creating colorful products, but they also require a very clean work environment to operate effectively. Dust, lint and the like can cause image problems and waste.
   Screen Printing: Screen printing, one of the oldest and most versatile of all printing processes, is a technique that creates a sharp image using a stencil. A screen is typically made of a piece of polyester (originally they were made of silk, hence the name "silk screening". Areas of the screen are blocked off with a nonpermeable material to form a stencil. The stencil is then placed on top of a substrate, leaving open spaces where the ink seeps through to create an image.
   Screen printing, is popular for printing images on T-shirts, hats and various other items. This process can also be used very effectively to imprint awards, tags, name badges and signs (Fig. 9). A separate stencil and printing impression is required for each color to be printed, so multicolored products can get complicated (and expensive) unless there are large quantities involved.
   Screen printing is a messy process which involves various odors, washing out of screens (requires a deep sink and high-pressure hose) and either a lot of space to lay products out to dry or a special radiant dryer to speed along the process. Unless you already happen to have the equipment needed for screen printing, this is a process probably better left to someone who does. Several plastics supply companies offer this service for products like name badges. The other option is to find a local screen printer that would be willing to wholesale your jobs to you as you need them.
   Laser Transfer: Laser transfer is the newest and least familiar method for adding color images to personalized products. It requires a color laser printer, special transfer paper and a heat press. I expect to see this method become very popular in the R&I industry since it doesn’t carry with it all the hassles of sublimation (such as color management) and it doesn't require special substrates (although some materials work far better than others).
   This heat transfer process allows you to create your own transfers for heat application on many items, including T-shirts, fleece wear, jackets, tote bags, mouse pads, mugs and more. It works on wood, glass, ceramic and metal as well various types of fabrics. While the resolution and color intensity, in my opinion, is not as good as sublimation or some of the other methods previously discussed, it is more than acceptable for most applications and surprisingly durable.
   Setting up an in-house system would mean purchasing a heat press (which costs $600 to $1,400) if you don't already have one. You would also need a good color laser printer (I like the Okidata 5500), which can cost around $600. The transfer paper required for this process is expensive, costing about one dollar per sheet for the 8.5" x 11" size. Unlike sublimation, this process uses ordinary color laser toner, but not all laser toners will work so be sure to check with your dealer before buying a printer. Instructional materials are still limited for this process, so if you’re just starting out you should expect some waste as you’re likely to experience some trial and error.
   Back in the old days when I was first learning lithography, I came to realize that a tiny splash of color was often enough to make an already nice job extraordinary. The temptation back then, when color was a fairly new concept, was to use too much color. Oftentimes, this practice just tended to take away from the quality of the finished product. "Just a touch" was a popular phrase at that time because the tendency was always to use more than was needed, which resulted in it being a distraction.
   While color has come a long way since then and is much more prevalent in today's personalized products, there are times when the concept of "just a touch" still holds true. Sure it’s nice to be able to print full-color pictures onto T-shirts and plaques, but there are also times when too much color can actually take away from the intended message.
   A name badge, for example, should accomplish two things: it should project the name of the company and it should provide the name of the individual wearing the badge. If the background, logo, shape or design of the badge demands more attention than the company’s name or the name of the person wearing the badge, then the badge has become ineffective.
   By the same token, the same old two-color plastic badge that was common for the last half century hardly does justice to the high-tech, super-modern or fancy image that most companies want to convey in today's world. The days of white letters on a black badge or vice versa may not be over completely, but that certainly isn't where the money is. The common phrase we hear today is "Color Sells", and it's true. When used well and for the right products, color does sell and it sells big. Does that mean you have to spend $20,000 to update your processes? Not necessarily. It might just mean that you should consider stretching your wings a little-just enough to add a splash of color to your work.
   If you work with companies that have color logos and you don't offer a color service, your days may be numbered. Businesses have long since found the value of color and they want their logos reproduced accurately and in color. The simple fact of the matter is that if you can’t do that for them, they will find someone else who can. Color is here to stay, but that is far from a negative thing for R&I retailers. If you're willing to embrace this fact and get with the program, you're likely to find all kinds of new ways to boost your bottom line in the