My Favorite Shop Tools

Copyright © 2012 by Davis Multimedia, Int'l. All Rights Reserved.
As Printed in November 2012, Volume 38, No. 5 of The Engravers Journal
Johnson Plastics, Minneapolis, MN, carries a line of Varga safety saws.

   I guess most everyone who runs or works in an engraving shop loves tools, especially the tools that make our job easier and those tools that “we just can’t live without.” I am constantly prowling through hardware stores, tool stores, magazines and even flea markets looking for just the right tool or gadget to make some task easier. I rarely find one but when I do…WOW!
   This article is a list of some of the basic tools I’ve discovered over the years that the well-equipped, full-service engraving shop just can’t do without. Some may be obvious but some may be new to you or even be one of those treasures you have been looking for. One is even a challenge to find in the United States.
   My latest discovery is a newly-designed cutting grid for my lasers. This new tool comes from the design team at LaserBits (Phoenix, AZ) and it works really well. I haven’t bought one yet, but I did test it pretty extensively and I really liked it.
   The cutting grid is made up of a machined aluminum frame with slots cut into the two long sides and it comes with a half dozen cross pieces that fit in the slots. This flexibility allows the cross pieces to be positioned in different locations where they can best support the item being cut. The fact that the cross pieces have cone-shaped “teeth” machined into them, rather than bars or a grid, means that there is far less surface area touching the material than is the case with other cutting grids and, thus, there is even less opportunity for the laser beam to reflect back onto the back of whatever is being cut. I would make one change to the tool and that is to add backstops to the top and left side so it’s easier to square the material as well as remove and replace it accurately if need be. You can add backstops yourself with a couple of scraps of engraver’s plastic or metal.
   All of the major laser manufacturers offer cutting grids for their machines. Some have even integrated cutting grids into the standard table design.
   For those quickie cut jobs, I still find myself going back to my old tried and true favorite—using an old plastic lens grid from a fluorescent light. This is the plastic diffuser used in drop ceiling light fixtures and they can be purchased at most home improvement centers. The 2' x 4' “egg crate” plastic grids have a honeycomb design and can be cut to any size needed. I keep several sizes handy for jobs where the back side of the product being cut isn’t going to show. It may not be fancy but it works like a champ!
   A grid like this works on a slightly different principle from the metal honeycomb grids which allow the laser beam to enter the voids of the surface and then dissipate the beam as it travels. With a plastic fluorescent lamp lens, the beam will actually cut a groove into the grid material which will absorb the excess laser energy so it won’t reflect back onto your workpiece. Eventually, you’ll sacrifice the grid plate, but in the meantime you’ll get a good cut on your laser project.

The best shear I have ever used is the Model 4001 from AccuCutter Company, Carlisle, PA. It has a hold-down bar to grip the material before shearing, which helps create an almost perfectly square cut.

   I cut and engrave a lot of plastic, especially when a customer orders hundreds or even thousands of little plastic tags that they can engrave themselves. These range from 1/4" to 11/2" wide and vary in length. I cannot imagine cutting so much plastic without a safety saw. Of course, I could cut them with the laser, but the laser sometimes leaves a sticky goo on the edges that has to be cleaned off. To clean a handful of tags is one thing, but a thousand? That’s not for me!
Safety saws nearly went away for several years with only one company still making them, but we again have at least two sources for nice saws: Gravograph (Duluth, GA) has four models and there are three models from Johnson Plastics (Minneapolis, MN). What separates the saws in my eyes is personal preference and your specific application. I would be delighted with any one of them.
   In a word of explanation, the Johnson Plastics’ saws are made by Varga while the Gravograph saws carry the Gravograph brand and compare with the Varga saws in size, price and capability. The two larger Varga saws offer deeper cutting capabilities (for thicker materials) and longer cutting lengths (approximately 26.5" and 41") as compared to the 24.5" cutting length of the smallest Varga saw. The Gravograph saws come in four versions with cutting length capabilities of 24", 26" and 40.5" (two models). These saws also vary in cutting thickness capabilities.
   Safety saws are somewhat expensive, starting at over $2,000, but that’s cheap when you use it for ten years, and I just don’t know how a shop like mine could survive without one. One word of advice I will pass on when making your selection. I would prefer a saw that has a long stop bar on the right side of the saw. Having a support on the left hand side to hold the plastic level is also handy, but this can be taken care of with a simple wooden box. The right stop helps determine how straight the cut is going to be and there is no after-market fix for this that I know of.
   Oh, by the way, these safety saws can also cut soft metals such as aluminum and brass. I much prefer using a shear for cutting thin metal sheets, but there are times when I need to cut something longer than my shear will accommodate. Safety saws don’t do the best job with metal (just my opinion), and the metal usually has to be deburred after being cut, but they do work. Some saws actually offer options for metal cutting such as a lubricant dispenser.

