Think about it. Engraving plastic—it’s found in some form or another in virtually every shop in the recognition and identification industry. Or maybe you don’t think about it. We use it all the time for different purposes, but have you ever stopped to ponder what you can actually do with a sheet of plastic? In that commonplace commodity, there is a world of creativity to be realized and, in some cases, a ton of money to be made.
Ben Fichter, Marketing Representative for B.F. Plastics, Inc., North Lawrence, OH, recently made the comment: “Engravers who think outside the box are able to be really creative and can impress their customers with unique designs and distinctive products. Long story short, we’ve seen customers increase their sales by being unique and creative. People are always itching for something different.”
Fichter’s recent comments to EJ prompted this feature article: What can you do with one of the most basic of all the materials in our industry?
Engraving plastic comes in different thicknesses and many different colors, finishes and textures. Many of us use two-ply 1/16" thick stock with a colored cap and a basic color core. In my shop, I also stock a lot of 1/32" material, 1/8" stock and 1/8" acrylic. I also inventory a lot of “foil” or .004" thick self-adhesive material so I’ll include them in this little exposé.
All in all, a sheet of plastic can go a long way. The challenge is to think out of the box and see how many applications we can come up with using the various types of engraving plastic. Take a look.
SIGNS & BADGES
Let’s start with the most common, which are probably wall signs and name badges. The wide variety of plastic colors and designs available affords a great selection for all kinds of interior signage and name badges. I prefer using textured plastic for my name badges. Although the color choices are more limited in this material, the badges are scratch-resistant and UV-stable, making them almost indestructible. Occasionally, I will see one that has gone through a washing machine and dryer but, even then, the worst damage is usually limited to replacing the finding on the back of the badge. That is why I give these badges an unconditional lifetime guarantee.
Signage pretty much falls into two categories: ADA and non-ADA. Some engravers have figured out that meeting ADA standards really isn’t all that difficult and have invested in some method of doing Grade II Braille while others just avoid the ADA market altogether. Have no fear. Even if you aren’t interested in doing ADA signage, there are still plenty of market opportunities out there to make a lot of money from signage.
Making control panels is a specialty of mine. I really get a kick out of seeing one of my control panels on a multi-million dollar piece of mining equipment or a million dollar pleasure boat. The layout for these usually requires a far more precise design than the typical wall sign, but they are not difficult to make and can be very profitable.
Most control panels we make fall into two categories: Those that have a metal frame behind them and those that don’t. Panels with a punched or drilled metal frame don’t require much strength, just a face plate that is cut out to match the metal under-pinning and the necessary labeling. We usually use either 1/32" or 1/16" thick material for these, depending on the type of switches and other electronic gear that is going to be mounted in the panel.
For a control panel without the metal support, designing the panel can be much less precise but we use 1/8" material to add strength. This extra strength allows switches, meters and lights to be mounted directly to the plastic, saving the manufacturer a ton of time and money. Over the years, I have made control panels for limousines, airplanes, cruise ships, top secret experimental military test equipment, mining equipment and my own pickup truck.
Another type of control panel that is fun is one that is backlit. Frosted or matte finished reverse engravable material is a perfect substrate for backlighting. This material works well for airplane instrument panels and in custom automobiles such as limousines.
PICTURE FRAMES & THEIR COUSINS
What has proven to be an excellent customer group for me is picture framers. Framers receive some pretty unusual requests from their clients and they often involve engraving. Although a few framers do have engraving machines, most are pretty limited in what they can do in this area, and that’s good for us. As experts, we can easily fulfill their needs for quality engraving.
Picture framers often use brass plates on their frames and although brass is still preferred in some applications, gold plastic works much better when the plate is placed under the glass. It is easier to read, there are a variety of colors available (gold, silver, bronze) and you can engrave it using your laser. The 1/32" thick plastic usually works best but 1/16" stock works too. I found that in the beginning, framers almost always order 1"x3" plates; but after awhile, they learn that they can order other sizes that might create a better balance with the particular picture or art being framed. That’s when they begin to challenge you—and that’s when the fun begins.
A creative variation of this same theme is to use plastic as a picture frame mat. This approach gives the job a totally different look and is especially great for historical items or for picture collages that require mats with several unusually shaped cutouts. You can create cutouts and add engraving over the entire mat area. Of course, any color material can be used, not just gold.
LET’S MAKE SOMETHING USEFUL
Functional objects of all kinds are fun to design and make using engraving stock or acrylic. We have useful items throughout our entire shop that are made of engraving plastic. For example: Next to our lasers is a flashlight hanger that we made by thermobending a piece of acrylic to hold a flashlight and keep it handy so we can take a closer look at something in the laser whenever we need to.
