Rotary & Laser Engraving: 15 Products You Shouldn't Overlook

Copyright © 2012 by Davis Multimedia, Int'l. All Rights Reserved.
As Printed in May 2012, Volume 37, No. 11 of The Engravers Journal
Braille beads are placed into an ADA sign. Photo courtesy of Vision Engraving & Routing Systems, Phoenix, AZ.

   If you aren’t already looking for new ideas to help you make money with your engraving equipment, you should be. Great ideas can come from the strangest places. And they usually aren’t new. In fact, they are often jobs you may have done before but have allowed to slip out of your mind. Here are a few ideas, some for lasers, some for rotary machines and some for both, that can add a dollar or two (maybe a lot more) to your bottom line.
   In a recent issue of EJ, I talked about some marketing opportunities every laser engraver should consider exploring to increase business (“14 Laser Markets You Shouldn’t Ignore,” Jan. 12). That particular article was so well received that we decided to expand on that topic for this month’s feature article and speak more specifically about some projects you might consider adding. Some of these can be done with either a rotary or laser engraving system and one can be done only with a rotary engraving machine.
   ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) signage is a job that can only be successfully completed using a rotary engraving machine because of recent changes in the ADA laws. ADA sign-
age came into being with the intent of helping the blind to better navigate public buildings and, although there has been much debate as to the effectiveness of the signage regulations, the fact is: ADA signage is the law and it’s here to stay. Schools, colleges, hospitals, nursing homes, hotels, government agencies, corporate offices and virtually any business or publicly accessible building has to comply with government regulations regarding ADA signage for disabled or visually-impaired people.
   Maybe you have avoided getting involved in making and selling ADA signage or maybe you have used your laser to make part of the signage. The best method for making ADA sign-age, however, is really rotary engraving for a couple of reasons.
   First, although not required, there is a preference that the tactile portions of signs (raised lettering and symbols) have a beveled edge. The consensus is that beveled characters are easier to read both by touch and visually. Also, there is mention of a preference for beveled letters and symbols in the ADA Accessibility Guidelines (ADAAG) so it is a well-recognized preference. You can’t create beveled edges with a laser but it’s easy with a rotary engraver.
   Secondly, the Grade II Braille dots on ADA signs must have rounded tops. The best way to create rounded Braille that meets the ADA guidelines is by using the recessed sphere method commonly known as “Raster” Braille.

A standard ceramic tile laser engraved after applying a laser-markable coating designed for ceramic products.

   The method involves using your rotary machine and a special Braille cutter to drill holes into the sign blank and then inserting small beads (Rasters) into the holes using a manual or automatic insertion device. These are not inexpensive but will pay for themselves quickly. All you typically need, in addition to your engraving system, is a Braille font, Braille “translation” software and a special rotary cutter for drilling the holes.
   So, if you have avoided ADA sign-age over the years, this may be a good time to take another look. There is a lot of money being made both in new construction and retrofitting old buildings, and there is no reason why you shouldn’t put your rotary engraver(s) to work making some of it!
   Pet products are a multi-billion dollar business in the United States and it’s an area that continues to grow despite the economy. If you are like me, you want some of that money that people are willing to spend on their pets, and tags are a great place to start. Every dog and many a cat owner needs tags for their pets and although there are already some sources for these, you can easily step in to be one of them.
   Why not visit your local pet stores, veterinarians, rescue centers and animal control shelters—anyplace that sells or gives away pets. Put a small rack on their counter displaying flyers offering your services. People can either come to your shop or order by phone, by mail or from your website. However you do it, it is a product line that is inexpensive to get into and lucrative to boot.
   These tags can be engraved using either a rotary or a laser machine but if you have a laser, you have it made in this market. Why? Because most tags are made of anodized aluminum which laser engraves very well and very quickly. Average engraving time is probably about one minute per side. For stainless steel tags, use a laser-markable coating to engrave them with your CO2 laser and the tags will sell for five times what an aluminum tag does.
   While we are talking about pet tags, don’t forget the horses! Most horse owners mount a special stainless steel or brass tag on the halter of their animals. As I just mentioned, stainless steel requires using a laser-markable coating to engrave, but tags like these can easily sell for $25 or more and take only a few minutes to engrave. Hint: Someone who owns “a” horse likely owns several or stables his horse in a barn where dozens of other owners stable their animals as well.

Watch-holding jigs are available for securely holding watches in a rotary engraving machine.

