Crystal, Glass & Sandcarving

Copyright © 2009 by Davis Multimedia, Int'l. All Rights Reserved.
As Printed in November 2009, Volume 35, No. 5 of The Engravers Journal
 
Custom award that is sandblasted. Photo courtesy of Rayzist, Vista CA.
 

    Is selling glass and crystal awards and gifts a business direction that is completely out of your league? Many award dealers, particularly those who are new to the industry, have dismissed the possibility for a number of reasons. Isn’t crystal expensive? How do I handle it? Who buys it? How do I market it? And, of course, the big concern: I don’t know anything about engraving or etching glass!
    In actuality, this could be a very worthwhile avenue for your business. A previous article on this topic (Nov. 08) explored the basics of glass and crystal products along with the many reasons and advantages related to selling this merchandise. A primary advantage is the fact that glass has an extremely high perceived value and equally high profit potential. As Diana Shih, Vice President of Marketing for Topmost World, Inc., Montclair, CA, explains, “These products are treasured more by the end users and are chosen more often for long lasting value. Crystal and glass products are considered high-end products for recognition, are more expensive and have a higher-perceived value than other types of award and gift products. Therefore, they give retailers a higher profit margin in return.”
    Understandably, learning to personalize glass and crystal can intimidate even some of the veteran engravers in the industry. True, it could be an expensive mistake if you do mess up, but that can be said for many different products and marking methods, and most experts agree that the profit potential far outweighs the risks of a botched job. “The profit potential can be great because, on average, glass awards have a higher selling price than plaques or acrylic,” says Larry Maloney, Vice President of Marketing and Sales for R.S. Owens & Co., Inc., Chicago, IL.
    The last article EJ published on this topic reviewed the three primary marking methods for engraving glass and crystal: mechanical engraving, laser engraving and sandblasting. Each technique has its own advantages and disadvantages, but most experts in this area say sandblasting, more commonly referred to in this industry as sandcarving, is the method that’s the most versatile and that produces the most appealing results. In this second article of the series we will look at sandcarving and what’s involved in learning and adding this marking method to your business.
What is Sandcarving?
    As mentioned, sandcarving is a method used to decorate or personalize a wide variety of products and substrates. Glass and crystal are often the first products that come to mind, but the process is also excellent for many other materials such as marble, onyx and even wood.
    The process involves using compressed air to direct a moving stream of abrasive particles (usually aluminum oxide) through a nozzle. When the abrasive particles make contact with the glass, they roughen or erode the surface, resulting in a frosted look. When this process is used in conjunction with a mask or stencil it is possible to create etched or carved logos, photos and even intricate designs onto a wide variety of products.
    Versatility and superior end results are the primary reasons for choosing this marking method when it comes to personalizing glass products as well as other types of substrates. And like laser engraved products, sandcarved products, especially glass and crystal products, are increasing in popularity each year. As a result, the industries and markets utilizing sandcarved products continue to grow as well.
    “The biggest advantage to sandcarving is the versatility it gives you,” says Lori Mitchell, President of Glastar Corporatation, Chatsworth, CA. “It also provides depth in the cut that no other media can. For a relatively small amount of money, skill and time, you can produce stunning personalized awards.”
With sandcarving, you can achieve just about any look you want on any type of glass or crystal, whether it’s lightly frosted images on jade glass or deeply etched designs on optical crystal. You can also create three-dimensional effects by carving in stages, with each stage becoming progressively deeper. With an appropriate stencil, you can even reproduce a realistic halftone image, such as the face of a person or pet, into glass.

