Profitable Rotary Engraving Application

Copyright © 2010 by Davis Multimedia, Int'l. All Rights Reserved.
As Printed in April 2010, Volume 35, No. 10 of The Engravers Journal
Figure 1: Subsurface signs have a clean and contemporary look. Photo courtesy of Gravograph.   Figure 2: Multicolored signs are easy to create through subsurface engraving. Photo courtesy of Rowmark LLC, Findlay, OH.

   Lately, it seems that what we hear about the most in the R&I industry is laser engraving. There is a constant influx of information about laser engraving—new laserable materials, new applications being developed ranging from engraving photos on stone tiles to lasering gourds (yes, gourds!) and even new types of laser engraving machines entering the market. But if you ask any veteran engraver, chances are that along with that laser that’s busy engraving wooden plaques and marking messages and logos on acrylic awards, there is a rotary engraving machine humming along right with it.
   There’s no question that laser engraving has many advantages. It’s a non-contact marking method, so there’s no wear and tear on tools. It creates a crisp, clean, permanent mark in many materials and it’s extremely fast for most applications. Laser engraving is an excellent method for engraving graphics and photographs, today’s equipment is exceedingly easy to operate and maintain, and it can be used to engrave a huge variety of materials and products.
   But veteran engravers will tell you that rotary engraving also has many advantages. Unlike laser engraving, this method can be used to engrave on virtually any kind of bare metal and it is capable of making deep and highly precise cuts into many materials, from plastic to brass and stainless steel. Rotary or diamond drag engraving creates a beautiful “engraved” look and feel and you can use it for many specialized applications, from engraving on the backs of watches to creating ADA signage. In addition, rotary engraving equipment is typically less expensive than laser machines.
   While some engravers offer both varieties and may favor one engraving technique over the other or offer only one kind, the truth of the matter is that most shops offer both varieties and both methods have their place in the recognition and identification industry. By offering both methods, these business owners cover all the bases and select the method that’s best and most profitable for the job at hand.
   While laser technology often seems to take precedence, there are some applications that really require rotary engraving, and there are some applications where rotary engraving may be the better choice. In light of that, this article will highlight a few of those rotary engraving applications that could be a profitable way to get that computerized engraving machine working hard in your shop.
Subsurface Signage
   The trend today in architectural signage is decidedly “designer,” a look that is “a cut above” the traditional and the ordinary. There are different sign-making methods used within the industry for achieving this designer look but one that produces a truly unique look is engraved subsurface signage.
   Subsurface signs are signs with lettering and graphics below the material surface—the sign’s surface is completely smooth. The appearance of subsurface engraved signage is very attractive—it is both clean and contemporary—and it looks quite different from surface engraved signage (Fig. 1). With surface engraving, you can see and feel the engraved grooves, whereas subsurface signage has the engraved image recessed below the material surface.
   Multicolored signs are easy to create through subsurface engraving (Fig. 2). There are hundreds and hundreds of paint colors available and you can also have colors mixed to your customer’s specifications, e.g. to match the colors in a business logo or a company’s decorating scheme.
   In addition to an attractive appearance, subsurface signage is very durable and vandal resistant. Because the engraved grooves are protected, the engraved areas cannot be damaged and if the engraved areas are paint filled, they are better protected against peeling and cracking. Subsurface signage is also popular for outdoor applications, such as golf courses and zoos, because weather elements cannot easily reach the painted letters and graphics.

  Figure 3: Rowmark’s Ultra-Mattes Reverse Engravable material is designed specifically for subsurface signage.  

