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The Business of Sandcarving: A Retailer's View

Copyright © 2010 by Davis Multimedia, Int'l. All Rights Reserved.
As Printed in November 2010, Volume 36, No. 5 of The Engravers Journal
 
This decorative plate is made of glass and is covered with genuine gold leaf. Photo courtesy of Crystal by Design, El Monte, CA.   This crystal clear Royal Diamond award includes an image of a building that Etched in Glass sandcarved. Photo courtesy of Etched in Glass, Gibsonia, PA.

     When it comes to awards and gifts, nothing quite compares to glass and crystal. If you take a look at some of the products that major suppliers of glass and crystal are offering, you will no doubt agree that the pieces available today are stunning. Many of them are indeed works of art and even the more simple designs have great aesthetic appeal. And most award and gift buyers will agree. There is no question that these are items that will be displayed in a home or office.
     Beyond the beauty of glass and crystal, there are many reasons and advantages related to selling this type of merchandise. Gift and award presenters often choose glass and crystal products for their high-end appeal and long-lasting value. When compared to traditional awards such as plaques and trophies, glass products tend to be more treasured by the end users and are more often chosen 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. This all adds up to higher profit potential for a retailer. If your business doesn’t offer the ability to personalize crystal or glass products, you could be missing out on some crystal clear opportunities to increase your sales potential.
     Glass and crystal products can be personalized using several different techniques, including mechanical engraving, laser engraving and sandblasting. Each of these marking methods has advantages and disadvantages, but most experts in this area say that sandblasting, more commonly referred to as “sandcarving” in this industry, is by far the preferred method for the most professional results.
Why sandcarving?
     Sandcarving involves using compressed air to force a stream of abrasive through a nozzle and onto the glass to etch or carve a design. Versatility and superior end results are the primary reasons for choosing this marking method for personalizing glass products.
     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. Sandcarving results in very smooth, crisp lines as it does not fracture the glass like other engraving methods, which can result in chips or cracks on the edges of etched lines. 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 into glass, such as the face of a person or pet or a photo of a building.
     Sandcarving is also a very versatile process. It works well on all types of glass, but you are not restricted to personalizing just glass with your equipment. You can virtually sandcarve on any hard surface, including metal, granite, tile and stones. Generally speaking, if a photo resist stencil can be applied to the material, you can sandcarve it.
     Sandcarving also offers great profit potential to award dealers. The initial startup to add this marking method to your business is minimal compared to other engraving systems like rotary machines and lasers. Add to that the fact that a sandcarved award has a higher perceived value that can’t be matched by other etching methods and you have the combination for making a healthy profit.

 
This optical crystal award from Crystal by Design has a rounded front and a concave globe carved into the back which provides a 3D look.   Etched in Glass completes many jobs involving sandcarving photos.

      Many retailers are hesitant to get into sandcarving glass and crystal—and that’s understandable. Just the thought of ordering, stocking and then personalizing crystal and glass products can be enough to make any new recognition professional a little nervous. After all, these items are more expensive than your typical trophy or plaque, not to mention much easier to break during handling. And the thought of learning a new marking technique like sandblasting can be intimidating to even veteran rotary and laser engraving professionals.
     While sandcarving may not be for everyone, there are many retailers who have turned sandcarving into their golden ticket. Here’s a look at how one retailer turned what was going to be a retirement hobby into a major business success.
Etched in Glass Inc.
     George Masche was a retiree who was looking for something to do when he became interested in sandcarving. At that time, photo resists were just starting to appear on the scene and really had not been established yet, so Masche purchased an older style sandblasting system that worked with brass stencils. The machine was expensive and difficult to work with but he was doing enough production with it to open a small shop. It wasn’t long before he realized that this was a potential profit-making business.
     “It looked like it was going to turn into something worthwhile, so we rented a much larger space, where we still are today. We started out with 3,000 square feet, increased it to 6,000 square feet and now we have 9,000 square feet,” Masche says. Today, Etched in Glass is a successful glass and crystal business that operates in a standalone building on a busy street in Gibsonia, PA, a northern suburb of Pittsburgh.
     The vast majority of the products that Etched in Glass carries are highend glass and crystal gifts and awards that Masche personalizes strictly through sandcarving. Like many engravers who are heavily involved in crystal and glass, Masche feels that sandcarving is the premier marking method for this type of work, and is the only one he would consider using in his business. “Laser engraving is not bad but for the types of products I sell, it is not acceptable. It doesn’t have the finish and the smooth edges that you get with sandblast etching. We are a large glass etching store and are considered experts at what we do,” he says.

 
 
  These rosewood plaques feature a thin piece of jade glass attached to the front that can be unattached for etching using the four screw attachments in the corners. Available from Crystal by Design.  