  Glass award sandblasted and paint filled. Photo courtesy of Topmost World, Montclair, CA.  
    “The main advantage to sandcarving glass and crystal is that the finished piece has very smooth and crisp lines,” says Craig Kubasta, Sales Manager for IKONICS Imaging, Duluth, MN. “Sandcarving allows one to cut or carve an image into the glass without distorting it. It will give you the best look because it doesn’t fracture the glass like other engraving methods, which can result in chips or cracks on the edges of etched lines.”
    As mentioned, sandcarving is a very versatile process. It works well on all types of glass, but by no means are you restricted to personalizing only glass with your equipment. “The great thing about sandcarving is that it’s not limited to only certain types of substrates,” says Kubasta. “If a photo resist stencil can be applied to the material, it can be sandcarved. Sandcarving allows dealers to expand their current product offering and pursue various markets such as signage, personalized gifts, awards, recognition products, promotional products and much more, all with one machine.”
    “You can sandcarve virtually any hard surface, including optic crystal, metal, granite, tile and stone to name a few,” adds Liz Haas, Sales Consultant for Rayzist Photomask, Vista, CA. “The possiblities are endless with sandcarving.”
And that’s exactly why this marking method offers such great profit potential to award dealers. “A sandcarved award has a higher-perceived value that can’t be matched by other etching methods,” says Haas. “The initial start-up costs involved in adding sandcarving to your business is minimal compared to other engraving systems, and most of our customers pay for their equipment with the first few jobs. There really are no disadvantages to sandcarved glass. Sandcarving is the premium method for marking on glass and crystal.”
    Kubasta agrees, adding that most of IKONICS’ customers also report that they see a return on their investment within the first few months of purchasing their systems.
Sandblasting Equipment
    If you plan to add sandcarving capabilities in your shop, you’re going to need the appropriate equipment to get started. A typical sandcarving setup includes an air compressor, a reservoir for the abrasive, a cabinet and a dust collector.
    You can purchase equipment designed specifically for sandcarving from several suppliers in the industry. In recent years, manufacturers have made significant improvements to their equipment in an effort to make sandcarving in your shop easier, less disruptive and more economical than ever before. Most systems today have all the major components built in, including a dust collector and abrasive recycling system, so you can basically plug it in and get started.
    Before you do that, however, you first have to choose the equipment that best suits your needs. Sandcarving systems range from small portable systems to medium-sized blasters to large, custom-made setups.
    According to Kubasta, IKONICS Imaging has refined its equipment to be cleaner, quieter and more efficient than ever. “The CrystalBlast series of cabinets utilize powerful dust collectors to contain blasting abrasive, which makes it safe to be in the same room as other equipment,” he says. “The system’s abrasive reclaiming feature ensures that the good abrasive is recycled and the dust is collected for disposal. Also, CrystalBlast’s ergonomic design, tool-less operation and many other features make it the easiest machine to operate.”
    IKONICS Imaging offers a variety of sandblast engraving equipment to fit various needs, including the CrystalBlast Mobile Compact, CrystalBlast 3024DP, CyrstalBlast 3624 and CrystalBlast Navigator. The CrystalBlast Mobile Compact is a unique direct-pressure cabinet that features a rolling “work cart” designed for mobility. “The smaller cabinet size, work bench and push-pull transport handles make it an ideal machine for transporting to conventions and craft fairs,” says Kubasta.
    The company’s CrystalBlast 3024DP is a sandblasting cabinet designed for stand-up operation with easy-to-use controls. According to Kubasta, the CrystalBlast 3624 is the company’s most popular machine due to the multiple options available, including a 550 cfm dust collector, abrasive separator reclaimer, sit-down ergonomic operation, push-button reverse pulse dust collector cleaning and gloveless operation.
    Rounding out the CrystalBlast line is the CrystalBlast Navigator designed to allow large parts to pass through the cabinet for engraving. “The Navigator is a great machine for sandcarving large pieces of glass, shower doors, entry doors or any other architectural application while still having the ability to engrave smaller items,” says Kubasta.
    In addition to these sandblasting cabinets, IKONICS Imaging also offers portable sandblast equipment, including the Remote Site Blaster and the PT-100 portable pressure pot. Larger custom cabinet options are also available on most of the company’s CrystalBlast machines.
    Rayzist Photomask has also improved its sandcarving systems by adding the new Vortex AirWash Media Reclaim system designed to increase the efficiency and recyclability of the blasting abrasive. “Our systems are totally self-contained and equipped with all of the upgrades and features such as halogen lighting, dual doors and a large viewing glass window to name a few,” says Haas. “Rayzist production systems also have HEPA filtration (noncartridge filters) so they won’t get clogged with dust, as well as built-in, maintenance-free disposable liners so the operator never comes in direct contact with the dust.”
    Rayzist offers a variety of equipment to the hobbyist, to the production user and to the glass artist. The company’s 1924 model has an inside work area of 19"D x 24"W x 24"H while the 2034 is slightly larger with a 20"D x 34"W x 24"H work area. The newest system in Rayzist’s line is the 2468 VX Super Grit Pit which was designed with the help of Butch Young, a noted expert in sandcarving. The Super Grit Pit features an extra large viewing window, a sophisticated lighting system and a full front door that opens to allow larger items to be easily inserted and removed from the cabinet.
    Glastar Corporation offers traditional sandblasting machines and supplies, including various abrasives, pressure pots and cabinets. The Model 2533 is an economical sandblasting cabinet designed for trophies and other small items that will accept objects up to 25" x 33". The Model 3045 is a larger unit designed for carving large, three-dimensional items, but it will also handle flat items up to 30" x 45".