   Rotary engraved subsurface signage is usually created by reverse engraving either a clear acrylic blank or a two-ply plastic engraving stock containing a colored back layer and a transparent front surface. Letters and graphics are reverse engraved on the back side of the material and can be paint filled to add more color to the sign design. Other marking methods can be used to created subsurface sign-
age, including screen printing, vinyl lettering and, yes, laser engraving, but rotary engraving has a few advantages and can also provide a different “look.” What’s even better is the process is a simple one. Here are some tips to get you started.
   The Materials—Engraving material suppliers offer plastic engraving stock specifically designed for reverse engraving. This two-ply material is typically made of acrylic and consists of a thick clear surface (as viewed from the front) and a thin colored layer on the back. When the colored layer is reverse engraved, the letters and graphics show through the clear base material.
   Suppliers offer subsurface engraving stock in a variety of colors as well as matte and glossy finishes. Rowmark LLC, Findlay, OH, for instance, offers reverse engravable plastic lines for rotary engraving including Slickers (with a glossy finish) and Ultra-Mattes Reverse-Engravables (Fig. 3). Gravograph, Duluth, GA, offers Gravoglas 1, a reverse engravable material suitable for both interior and exterior signage applications. As another option, you can use clear acrylic blanks for subsurface signage to create unique and colorful design effects.
   Job Setup—When engraving a subsurface sign, you place the sign blank on the engraving table so that the back side of the material is the surface to be engraved. In order for the sign message to be right-reading from the front of the sign, you need to “reverse” or “mirror” the layout. With computerized engraving software (and even CorelDRAW), this is as easy as a click of the mouse—you simply select the option in your software to reverse (mirror) the image. In most engraving software, you will be able to view the reversed image on the computer screen before you engrave it.
   One of the advantages of rotary engraved subsurface signage is that this process allows you to achieve two different “looks.” One option is to create a “flat” look where the engraving appears flush with the material backing; this technique more closely resembles screen printing and laser engraving. The other option is to create a “dimensional” look where the engraved characters and designs are dimensional and appear to be raised. This gives the lettering and graphics a 3D look with substantial relief depth. Using a tapered cutter accentuates the 3D look.
   Choosing a typestyle will depend, in part, on the look you are trying to achieve. If you are creating a sign with the flat look, consider choosing a multi-line engraving font that has square corner strokes, such as Helvetica, to provide a more contemporary sign design. If you want to create a sign where the engraved areas appear raised, a single-line style such as Gothic or Regular Block is usually a better choice because these fonts tend to accentuate the raised appearance of the characters.
   Cutter Selection—If you are engraving one of the acrylic-based sign materials, select a carbide cutter designed for engraving acrylic. To achieve flat-look characters, select a cutter with a small included angle, such as a standard 60 degree cutter.
   For a sign with the raised look, a cutter with a larger included angle (80-90 degree) is often a better choice because it will create a more pronounced V-shaped groove that will give the characters more dimension. You might also want to try using a ball-nose cutter, particularly when engraving single-line fonts and vectored graphics. A ball-nose cutter can create characters that have an almost 3D appearance that can be very striking on a sign.
   In order to achieve a good clean cut, make sure the rotary cutter you choose is sharp and in good condition. Not only will this provide an overall clean look to the sign, but smooth, burr-free characters are much easier to paint fill.
   Engraving Depth—As with front engraving, an appropriate engraving depth for reverse engraving will depend on the type font, character height and cutter angles you are using. In the case of subsurface signage, it also depends on the look you are trying to achieve.
   For the flat, non-dimensional appearance you typically want to engrave just deep enough to penetrate the cap layer. A shallow depth will help make the characters look flush with the sign’s back surface.

