When it comes to high-end awards and signage, there are a few materials that really make the grade. Crystal awards, for example, can be exquisite pieces of art that embody elegance and exclusivity. The same holds true for awards and signage crafted from quality, piano finish wood such as mahogany or cherry. Another material used to create high-quality awards and signage is something called solid surface material. While this elegant material may be cost prohibitive for some customers like youth and recreational sports leagues, it is something that customers with larger budgets are definitely interested in and willing to pay for.
Unlike many other quality award and sign materials readily available from suppliers throughout the industry, obtaining and working with solid surface items in your shop requires a much different approach. Here's a look at what solid surface material is and how you can go about offering products made from this fashionable material.
What is Solid Surface Material?
Solid surface material was first introduced by DuPont under the brand name Corian over 30 years ago, and its popularity continues to grow. The most prevalent use of this material is in residential construction for applications such as kitchen counters and molded bathroom fixtures. It's also commonly used in commercial buildings; no doubt you've seen a number of hotel reception desks and restroom countertops crafted from this attractive material. In the Recognition and Identification Industry, solid surface material is used for indoor and outdoor signage, award plaques and other products such as pen sets, cutting boards and picture frames.
Solid surface material is a man-made substrate manufactured with a homogenous mixture of polyester and/or acrylic resins, mineral fillers and coloring agents that are hardened into sheets or molded into shapes. The material is very attractive, featuring a smooth, non-porous surface. Unlike stone or marble, this material has the color, grain or marbling running evenly throughout the entire piece. It is highly regarded for its durability by every industry that uses it. Solid surface material is stain-resistant, UV stable, anti-bacterial and waterproof, and any scratches or other damage can be repaired by simply buffing the material with a 3M Scotch-Brite pad and polishing (if it has a gloss finish) with an acrylic cleaner or polish.
Corian is the most well-known solid surface material on the market. In fact, solid surface materials are frequently generically referred to as "Corian." Since its introduction, however, many other companies have begun manufacturing this material under various brand names, some of which include Avonite (Avonite Inc.), Meganite (Meganite, Inc.), Gibraltar (Wilsonart International), Fountainhead (Formica Corporation), Nevamar (Nevamar) and Silestone (Cosentino USA). Manufacturers offer a huge range of colors, marbles and granites-just about any color or texture you can imagine. You can also choose from matte, satin, gloss or high-gloss finishes. Solid surface material is made in 30" wide by 98" to 144" long sheets and is available in 1/4", 1/2" and 3/4" thicknesses. Manufacturers also offer a 1/8" laminate sheet which is glued to a core material, such as particle board, to create the appearance of a solid piece of solid surface material at a more economical price.
There's a lot of information on the Internet about the different solid surface material brands and what's available. Eagle Fabrication Inc., for example, is a solid surface material fabricator whose website has links to the major manufacturers as well as other information. Check it out at www.eaglefabrication.com.
Unearthing Solid Surface Material
Unfortunately, finding solid surface material products is not quite as easy as calling up your awards or materials supplier and placing an order as is the case with other award and sign materials. You have three main options when it comes to obtaining this material: finding blanks, locating a fabricator who will make the blanks for you or fabricating the material yourself.
The relatively high cost of the material coupled with the labor costs involved in fabricating blanks means that very few suppliers offer a selection of pre-made blanks that you can simply order. Crooked Creek Creations, Indiana, PA, is one such source for solid surface products. Owner Bob Natase says he began offering Corian blanks, some of which he sells through his business and some of which he sells through Innotec of Wisconsin, Racine, WI, after recognizing a void in the industry.
PDM Products, Daytona Beach, FL, is another place you can find solid surface material. The company has been in business for over 40 years and offers a wide variety of award products made from solid surface material. They have CNC equipment for fabricating nearly any type of blank desired in addition to five lasers for customizing products.
There are others suppliers scattered around the country and your best bet to finding them may be in searching the Internet. Another source to try is Sawmill Creek, an Internet-based woodworkers forum (www.sawmillcreek.org), which provides some useful information on fabricating and sources for fabricating, as well as tips for personalization. Keith Outten of North Wind Associates, Hayes, VA, has posted information on all of these subjects as well as a list of blanks he has in his inventory available for sale.
Another option is to find a company that specializes in fabricating solid surface material. Crooked Creek Creations, for example, fabricates blanks on a custom basis. You might also have some luck tracking down a local fabricator. Some retailers have had success with local countertop installers making blanks to their specifications.
If you have the tools and know-how, the third option is to fabricate sign and award blanks yourself. Joe Nagel, owner of Nagel's Innovations, Chaska, MN, is a job shop/retailer who fabricates his own solid surface blanks. Nagel points out that purchasing solid surface sheet material can sometimes be a challenge, however, since many of the manufacturers require you to go through a specific training regimen before they will sell you the material.
Nagel says he was able to work out an agreement with a local lumber distributor in Minneapolis. "I basically approached them and explained that I wasn't going to install countertops or put it to any kind of structural use," he said. "I told them I would be using it to make signs, Corian pet urns, things like that." He says they finally agreed to sell him the material, but only with the stipulation that there would be no warranty with the product.
According to Nagel, some manufacturers, such as DuPont, are beginning to loosen their purchasing policies for these types of applications. "If people go through the effort to contact them and let them know what they’re using it for," says Nagel, "I think they’re beginning to loosen up a little bit on who they will sell it to."
However, this material is not inexpensive. Nagel said he purchases 30" x 12' pieces of Meganite that can cost anywhere from $390 to $600 each. Rather than purchasing entire sheets of solid surface material, some retailers have had luck finding scraps of the material. Nagel says he has "scrounged" some scrap pieces of the material off the Internet, e.g. on eBay, while others have found local countertop installers who will sell or even give away sink cutouts and other scrap pieces. Natase says he will often purchase scraps from local sources for certain jobs, e.g. for a customer who wants one blue Corian plaque. This is much more economical than purchasing an entire sheet of blue Corian for one item.
