There's a Call for Laser Engraving Phone Covers

Copyright © 2014 by Davis Multimedia, Int'l. All Rights Reserved.
As Printed in January 2014, Volume 39, No. 7 of The Engravers Journal
You can purchase phone covers from
sublimation suppliers. Photo courtesy of Johnson Plastics, Minneapolis, MN.

   In the July 2013 issue of EJ, we published a rather extensive article about sublimated phone covers (“Dial In Profits With Phone Covers”) which, undoubtedly, have got to be the hottest thing going right now in the personalization business. Phone covers can be sublimated with any full-color image to make it uniquely personal to the customer and they are selling like hotcakes. But what about those people in the industry who don’t do sublimation? Namely, I’m talking about the laser engraving crowd. How can they get in on the terrific profit margins and excitement of selling phone covers? Well, this article answers that question!
   Actually, for a short time, one company did produce an all-wood phone cover that could be laser engraved. But as beautiful and intricate as it was, it was just too expensive to produce and, therefore, it ended up on the clearance rack in fairly short order.
   People love their smart phones. We carry them everywhere. They have become an extension of our personalities. They are at work, in the car, at home, at restaurants; they’re used for shopping, to pay bills, take pictures, purchase tickets and book flights; they function as a calendar, an alarm clock, a to-do list and many other applications. With such an attachment to our phones, it is no wonder people want to personalize them with pictures, monograms, rhinestones or a host of other decorations. One decoration technique I haven’t seen used much, however, is laser engraving.
   This strikes me as odd since there are so many materials available that make laser engraved phone covers not only possible, but extremely versatile and stylish as well. Perhaps what has been missing is the ability for many laser engravers to cut out the panels necessary to produce the covers, but this is going to be resolved in this article with the help of a couple of websites and some free templates that I developed for this article. That being the case, here are the steps necessary to turn a lowly chunk of plastic into pure profit.

This wood phone case was offered some time ago but recently showed up on the “closeout” list.

    The first step is to find a good source for cell phone covers to make this all work on a worthwhile profit scale. The time necessary to source out a bunch of phone covers could take hundreds of hours but, fortunately, that’s not the case here. All we have to do is place our orders with suppliers who sell sublimatable phone covers. Sublimatable covers have two parts: a sublimatable metal insert and a case that holds the insert. These two parts are usually sold separately so what the laser engraver can do is purchase the case only and then fabricate and personalize the insert.
    Cases are available in a variety of styles. Some are made from a soft rubber-like material and others are made from hard plastic, and some styles are offered in a selection of different colors. Phone covers designed for sublimation are molded with an indention in the back of the cover that holds a sublimatable metal insert. With some styles, you permanently adhere the personalized insert to the case. There are also phone cases available that are designed to accept interchangeable inserts.
    I designed several templates for cutting out and personalizing inserts with a laser. As I was doing this, I quickly discovered that there are so many variations of phones, it would be impossible to include them all, so I limited it to the most popular models which include the iPhone 4, 4s, 5, 5c, 5s and the Galaxy S3 and S4. The sources for covers for these phones, at least for the present, include any UNISUB ChromaLuxe dealer, Condé Systems (Mobile, AL), Johnson Plastics (Minneapolis, MN) and others. Most other phone cover distributors’ products will match those sold by these two companies.

Wood Thins is a real wood veneer material offered by LaserBits, Phoenix, AZ, with an adhesive backing.

Choose an Insert Material(s)
      After purchasing the phone cases, the next step is to determine what materials will work for lasering phone cover inserts, and there are many. Here is an overview of several possibilities. All of these materials can be cut and engraved using a low power CO2 laser.
      Engraving Plastics: Any laser engravable plastic that is 1/32" thick or less should work fine. As for an adhesive to hold the plastic in place in the case, you usually won’t have to worry about that since most phone cases (at least those sold for sublimation) already have double-faced adhesive tape applied to the back of the case so all you need to do is peel and stick. All of the major engraving plastics suppliers, including Rowmark (Findlay, OH), Innovative Plastics (Algonquin, IL) and Gravograph (Duluth, GA), offer several plastics in 1/32" thicknesses or less. Note: Don’t confuse the ADA sign materials with engraving materials. The ADA plastics are not two-ply and don’t have contrasting core and cap colors when engraved.
      In Rowmark’s line, the FlexiBrass and FlexiColor materials are all .020" thick and include some interesting marbles, a few basic colors and a number of metallics. The company’s Metalgraph Plus plastics are extremely durable, are available in several metallic colors and are offered in 1/32" thickness. For a wide variety of color combinations, check out the new UltraGrave line which is available in .010" and .020" thicknesses.
      Innovative Plastics has a .022" thick Peel ‘N’ Stick line that is available in the basic colors plus metallics. This material is available with or without adhesive. As mentioned, adhesive is not necessary with many sublimatable phone cases.
      The Gravoply Laser line from Gravograph offers a wide variety of color combinations in .030" thick sheets. The Gravolase Metallics line offers nine metallics in .020" thickness and the Gravoply Ultra material is available in some colors in .020" thickness. There are also a few .020" thick materials in Gravograph’s Metallex line.

