10 Ways to Jazz Up Your Acrylic Jobs

Copyright © 2010 by Davis Multimedia, Int'l. All Rights Reserved.
As Printed in May 2010, Volume 35, No. 11 of The Engravers Journal
 
Figure 1: Use a 1/16" drill bit to drill the necessary hole(s) for what you want to mount.   Figure 2: The finished product is unique and has a 3-D appearance with the addition of this lapel pin.

     One of today’s most popular and elegant awards is an acrylic award which can range from a $5 trinket to something stunning and suitable for display in museums. Yet using acrylic does offer significant limitations—it can’t be sublimated, have full color or have adornments—or can it? Of course it can, and here’s how to do it step-by-step.
     As beautiful as acrylic might be, there are times when its crystal clarity just doesn’t seem to be enough. It needs something more—a splash of color perhaps. Back in another life, I ran a print shop. As you would expect, 95% of our jobs were just black ink on white paper. However, occasionally we would receive a job that merited something more, and a splash of color was usually the answer. Sometimes that “something more” was the color or texture of the paper, but often just adding one little element of colored ink set off the finished job perfectly.
     Acrylic jobs need that sometimes too—just some little something to turn a nice result into a fantastic one. Here are 10 ways to do just that. Some techniques involve color (even full color) and some are enhancements that you can add with the tools and equipment you already have. These methods add variety, take the monotony out of creating acrylic awards and, most important of all, will delight customers and keep them coming back.
Method One: Drill & Add a Lapel Pin
     Although it may sound simplistic, adding a lapel pin, military insignia, tie tack or similar item that has a clutch post protruding from the back adds flair, color and an extra dimension to an acrylic award. To add a pin to an acrylic award, first determine the location and then, mark the acrylic where the actual pin will be placed. Next, using a 1/16" twist drill bit, drill a hole just slightly deeper than the pin’s clutch post is long (Fig. 1). To attach the pin, place a small amount of silicone adhesive to its post and insert the post into the hole, then set the award aside to dry. Allow at least 20 minutes before moving the piece and 24 hours before giving it to the customer (Fig. 2).

Figure 3: There are lots of 7/8" and 2" metal disks to choose from. Those with cupped edges must be attached with silicone or foam tape, while others are self adhesive. Figure 4: This 2" medallion insert adds flair and color to an otherwise plain award. Figure 5: Here, a small dab of silicone adhesive has been applied to the back of a disk with cupped edges.

Method Two: Add 7/8" or 2" Disks or Mylars
     Metal disks (sometimes called medal or medallion inserts) have been around for a long time. Most come from Classic Medallics (www.classic-medallics.com) in Mount Vernon, NY, and they are available in almost any theme from sports to fraternities to school activities to military insignia (Fig. 3). Two-inch “Mylars” are a colorful option available in a wide range of themes. While they are a less expensive option, in my opinion, they are not as attractive as metal disks for this purpose (Fig. 4) although some customers might disagree with me.
     Both the metal disks and Mylars are usually peel-and-stick, so they are easy to apply to acrylic awards. However, one version of the 2" metal sports disks will require applying an adhesive. I prefer using silicone adhesive (Fig. 5) but a 1" square of double faced foam tape of appropriate thickness also works well.
Method Three: Add a Foil Appliqué
     Laser foils, like those sold by LaserBits of Phoenix, AZ, and Johnson Plastics of Minneapolis, MN, are very thin, metallic foils that can be applied to acrylic and laser engraved to leave a cutout of a seal, graphic design, logo or even text. Other materials, like Rowmark’s (Findlay, OH) Lights (Fig. 6) or Gravograph’s (Duluth, GA) Gravofoil, are very thin, self-adhesive foils that have a substrate that can be engraved as well and come in a variety of colors and styles, including gold, silver, bronze, black, white, etc.
     Laser foils are easy to apply and cut or engrave using your laser engraving machine. First, apply a piece of the foil on the face of the acrylic that’s large enough to cover the entire engraving area. After engraving, just “weed” the unwanted areas of the foil. One word of advice: The adhesives used on these foils allow for easy removal within the first hour or so. After that, they become progressively more difficult to remove until they reach a point where removing them will damage the acrylic. Therefore, don’t apply the foil until just before you are ready to cut or engrave it and then immediately weed it after engraving (Fig. 7).