The Right Equipment
     Admittedly, Masche says his first equipment purchase was a mistake. The system that he purchased was designed for blasting small round objects like mugs and glasses, and was essentially a 4' square box on rollers that contained a vacuum system, a dust collection system and a blasting system with several nozzles. To use the system, the item to be blasted was placed on a square holder, a brass stencil was placed on the item and held in place with the vacuum system, and a foot pedal was pressed to start the blasting process. “The machine and brass stencils were expensive and difficult to work with. It was also very limited in terms of detail and versatility, and it could only be used for glasses and mugs. But it did get us into the business,” Masche says.
     Manufacturers have made significant improvements in sandcarving equipment since those early years when Masche was just entering the business. Today, a typical sandcarving setup includes an air compressor, a reservoir for the abrasive, a cabinet and a dust collector. Most of the systems available today have all the major components built in (except the air compressor), so you can basically plug it in and get started.
     Sandcarving systems range from small portable systems to medium-sized blasters to large, custom-made setups. The best choice for someone who is getting started in the business is one that will accommodate the type of work the business will be doing, both now and in the future. Most professionals suggest starting out with a midsize cabinet blaster that is capable of fulfilling a variety of different jobs.
     For someone getting into the business, the initial investment in equipment can be extremely affordable. You will need an air compressor, which you can purchase at local stores like Home Depot and Sears starting at around $450. Besides that, you can purchase a sandblasting cabinet starting at around $2,000-$3,000.
     As photo resists began making an impact in the sandcarving industry, Masche relegated his older sandblasting machine to the storage area (where it still is today) and purchased a sandblast cabinet for his business. As Etched in Glass continued to grow, Masche upgraded his equipment to include newer, more efficient systems. Today, the company keeps three sandcarving cabinets busily humming in the back room.

 
The showroom at Etched in Glass Inc. features over 1,200 glass items displayed on black fixtures.    

     Taking advantage of the new photo resist technology was another important step in growing the business. “It was obvious to me that the brass stencils were no way to do anything and that I needed to keep up with technology and get into photo resists,” says Masche. Today 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.
     The process for making photo resists is a photographic one which involves first creating the artwork to be etched using a computer and graphics software, and then creating a film positive from that artwork. Film positives can be created in a couple of different ways. One way is to use your inkjet or laser printer to print the image onto special inkjet or laser printer films or film substitutes like vellum (sold by sandcarving equipment suppliers).
     The other option is an orthochromatic film positive. This type is created using a large “process camera” and sophisticated darkroom equipment to generate the film positive photographically. While this technique results in superior quality film positives, you won’t be able to generate them in-house if you are not equipped with your own camera and darkroom facilities, which can be very expensive. You can, however, job out these services to most commercial printers.
     The next step in making a photo resist is to place the film positive on top of a piece of nonexposed photo resist material, expose it to UV light and then use water to “develop” the image. In this context, development means washing away the unexposed image area to create the stencil.
     Stencil materials are available in different thicknesses and for different applications. You can also choose self-adhesive stencil materials vs. the type that needs to be adhered with glue. Photo resist films can be purchased in sheets or rolls and prices vary widely depending on the type, thickness, size and quantity purchased. For example, a box of ten 10"x12" sheets of 3 mil self-adhesive photo resist film costs around $90 whereas a 12"x100' roll of 4 mil high tack masking material sells for around $780.

 
 
  This rectangular plate with photos of a dog was created by Etched in Glass.  