AcrylaThins make an excellent material for phone covers. A variety of effects can be achieved by changing the laser’s power setting. This material is also easy to engrave and cut with a rotary engraving machine.

Here is a set of engraved phone cover inserts using AcrylaThins and liquid shoe dye to darken the engraving.

      Self-Adhesive Films: Rowmark’s LaserLIGHTS is a self-adhesive material that is offered in a variety of basic colors and is both easy to engrave and durable. At .004" thickness, you will need a backup plate when using this material on phones with interchangeable panels because it is a little bit too flimsy so it tends to curl up and fall out of the phone cover. The sublimatable metal insert that is sold for phone covers makes a good backup plate—you simply stick the self-adhesive film onto the metal and put that in the phone. The adhesive on the back of the film allows for multiple attempts to attach the insert to the case or backup plate, yet it bonds permanently after a few hours. Along with the basic colors, this product is also available in attractive gold, silver and bronze metallic colors.
      Flexilase is new to the Gravograph line. Available in all the basic colors and metallics, this .010" self-adhesive material is intended for making labels and other products where flexibility is important. In the case of phone covers, it will work fine on phones where the personalized plate attaches directly to the back of the case, but phones with interchangeable inserts will usually require the use of a backup plate to create rigidity.
      Gravograph’s Stickalase is a more specialized product but it can be used for phone covers as well. It is available in 4.75" x 32' rolls in black/white and non-metallic silver/black. It is a .004" thick self-adhesive material so a backup plate will be needed if it’s used in a phone case with interchangeable inserts.
      Innovative Plastics offers the Laser Ultra Thins line in black, yellow, white, gold and silver. Like the other films, this film is a .004" thick self-adhesive material.

The major engraving plastic suppliers all offer some form of self-adhesive film in metallics or colors. These are approximately .004” thick and can be easily attached to phone covers or a backup plate, such as the sublimatable metal insert that is sold separately from the covers.

This photo shows four ways to add color to engraved AcrylaThins. Left to right: Silver foil behind cutout letters; a self-adhesive film applied to the surface of the material; a combination of black shoe polish and inlaid ADA applique plastic that is the same 1/32” thickness as the AcryliThins material; a silver paint pen.

      AcrylaThins: Plastic Dress-Up (PDU, South El Monte, CA) offers this relatively new product that makes a terrific phone cover. The best description I can give is that it is similar to a very thin (1/32" thick) sheet of Formica countertop material. The material lasers very nicely, changing colors as the power setting is increased so multiple shades of the cap color along with black can be obtained in a single pass with your laser. Just create your design in multiple colors in your graphics software and assign a different power setting for each color. AcrylaThins also cuts easily with a laser, rotary engraver, shear, X-acto knife or scissors. So easily, you might even consider doing some cutouts and inserting another color of the same material in the cutout, making a “puzzle” style multiple color design. The material is also extremely durable so it will withstand the abuse given to a typical phone. This material is available through PDU distributors.
      Wood Thins: LaserBits (Phoenix, AZ) offers a unique product that is real wood veneer with an adhesive backing on it called Wood Thins. Several wood species are offered, including cherry, walnut, maple and bird’s-eye maple. They also offer a sample pack. The average cost per cover using this material is about 70 cents excluding any waste. This material is .005" thick so it will require a backup plate on some phone covers.
      Silicone Rubber (gasket material): I found this material in 1/32" thickness on the Internet in red and white. There is no contrast when this material is engraved, but think about the silicone bracelets people wear. The contrast is generated by the depth of the engraving and obviously there can’t be much depth in a 1/32" material, but there is enough.
      Cork: Sheet cork makes an interesting substrate for phone covers. You can purchase cork sheets from many automotive supply houses, craft stores and Internet sources. Many of the cork sheets being sold are too thick for phone covers, but if you are persistent, you can find 1/32" material ( sells 1/32" thick cork sheets). Try to purchase material that is stored and sold flat. Rolled material can be difficult to flatten. Keep in mind, though, that while it provides an interesting look, cork is not nearly as durable as the other materials discussed here.

This photo of the Acropolis in Athens shows how much detail you can achieve when engraving on anodized aluminum. Photo courtesy of Epilog Laser, Golden, CO.