Anyone who is into trophies should be able to make this trophy assembly tool from Quality One Engravers, Rancho Cucamonga, CA, pay for itself in just a matter of a few days of labor.

   While talking about plastic, it is time to mention beveling machines. In my opinion, beveling machines are pretty basic. Some have a larger motor so it lasts longer and some accommodate longer materials more easily than others, but a bevel is a bevel.
   What makes the various machines differ in preference and cost are features like the vacuum chip removal system that is either standard or can be added as an option, its ability to bevel a radius (e.g. rounded corners on name badges) and how heavy duty it is.
   I use the Gravograph B6 unit with a built-in vacuum which is very nice. It is a good, strong beveling machine and it does allow me to bevel corners, although in the ten years I have had it, I have never used that feature a single time! I would never buy a beveler without a vacuum system or the ability to connect a vacuum system to it. Those little triangular plastic chips that the machine chews off the plastic fly everywhere and they can do considerable damage to other equipment if they find their way into places they do not belong.
   Quality One Engravers (Rancho Cucamonga, CA) has a very nice heavy-duty beveling machine that accepts a vacuum system (also sold by Johnson Plastics). Scott (Walton, NY) makes a couple of light-duty bevelers, which are sold by several distributors, for the shop that is running on a shoestring. A good beveling machine will probably last a lifetime, so consider it an investment, not just something else you have to spend money on.

If you rotary engrave medals, bowls, trays, jewelry or similar items, the Pen Writer from Quality One Engravers allows you to do a test run before actually engraving. This cutting grid from LaserBits, Phoenix, AZ, is the newest in a long line of cutting grids for lasers and it just may be the best yet.

   Cutting metal can be a real challenge without the right tool. Sublimators, for instance, end up tying one hand behind their back by not being able to cut their own metal. Buying 12" x 24" sheet stock is much more economical and versatile than buying precut metal plates and inserts for plaques, gift items or a host of other applications. An engraving/sublimation shop has to have a good way to cut metal. Trying to do so with hobby saws, table saws, band saws and even safety saws is, for me, totally unacceptable. We need to be able to cut sharp, clean, straight lines consistently, accurately, quickly and safely. The only way I know to do that efficiently is with a metal cutting shear.
   I think every shop should have two metal shears, but not for the reason you might think. One might expect me to say you need a shear for both plastic and metal, but that isn’t it. I use a saw to cut all my plastic and a shear to cut metal. True, some shear manufacturers offer a blade that is suitable for cutting both plastic and metal, and that’s fine, but never cut plastic with a metal shear or metal with a plastic shear.
   The reason I suggest two shears can be illustrated this way: I still use and love a shear that I have had for over 20 years. It is still available, it is inexpensive and, without a doubt, the most dangerous tool in my shop. Still, I love it. It is called a “guillotine” shear. This type of shear is sold by several companies; mine is the Model 9385 ($365) from Main Trophy Supply Co. (Mt. Prospect, IL). This shear is fairly crudely made but it is inexpensive as shears go and it allows something no other shear I know of can do—it allows me to cut very thin strips of metal. The problem with this shear is that it doesn’t have safety guards and, thus, it doesn’t know the difference between a metal sheet and a finger, and I have nipped a couple of fingernails to prove it. Still, when used with great care, it gives me an ability that no one else in my area has—the ability to cut thin strips of metal as thin as 1/4" and cut them “burr down” on all four sides—something I insist on in my shop. This is impossible with any other shear I have ever seen.
   For those who aren’t familiar with cutting metal, all metal gets at least a slight burr when sheared. The side of the metal laying on the stage of the shear will always be burr down, while the piece that falls off the shear will always be burr up. To cut something so all the sharp edges are facing down, the metal must be cut four times and turned 90 degrees each time it is cut. In this way, should a customer run his or her finger along the edge of an engraving plate, there are no sharp edges. I consider this the difference between a first class shop and all the rest.
   Having bragged on my little guillotine for its ability to let me cut thin strips of metal, there is something else that it doesn’t allow me to do and that is cut metal so it is square! Obviously, this is pretty important and nearly impossible to do with my guillotine or most any other shear on the market! In fact, the truth is, when metal is sheared, it tends to pull toward the top of the blade no matter what you try to do to stop it—this is especially true with the old-fashioned paper cutter type designs.

