What can you do with a sheet of plastic?

Copyright © 2012 by Davis Multimedia, Int'l. All Rights Reserved.
As Printed in June 2012, Volume 37, No. 12 of The Engravers Journal

   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.
   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.

There is a great selection of plastic colors available for name badges. Personalized key chains make great point-of-purchase items.

   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.
   Another type of sign that is often overlooked by engravers, and that can be easily made with flexible engraving stock and acrylic, is the tent or folded signs: Although these require a strip heater to make, they are quick and easy to form, and can be very profitable. Restaurants love tent signs and banks use a lot of the folded signs. Tent signs are commonly used to advertise something such as a dessert or to designate one table from another or even to reserve a table.
   While we are talking about signs, let’s not forget signs that make our garden grow. This is the time of year when all the would-be gardeners are planting their gardens. Engraving plastic is a great way to mark the rows and if you use a UV-stable plastic, the stakes (signs) can be used year after year. One style involves attaching a small tag to a stake and driving the stake into the ground, but a much classier method is to make the sign and stake out of one piece of 1/8" plastic. The 1/8" thick plastic provides enough rigidity for you to drive it into soft soil and it is tough enough to withstand the abuse of the growing season.
   Although one doesn’t usually think about making road signs out of engraving plastic, we have done it. A number of years ago, we moved our shop to a fairly remote area. It isn’t difficult to find, but there is always the conversation of “take the first right, then the next left.” When the new “glow-in-the-dark” plastic material came out, we decided to do our neighborhood a favor. Their old directional signs were rotting away so we made new ones using the glow-in-the-dark material. In the process, we added directional signs to our shop. Now, all we have to tell new clients is “Follow the signs.”
   Because the 1/16" material was too thin to use by itself for this job, we mounted it to 3/4" thick PVC board that we purchased from Lowe’s. Except for the post it is mounted on, everything is plastic—nothing to rot. These signs could have been made from any UV-stable material, but we chose the glow-in-the-dark for obvious reasons. Even after dark when the signs no longer glow on their own, a flash of a car’s headlights will light them up like they have light bulbs behind them.
   Last but not least in our consideration of signs is the category of safety signs. Industrial organizations of all kinds need and use a ton of safety signs—usually in safety yellow or red. Once a company knows you can make safety signs, they will instantly become a repeat customer.

Layouts for control panels are more precise than most jobs but they are not difficult to make. Engraving plastic is ideal for informational signs, such as this sample from Rowmark LLC, Findlay OH.

   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.
   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.

Many suppliers carry a complete line of plastics geared toward making ADA-compliant signage. Photo courtesy of B.F. Plastics, Inc., North Lawrence, OH.

Using exterior grade engraving plastic, you can create attractive and functional directional signs.

Lapel pins, such as these made from Rowmark’s new pink plastic, can be used to shout out a cause.

   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.
   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.

Engraved plastic stakes are a classy way to mark rows in a garden.

   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.
You can make many different functional products from plastic, such as this acrylic tool holder. Using a strip heater, you can thermobend plastic engraving stock to create tent signs.

   Most of us are probably involved in the awards business so we can’t talk about plastic and not talk about some ways we can use plastic to create some unique awards. With all the many kinds of plaques on the market, it might seem odd to look for yet another type, but here is one I enjoy selling.
   I engrave a piece of gold plastic like a plaque and then use a standard picture frame (usually from a discount house) to frame it. People like awards with gold engraving plates and the frame adds a unique touch. And although gold plastic plates can be used on wood plaque boards, they sometimes feel too much like plastic. When you place a plastic plate under glass, however, no one ever knows if it’s metal or plastic. By the way, engraved plastic is a lot easier to read than engraved brass, and it doesn’t require the use of an oxidizing solution.
   You can also frame a plastic plaque plate with a deep wall frame or a shadow box. This creates an interesting 3D effect.
   Here is both a time and money saver for you: Two-inch disks featuring logos, mascots, sports themes, etc., are commonly used to dress up plaques and trophies that have a spot to hold the disks. The problem is you pretty much have to inventory a bunch of these disks for all kinds of sports and academics, some of which you will probably never sell. Although they don’t cost much, when you start to add up a large quantity, you can run up several hundred dollars very quickly. With engraving plastic, you can make your own disks in whatever size you need or want and whenever you want. What’s more, you can personalize the disks with anything your customer wants. Need a disk for a local high school band? No problem. Find a music note in your clip art, add the name of the high school and you have an award they will never see anywhere else. This is a great way to build a base of loyal customers, too. If they like the personalized disks and you are the only one making them, you have a long time repeat customer.
   These same disks also work as inserts for medals. I use a lot of 1" and 2" medals with my own inserts for everything from graduation honor awards to gymnastics competitions.
   Trophy plates can be a very labor intensive process—especially if you are engraving a lot of them. First, you have to cut the metal and then engrave the plates. Next comes the double-faced tape and the application. This process hasn’t changed much over the years.
   Using plastic for trophy plates may be more expensive in terms of material costs but, in the long run, it ends up being less expensive than metal and gains a happier customer to boot! I like to use the 1/32" thick material for this but the self-adhesive foil also works well. To make the plates, I laser the text and vector cut the plates all in one step. When possible, I order the plastic with the adhesive already applied to the back so all I have to do is peel and stick. It saves time and produces a trophy plate that is easier to read than traditional metal plates and you can often use plastic made in team or school colors. Fabricating and engraving a whole sheet of plates in one setup sure beats sitting in front of that engraving machine changing plates for hours at a time!