A remote site blaster from Ikonics. Rolls of SR 3000 resist from Rayzist. The optical crystal Maltese cross from Crystal by Design, El Monte, CA.
    One of Glastar’s newer machines is a sit-down cabinet designed to accommodate most standard wheelchairs or operators who don’t relish the thought of standing at a cabinet all day. The company also offers the GlassPasser and the MiniPasser. These blasters feature slots so that items larger than the cabinet can be passed through during sandcarving.
Selecting the Right System
    Selecting a sandblasting machine appropriate for your business takes some consideration. Namely, you should choose a system that will accommodate the type of work you will be doing, both now and in the future. Most professionals suggest starting out with a mid-size machine that is capable of fulfilling a variety of different jobs.
    “Due to the varying sizes and shapes of parts that can be sandcarved, in most cases it is best to start with a standard-size blast cabinet,” says IKONICS’ Kubasta. “This will provide users the ability to sandcarve more products because there is less size restriction. We do offer smaller desktop cabinets, but most of our customers start with the standard machines to avoid moving into a business without the proper tools.” The CrystalBlast systems start at $3,265 and Kubasta says IKONICS representatives can help shop owners determine the right machine for their particular application.
    Rayzist’s sandcarving systems start at $2,850 for the 1924 Sandcarving System and run up to $7,295 for the Super Grit Pit. Haas says choosing the right system all depends on the customer’s goals and budget. “Most of our customers start with the mid-size system which is the 2034VX model,” she says. “They prefer this model because of the dual doors, Vortex Reclaim system and simply because it’s larger. It’s only about $1,000 more than our smallest model yet the cabinet can hold large or small items so you’re not as limited to size.”
    Glastar’s full-function sandblasting packages start around $2,200. “When you’re choosing a cabinet, you should take into account the work that you’re currently doing as well as the work you expect to be doing in the next two to three years,” advises Mitchell.
    In addition to a sandblasting system, you will need a source of compressed air. For example, IKONICS Imaging systems are designed to operate with minimum compressed air requirements of 5.7 cfm (cubic feet per minute) at 90 psi. If you don’t already have a compressor, you can typically purchase one locally (e.g. Home Depot, Sears) starting at about $450.
Stencils or Resists
    In addition to the actual sandblasting equipment, the other crucial component to sandcarving is the “mask” or “resist.” This is essentially a stencil containing cutout areas of the design to be etched. This mask must be adhered to the item prior to sandblasting. The most common types of stencils used in the R&I industry are vinyl and photo resists.
    Vinyl is a popular masking choice for deep carving because it is a thick, durable material. It also conforms easily to contoured or unusual shapes and can be cut by hand or with a plotter. Venture Tape Corp., Rockland, MA, is one manufacturer of PVC resist materials designed for sandblasting. These materials are available in sheets and rolls in a variety of thicknesses, ranging from 4 mils to 15 mils, allowing you to choose a film thin enough to hold the degree of detail required by your design, and thick enough to stand up to the degree of blasting you plan. For stencils that will be cut by hand, Venture Resist Films accept pen, pencil or carbon designs. According to the company, these films are capable of holding very fine detail, remove cleanly without residue and are creep-resistant.
    Photo resists are the most popular type of sandblasting stencil. Photo resists are the dominant stenciling method for traditional sandcarving for several reasons. Not only are they durable and conform easily to odd shapes, but they also provide incredible detail, including fine lines and quality halftone photographs.
    “Photo resists are the best choice for sandcarving glass and crystal,” says Kubasta. “They provide the ability to sandcarve highly-detailed images very quickly and easily, and they allow you to achieve the depth of a vinyl resist with our thicker masks.” Because the resist is so strong, Kubasta said it can stand up to abrasive blasting for depth with a fraction of the thickness of standard machine-cut vinyl resist material.
    Haas agrees there are many benefits with photo resists. “First, you’re able to obtain incredible detail quickly. Second, photo resists allow a sandcarver to surface etch or carve glass. Third, it’s easy to apply and clean up. And last but not least, you have options such as multistage carving or color filling the etched piece.”

