New & Little Known Engraving Materials

Copyright © 2012 by Davis Multimedia, Int'l. All Rights Reserved.
As Printed in September 2012, Volume 38, No. 3 of The Engravers Journal
LuminEssence is a PVC material from Rowmark LLC, Findlay, OH, that resembles mother-of-pearl and is available in a wide variety of colors.

   I remember when the first desktop laser engravers were introduced. There was almost nothing to engrave on with them except wood, which had very limited applications, cast acrylic, which was hard to come by, and anodized aluminum, which almost no one wanted to buy. Fortunately, that has changed. Today, there are thousands of items to choose from and hundreds of materials available for laser engraving.
   The same was true with sublimation. In the early days, we had a little brass and some really horrible fiberglass and that was it. Today, not only do we have all the UNISUB products and substrates, but other companies are beginning to introduce some excellent substrates. There are so many products on the market, it is sometimes difficult to keep up with them. This article is intended to be a reminder of some of those new or lesser known products you might be missing out on.
   The applications for some materials, like Safe-T-Mark by Rowmark, Findlay, OH, are pretty obvious. It is a fire-resistant alternative for phenolic (see my article, “Safe-T-Mark: The ‘Un-Phenolic’” in the Dec. 10 issue of EJ). Other products are not so easy to think of an application for. Regardless, they are all fun to test—and to start imagining what markets there might be just waiting for them.
   This article is a collection of materials that are either new to the marketplace or products that you may have overlooked or not be aware of. All have great potential and are products every engraver, especially laser engravers, should know about. You might even want to keep a sheet or two of these materials in your inventory just for that customer who stumbles through the door with a challenging new project or the customer who wants something different and unique. For simplicity, let’s consider the products by manufacturer or distributor.
Rowmark & ClearPath Signage Systems
   DigiMark OSi—The newest product on the market is probably DigiMark OSi by Rowmark. This is such a unique product that I almost passed it over. Those who keep up with such things may know that one of the super new printers coming down the lane is the UV/UV-LED digital printer. These systems use UV-curable inks and can be used to print full-color images on a variety of substrates and objects—even 3D objects like golf balls. These printers have incredible capabilities and will surely be in almost every awards, engraving, gift and sign shop in the country eventually. Right now, however, they are still fairly expensive ($20,000+) and, therefore, somewhat scarce in this industry. As time goes by, however, the prices will likely come down and popularity will go up.


DuraBlack is a durable, laser engravable material from Horizons ISG, Cleveland, OH, designed for use in harsh environments.

   These printers can print on just about anything and produce a high resolution image that is weatherproof, UV-resistant and high resolution. They can even print 1/32" raised letters and Braille for ADA signage (I’ve seen it done!). These printers are not really new. They have been around for a decade or more but usually in large format and always over $100,000. These new desktop units bring in a new generation of more affordable printers, and that is the market Rowmark and others are getting ready for by introducing materials designed to work with these printers.
   You may ask why I am even including Rowmark’s new DigiMark OSi material since only a handful of people have the printers to use it, but I do have a reason. Until researching this a bit further, I did not realize that this material was being produced in a multi-layer sheet just like any other engraving plastic. It is always white on top to accommodate the UV printer’s ink, but it can then be engraved to reveal a second color. Some may ask why this is of significance since any color needed can be printed directly on the sheet by the UV printer, but I see an application that comes from 20 years ago!
   Remember when name badges used to be hot stamped with a logo and then engraved? That is still being done. Although sublimation offers a viable alternative to that, some people still prefer the engraved name badge, sign, tag or other item. Plus, the UV printer offers a far longer outdoor life than sublimation.
   So, even if you don’t have a UV printer (yet), keep this material in mind. There are surely some people out there with UV printers who would love to do jobs for you to help justify their investment until you buy your own.
   One other note about this plastic: Not only does it receive ink well, it can also be marked with a fiber laser. The wavelength of a fiber laser produces a gray image on the white background which is extremely precise and excellent for photographs, wiring diagrams or other highly-detailed drawings. You can then engrave through the white cap to reveal the core color for adding a title or caution note. DigitMark OSi can also be rotary engraved and decorated with sign vinyl, and you can cut it into custom shapes using either a laser or rotary machine.


This is a piano finish wood box with a shell inlay that was quickly and easily created with a laser. LaserMetallicBrush from Innovative Plastics, Inc., Algonquin, IL, is an acrylic substrate that resembles metal.