You can make your own 2" disks from engraving plastic and customize them on an as-needed basis. I’ve even used 1/8" thick plastic to create a curved trestle for my model train.

   Here’s one I’ll bet no one else has done. I like model trains. In fact, I have been building my model train display for over 10 years and have yet to see a train run on it. (It isn’t a matter of running the trains, it’s a matter of me getting lost in the building.) Anyway, I needed to build a trestle—a curved trestle. I couldn’t find anything like that in the catalogs or hobby shops so I made my own using 1/8" thick plastic. I drew the design in CorelDRAW with the ties and then cut it out. Then I mounted the ties onto balsa wood supports to make it look like old-fashioned trestle supports. It works great and, once I paint it, it will look good as well. I have done similar jobs for model airplane and model car enthusiasts by making parts they can’t find through normal channels.
   I’ve saved this one until the end because it is surely the most mundane of all the applications I have used engraving plastic for. In an apartment building I own, I have always had trouble with tenants placing wet mops in the back hallway to dry. They usually lean them up against the wall which makes the newly painted walls look terrible. The solution was to hang a half sheet of engraving plastic on the wall behind the mops and brooms. In this case, I found some discontinued plastic for a few dollars. It almost seems like a demeaning application for such a highly specialized product yet it works great.
   Promotional products or ad specialties are sold by the millions. You can sell these products by ordering them from a supplier already imprinted with the customer’s logo, but you can also offer your services as an engraver to engrave plates for ad specialties that can be used on everything from a clock to a little red wagon. Hooking up with the promotional product specialists in your community can insure some lucrative business for both of you and all it takes is a few pieces of engraving plastic.

Mounting an engraved gold plastic plate in a picture frame creates a unique award. “Glow-in-the-dark” plastic can be used for both exterior and safety signage applications. Photo courtesy of Rowmark LLC.

   There are all kinds of informational and memorial placards around us. I separate these from signs because they are usually displayed on some type of stand or legs. For example, consider the placards you see at a zoo describing the animals in a certain area or the type of tree in a botanical garden. Too often, these informational signs are made from paper and covered with a sheet of acrylic. Clearly, engraving plastic is a far better material for these types of signs. I prefer using textured or reverse engravable plastic for this task but other types work well too. Stands to hold the “signs” are available in a wide variety of sizes and styles and can be used for everything from identifying a tree to a memorial plaque as a tombstone for a pet. I sell a lot of these to city parks but other markets include state and federal parks, cemeteries, landscapers, botanical gardens, zoos, petting zoos and hospitals.
   Memorial plaques are yet another product you can make with engraving plastic. Churches, hospitals and charitable institutions like Hospice House all depend a great deal on donations of money and property. Donors are often recognized with a placard or “site plaque” designating who the donation was from. A single sheet of plastic can produce a hundred or more of these placards, resulting in a sale of several hundred dollars.
   The ways in which you can use a sheet of plastic could probably fill up every issue of EJ for the rest of the year—and far beyond! Hopefully you’ve gleaned some good ideas from the information presented here about what you can do with what is probably the most versatile material we work with—engraving plastic.
   The next time you see a piece of plastic in your shop, don’t just take it for granted. Stop and think. What can I do with that sheet of plastic that I haven’t done before? And when you come up with that unique and interesting idea, let us know! We’d love to feature our readers’ uses for a sheet of plastic in a future issue.




EJ Subscription Ad