 

This sports award was created with sandblasting. Photo courtesy of Rayzist.

 

    You can order stock or custom stencils or you can make your own. The process for making photo resists is a photographic one which usually involves placing a film positive on top of a piece of nonexposed photo resist material, exposing it to UV light and then using water to “develop” the image. In this context, development means washing away the unexposed image area, which will allow the sand particles to etch away the image once the photostencil has been adhered to the material surface.
    The main piece of equipment required for creating photo resist stencils (besides a computer, printer and artwork capabilities to create the image) is an exposure lamp. This provides ultraviolet light that transfers your image onto the photo resist material, thanks to using a film positive to block the light in image areas.
    IKONICS Imaging offers two exposure lamps, including the Letralite ($285) and the 26-1KS ($2,625). The Letralite is an economically priced unit that features an 11" x 14" exposure area while the 26-1KS is designed for larger stencil capabilities and for higher-production facilities.
    Rayzist Photomask sells a Complete Mask Making Kit for producing your own photo resists that sells for $435. According to Haas, this kit includes everything you need to get started except the computer and printer.
    A second option is to job out the production of photo stencils to a supplier. Doing this, of course, requires extra time and added costs, but it still might be a viable option for certain shops or for particular jobs.
So how do you decide if you should make your own stencils or order premade photo resists from suppliers? Haas, Kubasta and Mitchell all say that when it comes to most day-to-day jobs, they recommend creating your own stencils. Not only is this more economical, particularly for small jobs, but the turnaround time is much faster. “The process is very easy and allows the award dealer complete control over the engraving process,” says Kubasta.
    However, made-to-order stencils might be a better option in certain situations, such as when you need a large quantity of stencils or a job requires larger stencils than your equipment can handle. You might also consider premade stencils when you need photo resists with photographs since these are typically more difficult to produce, especially for beginners.
Laser-Assisted Sandcarving
    Laser-assisted sandcarving is another option when it comes to creating stencils for sandcarving. This option is particularly appealing to award dealers who already own a CO2 laser engraving machine. As the name implies, this process is a combination of laser engraving and sandcarving. The technique usually involves applying a masking material to the glass item you want to etch, using the laser to cut through the material to create a stencil and then using your sandblasting machine to etch the image.
    The advantages to this process, at least for laser owners, include the ability to create intricate, detailed resists for sandcarving, including halftone images, quickly, easily and economically. Laser-cut stencils are very well suited for individualized one-off custom pieces or small production runs. Additional advantages include the elimination of the need for photo resist making equipment and supplies.
    Laserable sandblast materials designed for this process are available from manufacturers, including Rayzist (LaserMask), IKONICS (Laser Tape), Venture Tape Corp., Rockland, MA, and Specialty Tapes, Franksville, WI. These materials are thin and pliable and are specially formulated to burn quickly and cleanly so that harmful fumes are not an issue.



 

A glass mug being sandblasted. Photo courtesy of Ikonics.

  Etched crystal bowl from Glastar, Chatsworth, CA.