   LuminEssence—This material came as a complete surprise to me and I find it very exciting. It is a series of 21 different luminescent materials that can be best described as imitation mother-of-pearl or Nacre (the inner shell layer of some mollusks). It would be beautiful for inlays and decorative flourishes on wood products or signage.
   This material is pliable and very thin—only 1/32" thick—so it is easy to cut by rotary engraving, die cutting, routing or shearing. Unfortunately, this material is made of two PVC sheets and therefore should not be laser engraved or cut (due to safety-related concerns with lasering vinyl). This is extremely unfortunate as this would make a wonderful material for inlay work. Cutting the material with a rotary machine isn’t difficult. A standard cutter, profile or 3D cutter will do an excellent job provided you can keep the material secured to a sacrificial sheet of plastic. Just be sure the double-faced tape you use to secure the material is very thin and is located under the areas you want to cut out.
   Are you listening Rowmark? Figure out how to make this from acrylic!
   ColorHues—Most engravers know that the choices in acrylic sheet material are limited in our industry. Clear, black and mirror are the easiest to find in the industry, but a variety of colors are available from acrylic supply houses (just make sure you order “cast” acrylic). Now, there is a unique line of 1/8" thick acrylics available from ClearPath (a division of Rowmark). The ColorHues is a line of translucent acrylic sheets in pastel colors that can be laser or rotary engraved, laser cut and even back or edge lit. This new acrylic is available in 19 colors, including black and white, offering color choices never before available and giving us an alternative to the “in your face” super-vivid or fluorescent colors we were formerly limited to. A second advantage of this material is that most are matte on one side and glossy on the other, meaning you can not only mix and match in your designs, but you don’t have to stock two finishes to have the entire line on hand.
   ColorHues cut and engrave like traditional cast acrylic so they are easy to work with. A jump chain of sample colors is available to assist your customer in making their choices.

Step 1: Apply the self-adhesive material to the product. Don’t apply excessive pressure but be sure the air bubbles are out. Then position the item in your laser.

Step 2: After lasering the design, immediately remove the excess material and then rub down the finished product to insure good adhesion.

Step 3: Present to your customer. No additional cleanup is necessary.
The Wood Thins product from LaserBits, Phoenix, AZ, is very easy to work with.

B.F. Plastics
   Colored Acrylic—While we are talking about acrylic, you probably know that buying colored cast acrylic suitable for laser engraving can be a challenge. The colors are out there but it is sometimes difficult to find what you want without going outside of our industry. B.F. Plastics, North Lawrence, OH, has recently begun carrying a line of translucent acrylic sheets suitable for lasering. They include clear, light blue, green, yellow, amber, red and dark blue. These are not pastels but, instead, they are rich full colors that can stand alone or compliment either the pastel colors from Rowmark or the solid and fluorescent colors offered by LaserBits, Phoenix, AZ. B.F. Plastics offers a sample pack for $5.
Innovative Plastics, Inc. (IPI)
   LaserTUFF & LaserTUFF Tex—These two materials are both UV-stable acrylic and are suitable for exterior use. Unlike other exterior UV-stable plastics that require a fairly deep engraving depth, these have a very thin cap requiring only .005" engraving depth. This makes them ideal for fine detail engraving with either a laser or rotary machine. The LaserTUFF material comes in several thicknesses and both two- and three-ply construction while the LaserTUFF Tex is available only in 1/16" two-ply construction.
   LaserMetallicBrush—LaserMetallicBrush is IPI’s newest addition to its line of laser engravable plastics. What makes this material unique is that it is, according to IPI, the only brushed metallic subsurface material available in the industry. It looks like metal, but is actually impact acrylic. Suitable for interior applications, this product features a decorative covering bonded to clear acrylic. The two-ply material is .060" thick and is available in brushed gold and brushed aluminum with either a matte or glossy surface finish. LaserMetallicBrush is designed to be reverse engraved with a laser and then color filled to provide contrast. It can be fabricated with a laser, rotary machine (but not engraved with a rotary machine), saw or drill. It can also be hot stamped and screen printed, and the matte version is suitable for ADA signage. The beauty of this material is that it looks like metal but offers the ease and workability of acrylic.

Here are two of the three colors of shell material available from LaserBits. It is amazing how this material reflects light.



LaserBits
   There are two materials from LaserBits I want to remind you of. Neither is really new. In fact, the newest has been around for several years, but I didn’t know about it, so it was new to me. Maybe it will be to you as well.
   Wood Thins—You are probably familiar with the 1/8" and 1/4" sheets of wood sheet stock available from companies such as LaserBits. These have been around for a long time now and are excellent for all kinds of projects. I especially like the 1/8" material for making wood name badges, but that material is much too thick to use as an inlay or even as a veneer.
   What I did not know about was the Wood Thins product which is a .005" thick wood sheet material that is much like the thicker woods you are probably already using. Wood Thins are available in four wood types: walnut, cherry, maple and bird’s eye maple. The sheets are self-adhesive so the wood can be applied directly onto a product and they are thin enough that they feel almost inlaid. If you prefer, you can laser your design into the product and actually inlay the material as well.
   A note about these ultra-thin sheets: Like all wood, these like to curl with their grains. They should be stored away from light, face down with a weight on them to keep them as flat as possible. This will prevent them from warping which will make them much easier to cut.
   Shell Laminate—Some of the most beautiful material on earth comes from the sea in the form of abalone shell. This, and shells like it, can be used to produce a wide variety of stunning, iridescent materials much like mother-of-pearl. To my knowledge, LaserBits is the only source in our industry that offers this material. The laminate product is available in 5.5" x 9.5" sheets and can be easily cut with a laser and then mounted directly on a product or used as an inlay. This material is popular for inlays on a variety of products, including musical instruments such as banjos and guitars. The material is very thin—only .010"—and, although it can be fragile to handle, it can be surprisingly tough once applied to a solid substrate or inlaid in wood.
The new ColorHues line from Rowmark includes acrylic sheets in a wide variety of pastel colors that are suitable for laser engraving and edge lighting.

