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Accessorizing Your Equipment, Part 1 Rotary Engraving

Copyright © 2011 by Davis Multimedia, Int'l. All Rights Reserved.
As Printed in March 2011, Volume 36, No. 9 of The Engravers Journal
The Roper Whitney Jr. Hole Punch from Johnson Plastics, Minneapolis, MN.   The Varga Circular Saw from Johnson Plastics is designed with safety in mind.

   Have you ever wished you could do more with your computerized rotary engraving machine? Glass engraving, deep engraving in metal, burnish engraving, Braille signage, ring engraving and more are all applications that can be accomplished with a computerized engraving system provided you have the right tools. For example, by simply swapping spindles, you can switch from engraving plastic engraving stock and trophy brass to making deep cuts in stainless steel. Another tool allows you to engrave the inside and outside of rings and bangle bracelets. And still another gadget allows you to use your machine to automatically insert Raster Braille beads into sign blanks to quickly and easily create ADA signage.
   Today there is a large selection of accessories on the market that can help you get the most out of your equipment and provide you with the opportunity to tap into new market areas. Many devices are also available to help you save time and boost production in your everyday engraving operations, and we all know that time is money. Here’s a guide to the latest accessories available for use with computerized rotary engraving machines followed by a look at some auxiliary equipment that can be very useful in your engraving shop.
Rotary Engraving Accessories
   Following is the latest and greatest accessory equipment available for use with computerized engraving machines. Most of this equipment is offered by all of the major equipment suppliers and general engraving suppliers. Note that not all equipment is available for all machine makes and models, so you will need to do some checking before you make a purchase for your particular equipment.
   Having the appropriate spindle for the job at hand is a major way to save time and money, and produce the highest quality results possible. Standard top-loading tube-type spindles work fine for general, low precision work but they are not well-known for extreme accuracy and high precision. A typical problem with this type of spindle is that the cutter spins off center, resulting in inaccurate line widths, and it can be damaged when used to rotary engrave on hard materials like stainless steel. You can avoid costly repairs and replacements by choosing different types of spindles for different situations.
   Collet-type rotary spindles are a good choice when accuracy is important and for deep engraving into hard materials such as brass and aluminum, light milling, cutouts, routing thick plastics and other heavy engraving. A collet spindle features a split collet on the bottom of the spindle to hold the cutter in place, resulting in more accurate engraving with little “runout” (when the cutter spins off its axis) and reduced cutter breakage, vibration and tool chatter. A variety of bottom-loading cutters, such as end mills, router bits, short shank engraving bits, drill bits, fly cutters and specialty tools are available for use with split collet spindles. Collets are available in different sizes and can be easily changed so cutters with different shank diameters can be used in a single spindle. In addition, solid collets are available that allow a collet spindle to accept top-loading cutters.
   Another way to add to your engraving machine’s capabilities is through the use of a high frequency spindle. This type of spindle is powered by a high frequency motor and runs at high rpms, e.g. 60,000+ rpm. This is essentially a heavy-duty spindle that allows you to use machinist tools for more industrial-oriented applications such as deep engraving into metal, cutting out shapes in stainless steel or milling dies for hot stamping. The spindle’s high rpm means cutters stay sharp longer and it allows for much faster engraving speeds which boosts production.

A wine bottle adaptor from Vision Engraving & Routing Systems, Phoenix, AZ, makes it easy to hold and engrave wine bottles. A self-centering vise makes job setup easy. Photo courtesy of Vision Engraving & Routing Systems. A Raster Braille Kit, such as this one from Vision Engraving & Routing Systems, includes the tools needed to make ADA-compliant signage.