The Learning Curve
    Many people are intimidated by the idea of sandcarving glass and crystal products, partly because they aren’t accustomed to dealing with the delicate nature of glass and crystal and partly because they think sandcarving requires a higher level of skills and knowledge than mechanical or laser engraving. Setting up a sandcarving operation in your business doesn’t have to be complicated, however.
    Just like any new endeavor, sandcarving does require some time to do your homework and learn some new skills, such as how to make photo resists and how to actually sandblast the products. But thanks to the newer, self-contained sandcarving systems available today, operating sandcarving equipment and producing professional results is fairly simple and straightforward.
    Creating your own photo resists can also be learned fairly easily, although as Haas points out, some dealers may encounter a slight learning curve when it comes to producing artwork for the resists. “Creating high-quality photo resists start with quality artwork,” says Haas, “so getting a good education in the graphics program you’ll be using will help speed up the learning curve.” Once the artwork is ready then producing a photo resist is easy if you have all the right tools, she notes, adding that after a few trial runs, just about anyone can be producing quality stencils.
    Manufacturers and suppliers in the industry can help in this area as well. Many of them offer some valuable resources to help reduce the learning curve as much as possible. IKONICS Imaging, for example, regularly offers training classes at its Duluth, MN, and Markham, Ontario, Canada, locations. Rayzist Photomask sponsors hands-on workshops for beginners and intermediate sandcarvers, while Glastar also provides a variety of classes in sandcarving techniques depending on your needs.
    Professional Glass Consultants, an instructional business run by Ruth Dobbins in Sante Fe, NM, is another source for learning sandcarving techniques. Classes are offered there throughout the year where experienced instructors can pass on their knowledge of sandcarving through hands-on demonstrations. For more information on these classes you can visit www.etchmaster.com.
    Sandcarving expert Butch Young also hosts hands-on carving workshops in conjunction with Rayzist Photomask, specializing in a variety of sandcarving techniques. Young has been a glass artist and an instructor in sandblasting skills for more than 17 years. Based in Atascadero, CA, she has taught seminars, given private instruction, and has taught on the Internet in addition to producing several video classes and authoring a beginning sandblasting manual, True Grit: Unraveling the Mysteries of Sandblasting. Visit www.thesandwitch.com or www.rayzist.com for more information and workshop schedules.
    If you prefer not to attend a class, manufacturers also offer technical support to help you along. For example, Glastar has a variety of multimedia reference materials, including videos, books, CDs and free information pages on its website. IKONICS Imaging offers free photo resist film videos that provide step-by-step instructions for working with different materials.
    “Our representatives travel the country frequently and especially enjoy meeting and training new customers when possible,” adds IKONICS’ Kubasta. “In most cases, you can purchase a system and get started without encountering major learning setbacks. The equipment is easy to use and, if necessary, we can even help people get started right over the phone. We won’t sell you a system and let you suffer through training on your own.”
    As with most marking methods, experience can be the key to becoming a professional. “Typically, the best way to learn is by hands-on experience,” advises Kubasta. “The more you work with the equipment and photo resist films, the more likely you are to learn their capabilities and develop your own technique.”



 

The Accolade Plate from Crystal Blanc, Erlanger, KY.  

Finding a Supplier
    Finding a supplier that you can work with, and who will work with you, is key to your success in sandblasting. Kubasta suggests looking for a company that’s willing to take the time to answer your questions.
    “Since sandcarving is a very versatile process that can be used for various applications, it’s important for award dealers and engravers to understand the many capabilities of sandblast engraving,” he says. “Dealers should also look for a company that can explain the differences between competing pieces of equipment and help find the machine that best fits their needs.
    “You should always consider the consumable you’re going to be using when you order your system,” adds Kubasta. “The easiest film to use is the best to start with. In our case, RapidMask photo resist film is the easiest because it eliminates washout during development and drying.”
    Haas advises potential buyers to do their research. For example, find out how long the company has been in business and what types of warranty and technical support they offer. She also suggests using a supplier that is able to provide unlimited support. “We have our own artwork department located at our facility,” says Haas. “We have professional graphic artists and a photo expert on staff who are very knowledgeable and can offer support to customers so they can produce quality artwork, which is the foundation for producing quality photo resists.”
Marketing Sandblasted Products
    Nothing is a sure thing, and just like any part of a business, you will have to work at sandcarving in order to be successful. Sandblasting success doesn’t involve simply ordering a system and then kicking back and watching the money pour in. It takes work, but the effort is well worth the potential profits you stand to gain. “The key is to get out and find the business,” says Kubasta, adding that sandcarving allows you to offer many products to many markets.
    As mentioned earlier, sandcarved glass and crystal products are continuing to grow in popularity as are the industries utilizing these products. From ad specialties, trophies and awards to gifts, signage and architectural glass, these markets are ripe for the picking and there’s no better time than the present to start offering the kinds of products they want and need.
    Your profit potential will vary depending on whether you plan to sandblast low: mid- or high-end glass and crystal products, or a combination of each. Low-end items could include various ad specialty or gift items such as glass ornaments, barware/drinkware, decorative plaques or picture frames. According to Rayzist Photomask, award dealers could see a $5.60-$9 profit by producing a single low-end item such as a glass stein if you consider that the product and labor costs between $5.60-$9 and retails for $16-$18. For high-end corporate awards, gift items and anything that involves multistage carving your profit potential could go anywhere from $18.50 up to hundreds of dollars.
If you are a retailer who has a successful glass/crystal engraving business and would like to contribute to future articles on this topic, please contact Jackie Zack at jzack@engraversjournal.com.


 

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