   This little product line is a big hit in gift shops and tourist traps worldwide. Consider using your laser to cut a person’s name out of 1/8" acrylic to make a personalized key tag. The easiest way to do this is to use a “stencil” font so the interior of the letters are securely attached but with some creativity, other fonts can also be used. A quarter sheet of acrylic will yield a hundred or more key fobs and, best of all, you can easily create tags for those children whose names are normally not available from mass suppliers of these items.
   For tourist shops or fundraisers, you can add a line of text below the cut-out name that tells where the key fob came from, such as “Myrtle Beach” or “The Great Smokey Mountains.”
   Most customers who give medals don’t have them engraved because of the cost or because the dealer doesn’t have the capability. Building a market for engraving medals for the children who win them can be as simple as printing a flyer and handing it out with the medals.
   Many medals are now laser engravable which makes them a snap to do. Others will require diamond engraving and probably a jig to hold them. Either way, once you have set up the job, they are fast and easy to engrave.
   Want to take this to the next level? Actually go to the event where the medals are going to be awarded and set up a table showing what you can do. Once one child wants his medal(s) engraved, they all will.
   A final idea for medals: For those who want medals that represent sports that don’t exist on stock medals or who are looking for something different, use a blank medal and either engrave the face of it or use an adhesive laserable foil to make a custom medal that can depict whatever event or occasion the customer wants. You can even include the organization’s logo. Customizing blank medals is also a great way to reduce the need to inventory a lot of medals you may never be able to sell.
   Why not offer plaques in foreign languages? It’s easy. Many large companies have a need for recognition plaques, signs or ID plates in a foreign language. These companies also have contacts with people who speak and write the language fluently—perhaps an overseas office or design department. Just have them write out the text for the plaque and send it to you as a PDF. You import the PDF into your file, add their logo, plus some appropriate decoration and engrave it. This can be done with any laser and any rotary engraving system that has software that can import and engrave PDFs. And this really is a market that not too many engravers pursue.
   Well, not really. But you can engrave wood products, including plaques, with a rotary engraving machine and some good standard rotating cutters (made for plastic). Or if you prefer a non-beveled look, you can use end-mills or parallel cutters. You will need a vacuum chip removal system on your engraving machine to remove wood chips during the engraving process, and you may need to make two passes to achieve the desired depth, but the finished product will look very similar to a laser engraved product. So don’t turn away those plaque jobs if you don’t have a laser until you have given this a try!

Champagne flutes and other stemware can be laser and rotary engraved with great results.

   There are actually a lot of products available today with wood faces on them that you can engrave, but I especially like wood photo albums. These make great graduation gifts, Mother’s Day or Father’s Day gifts, new baby gifts, etc. They can be engraved with either rotary or laser equipment and then paint filled to provide color and contrast. Color filling using metallic gold enamel paint looks especially nice on wood photo albums.
   Of course, any product with a wood face can be engraved this way. These products are readily available from several industry sources. You can also find many products like this at stores such as Target or Walmart for great bargain prices.
   UNISUB plaques, for those who aren’t familiar with them, are MDF plaque boards made for sublimation that are sold by sublimation product suppliers. They are available in the standard plaque sizes and have a very hard, white surface with an oak edge. In addition to being sublimatable, these plaques can be rotary or laser engraved and then color filled with paint for spectacular results. I personally prefer using a laser to engrave these plaques. Just engrave the plaque normally, then paint fill one color at a time using whatever type of paint you prefer. It is best if you let the paint dry for a few minutes before cleaning off the excess, but the surface is so hard and smooth that you can actually let it dry completely and still clean it off using WD-40.
   So who wants barcodes engraved on tools? The U.S. Government for one. The Government loses millions of dollars in stolen tools every year. Military installations, motor pools, aircraft repair centers and shipyards are all interested in having their tools identified with barcodes. This is easy to do using a laser and a laser-markable coating. The pay is great and the stream of tools to engrave can seem endless.
   While you are at it, don’t forget schools. Vocational schools have lots of tools. Better yet, in my state, schools have been told to mark everything with barcodes—tools, desks, machines—everything! The same could be true where you live.
   You see these everywhere. Simple plastic engraved signs that are thermo bent so they stand on their own. Banks, hotels, restaurants and many other businesses use them a lot. These plastic signs can be engraved with either a rotary or laser engraver but you will need a strip heater to bend them.
   Available from industry suppliers, strip heaters have a long heating element which allows you to heat a narrow area across the plate to soften the material and allow it to be bent. Strip heaters are inexpensive and can be used for making other products as well, such as slip-on pocket badges. The process involves bending the plastic and then placing the piece in a simple jig until it cools. Other than that, there’s really nothing to it.
   Most pliable engraving plastics and acrylics up to about 1/8" thick will bend fairly easily. However, thermosetting materials, such as phenolic and fiberglass reinforced plastic (FRP) used for sublimation, do not soften under heat and will not bend without cracking.

Wood can be rotary engraved with professional results.