     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 to provide ultraviolet light that transfers the image onto the photo resist material. When Masche decided to get into photo resists, he purchased a Letralite exposure unit to expose the photo resist stencils, a system he has used for years. This is a table-top unit that involves placing the photo resist material in a cylinder and then clipping the cylinder over a 15" long UV bulb on the unit to expose the resist material. Letralite exposure units are sold today by sandcarving suppliers for around $285. Larger exposure units are also available for production environments starting at around $2,600.
     As with any business venture, as time goes on you can upgrade your equipment as your business needs warrant. Technology has evolved since Masche first got into the business over 16 years ago and he has made a point of keeping up with it. “The biggest single improvement in technology has been in the area of self-adhesive photo resists. It dramatically changed the speed at which you can apply stencils to products to be etched.”
     In addition to building up his equipment to include three sandblasting cabinets, Masche has purchased a larger exposure unit. And although he prefers hand washing stencils, especially for delicate, detailed work, he has installed a larger automatic washout system to eliminate some of the labor involved with more routine jobs.
About That Learning Curve
     Thanks to the newer, self-contained sandcarving systems available today, operating sandcarving equipment and producing professional results is fairly simple and straightforward. Most in the business say that the biggest learning curve comes with creating good quality photo resist stencils.
     Masche didn’t have any formal training because, at the time, there really wasn’t much being offered. “There certainly is a learning curve. I can remember my first experience with photo resists. When I purchased the photo resist system, we sat down and started learning how to use it on our own. There were just a couple of us then but we got it done.” Today most sandblasting equipment manufacturers offer a variety of training aids, including articles, videos and workshops to help people get started in the sandcarving business.
     Of course, experience is a very good teacher as well. “We have one employee who does nothing but wash stencils. After doing it for seven years, he’s pretty good at it!” Masche laughs. Masche also has employees who have become experts at applying stencils to products quickly and accurately. “That’s a big learning curve but now I have people who really know how to apply stencils and that saves a tremendous amount of time.”
The Right Products
     Masche has turned Etched in Glass into a successful business by offering the products and services that his customers demand—high-end, high-quality glass and crystal products. The company keeps a very large inventory of a wide variety of glass items on the premises for a couple of reasons. One is that you can purchase glass items at a huge discount when you order in quantity, e.g. by the pallet, a purchasing option that most suppliers offer. For example, one supplier holds a yearly sale on items such as glass beer mugs. If you purchase an entire pallet, the cost of the mugs ends up being less than $1 apiece. “We have room to store them and at that price, what can I say?” Masche says.
     Quick turnaround is another reason Masche inventories large quantities of glass. While major suppliers rarely run out and can ship quickly, you can’t always depend on a supplier having what you need in stock. “If a customer needs a rush job and you don’t have it, then you can’t turn it around,” Masche explains.

 
This memorable job completed by Etched in Glass contained an etched glass picture frame and an infrared photo of Hurricane Katrina.   One of Etched in Glass’ specialties is recreating wedding invitations on a variety of gifts, such as picture frames.

The Right Services
     Most of the sandcarving work that Etched in Glass does involves straight blasting glass pieces and accenting them with some deep cut details. “On a fancy glass trophy, for example, we will deep cut the recipient’s name so it really glows when light shines on it from the sides,” states Masche. Masche says that they do some multiple stage sandblasting—a process that involves etching the design in multiple stages to create different depths for a dimensional appearance—but that process can be expensive.
     What the company really does a lot of is sandcarved photos, an area that many businesses don’t get into and one that Etched in Glass is especially well known for. Photo resist stencils provide the technology for creating fantastic looking etched photos and, over the years, Masche and his employees have perfected the process. “This is an area that not many businesses specialize in. I never see anyone advertise sandblasted photos but we etch huge quantities of photographs. And after you do it long enough, you get pretty good at it,” he says.
High-End Customers
     Masche estimates that about 30 percent of his sales are from onesie-twosie gift customers, another 35 percent are companies and the remaining 35 percent come from all kinds of different organizations. The company’s biggest single seller is beer mugs which, Masche says, are popular for all kinds of occasions, including coaches’ gifts, groomsmen gifts, birthday gifts and more.
     Etched in Glass has many repeat customers that keep the business busy. The National Association of Industrial and Office Properties (NAIOP), for example, has been a customer for 15 years. They recently commissioned Etched in Glass to do a $3,000 order that included seven large royal diamond awards with elaborate beveled glass bases, a number of 6"x7" crystal spires for the organization’s hall of fame and a large quantity of paperweights for their sponsors.
     Masche also has a huge demand for etched wine bottles, especially during the holiday season. Customers will bring the wine bottles into the store and Masche will etch them with the client’s logo, the giver’s and recipient’s names, a holiday message, etc., and then finish them off by hand painting the etched areas to add color. One company typically orders 300 etched wine bottles each year, and he estimates that during a typical holiday season, he probably etches 800-900 wine bottles.


 
Etched in Glass sandcarved this graphic of Andrew Carnegie in two stages to create a dimensional appearance.   An emergency room donor wall at a local hospital was made out of glass construction blocks. Etched in Glass etched 200 blocks for the wall with donor names.