Figure 6: This foil appliqué is actually a piece of Rowmark Lights material that not only cuts well but can be engraved. Figure 7: This sample has a silver foil applied to the acrylic’s face and a laser engraved message on the back. Figure 8: After laser or rotary engraving the acrylic, apply a light coat of paint to the engraved area.

Method Four: Paint Filling
     There are at least two common methods of paint filling acrylic: using the fill-and-clean method or the mask-and-spray method. The fill-and-clean method involves engraving the design or message rather deeply into the acrylic and then applying paint over much of the surface. Then in the next step, you ”clean” the surface, typically using a squeegee and wiping action using a porous material moistened with some paint thinner.
     The mask-and-spray method is usually characterized by applying a self-adhesive film to the surface, lasering the design into the film-covered surface and then spray painting the entire area with the lasered self-adhesive coating acting as a stencil, so the engraving gets filled while the background surface remains clean and paint free. Once the paint has dried, you can simply weed away what’s left of the film coating.
     Both methods have advantages and disadvantages, including a slightly different look. In any case, let’s take a closer look starting with the fill-and-clean method.
     The engraving depth is somewhat critical to use the fill-and-clean method. The engraving depth should be a minimum of about .006", or deeper, with .010" being just about ideal. If the depth is inadequate, you can have problems during the cleaning stage where you either get “lint” stuck in the paint or the paint gets sucked out during the surface cleaning phase, providing an uneven fill.
     When engraving acrylic using a rotary machine and a cutter designed for engraving acrylic, obtaining an adequate depth is very easy, but when using a laser, one finds that acrylic is a much harder material than you might think. It takes considerable effort with a laser to obtain an engraving depth of .006"-.010" to allow a good paint fill.
     Laser engraving acrylics for paint filling might require some experimentation to achieve a good engraving depth. This also varies with your laser, but in tests I have done using my 25 watt system, I have found that a setting of 35% power and 100% speed results in a cutting depth of about .005". Doubling this to 70% power and 100% speed will provide a depth of .010" in acrylic, which is excellent for paint filling.
     When you laser acrylic, you will often notice a white hazy residue is left behind on the surface of the engraved area that is difficult to remove. Normally, this would be an indicator that you are using too much power, but in this case, it becomes a necessary evil since you want to achieve the extra depth it affords. The white film will have to be removed prior to paint filling, but you can do it by applying a light coat of Novus #2 Fine Scratch Remover to the acrylic. Allow the scratch remover to dry to a haze, buff with a soft, lint-free cotton cloth or a Bounty paper towel (this brand won’t scratch the acrylic) and repeat until the residue is gone.

Figure 9: Wrap a marble trophy base or similar hard and smooth item with a paper towel that has been folded into two or three layers. Figure 10: Repeat the clean-up process with a clean towel misted with either solvent or WD-40. Figure 11: After two or three passes, you should see a solid paint-filled engraving with no residue on the acrylic face.

     Once the haze and residue is removed, you are ready to paint fill the engraving. Most people use acrylic “craft” paint for this, but other paints can also be used such as “paint pens” or even Testor’s Model Enamel (Fig. 8). Most hardware stores sell oil-based enamels in 1/2 pint cans which work well. The only difference between these types of paint is the kind of solvent needed to remove the excess paint around your filled engraving and how quickly you will have to work to remove it. Acrylic paints require only water for cleanup, while oil-based enamel and paint pens will require mineral spirits (paint thinner). Be advised that some solvents will damage the acrylic, so be careful what you use. Among those that might cause damage is lacquer thinner, but since there may be others, it’s best to always test your solvent on an old piece of acrylic before using it on your project.
     Tip: WD-40 works well as a solvent for enamel and paint pens if you don’t have mineral spirits or object to the odor.
     I recommend applying paint using either a natural bristle or high-quality, nylon-polyester blend paintbrush (although a foam brush or cotton swab can also work if you prefer something disposable) only to the areas you want to paint fill, as opposed to covering the entire piece, to limit how much excess paint you will have to remove later. Be sure to apply the paint in back-and-forth strokes in the same direction as the lines of text, rather than trying to paint each area or character individually. Use enough paint to just coat the bottoms and sides of the engraved areas, rather than filling it to the top with a tiny “lake” of paint. Doing the latter will make the paint in the engraving come in contact with your solvent during the removal process, thinning the paint and creating uneven color coverage. Allow the final coat to begin to haze (although some people prefer to let the paint dry completely) before beginning the cleanup process.