This is the plumbing I installed on my Shop Vac system. It uses a standard Shop Vac, but the values allow the suction to be turned on and off where needed.

   There are, however, some shears on the market that prevent this problem and are a lot safer to use as well. I tested the new line of shears from AccuCutter Company (Carlisle, PA) some time ago and fell in love with them (“Product Review of AccuCutter’s Model 4001 Shear,” Sep. 06). Although they offer a far more extensive line of shears now than they did then, the cutting principle remains the same. What makes these different from other shears is the hold-down bar that presses down on the material being cut so it can’t move. This design comes from the big paper shears that have been used in print shops for decades. Their Model 4001 13" is an outstanding shear. A little more expensive ($1,300) than some, this shear offers a hold-down bar and the heavy construction necessary to actually cut a plate square!
   So there you have it: One shear for common work and one for cutting those very thin strips of metal we are called upon to cut at least once a week. By the way, I charge extra for cutting anything less than 1" in width. That little extra has paid for the little guillotine many times over.
   I don’t know how I could get along without my Galt vacuum chip removal system for my rotary engraver. It keeps my engraving table almost totally clear of plastic chips, even with the most demanding jobs. A vacuum chip removal system requires a special vacuum depth nose with a hose to evacuate the chips during engraving. Both are available from a number of dealers, including rotary engraving machine manufacturers.
   Unfortunately, the little Galt can’t handle other needs in my shop. I also keep a vacuum on my safety saw (a Galt could handle it but it would be expensive) and my cut-off saw which I use to cut trophy columns. Of course, I also have a general application vacuum to keep the work table clean. To solve my dust problem, I invested in a fairly large Shop Vac and then plumbed it so I could direct the vacuum to where I needed it at that moment. I have a three-valve manifold made up of ordinary PVC pipe that is connected to the various equipment in my work area. I can add additional feeds should I ever need them. The whole setup costs about $100 and is one of the best investments I have made. It is a bit noisy, but the saws are too, so I just make this an “ear protection area” when we are working there.
This heavy-duty beveling machine is available from Johnson Plastics.