   Vision Engraving & Routing Systems, Phoenix, AZ, and Gravograph, Duluth, GA, both offer a 60,000 rpm high frequency spindle that allows deep engraving into metal much faster than when using a standard belt-driven spindle. These spindles feature a spring-loaded mechanism with a floating nose cone for consistent engraving depth into hard materials and come standard with a 1/8" collet and a control box for adjusting the spindle rpm.
Diamond Drag Adaptor
   When it comes to diamond drag engraving, it is seldom recommended to use a diamond graver in a rotary spindle. The combination of rotation and the repeated impact of the cutter against the material can damage the bearings in your rotating spindle, which means a loss of productivity and money. Instead of a separate diamond drag spindle, however, most manufacturers and engraving supply companies now offer a diamond drag adaptor. A diamond drag adaptor is a diamond drag cutter that screws onto the bottom of most top-loading rotary spindles in place of the knurled retailer ring and depth nose. A diamond drag adaptor produces better quality engraving because the cutter is locked in position and pressure is applied to the outer tube of the spindle instead of the spindle bearings. This is an economical option to provide you with diamond engraving capabilities while eliminating bearing strain that would otherwise occur in your rotary spindle.
Special Cutters
   Most engravers are familiar with standard engraving cutters which are usually half-round or quarter-round conical or parallel cutters. There are, however, a wide variety of other cutters available that are different in design and application that you might find useful in your shop. Antares, Inc., Horsham, PA, manufactures a wide variety of engraving and specialty cutters, including the following:
   End mills are cutting tools that usually have multiple cutting edges. While some have straight flutes, most are spiraled in a helix shape (spiral staircase). Most industrial end mills are short shank, bottom-loading cutters designed to be held in a collet spindle, but top-loading end mills are also available. As far as engraving applications, these cutters are commonly used for profiling and hole cutting. Using an end mill in lieu of a single flute cutter results in a smoother edge finish, particularly when profiling materials such as acrylic and metal.
   Ballnose cutters also might have potential uses in your shop. A ballnose cutter is a tool with a radiused tip that produces a cut with a round, instead of flat, bottom. Ballnose cutters can be used for reverse engraving on acrylic and 3D engraving applications, and they work well for engraving materials such as soft plastics, mold materials, acrylic and soft metals.
   As the name implies, a dovetail cutter is used for dovetailing, a technique that involves creating a cut in which the bottom is wider than the top. A dovetail cutter is wider at the tip and narrower where it cuts the surface of the material. Dovetailing is used for applications such as directory boards with beveled, slide-in legend strips and works well for engraving soft metals, plastics and acrylic.
   Antares also sells cutter-bevelers, a tool that cuts out and bevels in one smooth operation. A cutter-beveler features a parallel cutting edge that profiles the material in addition to an angled edge that produces a 45 degree bevel. This can be very handy for applications such as cutting out custom-shaped name badges on your rotary engraving machine or producing discs or odd-shaped items that are difficult to bevel with a benchtop beveling machine.
   If you create ADA signage using the Raster Braille technique, then you will need a Raster Braille cutter. Raster Braille cutters are essentially rotary engraving cutters that are used to drill the holes into the material blank for placement of Raster Braille beads. Accent Signage Systems, Minneapolis, MN, sells top- and bottom-loading Raster Braille cutters for plastics, acrylics, solid surface material, aluminum, brass and stainless steel. Antares and their cutter distributors also sell special cutters designed for drilling holes for Braille spheres.
   Antares also offers a variety of other cutters for special applications, such as a Braille dot cutter that routs away the background material and leaves raised, rounded Braille dots; ADA cutout letter cutter that features a 22 degree cutting angle and is used to profile raised characters in accordance with the ADA sign requirements; a special diamond graver with a pyramid shape designed for engraving epoxy-coated pens; and a high speed steel seal die cutter for engraving steel dies. Antares will also custom fabricate cutters to your specifications.

This corner shear from B.F. Plastics, North Lawrence, OH, is designed for rounding, scalloping, slotting and piercing corners in metal and plastic engraving materials.   This 12” table shear from B.F. Plastics can quickly and cleanly cut both plastic and metal.

