Way back in 2007, I wrote an article entitled “A Well-Equipped Shop” because I was constantly being asked by EJ readers about what type of equipment they needed to start or to expand an awards/engraving/personalization type of business. As this month’s feature is EJ’s Equipment Advisory, I thought this would be a perfect opportunity to update the topic. Much has changed since then, especially in the world of printed personalized products. Some of what you will read here you might already have in your shop, but our industry has changed greatly over the years and it continues to evolve. Those who don’t keep up just might be left behind!
When I entered the engraving world in late 1989, a trophy shop was just that—a place to buy trophies. An engraving shop was a place to have things engraved. Computerized engraving was new and the ability to actually digitize logos for engraving was limited to only a few shops across the country. Occasionally, one might find a trophy shop that did screen printing on sports apparel, but that was about as far as the diversification bug had migrated.
Today, you can still find some shops that sell only trophies and awards, but most of these operate out of someone’s garage or basement. The big boys have learned where the big bucks are and it isn’t in trophies alone—it’s in diversification.
Today’s well-equipped shop can’t possibly offer every service on the diversification tree, but they can pick and choose from a long list and offer those that seem right for their particular set of customers. As in 2007, I am still asked about what a well-equipped shop should look like, and here is the best answer I know.
Today’s well-equipped shop is going to focus around a laser engraving machine and probably a rotary engraver as well. Although rotary engraving faded from view for a while, it is making a strong comeback since there are still so many applications where this technology has undeniable advantages. While rotary engraving machines have taken a back seat to lasers and will continue to do so, that doesn’t mean they don’t have their place in a well-equipped shop. Shops that are buying rotary machines and that know how to use them are buying them for specific types of work, such as engraving on gold satin brass, deep engraving in metal for police and firefighter name badges, industrial work, engraving phenolic, ADA signage, engravable gifts and countless other applications.
Rotary engravers, for those who might be interested, range in cost from a few thousand dollars to $20,000 or more, usually depending on the size of the machine. Rotary engraving machines are available from Gravograph, Duluth, GA; Newing-Hall, Inc., Haskins, OH; Roland DGA, Irvine, CA; U-MARQ USA Corp., New Milford, CT; Vision Engraving & Routing Systems, Phoenix, AZ; and Xenetech Global LLC, Baton Rouge, LA. For more information about rotary engraving equipment, be sure to check out EJ’s detailed “Rotary Engraving Buyer’s Guide” online on EJ’s website at www.engraversjournal.com.
Laser engraving machines typically range in price from about $8,000 to $25,000 for a CO2 laser like the ones we usually see in our industry. Relatively new to our industry and gaining in popularity are fiber lasers which do well marking uncoated metals (CO2 lasers will not directly mark uncoated metal). Fiber lasers cost around $28,000-$42,000. Major manufacturers of laser engraving machines include Epilog Laser, Golden, CO; GCC, Walnut, CA; Gravograph; Kern Laser Systems, Wadena, MN; Mecco Marking & Traceability, Cranberry Township, PA; Trotec Laser, Canton, MI; Universal Laser Systems, Scottsdale, AZ; and Xenetech Global LLC. Check out the all-new “2014 Laser Engraving Buyer’s Guide” on EJ’s website for more information about the laser engraving equipment available in this industry.
FOR GENERAL FABRICATION
Metal Shear: ($375-$4,000) For most shops doing any type of work involving metal trophy or engraving plates, a shear is a virtual necessity. If you have a shear you can create replacement plates in minutes for pennies by buying sheets of engravers brass or aluminum and cutting plates to size as you need them. Shears come in a variety of sizes and shapes, and no self-respecting shop should go without one.
The light-duty shears are designed for cutting typical engraving and trophy aluminum and brass up to about 1/32" thickness and light steel up to .020". Most of these are benchtop models which can make a cut up to 12" wide.
Personally, I highly recommend a guillotine style shear. Accucutter Company, Carlisle, PA, offers the Model 4001 Guillotine Shear in 7", 13" and 19" sizes that is highly accurate, square and allows a shop owner to meet most cutting needs without spending a fortune. Although these are a lot more expensive than light-duty shears, they can be worth the extra cost by allowing you to cut brass up to 1/16" thick and to achieve both higher production rates and better accuracy in the cut.
For the high production shop, you might want to look at an industrial-type shear, which is often available as a foot-operated or pneumatic floor model with 36" cutting blades. Accucutter Company offers a 27" benchtop cutter for about $4,000 that is air-
operated and capable of most any cutting requirement. The light-duty shears are widely available from engraving machine and/or material distributors, and from specialty suppliers (see EJ’s R&I Directory for a list of suppliers at www.engraversjournal.com). Industrial-grade shears are available from machine and tool dealers, and a few industry-based suppliers.