Figure 12: Because this piece of acrylic had already been mounted to its base, it was necessary to level it before engraving. Figure 13: After paint filling, I slightly applied some 1/32" ADA Appliqué to the areas that were going to contain cutouts and sent just the cutouts to the laser. Figure 14: After weeding the unneeded appliqué, the acrylic not only has color, but the company’s logo is raised above the acrylic surface.

     I prefer a two-step cleaning procedure to remove the excess paint. Step one is to use a makeshift squeegee such as a 1" x 3" plastic badge blank to squeegee away most of the excess, then wipe the squeegee between strokes. That will remove 80% of the paint, simplifying the final surface cleaning discussed in the following.
Phone Book Method
     One way to remove excess paint is by using an old phone book. Open the book and apply about a tablespoon of solvent to one page, which will soak through about four to five pages within a few seconds. Then, holding the acrylic by the edges, press it onto the dampened page paint side down and drag it across the page in one smooth motion. Do not move it back and forth to “scrub” the excess paint off, as this will damage the paint in your engraving. This first swipe should remove most of the excess paint on the surface, but if some excess paint still remains, then swipe it for a second pass, if necessary, turning the page and repeating the process until all the excess paint is gone. If you are doing this correctly, you should not have to do this more than three or four times before you have a completely clean piece of acrylic with paint filled engraving.

 
Figure 15: Step one is to laser (or rotary) engrave the back of a piece of acrylic using increased power to obtain a deeper cut.   Figure 16: This image shows what the piece would look like displayed against a black backdrop.

     Once the paint is fully dry, you may notice a slight haze on the surface. If this is the case, this can be removed using a lint-free cloth moistened with solvent and wrapped tightly over your finger.
There are a number of variations and tricks and techniques to this fill-and-clean method. For some items, it’s convenient to use a makeshift cleaning block such as a piece of lint-free paper towel wrapped around a marble trophy base. Its use is similar to the phone book method (Figs. 9, 10, 11).
Mask-and-Spray Method
     This method is simple and inexpensive. The masking material most commonly used is polyester transfer tape—not to be confused with vinyl tape, which emits toxic and corrosive fumes when laser engraved—or paper masking tape designed for laser engraving, which is available from a number of sources. Just apply the tape to the acrylic and laser engrave it, keeping in mind the need for an engraving depth of .006"-.010" to allow a good paint fill. You will notice that this will require more laser power to cut through the mask and afford enough depth to hold the paint. A side benefit to masking the surface is the mask covers the surface and elimmates the white haze around the engraving. Also, after engraving, you do not need to apply the paint with an applicator of any kind. Instead, use a high-quality spray paint, such as Krylon or any other well-known brand of spray paint, to lightly spray the acrylic with the masking still in place.
     A couple of coats of the spray paint will probably be necessary to achieve uniform color coverage, so it’s best to start with a thin coat, rather than one heavy one, and repeat as needed. After the paint has dried, carefully remove the masking material, but don’t expect the initial results to be perfect. Some additional cleanup of any paint that seeped under the masking may be necessary and can be done with a drop of solvent on a dust- and lint-free cloth, Bounty paper towel or cotton swab. If doing this accidentally removes any of the paint in the engraving, you can touch it up with some of the paint on a small artist’s paintbrush or cotton swab.