   Three colors are available, ranging from white pearl to the stunning blues and greens of the paua shell and metallic pearl. Although it is not labor intensive to work with, the material itself is fairly pricey at about $37 per sheet. However, adding even a small amount of this material to a product can easily double or triple the value.
Identification Plates
   id-Sparkle—ID Plates, Mesquite, TX, has introduced a new metal product that can be laser engraved or sublimated—or both! I find this product very intriguing. Available in gold, silver, bronze and platinum, this metal has a textured surface called id-Sparkle. Since I had never seen this before, I requested some sample sheets and tried it out for myself only to find it performed quite well. The color of the metal did penetrate the sublimation dyes, of course (colored backgrounds always do), but the dye colors still held up quite well, creating a nice image. As for lasering, the silver material lasered silver while the other three colors (gold, bronze and platinum) lasered bright gold.
   I can see this material being very popular for plaques and similar products, but I also see another, perhaps unexpected, advantage to this id-Sparkle material. I often have people who want very low resolution images enlarged and sublimated on metal. Obviously, this is a problem since blowing up an image that is lacking in resolution will only cause it to look worse, but having a crinkled, textured surface like this one can help hide imperfections. Obviously, there are still limitations, but it can help a little.
   All in all, this metal makes for a very attractive product. Like most metal, it is sold in 12" x 24" sheets and is .015" thick, although the textured surface makes it feel much heavier. I’m anxious to try it with a number of products where I would normally use ceramic tile. Not only is it less expensive, but it will add a new, unique dimension to the product as well.


id-Sparkle is a unique material from ID Plates, Mesquite, TX, that accepts both sublimation and laser engraving. This interior sign was made using the new DigiMark material from Rowmark LLC and a UV printer.

Horizons ISG
   DuraBlack—Since the advent of the laser engraver, we have been searching for a UV-resistant material that we could sell for outdoor use with confidence. Until now, the best product I know of has probably been Rowmark’s Textures plastic line but plastic isn’t always suitable, especially for motor legends or places where a lot of heat might be encountered.
   Horizons, Cleveland, OH, the company best known for creating MetalPhoto that dates back to World War II, has recently released a black, anodized aluminum that they claim will withstand the effects of harsh environments. High resolution, detailed images can be laser engraved (CO2, fiber or YAG) into this material making it ideal for UID, barcodes and text. The .005" thick material is flexible enough to bend around reasonably curved surfaces while the .020" thick material is rigid enough to be used for jobs demanding greater rigidity and durability. In third-party testing, it met and surpassed the typical requirements for exterior applications, marine applications and high-temperature applications. It is also highly resistant to abrasion. If you are currently using anodized aluminum, perhaps you should check out this material as it offers far longer UV stability and other advantages.
   AlumaMark—AlumaMark has been around for a long time now and most engravers probably know about the gold and silver versions, but colors were recently introduced and they are really attractive and surprisingly easy to work with. Red, orange, yellow, green and blue are available and they all mark black with a laser.
   Unlike the new DuraBlack product, however, these are intended for interior use only. With an overcoat, they may work in some exterior applications, but don’t oversell this product for outdoor use. In interior applications, it is highly scratch resistant and should last virtually forever.
I plan to use some of the colors to match school colors when making plaques, trophy plates, etc. Both AlumaMark and DuraBlack are made by Horizons but sold through distributors such as Johnson Plastics,
LaserBits, Marco Awards Group & ID Plates.


The new acrylics from B.F. Plastics, North Lawrence, OH, are brilliantly colored and polished to a crystal clear clarity.

Conclusion
   I have probably overlooked some exciting materials, but as an old saying goes, “You can’t know what you don’t know.” I have tried, however, to share some of the exciting products available in the pipeline, both new materials and some that are lesser known. Hopefully, you will find a material or two that might solve a problem you are having or even open a new market for you.
   It is exciting to be living and working in an era where new products are constantly being released and even newer and more exciting ones are being tested. Many of you remember when you had only a handful of colored plastics to choose from—perhaps you go back far enough to remember having only phenolic to work with! Brother, we have come a long way and although we may think there isn’t much more that can be developed, I predict we have only scratched the surface of fascinating new engraving materials and I can’t wait until someone calls and says, “We have a new product we want you to try.”

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