Plastic Shear: ($300-$4,000) Just about every advantage just mentioned about owning a metal cutting shear can be repeated verbatim about a plastic cutting shear. “What’s the difference between shearing metal and shearing plastic?” many newbies ask. If you look in supplier catalogs, the two shears look identical. The difference is in the blades. Cutting plastic with a shear requires special blades that are shaped differently than a metal cutting shear. You can cut plastic with a metal cutting blade, but you will probably get an unacceptably rough cut, whereas a plastic cutting shear will give you a nice smooth edge. You should never try cutting metal on a shear equipped with plastic cutting blades as that can ruin the blades in an instant.
As with metal-cutting shears, shears for plastic are typically available in light-duty, inexpensive 12" models and larger, heavy-duty benchtop or floor models. Most shops go with a light-duty 12" shear and get by. Since engraving plastic is made in a 24" x 48" sheet size, these shops usually ask their supplier to cut it down to a workable size (12" x 24") and most suppliers will furnish cut-down sheets at no extra charge.
Keep in mind, though, that shears have their limitations. They are great for cutting 1/16" flexible engraving stock, but they can’t cut thick plastics (1/8") or rigid materials such as acrylic or phenolic. If you want to cut all types and thicknesses of plastic, you should consider a saw.
Circular Safety Saw: ($2,200-$4,500) A circular “safety” saw is a small benchtop saw that’s intended to cut engraving plastic and acrylic. It uses a circular blade which slides over a cutting bed with a total cutting capacity of about 24". These saws utilize a carbide tooth circular blade that will cut most types of plastic (including phenolic and acrylic) as well as aluminum and FRP (fiberglass reinforced plastic) up to about 1/4" thick. However, the unique feature of a safety saw is that the blade is completely enclosed, which makes it almost impossible for an operator to be injured while using it. An adjustable stop guide is included to help ensure straight cuts in addition to a vacuum hookup to deal with material chips created by the cutting process.
You can buy a table saw at Sears for a lot less money and use it to cut all kinds of plastic, but a table saw is VERY DANGEROUS, very noisy and very dirty to operate, not to mention taking up a lot of space. That is what I like about a safety saw—it’s compact, lightweight, clean and safe! Sources include Johnson Plastics and Gravograph.
Corner Rounders, Notchers & Punches: (prices vary) These are used for rounding the corners of a piece of plastic or metal (usually up to 1/16"), notching out a corner to add a decorative touch or punching holes for screws, nails, etc. There are several models on the market capable of doing this. Most have interchangeable dies that determine the shape or type of cut to be made. One machine called the 3-in-1 does not use a die as such but allows a variety of different combinations of a notched or rounded corner either with or without screw holes. The 3-in-1 Maxi-Press is available from Main Trophy Supply Co., Mt. Prospect, IL, and sells for about $315. The cost of other corner punches runs between $75-$215 for the base machine and about $95 each for the dies.
Hand Hole Punch: ($117) One task that is common in an engraving shop is to punch or drill through two sheets of metal at the same time. This can be done with a traditional hand punch like those available from Johnson Plastics or mail order tool companies.
Beveler: ($500-$2,000) A material beveler is what you need to do edge finishing on plastic plates. Edge finishes include (usually) a chamfer and sometimes a bevel or a “border cut.” Some units even contain a corner-rounding accessory. Typically these units utilize a motor and a rotating carbide cutter which produces a bevel or chamfer on the edge as you move the plate past the spinning cutter.
Strip Heater for Plastic: ($35-$165) Intended for the bending of flexible engraving plastic, these thermal heaters/benders can also be used on acrylic and many other plastics. They are used for making A-frame “tent” signs, free-standing plastic signs and fold-over/slip-on badges. The idea is that you heat the plastic along a narrow line and then, once it has softened, bend it along the line and hold it in the bent position until it cools and re-solidifies.
Strip heaters come in two configurations. One is an inexpensive roll of flexible electrical “heat tape” which heats up when you plug it into an outlet. The other is a fully self-contained “machine” which has a long, rigid heating element and may also have a gauge for positioning the plastic for proper heat positioning. The inexpensive heat tapes are okay for the home craftsman, but I prefer the professional strip heaters for engraving use, since we engravers are likely to be doing quantity orders where accuracy and repeatability are important.
Mini Hand Drill: ($60-$125) One tool I have used for over 25 years is a MiniCraft drill. In fact, I am still using the same hand piece I bought 25 years ago! Originally, it was marketed by Black & Decker but when that faded, it became almost impossible to find. So difficult, I actually gained the ability to sell it myself just to ensure I could always get hold of what I needed. I continue to sell it on eBay and Amazon. This little tool is perfect for drilling pilot holes in wood for mounting metal plates. It is strong enough to make short work of drilling dozens or hundreds of holes for perpetual plaques, yet small enough that it doesn’t stress the user and it allows you to get right down close to your work. The tool is made in England and uses a separate power supply. The basic drill just plugs into the wall but a more expensive version allows for multiple devices and includes variable speeds.