Burnishing Adaptor
   Another rotary engraving accessory to consider adding to your toolbox is a burnishing adaptor. A burnishing adaptor, when used in conjunction with a multifaceted burnishing cutter, attaches to the top of the rotating cutter and allows it to be lightly dragged across a metal surface to create shallow, wide and brilliant burnished characters. A burnishing adaptor features adjustable spring pressure that allows you to achieve a light touch; too much pressure results in rough engraving. This technique looks great on lacquered brass and anodized metals and can also be used for other applications that require light engraving pressure, such as engraving glass.
Vises & Holding Jigs
   Perhaps the biggest challenge in rotary engraving is properly securing the item to be engraved in the vise or on the engraving table. This can become even more time-consuming and frustrating when working with unusually-shaped objects. That’s where accessories such as vises, clamps and jigs come in handy. There are a wide variety of these holding devices available from manufacturers that allow you to quickly and easily secure items to the table of your engraving machine and help you substantially broaden your engraving capabilities.
   Most of the vises and clamps available are designed to be used with T-slot tables. They feature T-nuts which slide into the slots on the table to hold it in place. There are vises and clamps available for a wide range of holding applications. Xenetech Global, Baton Rouge, LA, offers the Speed Vise that features one fixed jaw, one moving jaw and a quick-release knob for quickly and easily placing and removing items. Xenetech also offers a self-centering vise that always opens and closes in the same center position when clamping items. This allows you to use a default “center home” position from the engraving software or controller for engraving different items. The jaws on the self-centering vise feature a pattern of holes that accept dowel pins that can be used to hold odd-shaped items. The vise also accepts other interchangeable holding jigs.
   Vision Engraving & Routing Systems also offers several vise designs, including a self-centering deep-jaw vise that is designed for quickly clamping items up to 31/4" thick. Vision also offers a variety of table clamps, including a wedge clamp that attaches to a T-slot table and secures materials through downward clamping force, and a corner clamp designed to secure square and rectangular plates. By lining up the V-shaped cutout on the clamp with the corner of the plate, the engraving cutter can reach the edges of the plate without the spindle bumping into the clamp.
   Manufacturers also offer a variety of holding jigs for use with a vise as well as fixtures designed to accommodate a wide variety of objects ranging from jewelry and pens to watch backs. Vision offers Universal Clamping Bars for holding small flat items such as name badges with pin backs. The clamping bars can be rotated to hold one to three round objects at the same time, allowing you to engrave multiple items such as notary seals, coasters and paperweights. Vision also offers double-sided holding jigs that clamp items such as pens on one side and medallions, seals or other circular items on the other side. A Universal Pin fixture accommodates a variety of odd-shaped items such as odd-sized pens, lighters, knives, key chains, etc., through the use of repositionable pins.
   Gravograph also manufactures a wide variety of holding jigs for clamping many items in your engraving machine. The company’s Multipurpose jig utilizes a series of sliding metal gripper fingers that can be moved to conform to the shape of many odd-shaped objects. They also offer a Gravofoil jig for holding very thin materials such as Gravofoil (a very thin, adhesive-backed material used for industrial signage and labels) and a Cell Phone jig designed specifically for holding cell phones and other electronic devices.
Hold-Down Mats
   Another alternative to securing items for engraving involves using a hold-down mat. These mats typically consist of a plastic or rubber sheet that is coated on both sides with a tacky substance. The mat adheres to both the table and the item to be engraved without the need for clamps or double-stick tape. A hold-down mat can also be cleaned and reused, making it a quick and economical alternative. Companies sell hold-down mats under different brand names. For example, Vision sells the Multi Mat, Newing-Hall, Haskins, OH offers the Dynagrip mat and Gravograph sells the Gravogrip mat.
Ring Engraving Attachment
   Several machine manufacturers, including Xenetech and Vision, offer ring engraving attachments for certain machine models for engraving on the inside and outside of rings and bracelets. A ring accessory typically consists of a three-jaw chuck that holds the ring/bracelet and a specially shaped diamond graver that can reach both the inside and outside of the item. Various holding pegs/jaws are available to accommodate different ring sizes. The attachment typically mounts on a vise or T-slot table and works in conjunction with special software to set up the layout. A ring engraving attachment could be a worthwhile investment if you are involved in engravable gifts and/or if you do outside engraving for jewelry stores.
Cylindrical Attachment
   A cylindrical engraving fixture can greatly increase the range of products you can engrave. Most manufacturers sell cylindrical attachments for engraving around the circumference of cylindrical items such as tankards, glasses, mugs and bowls. Round items such as these can be tricky or even impossible to engrave on a standard table because the traditional X- and Y-axes on the machine are set on a two-dimensional flat grid that prevents even engraving on a curved surface. With a cylindrical attachment, a rotational axis and cylindrical cones or jigs replace one of the flat axes to allow the item to rotate during engraving.