   Trophies are not a major part of my business so I don’t have a trophy assembly tool myself, but for those who do build a lot of trophies, especially smaller trophies, this has to be a must-have-tool. It is called a “Trophy Nutter” by Quality One Engravers and that’s exactly what it does— it inserts and removes nuts on trophies. You simply place a nut in the Trophy Nutter, position a figure and a base on top of it, press down and the nut is automatically inserted. You can buy the tool and mount it on your workbench or you can order a table made especially for it. Either way, it speeds up production so much it will pay for itself in pretty short order.
   When my business did require building sometimes 1,500 trophies at a time, I rigged up my own version of this using a foot switch and a 600 rpm drill (if you weren’t careful, the drill would twist your arm off!). Oh, what I would have given for a Trophy Nutter in those days!
   You will also want a hand tool for trophy assembly. This is nothing more than a hollow shaft nut driver with a magnet inserted in the socket, but it is as handy as a pocket on a shirt. Several distributors, including Marco Awards Group (South Windsor, CT), offer this tool.
   Here is a “must have” for rotary engravers. It is called a “Pen Writer” by Quality One Engravers. It isn’t new by any means, but I don’t think many people understand what it is or how it can save you a mountain of time.
   The Pen Writer is a standard ink pen refill fit into a cutter shaft that fits either an 11/64" or 1/4" spindle. The pen tip then allows you to “draw” your layout onto paper and visually check it before you start engraving an expensive item.
   The value of this little $60 tool comes into play when engraving things like medals, watches, jewelry—anything that doesn’t fit into the upper left corner of your engraving table or that is difficult to position the engraving on. To use it, apply masking tape on the item to be engraved and “engrave” it first with the Pen Writer. This will allow you to see exactly where the engraving will be and what it will look like on the finished product. If it isn’t what you want, make some adjustments and try again. When you are satisfied, remove the Pen Writer and insert your cutter. If you engrave odd-shaped items like I do, this is a real money and time saver.

It isn’t easy finding screwdrivers that can hold those tiny #4 screws we use so much but Sears has one for both Phillips and slotted screws. Add a floater (burnishing adapter) to your burnishing cutter to create smooth, attractive engraving on materials such as coated metal and acrylic.

   I have tried every type of drill known to man to find “just the right drill” for drilling pilot holes in perpetual plaques. Cordless drills, large drills, small drills, hard-wired drills, you name it. I have never found anything better than my hobby drill which is the tool I love most in my shop. It is a little power drill made by MiniCraft in the UK. It was originally marketed in the U.S. by Black & Decker, but they have long since discontinued it. It is considered a hobby drill similar to a Dremel tool, but it is much smaller and much, much lighter. It isn’t strong enough to drill much more than a 3/32" diameter hole, but it will drill the 1/16" pilot holes for those #4 brass screws we use in plaques all day long without fatiguing the user.
   The problem is, these units are just about impossible to find in this country. I spent at least 100 hours searching for a source—any source I could refer you to so you could have one of your own. The UK source was willing to sell them, of course, but they could only offer a 220 volt power supply, so that became a dead end.
   To make a long story short, I finally found a company that would import them for me with a 110 volt power supply. So now I have an inventory of the little drills along with three different power supplies that I will be selling myself. That just goes to show you how much I love my little drill.
   I can’t quote firm prices yet, but two models that include both the drill and power supply will be under $100. To learn more, go to and click on “Specials,” then “Engraving Tools.”
   I tried to find an alternative to this little drill. I checked out all the Dremel tools, the flexible shaft drills, the lightweight cordless tools and even manicure drills—that’s right, the little drill motors used by manicurists for fingernails. The nail drills actually came the closest to doing what I wanted, but they all used collets rather than a keyless chuck and they were pretty light duty, so I’m not sure how long they would actually hold up.
   We use screwdrivers a lot in this industry and when I have a bunch of those little #4 brass screws to put in, I need two things: My MiniCraft drill to drill pilot holes and a specific Craftsman screwdriver. They make one for both Phillips and slotted screws, and they are unique because they will actually hold the screw for you. This makes those little bitty screws so much easier to install. The stock numbers are 41123 (slotted) and 41362 (Phillips), but don’t just walk in and buy one. Take a couple of screws with you and try them out in the store since some screwdrivers work better than others.
   It was once called a “Feather Weight.” Nowadays, it is called a “floater” and is also referred to as a “burnishing adapter.” This device attaches to a rotary cutter, usually a faceted rotating burnishing cutter, and allows the cutter to move up and down gently when pressure is applied to the tip. This allows the cutter to float across the surface rather that cut deeply into it. These work great with coated metals, satin brass and acrylic. Do you want to rotary engrave acrylic so it looks like it was laser engraved? Do you want to burnish engrave black-coated brass to create brilliant, wide stroke characters? Here’s how you do it—with a floater. They are available from several industry sources, including Antares Instruments (Horsham, PA), Bits & Bits Company (Silverton, OR) and most rotary engraving machine manufacturers.