   Even if you don’t have a cylindrical device for your laser engraver, you can still engrave most wine glasses or champagne flutes. If you do have a rotary device, you can do far more intricate work and can cover a much larger area of the glass with engraving.
   Wine glasses and other stemware are available from a variety of dealers but they can also be purchased at a Target store for less than $1 a glass. Even at the most ridiculous price, this still leaves 400 or 500 percent profit per glass and the smaller the order, the bigger the margin. Personalized wine glasses are great sellers for weddings, wine tastings, class reunions and other social events of all kinds.
   Also, don’t forget that most glass items can be rotary engraved. Typically what you need is a diamond-tipped burnishing cutter and a liquid coolant system for your rotary engraver. During the engraving, you simply apply a trickle of coolant (water-soluble oil) over the glass as you engrave. Rotary engraving gives a really nice effect, especially for text and simple logo designs.
   I wish I could remember where I first saw this suggestion so I could give proper credit, but I can’t. So, to whomever figured this out and published it, “thank you.”
   Plastic light switch covers, like the kind you find at home improvement centers such as Lowe’s or Home Depot, can be laser or rotary engraved. A word of caution, however: Be sure you know what type of “plastic” the covers are made of before laser engraving them. Laser engraving a material containing hydrogen chloride or vinyl chloride (mostly found in PVC and other man-made materials) will corrode the inside of your machine, causing irreversible damage, and can also create hazardous fumes that can be harmful to your health. According to my sources, there are plastic switch covers that are not PVC and, therefore, can be laser engraved.
   Consider engraving switch covers with decorative graphics like football players, soccer balls, basketballs, baseball players, etc. No matter how unique the sport, there should be something you can come up with to fit the occasion. You could also personalize covers with names, e.g. for a child’s bedroom.
   Incidentally, there are also industrial and architectural applications for marking switch and receptacle covers. It’s a small, but significant, market.
   Ceramic tiles, like the ones you buy at your home improvement center for 20 cents, can be laser engraved and used for a wide variety of products, including the tiles on the top of wood keepsake boxes, wrought iron house numbers, murals and a host of other applications. These tiles are safe to use outside and are easy to engrave with a laser and a laser markable coating intended for ceramic products.
   Have you ever received a call from someone wanting engraved scissors for a ribbon-cutting ceremony only to have the potential customer pass out when they heard the price? Well, that’s only if you can’t engrave them yourself.
   In the past, people wanted to use a huge pair of scissors to cut ribbons but today, a popular option is a quantity of smaller scissors so eight or ten people can cut the ribbon all at once. High-end ceremonial scissors are available from This company offers scissors with stainless steel blades and different handle finishes, including gold-plated, silver-plated and injection-molded handles. The scissors are available in several sizes, ranging from 91/2" to 36" and are packaged in a gift box. You can also purchase scissors at a local discount or dollar store. Most of these chains carry a pretty nice standard size pair of shears. Either way, scissors can be rotary engraved and then color filled, or you can laser engrave them using a laser- markable coating.
Building a market for engraving medals can be simple and profitable. Photo courtesy of ATdesigns Insignia, Indio, CA.

Custom engraved photo albums house memories that last a lifetime. Photo courtesy of LaserBits, Phoenix, AZ.

Scissors designed specifically for ribbon-cutting ceremonies are available from, Laconia, NH.

   Here’s one that I like to let the manufacturer do for me most of the time. However, sometimes there isn’t time for their three or four week lead time and often, the customer wants to bring in his or her own timepieces. Now whether or not you choose to accept watches from the outside is up to you, but if you do, you can easily engrave them either with a laser or rotary machine.
   It takes time and patience to get it right, but you can do it. Almost all watch backs are stainless steel. This keeps them from reacting to most people’s skin and it works in our favor because stainless is easy to engrave. If you are using a rotary engraver, you can use a non-rotating diamond graver to engrave the watch back. Diamond (drag) engraving provides a nice-looking, permanent mark and it’s almost totally foolproof.
   When using a CO2 laser, you will need to use a laser-markable coating. If you are using a fiber or YAG laser, you can engrave stainless directly. The secret is making sure the watch is straight and secure in the jig or on the laser table. For a rotary machine, you will need a good pair of jigs—suppliers do offer jigs designed specifically for watches. For a laser engraver, you might consider used double-faced tape or some modeling clay to hold the watch in place.
   Here are 15 little projects that you can accomplish with your engraving machine(s). Each one of them is good for adding profits to your bottom line. Some may not necessarily be your cup of tea but if even just one ignites something in you and boosts your bottom line, that’s good. More than one is great!
   In these difficult economic times, we have to be constantly looking for that new idea or product that can super charge our business into the next level. After more than 20 years of this, I have learned one thing: You never know what that might be or where the idea might come from, so give everything a bit of a try and see how it works out—you just might be surprised. And if you are, share your own innovative projects with us—we’d love to hear from you.





EJ Subscription Ad