Gravograph’s (Duluth, GA) cell phone jigs were designed especially for holding electronic devices.


The automatic plate feeder from Gravograph allows loading multiple plates automatically for engraving.

   Some accessories for cylindrical attachments are also available. For example, Xenetech sells an optional three-jaw chuck that allows holding smaller items like pens, PVC pipe, copper pipe, etc., from .125" in diameter by 13.75" long. The company also offers a tilt option for its rotary cylindrical attachment. This option allows you to tilt the cylindrical fixture from 0 to 21 degrees, allowing you to engrave conical, pyramid, tapered and other odd-shaped pieces without distortion.
   Vision also offers a rotary pen attachment that is essentially a miniature cylindrical attachment. This attachment rotates the pen during engraving, allowing you to not only engrave the length of the pen but around the entire circumference as well. The rotary pen attachment holds items up to 1.5" in diameter and up to 7" long and can be used for clamping other cylindrical items such cigar holders and miniature baseball bats.
Glass Engraving Kit
   In order to rotary engrave glass, you need a coolant system to keep the work surface cool and lubricated during the engraving process. Like ring engraving attachments, glass engraving kits are available from different suppliers for various machine models. A typical kit includes a reservoir for the cutting fluid, a catch basin, a recirculating pump, multifaceted rotary diamond cutters and cutting fluid formulated for glass, such as water-soluble oil. During engraving, the coolant flows from a tube over the item being engraved so the engraving area is continually flooded during the cut. The coolant is then deposited in the catch basin and is recirculated over the item. Glass engraving kits may also include rubber cones to clamp and cushion glass pieces in a cylindrical attachment. Vision also offers a wine bottle adaptor which is essentially a “boot” that allows clamping wine and champagne bottles for engraving.
Braille Accessories
   Raster Braille (patented and trademarked by Accent Signage Systems) is the industry’s most popular option for creating ADA signage today and there are several accessories available to make the process a quick and easy one. With this method you use your rotary engraving machine and a special Braille cutter to drill small holes into the sign material. Small beads (Rasters) are then inserted into the holes using either a manual or automatic insertion tool. The tool consists of a tube that holds the Braille beads and a spring-loaded assembly that dispenses the beads or “spheres” one at a time into the drilled holes.
   You can use the Braille insertion tool to manually insert Braille beads by pressing the tool into each hole to dispense a bead. Another option allows you to use one of the automatic Braille dispensing and insertion devices that are now available, making the sign-making process even easier and more efficient. After drilling the holes with your rotary engraver, simply install the automatic insertion device on the engraving machine and rerun the job to automatically dispense and insert the beads. Several suppliers offer automatic Braille insertion tools, including Accent Signage Systems, Vision, Gravograph and Braille-Oz Pty. Ltd., Queensland, Australia.



Helical end mills courtesy of Antares, Inc., Horsham, PA.  