     Organizations like youth hockey leagues often approach Etched in Glass for special jobs. For example, Masche has etched a 25-ounce beer mug with a photo of the kids on the team in addition to all of their signatures which was presented to the coach. A job like that can turn a $2-$3 beer mug into a $43 sale.
     Masche likes to add creativity into his product mix as well. He has designed a series of special wood bases that enhance the appearance of glass awards and he also sells a lot of piano finish plaques with etched glass plates. One memorable job involved 250 large piano finish plaques that were ordered by postal inspectors after Hurricane Katrina. Each plaque contained a picture frame showcasing an infrared photograph of Katrina hitting New Orleans that was taken from above the clouds.
     Since Etched in Glass is strictly a sandcarving business, Masche will frequently work with a local trophy shop on jobs such as perpetual plaques. Masche will etch a black mirror plaque with a photo of the business’ founder or the building, for example, for the header of the plaque. The trophy shop then takes on the job of engraving the smaller perpetual plates as they are needed, e.g. every month for an employee of the month plaque. In a case like this, Masche provides the decorative portion of the plaque while the trophy shop ensures that all of the individual plates match exactly.
Becoming a Graphic Artist
     Clearly, Etched in Glass has no problem finding customers and Masche credits part of this to the fact that he and his employees are specialists in the business. The employees who meet with customers, including Masche and two other employees, are all graphic designers with computer experience. According to Masche, “Everything we do is custom so I had to turn myself into a graphic artist. We are unique in that when anyone walks in and wants to buy a gift, such as a wedding announcement etched on a picture frame, we will sit down at the computer and design it so that when they leave, they know exactly what they are going to get. We do a lot, of course, with e-mail and fax with existing customers, and some new ones, but we are really unique in the graphic design aspect.” Because the design work is essentially done with the customer, Masche does not charge setup fees.
     Using a computer graphics program, Masche and his employees draw all of the logos to ensure that the final logo design is suitable for a sandcarving stencil. Masche has a large computer server where he stores all of the logos, over 2,000 fonts and close to a million pieces of clip art. One program is used to store all of the company’s commercial orders dating back to 1993 for easy accessibility. “We get a lot of repeat business this way. If someone breaks something they bought five years ago and they want another one, we can pull up the job in one minute,” Masche explains.

 
 
  Etched in Glass also etches other materials, such as this stainless steel dog bowl.  

Online & Offline Presence
     Masche says his company website has been fairly successful as an advertising tool (www.etchedinglass.com) but he doesn’t take online orders. Because the business is so custom oriented, online ordering would be too complex. “We have to interact with some creativity to do what the customer wants. We just use the website to showcase our products but that doesn’t seem to deter anyone. We get a lot of calls,” he says.
     In addition to his online showroom, Masche also has a large in-store showroom where he displays over 1,200 items. Glass and crystal pieces are displayed on black bookcases and black fixtures to make the etching on the pieces jump out.
What does it take for a retailer to be successful?
     So are you thinking about venturing into the world of sandblasting? Consider some of these words of advice.
     Determine your level. Obviously, Etched in Glass is a large business that caters to both everyday gift buyers and large businesses and organizations that order in quantity. Masche has focused his entire business on sandcarving, and with great success. But this is just one avenue to take.
     Many award shops also offer other services, such as engraving and sublimation, but this type of business can also find success by adding sandcarving to that list—many successful retailers in this industry do exactly that. As mentioned, the initial equipment investment is very low compared to purchasing a rotary or laser engraving machine and although there is a learning curve, consider the fact that everything has a learning curve. Sandcarving could be one more reason for customers to visit your store and it will also open up some new marketing opportunities. Rex Tubbs, owner of Engraving Connection, Plymouth, MI, offers rotary engraving, laser engraving and sandblasting services for glass and crystal personalization and in doing so has broadened his customer base considerably.
     There is also the option of selling glass merchandise without getting into sandcarving. Most agree that sandcarving is the best method for glass engraving in terms of quality—nothing really compares. But you can rotary and laser engrave glass as well, and with good results. You can also use your laser to cut detailed, high-quality stencils instead of using photo resist stencils.
     Pay attention to quality details. Masche is a stickler for details, even beyond the etching process itself. For example, for years he has attached the bases to his glass awards by applying glue, curing the pieces under UV light and then trimming away the excess. When a new low-viscosity glue came on the market with the claim that it didn’t need to be trimmed, Masche tried it, but didn’t like it. “I couldn’t accept the looks of the joints that it gives you. We glue everything with the old style glue where you have to trim to get a nice, shiny, clean joint,” he states. Although a customer may not realize every detail that you painstakingly pay attention to, they will see it in the quality of the end result.
     Become a specialist. Sandblasting in and of itself doesn’t involve too much of a learning curve. The challenge comes with creating good artwork and good quality sandblasting stencils. Remember that creating artwork for glass etching is different than designing artwork for other applications. You and your employees will need to learn about graphic design and creating stencils for sandblasting. You may even want to consider hiring someone with graphic design experience if this isn’t your cup of tea.
 
Etched in Glass can custom etch any glass wine or liquor bottle. These are examples of adding hand painted color and one with a photograph.   This American walnut plaque features a beveled black mirror with a photo etched by Etched in Glass and then finished in silver.

Conclusion
     Glass and crystal are still “in.” “We were lucky that glass was starting to be in about the time that we opened our business,” says Masche. “There is a much larger variety of glass available now than there was when we started.”
     Glass and crystal products remain a very popular option in awards and gifts—perhaps even more so today than ever before. As with any business venture, you have to build up the business and you have to produce quality products. Sandcarving glass represents an opportunity for many award dealers to do just that.


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