  Figure 4: With a ring engraving attachment, you can easily engrave on the inside or the outside of rings. Photo courtesy of Gravograph.  
To achieve the subsurface raised-letter look, you will want to engrave quite a bit deeper. Generally speaking, you want to achieve a relatively wide groove at the mouth of the engraved groove on the material’s back surface. If you are using a rotary cutter with a 90 degree included angle, you can calculate the groove width at the top using this simple formula: 2 x cutting depth + tip size = groove width.
   Engraving Technique—There are a few tips to keep in mind to achieve the best results. First, it is a good idea to leave the protective masking on the front (clear side) of the engraving material while engraving and paint filling. This will protect the front of the sign from scratches, nicks and any stray paint. If you are engraving a clear acrylic sheet, leave the masking on the back side of the sign blank as well to protect the material from potential scratches and rub marks from the depth regulator nose. Otherwise, if you are engraving material with a colored cap, you can remove the masking material from the colored side of the material.
   Swirl and dwell marks in the bottoms of engraved grooves and visible cutter strokes are potential problems to watch out for when engraving this type of material. Swirl marks are caused by the spinning action of the cutter whereas dwell marks can appear at the points where the cutter enters and leaves the material. To minimize these problems, use a high spindle speed, a slow feed rate (engraving speed) and a short dwell time.
   Sometimes when engraving acrylic you may see engraved areas that appear slightly hazy through the clear portion of the sign blank. To make sure the engraved areas appear vibrant after paint filling, some engravers will coat the engraved areas with a clear acrylic spray before adding paint to smooth out cutter marks and eliminate the haze.
   Finally, always use a vacuum chip removal system to remove material chips during engraving. By removing chips during engraving, you will prevent them from becoming trapped underneath the depth nose and possibly causing engraving depth variations.
   Paint Filling—In order to add color to subsurface signage and produce a professional end result you can optionally paint fill the engraved characters. There are several different types of paint you can use for quality results.
   Oil-based enamels are one option and although they have a relatively slow drying time and require mineral spirits or paint thinner for cleanup, these paints produce a quality, glossy finish and are very durable.
   Acrylic latex paint is another option. This type of paint is water washable, so cleanup is fast and easy, and it is also durable and resistant to fading from UV light exposure. Acrylic lacquers, like the type used on automobiles, are available in liquid form or in aerosol spray cans, which can be especially convenient.
   (Note: Always take precautions when working with flammable paints like oil-based enamels and acrylic lacquers as well as the solvents used for cleaning. Always work in a well ventilated area and keep them away from heat, sparks and open flames.)
   Before applying any paint, make sure the sign surface and the engraved grooves are clean. To apply liquid paint, you can use a paintbrush or foam brush. Spray lacquers can be applied using aerosol spray cans or with an airless spray gun.


Figure 5: Vision Engraving Systems’ “Ring Wizard” takes you step-by-step through the setup process.


   The number of paint coats to apply will depend on the application method and the type of paint you use. For example, only one coat is usually needed for brush-applied enamels whereas two coats are typically needed for latex paint applied with a paintbrush. In addition, you will likely need at least two light coats when applying paint in an aerosol spray can. After paint filling, carefully inspect the painted grooves for any problems, e.g. areas where the paint does not completely cover the plastic.
   You typically do not need to clean the excess paint off the sign after filling the engraved areas since the paint is on the back of the sign. However, if desired, you can clean off the excess paint using an appropriate solvent (being careful not to remove the paint from the engraved grooves) or attach a backup plate made of thin plastic or even a sheet of contact paper to the back of the sign to hide a messy paint job.
   Subsurface signage has many appealing characteristics that can meet the requirements of major sign buyers. Creating this type of signage in-house could be an definite asset to your sign-making capabilities and could open up a brand new marketing avenue for your business.
Ring Engraving
   One of the prime market areas for mechanical engraving is jewelry and gift items, and ring engraving is a niche inside that market segment that could be a profitable engraving opportunity for you.
   A ring is a very personal gift that has symbolic meaning and sentimental value, especially when given to commemorate a special occasion such as a wedding, anniversary or graduation. Engraving a ring enhances that meaning and value even more by making it even more personal and sentimental. Engraving the inside of a ring with names, a date or terms of endearment help commemorate the reason the ring was given. You can also engrave the outside of rings with initials, names, phrases and special graphics to make the item more meaningful to the recipient. Either way, adding engraving can turn a ring into a cherished keepsake that will be passed down for generations.
   Besides weddings, anniversaries and graduations, people purchase rings for many other occasions that occur year-round, including birthdays, holidays or “just because.” Many people also purchase rings for themselves to wear as fashion accessories or to remember a special person or occasion.
   There are many different styles of rings available in addition to the perpetually popular wedding, engagement and graduation rings. Some examples include corporate award, signet (initial), friendship, fraternal, fashion and sports rings. The point is, people purchase many different types of rings for many different occasions, so don’t think you are limited to serving the needs of wedding and graduation clientele.
   It is not difficult to sell ring engraving services. This is one of those services that can virtually sell itself once you get the word out and chances are there is not a great deal of competition in your area. Diamond drag engraving is really the only viable method for personalizing the inside of rings and this service is not something that every engraver offers, which means you have a great opportunity to gain an edge on your competitors. In addition, many engravers also offer engraving services to local jewelry shops—the jewelry shop sells the jewelry items and then outsources the engraving to you, a win-win situation.
   Thanks to today’s computerized engraving technology, ring engraving is not at all difficult, provided you have the right equipment. In order to engrave rings, you need an engraving system that offers that capability.
   Most of the major machine manufacturers now offer engraving systems designed specifically for engraving gift and jewelry items. These systems differ from traditional flatbed systems in that they are usually smaller and have a wide range of holding capabilities. For instance, gift engraving systems typically incorporate a vise that accepts a wide variety of holding jigs that will clamp odd-shaped jewelry and gift items; a cylindrical attachment for engraving glasses, wine bottles, etc.; flatwork capabilities for small flat items like luggage tags; and a coolant system for engraving glass. These systems also offer ring engraving capabilities either as a standard feature or an option.