      Be Creative: I’m sure a great many other materials can be used provided they are thin enough (up to about 1/32") and can be both cut and engraved by a laser. Do NOT use anything that might contain PVC as this can generate harmful fumes and cause damage to your laser.
A Word About Fonts
      One of the most requested engravings for cell phones is a monogram and there are a variety of fonts that can be used to create monograms. The fancy interlocking monogram font, however, is a bit more difficult to find and if you read the restrictions that apply to many fonts, you may find it is not legal to use them for some applications, such as sublimation. Condé Systems, however, offers an excellent monogram font package for $25 that has no restrictions (other than you can’t distribute the font in any form other than on a finished product). You can download the font from www.dye, click on “digital downloads” from the menu on the left of the screen, then “fonts” at the top of the page.
Download a Template
      As mentioned earlier, I have designed several templates for making personalized phone covers with a laser and they are free of charge. See the sidebar at the end of this article for ordering information from EJ’s website. PDU also has these templates on its website at (click on “product templates”). The templates were created in CorelDRAW X6 but can be opened in versions as low as CorelDRAW 8. The templates are also available in .EPS format for those who don’t use CorelDRAW. They are all set up to cut on a laser using the red color outline. Simply add text, photographs and clip art to create custom personalized phone covers quickly and easily.

Any laserable plastic that is 1/32” or less can be used as either a back or as an insert in the interchangeable phone covers. These can include a variety of stock materials from the major plastics manufacturers such as FlexiBrass, FlexiColor, Metallex, Gravolase, etc.

Set Your Pricing
      Depending on what material you use and where you buy your phone covers, you are likely going to pay less than $5 each for the cover and the insert. Actually, the cost is probably closer to $4 but for the sake of discussion, let’s cover some waste and shipping costs.
      What’s important when setting a price for custom phone covers is to try to determine the perceived value of the finished product. This can be very tricky and is usually where many engravers mess up by underpricing their products, so be careful. Check out what covers are selling for at the mall and in phone stores and use that as a guideline. Remember, you are adding real value to the covers because of the engraving and uniqueness of the product. Let’s say most covers at the mall are selling for $20. That would say to me that I should charge at least $25. But that isn’t the end of it. How can I get more out of each sale? What if I offered three covers with different inserts for the price of two? That would be very enticing to most buyers and instead of just selling a single cover and making about $20 profit, I would sell three and make a discounted profit of $35. If I set the price at three for $65, I could bump up my profit another $15 but would that be enough of a discount to entice someone to spend the extra money? Well, you get the idea. You have plenty of room to manipulate your pricing.
      If you are going to give a commission to someone for helping you sell your phone covers, I might suggest $5 per phone. If you give too much, they may get the idea that these are really inexpensive to make (which they are), and you don’t want that. You want to maintain the perception of an expensive, highly custom product.
Market Your Phone Covers
      Now you need to find the best way(s) to market your phone covers. If you have a lot of traffic through your shop, that may be enough but if your shop traffic isn’t all that high, consider the following suggestions.
      Pet Shops, Veterinarians and Pet Hospitals: If there is anything people love more than their phones, it is probably their pets. Cut a deal with the owner of the local pet shops, etc., to display and take orders for your personalized phone cases and laser engrave photos of their pets on the covers.
      Local Phone Stores: Although the corporate-owned stores may not allow you to sell through their stores, the locally owned stores will probably welcome the opportunity to make a few extra dollars.
      Beauty Shops and Nail Salons: Anywhere people are going to congregate for any length of time is probably going to be a good location to set up a display and allow the shop owner to make a few bucks taking orders for you.


Condé Systems, Mobile, AL, offers a variety of phone covers, including these bumper cases which are available in a variety of colors.

      Color Brochure: Whether you print it yourself on your color laser printer, use VistaPrint ( or have it professionally printed, another way to get the word out is through the use of a color flyer. It doesn’t have to be fancy—just show some samples and give your prices and ordering information.
      Website: Do you have a website? Put it to use with ordering information for laser engraved phone covers.
      Carry One Yourself: I carry an iPhone with a cover on it and I go out of my way to flash it around. When I go out to eat, I lay it on the table face down so anyone who passes will see the engraved portion of the phone. And it works. I have people ask me about it all the time. If I really like the person, I sometimes offer to make them one for free provided they promise to talk about it on Facebook. Most of the time, I just give them a business card.
Phone Covers = Profits
      Well, there you have it—everything I know about making and selling laser engraved cell phone covers. This is a new market for me so I can’t tell you about all the money I have made selling these, but I can tell you the interest is high and that they are fun to make, a little challenging sometimes and always profitable. Why not work and learn along with me as I try to open the market in my town for laser engraved cell phone covers? As time passes, some distributors will probably start selling laser engravable blanks for various phone covers but we don’t need to wait on that. We can make the back panel from scratch for all of the most popular phones right now!
      Phone covers were an especially hot item in 2013 and they show no signs of slowing down in 2014. More and more people are purchasing a collection of covers and changing them to fit their mood or as a fashion statement. It’s time that laser engravers got a piece of those profits.

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