   Most machine manufacturers also offer an offset bracket that can be mounted onto the spindle assembly of your engraving machine to hold the insertion device, saving you the time of having to install and uninstall it for each job. Some also offer entire kits that include the Braille insertion device, Braille and profiling cutters (for creating raised lettering), Rasters and a weeding tool. Accent Signage Systems also offers an optional Auto-Raster compressor accessory kit (air compressor sold separately) to provide air pressure hookup that helps dispense the beads in dry, static environments.
   Today, most engraving machine manufacturers include a Braille translator in their engraving software packages, including Gravograph, Vision and Xenetech. In some cases, you may need to purchase translation software separately as an add-on option. Duxbury Systems Inc., Westford, MA, is one supplier that offers translation software for all types of Braille in numerous languages.
Automatic Surface Sensor
   Automatic surface sensing is another useful feature on many computerized engraving machines. On some systems, this is a standard feature while on others it is optional. An automatic surface sensor regulates the engraving depth automatically with a sensor that finds the material surface and relays that position back to the software. The spindle then lowers to the appropriate depth based on this information. Essentially, this device sets the Z stroke without operator assistance, which can be a big time saver for many jobs.
Vacuum Chip Removal
   A vacuum chip removal system is a must-have accessory if you rotary engrave and if you believe that time is money. These systems are designed to remove material chips during engraving so you don’t have to do it manually. The systems consist of a hose, canister, small vacuum pump, HEPA air filter and a depth nose attachment. The vacuum suction produced by this system sucks away the material chips which not only saves you cleanup time but also reduces the tendency for the chips to scratch the material surface when they become trapped underneath the depth nose. All of the major machine manufacturers and distributors offer vacuum chip removal systems.
Software Technology
   Most of the major equipment suppliers also offer software designed specifically for rotary engraving, including Xenetech (Graphic Workstation for Rotary Engraving), Vision (Vision, Vision PRO-LT and Vision PRO engraving software), Gravograph (GravoStyle6) and Newing-Hall (EngraveLab Foundation, EngraveLab Expert, EngraveLab Pro). Each of these packages offers features specific to rotary engraving but in most cases you can also choose to upgrade the software to enhance features. Options vary depending on the software, but some examples include drawing tools, the ability to engrave bitmaps without conversion, depth control by color capability, on-the-fly hatch fill for logos, a full range of drawing and editing tools such as lines, circles and arcs, freehand drawing, corner tools, node editing, optimized cutter path sorting to optimize speed, bitmap dithering effects and 3D engraving capabilities. In most cases, you can start out with a basic engraving package and then upgrade to more sophisticated software as you become more experienced and as your needs warrant.

The 3001 Series Guillontine Shear from AccuCutter Company is available in four different sizes and manual or air powered versions.

A vacuum chip removal system is essential for keeping the work area clean. Photo courtesy of Vision Engraving & Routing Systems. The Universal Pin Fixture, shown with the Versa Vise, is available from Vision Engraving & Routing Systems.

Miscellaneous Accessories
   Like other industries, the engraving industry continues to introduce new and interesting technologies that allow engravers to do things with their equipment that they never could before. Most suppliers offer a variety of “miscellaneous” accessories, including:
   * Dedicace—Gravograph has introduced Dedicace, a unique new accessory for rotary engraving that takes handwritten text and designs and converts them into an engravable layout. To use the device, you select a template that matches the size and shape of the item to be engraved and then create a personal message or design using the Dedicace pen and “magic” paper. You can then engrave the design exactly as it was drawn.
   * Hand-Held Pendant—Vision offers a hand-held “control panel” for its Series 3 controller that provides all of the engraving machine controls at your fingertips. This allows you to view the engraving progress up close and make on-the-fly machine adjustments.
   * Table Stands—Many computerized engraving machines are designed to sit on a benchtop or desk but you may want to free up some room and turn it into a freestanding system. Table stands, which may include casters for easy mobility, are available to help keep the work area organized and offer convenient storage for the engraving machine, materials and accessories.
   * Machine Travel Case—Gravograph offers a travel case designed for transporting its smaller, compact M20 and M40 series machines to off-site locations, such as a car or bridal show, kiosk or other retail business. These cases feature a retractable handle and recessed castors, and one model includes a storage area for a laptop and accessories.
   * Dual Carriage—Vision offers a dual spindle carriage that allows you to mount two spindles on one engraving machine. The two spindles can be used simultaneously to engrave two identical items at once, which can greatly increase production for multiple-quantity jobs.
   * Automatic Plate Feeder—Gravograph has introduced an automatic plate feeder accessory that mounts on the engraving table and automatically feeds up to 195 plates to be engraved, saving the operator the time involved with loading and unloading each plate individually. The plate feeder is designed for processing production and batch quantities of machine plates, ID plates, tags, badges and labels.
Auxiliary Accessories
   There are many “extra” accessories available in the industry designed to make an engraver’s job easier. Many of these are fabricating tools that allow you to fabricate and embellish blanks in-house, saving you the time and hassle of having to order prefabricated blanks from suppliers. Here’s a look at several tools that could make your job a lot easier.
   Ordering engraving materials such as engraving plastic and brass and aluminum sheet stock can save you money in the long run. If you do this, then you need a way to cut it to size and a standard shear is one easy way to do this. Suppliers such as Johnson Plastics and Gravograph offer both plastic and metal manual cutting shears for this purpose. A typical bench-top plastic-cutting shear can handle plastic engraving stock up to .125" thick while metal shears can cut brass up to .025", aluminum up to .040" and steel up to .020" with maximum cutting widths of 12".
   AccuCutter also offers a line of shears, including manual plastic- and metal-cutting shears, combination shears that can handle both materials and air-operated models designed to save operator fatigue. The company also offers shears with larger cutting length capacities, e.g. up to 25".
   Many of today’s engraving materials require a saw to be cut accurately and with quality results, such as ABS, acrylic laminates, acrylic, formica, PVC, phenolic, wood, rubber, felt, matte board, thicker brass and aluminum, and many sublimatable materials. For these applications, a safety saw is a good tool to have. Unlike table saws or radial arm saws, a safety saw has a blade that is completely enclosed. Johnson Plastics recently began carrying a line of Varga Circular Saws that offer features such as a chip collector, bar-type stop guide and a detailed inch scale.
Beveling Machines
   Beveling is the process of creating a sloped, angular edge on a plastic or acrylic plate to create a visual border effect that is especially attractive on stock with contrasting core and surface colors. It is a very popular process for enhancing the look of badges, nameplates and signs. You can quickly and easily bevel plates in your shop using a tabletop beveling machine.
Several bevelers are available from suppliers such as Gravograph and Johnson Plastics with various features. For example, some machines can bevel materials up to 1/8" thick while others can handle up to 1/4" thick materials. Other machine features include the ability to round corners on plates and a built-in chip extractor.
Corner Rounders & Notchers
   Corner rounding and notching are other corner-finishing options that can enhance the look of badges, nameplates, signs and plaques. As with beveling, you can purchase corner-rounding and notching equipment and fabricate your plates in-house. AccuCutter offers several different corner systems suited for different corner sizes and types of materials. For example, the company’s original Cornermate comes with over 30 cutting units for corner radii ranging from .125" to 1" and manual, electric or air powered tables.