As you can see, finding a source for solid surface material and/or blanks at a reasonable cost is not that difficult if you do your homework. Spending a little time researching the Internet and your local area for suppliers and/or fabricators could prove to be very worthwhile since, as mentioned, this premium material tends to attract high-end clients with big budgets.
Fabricating Solid Surface Material
Another appealing quality of solid surface material is that, once in hand, it's fairly easy to fabricate provided you have the appropriate equipment and knowledge. As far as cutting, edge forming and routing are concerned, typical woodworking tools will do the job. Sheets of this material can be cut into any shape desired, e.g. a standard rectangular plaque or one in the shape of a company logo. After cutting, the material can also be easily sanded and polished in multiple stages to the desired sheen.
Natase said he uses a CNC router and traditional woodworking machinery, including a table saw and sander, to fabricate solid surface material. He notes that lasers are not typically used for cutting this material since it is so hard. Natase said he uses a table saw to cut out square pieces of the material, then he sands it, routs or bevels the edges and finally polishes the material. Depending on what he’s making, he said he uses anywhere from four to eight different tools to get to the end product.
Solid surface material can also be heat formed by heating it in an oven and molding it into shape. In addition, it can be glued using a standard adhesive such as regular slow-set epoxy. Using an epoxy that matches the color of the material, you can create a virtually seamless bond to produce a variety of different products. For example, you can create freestanding awards by adhering two or more pieces of solid surface material together to add thickness (using different colors can create a dramatic effect) and then adding a matching base. Or you can combine solid surface material with other materials, e.g. acrylic, to create striking awards and signs. Beautiful sign and award designs can also be made by inlaying a different color of solid surface material or a different material altogether. This can easily be accomplished by routing out a design in one piece, then cutting out the same shape in another color or material and inlaying it into the routed out area, creating a seamless piece of art.
For more information about fabricating solid surface material, check out the Solid Surface Material Fabrication, Processing and Maintenance Manual, which can be found online at www.mineralwerkstoff.org/en/pdfs/TECH_MB_4.pdf. This is a comprehensive and user-friendly manual that covers transport and storage, fabrication techniques including sawing, routing, drilling, screwing, sanding and polishing, glues and adhesives, thermoforming and repair techniques. Another source to try for information is www.surfacefabrication.com.
Personalizing Solid Surface Material
Adding text and graphics to solid surface material is very easy and really no different than personalizing other types of materials. You can use most, if not all, of the equipment you already have in your shop.
Laser engraving is one option for personalizing solid surface material. "If I'm just looking for a frosted look on a dark piece, I will laser engrave it," says Nagel. Deeper cuts, however, will require higher powered lasers, routers or rotary engraving machines.
Natase says for him, laser engraving is the only way to go, noting the material engraves very much like acrylic. "It can be rotary engraved, but I absolutely prefer to laser engrave it. Solid surface material is to the laser what marble and granite are to sandblasting," he says. The only difference is that nature only gives you so many colors of granite and marble, while he says there are probably at least 50 different colors of Corian available.
One of Crooked Creek Creations' specialty products is engraved photographs on solid surface material, which Natase creates using his laser and a photo engraving program like PhotoGrav. "It's the most wonderful substrate I've found for engraving photographs," he raves. "You can achieve a very close rendering to a black-and-white photo using a light cream or bone-colored piece of Corian and a black color fill."
For a little different effect, Natase says he will sometimes engrave a 'negative' photo on black Corian, although he notes that scraps of black Corian are more difficult to come by than other colors. Unless you buy it by the sheet, which is much more expensive, he says it's very hard to find.
Rotary engraving is another simple and effective way to customize solid surface material because you can use the same cutters and techniques as you do with plastic. Sandblasting is another viable option for personalizing solid surface material. It allows you to create either a lightly etched or deeply carved look.
As noted earlier, solid surface material is a great substrate for creating high-end custom awards and corporate gifts. Award plaques, donor plaques, donor walls and perpetual plaques can look striking when constructed from this material, says Natase, who recently created a 5' x 7' recognition wall out of this material for a Catholic school. The wall features an engraved photograph of the school and 150 spaces for donor names. Because the school wants to change the donor names each year, Natase designed the wall with removable engraved plates.
Solid surface material also makes attractive desk accessories such as nameplates, pencil cups, letter openers and paperweights. "The nice thing about this material is that you can make a custom award that looks like granite," Nagel says.
And, of course, it always provides the opportunity to let your creative juices flow. "I’m getting into a few other things," Nagel says. "I'm making some cribbage boards to fill my machine time and I'm getting into making Corian pet urns. People love to spend money on their animals."
Natase adds that Corian Christmas tree ornaments engraved with photographs are especially popular right now, which he says he fabricates in various shapes, including a dog bone. "Some of the lighter colors of solid surface material are semi-translucent, so when someone hangs an ornament on a tree with lights behind it, it really makes the ornament stand out," he says. Natase said one of his customers purchased a quantity of Christmas ornaments engraved with a recently deceased family member’s photo to give to each member in his family.
With so many potential ways to use solid surface material in the awards, gift and recognition markets, it should certainly warrant a second look from engraving shop owners. Once you find a material supplier, the rest is a snap. High-end signage and awards can be created to lure potentially lucrative corporate business. Desk accessories and gift items will appeal to yet another proven market. If you haven't already done so, take some time to explore the world of solid surface material-you (and your bottom line) just might be glad that you did.
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