Figure 6: The advantage of using a rotary engraving machine to profile badges is that you can achieve clean, smooth, beveled edges. Photo courtesy of JDS Industries, Sioux Falls, SD.  

   Vision Engraving Systems, Phoenix, AZ, offers an optional ring attachment that is compatible with their Max and Max Pro systems; the Viper GE Gift from Xenetech, Baton Rouge, LA, can also be fitted with an optional ring attachment; and Gravograph, Duluth, GA, offers the M20 Jewel engraving system that comes standard with ring engraving capabilities.
   Although specifics may vary between manufacturers, a ring engraving fixture typically consists of a three-jaw chuck to hold the ring and an L-shaped diamond graver adaptor that is used to do the actual engraving. To set up the machine, you attach the chuck to the machine’s vise and mount the diamond adaptor to a bracket located next to the spindle.
   The three-jaw chuck features holding pegs (or some type of holding apparatus) that can be adjusted to accommodate different sizes of rings and bracelets. You can position the ring (or bracelet) either over or under these pegs, depending on whether you are engraving the inside or the outside of a ring (Fig. 4).
   Once the ring is held in the machine, you need to set up the layout in the computer. Machine manufacturers have really streamlined this process by enhancing their engraving software to take you step by step through the process. Vision’s engraving software, for example, incorporates a “Ring Wizard” that takes you through the complete setup process and even includes illustrations showing you where and how to measure the ring and where on the ring the engraving will be placed (Fig. 5). Here’s how it works:
   After choosing inside or outside engraving, the software prompts you to measure the size of the ring with the provided ring size tool and the width of the ring with digital calipers. Next, you select where the engraving will be placed on the ring and then enter the text, including the font, character size and top and bottom margins. That’s it—you are ready to engrave. Send the job from the computer to the engraving machine, and the ring will be diamond engraved while you watch.
   If your business caters to the engravable jewelry and gift market, you can see how adding ring engraving services can really boost your business. Thanks to today’s advanced equipment, engraving rings can be a profitable—and foolproof—process.
Profiling Badges
   Personalized name badges remain a profitable product line for many engraving businesses. Many different types of businesses and organizations need custom badges on a regular basis and repeat orders in this market segment are the norm.
   The ability to cut your own badge blanks in-house using your engraving machine has many advantages. You can, for example, create custom badge shapes that match anything your customer desires, e.g. you can create badges in the shape of a company logo, star, barbell, flower, sun, etc. Even if the badge shape is more standard, such as a rectangle or a circle, being able to fabricate badges in-house offers you the opportunity to create the blanks as needed without have to stock them, which eliminates the turnaround time associated with suppliers and saves you time.
   You can use a laser engraving machine to quickly and easily profile badges with good success. However, the advantage of a computerized rotary engraving machine is that you have the option of creating badges with a beveled edge, something a laser cannot do (Fig. 6). Badges with beveled edges are generally more attractive and look more “finished,” and they also create a smooth edge that prevents it from snagging on the wearer’s clothing (Fig. 7). Here are some tips for profiling badges quickly and easily in your shop.
   Machine Type—You can use a computerized engraving machine with a standard T-slot table to profile badges out of plastic engraving stock. Note, too, that most of the engraving software packages available today offer a matrix/multiple plate feature that is extremely useful for profiling a quantity of badges in one setup. This feature allows you to set up a layout for a number of badges and the machine will profile and surface engrave them in a step-and-repeat fashion.