Gravograph offers a portable travel case for its smaller engraving machines.  

Hole Punches
   Hole punching and slotting are additional capabilities that you may want to add to your in-house repertoire. Many products that you sell need to be mounted to something else, such as a plaque to a plaque board, a plate to a perpetual plaque or a sign to a wall or post, and that often requires holes. There are also other applications for hole punching, such as Pet ID tags, luggage tags, machine tags and legend plates.    Slotting is often used for luggage tags or to create a base for a countertop sign.
   Once again, hole punching machines are available from industry suppliers such as Johnson Plastics and AccuCutter for these applications. For example, AccuCutter’s V-punch is capable of punching round holes and slots in various sizes in materials such as aluminum, engravers brass, flexible plastic and mild steel. Johnson recently starting offering the Roper Whitney #5 Jr. Hole Punch, a heavy duty hole punch that comes with seven round punches and dies and features an adjustable stop gauge.
Strip Heater
   Another process that has many popular applications is called thermobending which involves heating plastic to soften it and then bending or folding it into a shape. This is popular for products such as counter signs, slip-on pocket badges, picture and certificate frames, business card holders and display racks. The process involves using a strip heater, which features a long, straight electrical heating element, and a bending fixture to shape the plastic and hold it in place while it cools. You can purchase strip heaters and bending fixtures from engraving suppliers. Johnson Plastics, for example, offers 21" and 33" strip heaters.
Cutter Grinder
   If you have a high-volume shop and/or you often use exotic, custom-ground cutters, you might want to consider purchasing a cutter grinder. This allows you to grind and sharpen cutters in your shop on an as-needed basis. Gravograph offers the CG-30 Cutter Grinder that features a series of collets for holding different sized cutter blanks and a dust extractor.
   As you can see, there is a plethora of tools and accessories available that can enhance your rotary engraving capabilities, allowing you to quickly and easily complete jobs and boost your production. Take a look at what’s available. Chances are you will find a tool, or several tools, that will make your job a lot easier! And be sure to watch for part 2 of this article series which takes a look at accessories for your laser engraving equipment.