Likewise, there is a folded acrylic holder for my engraving tools. I can’t tell you how many of these I have made for people. In a drawer next to my rotary engraver is an engraved panel to hold all my cutters. I don’t know what any engraver would do without one.
LET’S MAKE SOMETHING WE CAN SELL
Point-of-purchase sales can really rack up. How many times have you been at a checkout and made a last-minute purchase from a turntable or display at the point of sale? There are likely numerous businesses in your area, such as tourist and gift shops, that are interested in installing such a display and selling some last-minute items. Here are a couple of ideas you can make with your engraving machine. Just let the shop owner take orders for you and you fulfill them.
Luggage and bag tags are always good impulse sale items and they are easy to make. You can engrave these, cut them out and slot them with your engraving machine and then add a leather or plastic strap. These are great for laptops, iPads and, of course, luggage—imagine being able to identify your luggage easily at that crowded airport carousel.
Making tags requires nothing more than a scrap piece of plastic. Three-ply plastic works nicely because you can engrave on both sides but most people are quite happy with two-ply material engraved on one side. Are they tough? You bet they are. My wife and I have used them on our luggage for years and only once has one been broken or lost.
You have probably seen key chains cut out of colored acrylic hanging in a gift shop somewhere. You know, the ones that feature a cutout of every name imaginable except for the one you want. You can make these in no time with your laser engraver. Just use a “connected” font like “Stencil” and you’re in business! Add a line of engraving at the bottom, such as the name of a high school, and you have a unique but inexpensive graduation gift.
Here’s one that can be marketed through the Internet, local doctors’ offices, hospitals, etc. As we get older, the list of medications we take seems to get longer and longer, and it is so difficult to remember them all. Yet, every time we visit a doctor, the first thing they ask is “What medications are you taking?” Most people scribble them on a piece of paper but that soon wears thin and is difficult to read. Others drag the pill bottles with them. Remember, too, should we be in an accident and are not able to speak for ourselves, knowing what medications we are taking can make the difference between life and death. Every emergency responder will tell you to always carry an up-to-date list in your wallet or purse.
To answer this need, I use 1/32" plastic to create a small plate in the size and shape of a credit card. For $10, I will engrave the list of a customer’s medications on the plastic card. This isn’t going to make me rich, but I ask these customers to come by the shop and bring their meds. While I make a list of the medications, they get to look around the showroom—get the idea?
Another huge market for engraving plastic that many engravers have never tapped into is the rural mailbox. Drive through the “country” or suburbia and you will pass thousands of mailboxes with all kinds of ugly “sticky letters” slapped on the sides. Actually, there are some regulations published by the Post Office for what the lettering is supposed to look like, but few people pay any attention to it. Textured plastic that is UV-stable, weatherproof and scratch-resistant makes the perfect mailbox sign. Add a couple strips of weatherproof double-sided tape and you have a product millions of people can use—and since mailboxes have two sides, guess what? You can often sell two at a time.
Lapel pins can also be very lucrative. I’m not talking about the traditional small pins but, instead, big “in-your-face” pins that shout out a cause such as AIDS or cancer or the war. It seems that everyone is wearing some kind of lapel pin these days. With the introduction of Rowmark’s new pink plastic, it is now easy to make items for breast cancer awareness and, of course, other colors are available as well. The artwork is simple. Just use your laser to cut out the pins, add a finding to the back and you will be surprised how popular they are and how well they sell.
Here’s another easy one to sell. Every town and city in the country follows a single electrical code. That code requires that circuit breaker boxes, along with some outlets and switches, be labeled with a “permanent tag.” You can take advantage of these regulations by using engraving plastic to create electrical tags, wiring diagrams and legend plates for motors, solenoids, etc. It’s something every commercial electrician must have and they often resort to some pretty strange solutions to meet the codes. If you do a little advertising and marketing to electrical supply houses in your area, you will surely pick up some interesting business. In most cases, the codes specify black plastic with white letters or red plastic with white letters so it is easy to stock what you will need. While you are at it, don’t forget to sell a tag engraved with the installer’s information so the consumer will know who to call should repairs be needed.
Don’t forget property ID labels. I bring this up because, nowadays, it seems like everyone is interested in security. In our community, the school district just passed an ordinance that everything the schools own must be marked with a barcode. That’s a lot of property, including desks, office equipment, tools, photographic equipment, etc. Engraving plastic, used with a good adhesive, fits that bill perfectly, especially self-adhesive foils because once it has cured (72 hours), it is almost impossible to remove.
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