Figure 17: This image shows the engraved areas covered with a special black dye. Figure 18: Use an orbital sander to sand away all the back dye except what is trapped in the engraving. Figure 19: The finished product shows the same detail shown earlier, except no background is needed to make the detail visible.

Method Five: ADA Appliqué Material
     ADA appliqué material is easy, fun and allows for all kinds of design elements. The material is applied and laser engraved much like the self-adhesive foil I mentioned earlier, and it comes with the same warnings concerning how long the material is allowed to remain on the acrylic before being weeded (Fig. 12). The only difference between appliqué and foil is the thickness of the appliqué material and the power needed to cut through it (Fig. 13). Appliqué is typically .03125" thick, whereas foils range from .001" to .006" thick. For an added touch, try engraving into the appliqué material, as well. Although it does not show a contrasting color like engraving plastic, it does offer a low-contrast engraving (Fig. 14). This means that, since the appliqué is a solid color throughout, it will not reveal a second high-contrast color. Instead, you will see the engraving but both the surface and the engraved area will be the same color, which can be quite attractive.
Method Six: Bring Out Detail with Black Dye
     Of all the methods, this is my favorite. Although I don’t use it often, it can be a life saver. Acrylic Idea Factory of Atlanta, GA, offers a black dye that can be used both as a dye and to solvent-weld acrylic. However, in this case, we are interested only in the dye capability.
Although this can be used for any acrylic engraving that is done on the back side of the acrylic, it is most advantageous for engravings that are highly detailed since the added contrast makes the detail easier to see. To use this method, engrave the back of the acrylic as you normally would (Fig. 15). I like to increase the power so that I get a deeper engraving than usual, especially since the white haze resulting from using extra power will be removed as a part of the process (Fig. 16).
     After engraving, carefully apply the dye with a cotton swab or a small paintbrush (Fig. 17). Be conservative and don’t use a drop more than you need! This stuff is very thin and will splash or drip easily, and anything it touches—fabric, acrylic, plastic, carpet or wood—it ruins as there is no way to remove it without damaging the material.
     Once the dye has been applied, set it aside to dry completely, which should take about 10 minutes. As you can see in Figure 17, there will inevitably be some dye smudged on the flat surface of the acrylic outside of the engraved areas. When the dye is dry, use an electric orbital sander with a clean sheet of 220 grit sandpaper and, holding the acrylic tightly by its edges, apply it firmly to the acrylic, moving it in a circular motion (Fig. 18). After a few seconds, remove the sander and blow off the resulting acrylic powder. Check to see if there is still any black dye outside of the engraved areas and repeat the process until dye only appears in the engraved areas. You will be surprised at how hard the acrylic really is since it may take several sandings to remove all of the excess dye.

Figure 20: Sublimated disks and foils offer the ability to add full-color logos, photographs and other decorations. Figure 21: Shown here are a variety of sublimated disks and hand-cut rectangles that can be applied to acrylic products. Figure 22: This sample—from Engraving System Support, Dade City, FL, and using an Acrylic Idea Factory, Norcross, GA, full-color process—was not engraved and had all the necessary information included in the full-color design.

     The finished result will be a black engraving that looks almost like it’s floating inside the acrylic, which rather than being clear, will now have a white background that is very durable and hard to scratch and won’t show fingerprints (Fig. 19). Do you have some acrylic pieces lying around with scratches on one side? Don’t throw them out. Instead, use this method and you can not only sand out those scratches but also charge extra for the “special process.”
Method Seven: Sublimated Appliqués
     If you have sublimation capability, here is another way to dress up your acrylic pieces and offer design elements normally not possible with acrylic (Fig. 20). At this point, sublimating acrylic is still a process being developed, but you can create appliqués that can be attached to acrylic pieces. To give variety, depth and color to otherwise mundane acrylic, you can add 2" foil disks, 2" metal disks, hand-cut shapes from Rowmark Mates or even Fiberglass Reinforced Plastic (FRP) shapes (Fig. 21).
Method Eight: Full Color Backgrounds with Engraving
     One of the most exciting things in acrylic right now is the ability to add full color to the backs of almost any acrylic pieces offered by Acrylic Idea Factory and Pacesetter Awards of Chicago, IL (Fig. 22). Acrylic Idea Factory is the only company that offers an easy do-it-yourself method of adding color, but if the $14,000 price tag is a bit expensive for you right now, then both of these companies will add the color for you—any design, any quantity with fast turnaround. This opens the door for everyone to offer highly colorful awards, signs and other designs that can include items like newspaper and magazine articles, team photographs, full-color logos and just about anything else you can imagine (Fig. 23).
Figure 23: This 4"x6" self-standing award was pre-printed and then laser engraved on its face. Figure 24: This 8"x10" acrylic plaque from Acrylic Idea Factory, Norcross, GA, is also a full-color sample containing only the photograph. All text was laser engraved and paint filled. Figure 25: This sample was provided by Cactus Equipment and Supplies of Grand Junction, CO, and then engraved on the face.