Figure 7: A badge with a beveled edge looks “finished.” Photo courtesy of B.F. Plastics, Inc., North Lawrence, OH.  

   Material Type—For most badges, 1/16" or 3/32" thick flexible plastic engraving stock is the easiest material to profile. In addition to being available in a huge variety of colors, achieving smooth, clean edges around the profiled part should not be a problem with this material.
   Cutter Selection—To create a badge with a beveled edge, you should use a tapered cutter. Tapered cutters produce a V-shaped cut that is wider at the top than at the bottom. For most profiled badges, a carbide cutter with a standard 60 degree included angle works well. The tip size of the cutter is not a primary concern but keep in mind that tip sizes below .020" are fragile and break easily. On the other hand, tip sizes larger than .020" tend to make a wider cut than is needed for profiling. Generally speaking, a .020" tip size is a good choice for profiling most badges.
   Job Setup—You can use a graphics program like CorelDRAW or the graphics capabilities of your engraving software to create the desired badge shape. You might also be able to scan in and vectorize custom shapes or use shapes from symbols fonts or clip art.
In order to create a badge of the correct size and shape, you need to remember that the cutter path must be offset based on the width of the cutter you are using. In other words, the cutter path should be offset so its centerline path of travel is outside the dimensions of the shape to be profiled. If the cutter path is not offset, you will end up with a profiled badge that is too small and sometimes distorted.
   Fortunately, today’s engraving software does all of this for you. Most of the software designed specifically for engraving features a built-in cutter offset feature that will automatically calculate cutter offsets for you based on the cutter size you are using.
   Engraving Technique—Always use a backup plate underneath the material you are profiling to prevent accidentally damaging your engraving table. You can secure a piece of scrap plastic that is the same size or a little larger than the material you are profiling to the table using double-sided tape.
   In most cases, you will want to engrave the surface details on the badges before actually profiling. Surface engraving is typically a completely separate operation from profiling, requiring a different cutter and machine settings, and it might be difficult to properly position the badges on the table after they have been profiled so that the surface engraving is properly placed.
   When you are ready to profile the badges, set the engraving depth so the cutter completely cuts through the material and slightly penetrates the backup plate. You can use a standard depth nose for this operation and you should be able to profile the badges in one pass if you are using 1/16" thick plastic engraving stock.
   Profiling badges using your computerized rotary engraving machine is not a difficult process. In fact, the technique offers you many advantages, including saving time and money, and providing you with the ability to create custom badges on an as-needed basis.
   Subsurface signage, ring engraving and profiling badges are only the very tip of the iceberg when it comes to potentially profitable rotary engraving applications for your business. If you have relegated your rotary engraver to engraving trophy plates in the back room, perhaps it’s time to reconsider its job requirements. There are plenty of applications that can get that rotary engraver earning its keep!
   Although laser engraving is most definitely a major marking method in this industry, the same can be said of rotary engraving. In fact, readers are always asking for more EJ articles that deal with rotary engraving.
   On that note, what profitable applications are you using your rotary engraving machine for? Drop us a note at We’d love to hear from you!





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