A deburring tool only costs about $5 and it allows you to easily remove metal burrs from cut metal plates.

   One of the handiest tools in my shop is my Maxi-Press, Model 9353 ($315). Without this little tool, I would have to buy several different types of punches as well as a corner rounder. Now there is nothing wrong with having a good corner rounder with a set of dies, but the Maxi-Press does everything I need and it is not only inexpensive, it has lasted for years. This little desktop tool can notch corners with or without screw holes, round corners with or without screw holes, punch screw holes in the corners of metal or anywhere along the sides of metal. It is great for making perpetual plaques, name badges with rounded corners or punching screw holes in plates for plaques. It will work with thin plastic (1/32") but is made for metal and that is where it shines. The only source I know of for this tool is Main Trophy Supply Company.
   These are some “tools” I keep in my shop that most people would say are “just plain silly.” In the realization that I will be laughed at, I will list them anyway:
   Play-Doh, Silly Putty or Modeling Clay: They all work. I tend to like the Silly Putty the best, but anyone of these can be a life saver when I’m trying to laser engrave odd-shaped objects such as medals, jewelry or glassware. Use the soft, pliable material as a “holding jig” for irregularly-shaped objects that you need to engrave. It will hold the item firmly and allow you to engrave multiple pieces using the same “mold.” Just be sure the product is level.
   Variety of Levels: Long levels (12"-24"), small levels and, most important of all, a round bubble level are essential when using the molds I just mentioned to hold things like medals. A level will help you ensure that the engraving surface is flat.
   Deburring Tool: I mentioned earlier that when you saw, shear or otherwise cut metal, you often end up with sharp burrs along the cut edges. A deburring tool is an inexpensive, hand-held tool with a curved steel blade that can take care of this problem. You simply drag it along the edge of the metal (sort of like peeling an apple) to scrape off the burrs and eliminate the sharp edges. These are available at hardware and home improvement stores. Last I checked, Sears carried one like mine.
   Tape Spools: Empty tape spools come in very handy for use as stands, props and supports for holding and positioning odd-shaped objects to be engraved. Tape spools that held 1/2" to 2" wide tape (or more) with 1", 2" and 3" diameters can be real life savers. Oh, you can use the tape too. All I need is the empty spool.

The MiniCraft drill is my favorite tool and I use it almost every day for something. A variety of levels comes in handy from time to time, especially the bubble level.

   Double-Faced Table Tape: Rotary engravers use a special “table tape” designed to be stickier on one side than the other. It is used to hold plastic or metal plates on the engraving table. This sometimes comes in very handy for laser engravers as well. Have you ever had a piece of sheet stock that wouldn’t lay flat on the table? A couple strips of table tape will solve the problem and, unlike placing weights around the sheet, you don’t have to worry about where you place the tape.
   Magnets: Have you ever had a sheet of thin, self-adhesive material that wanted to curl up on the laser table? I have and it is truly frustrating. Double-faced tape won’t stick to the back of it so that’s out, and weights take up too much space. I place a sheet of brass plated steel in the laser and then place the material on top, holding it down with as many magnets as I need. Out of convenience, I use the same magnets I use as findings on the backs of name badges. They are small, won’t damage the material and are very strong.
   I’m sure I have missed something but this covers the majority of tools I use almost daily in my shop and would be lost without. Perhaps you have a tool or tools in your shop that are vital to your operation. If so, I would love to hear about them and perhaps even write about them in some future article. After all, the key to all of us succeeding is sharing information. Knowledge is power and helping one another only raises the standard of quality for all of us.




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