     The way this process works involves ordering the pre-printed acrylic blanks and engraving it as you need it—much the same way we used to do with hot-stamped name badges. When an order comes in, just pull the pre-printed acrylic and engrave it either on the front or through the full-color design on the back (Fig. 24). Both methods work equally well but result in a very different looking end product.
Method Nine: Heat Transfer
    
Some engravers have a heat transfer process that is done using a special film, a laser printer (such as the OKI C5500) and a conventional heat press. These heat transfers can be used like the full-color process discussed above to add color to the back of an acrylic piece. Unlike other processes, special acrylic is not needed for this one and engraving should be done on the face of the acrylic (Fig. 25).
Method Ten: Light ‘Er Up!
    
This is something we are seeing more and more of—lights! Acrylic has a very interesting feature about it. Transparent acrylic is so optically transparent that when you add a light source to the edge, it can be transmitted all the way to the opposite end. Any recess in the surface, such as engraving, causes the area to glow almost like a neon sign. At this point, most of the efforts to light acrylic have been in the kid’s market involving inexpensive trophies, but it doesn’t have to stop there. High-end pieces can also be illuminated using lighted bases (Fig. 26) or, as in our example, using a light box along with a sheet of laser engraved acrylic (Fig. 27). Lighted interior signage is another possibility. Using a metal frame, a sheet of acrylic and some LEDs, it wouldn’t be hard to create a really interesting and elegant lighted sign.
    
Also, edge-lighting light sources don’t have to be powerful for small acrylic projects. Even battery-operated devices using LEDs can offer long battery life, and using a low voltage power supply means no batteries and years of operation with no maintenance.


    
 
 
  Figure 26: Any acrylic piece with a clear base can work on these lighted bases sold in a variety of sizes and colors.  

One More to Boot: Direct Sublimation to Acrylic
     A company in England has announced that it can sublimate directly to acrylic using a unique type of acrylic coated with a special sublimation-receptive coating (Fig. 28). Although I have pictures of the process, I don’t have any personal experience with it yet. Still, even the thought of having the ability to sublimate directly to acrylic opens the door to adding full-color images in-house without having to purchase additional equipment. It still remains a question as to how this new type of acrylic will laser or rotary engrave. There is still a lot to learn, but it should be a very interesting addition to our ability to jazz things up.


 
Figure 27: This sample of the Titanic is reverse engravable acrylic mounted in a walnut-framed light box.   Figure 28: These are the first five pieces being offered in the sublimation acrylic line.

Conclusion
     Of all the products I engrave and sell, acrylic is definitely one of my favorites. It’s easy to work with, permits a good markup and always looks great. Still, it doesn’t meet the needs of all my clients, especially those who want photographs or color logos. Adding to the acrylic product using appliqués, sublimation, direct print or any of these other methods speaks to a larger market without adding significantly to labor costs, inventory costs or manufacturing complexity.
     I should mention one more thing. Since I have included acrylic items in my showroom with such “additions,” I have noticed people are drawn to the items much faster than before. It’s one thing to try to describe these techniques to a customer, but it’s yet another to show them a sample. So, go ahead and jazz things up a little! You will never know how far you can go with acrylic until you try.


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