FOR PRINTING APPLICATIONS
Direct or 3D Printing on Hard Surfaces: ($20,000-$60,000) In 2007, I didn’t even mention this category since it was just too new and too far out of our genre, but that has changed in a big way. Direct Color Systems (DCS), Rocky Hill, CT, and other companies, in particular Mimaki USA, Suwannee, GA, have been pushing hard at trade shows and have had incredible success introducing this technology to our industry. Rowmark and IPI, Algonquin, IL, both offer specific lines of plastics made just for these systems. IPI also offers a line of metal for direct print.
The process allows you to use a digital inkjet printer to print directly on many different materials, including glass, ceramic, wood, metal, plastic, vinyl, etc., without the limitation of requiring a specially-coated material surface. There are many applications for these machines, but one that is particularly exciting is the 3D aspect. Unlike the 3D printers that can make prototypes and guns, this is a 3D effect that is accomplished by laying down multiple passes of ink while drying each with UV light. The result is a raised image suitable for making ADA signage or tactile graphics. These printers also can print on a great many surfaces, such as golf balls, phone covers, promotional products of all kinds, metal for plaques and a wide variety of plastics, foils and films. A full review of one of these printers, the Direct Color Systems UV LED Flatbed printer, was published in the Sept. 2014 issue of EJ. An article about the process in general (“Digital Inkjet Printing: What’s All the Fuss?”) appeared in the July 2014 issue.
Direct-to-Garment Printing: ($10,000-$20,000) In the January 2007 issue of EJ, I wrote the feature article, which offered an evaluation of the entirely new process referred to as “direct print.” This was also covered in the article in the July 2014 issue just mentioned. This awesome new technology utilizes inkjet printers to directly print full-color high-resolution images in up to eight ink colors plus white ink for use on soft goods such as T-shirts. This is not sublimation or screen printing—you’re printing directly onto the garment using an opaque ink. The artwork is designed on your computer and sent directly to the printer. The advantages of this technology are that it allows full-color application, it is fast, the ink dries almost instantly and it allows imprinting photographs and other types of personalization just as sublimation does, but it can print on many different fabrics, including 100% cotton.
Digital Badge Printers: ($700-$3,000) There are a couple of systems designed specifically to print name badges, luggage tags and other small plates in full-color. These are especially nice for companies that do a lot of badges for hospitals, schools and government agencies. The beauty of these badges is that they can include full-color photographs, logos, bar codes and even a magnetic stripe on the back to contain data much like a credit card. The materials used by these systems are typically referred to as “print receptive” and include plastic and metal. Because these are actually a form of sublimation, the print goes on a white or light colored material such as gold, silver or beige. Full- color backgrounds are actually printed onto a white badge. Some materials printed with these machines can also be engraved at a later date, thus allowing you to print color logos on name badges and engrave the names as needed. Direct Color Systems is one manufacturer of these printers.
Air Compressor: ($200-$1,000) Air compressors can have a myriad of uses in a well-equipped engraving shop, from operating the spindle on some rotary engraving systems to powering the “air assist” on your laser to sandblasting glassware. A fairly large compressor is required to provide the compressed air needed for a high air-volume application such as sandblasting, and the amount of air needed will determine the investment needed. The occasional user can get by with a $300 compressor with a five-gallon reserve tank from Sears or Home Depot. A heavy user will want to do more research and invest in a $1,000 unit with a larger reserve tank. Compressors are usually available locally from hardware, home centers and other retailers.
Cup Heat Presses: Today, many sublimators use mug wraps and an oven to sublimate cups, but cup presses are still popular. These presses are for sublimating cups and steins. These specialized presses start at about $800 and can only print one cup at a time. The process takes 3.5 to 5.5 minutes each. Like flat heat presses, these are available from a variety of sublimation and material supply distributors.
To have the ability to personalize your transfers and make them on-demand, you will need to buy your own printer and special paper. In recent years, Condé Systems, Mobile, AL, has brought several products to the market that I really like. They have a full line of transfer paper, each of which is designed for specific applications. These papers can be used in standard non-oil and/or oil color laser printers and color laser copiers, or desktop inkjet printers. Some of these papers are designed for printing bitmap and photographic images, printing white graphics on dark materials and for printing on different types of fabric. Making heat transfers this way is very inexpensive and you can print “one up,” meaning you can print on demand and personalize them as well. Condé Systems also recently introduced an LED color laser printer specifically built for transfer paper imaging which will accept 11" x 17" paper and costs around $2,000.
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