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New & Exotic Laser Materials

Copyright © 2017 by Davis Multimedia, Int'l. All Rights Reserved.
As Printed in June 2017, Volume 42, No. 12 of The Engravers Journal
A laser can be used to create stunning paper products like stationery. Photo courtesy of Simply Stunning Stationery.

   If your customers are anything like mine, you probably get tired of hearing, “What’s new?” It makes me want to tell them, “But you haven’t bought all my old stuff yet!” Seriously, though, we all get excited when a new material hits the market. What is it like? Who can we sell it to? What can I create with it that I couldn’t create using older, more traditional materials?
   Trying to keep up with new products is a full-time job by itself. Almost daily—well, weekly anyway—someone is introducing something new. Most of the products are things like gift items or trophy parts, but mixed in with those are some really unique materials. This article will focus on new substrates for our laser engravers, although several of the items are well-suited for other types of personalization as well.
Rowmark Lucent
   I’ll start with Rowmark LLC, Findlay, OH, just because the company has introduced several new products for laser engraving. The first is a new plastic stencil material known as “Lucent.” If you are in my age group, you probably remember paper stencils. Growing up, I made a mountain of signs, school projects and science fair exhibits with them. The paper stencils worked fine when they were new but over time, the edges became worn and frayed, and the “bridges” that held the insides of some letters tore, so I was back at the store buying more. Well today, most stencils are made of plastic and now Rowmark offers us a laser cut-able engravable plastic that is excellent for making all kinds of stencils for school, work, community projects, scrapbooking or just for fun. Some other applications for this material include technical drawing aids, painting stencils, templates, scrapbooking tools and educational aids.
   This .025" thick single-ply modified acrylic substrate is available in several colors, including smoke, green, blue, pink, clear, yellow and orange. The substrate has a matte finish and is translucent so it is great for making rulers or stencils that work best when you can see what is underneath them. The material is super easy to cut using a CO2 laser, is very flexible and is suitable for interior and exterior applications. In addition to laser engraving and cutting, Lucent can be rotary engraved and cut, sawed, sheared, heat-bended and drilled. It is also suitable for hot stamping, screen printing, UV digital printing and pad printing.
Rowmark Reflexions
   The second new product line for Rowmark is called “Reflexions,” a line of mirrored acrylics with a surface that resembles glass and mirror. This substrate is .125" thick and is 2-ply, making it perfect for reverse engraving with a laser, rotary engraver or router and paint filling on the back. It can also be illuminated with back lighting to create interesting signage and displays.
   The material is highly reflective and can even be used as a mirror. It comes in seven colors: three silvers, platinum, carbon, bronze and two golds. One of the silver and one of the gold materials are lightly frosted and, therefore, smudge resistant. The platinum is non-glare so with four highly reflective, two frosted and one non-glare options, the colors offer considerable variety. This material can be used in place of glass or mirrors for many new applications since it is half the weight of glass and eight times as strong. Just the nature of it makes it perfect for many applications but several that stand out are restaurant use, laser-cut letters, displays, mirrored signage, self-standing awards and memorial and tribute walls.

The wood sheets shown here are from Colorado Heirloom while the refrigerator magnet and swatch kit are from Rowmark LLC.

LaserSketch has recently introduced two new laserable bricks, including a 3” x 3” x 1.5” size and a standard brick without tabs.

This box was made using wood sheet material from Laser Jump Start.

Rowmark Message Board
   The third material from Rowmark is a dry-erase plastic designed for use with standard dry-erase markers, paints or chalks. This single-ply acrylic material has a high gloss finish on one side and a slightly textured, non-reflective finish on the opposite side. The smooth side can be used for dry-erase applications while the textured side can be used to make products like name badges, bag tags, coasters, key fobs and signage, including ADA, interior and exterior signage. The material can be laser cut, drilled and machined. The non-reflective back side can also be UV printed. If it’s engraved, it has to be paint filled to provide contrast. Available in 1/16" or 1/8" thicknesses, it comes in black and white. The black dry-erase substrate is intended for use with fluorescent markers.
Similar to the dry-erase material is Rowmark’s new chalkboard material. This material, available in black, white and green, can be used for exactly what it says, a chalkboard. I presume the white is to be used with colored chalk as white chalk would not show up. The material is available in 1/16" and 1/8" thicknesses and has a “micro texture” surface.
LaserSketch Bricks & Rocks
   Two new products that should stir some excitement come from LaserSketch, Romeoville, IL. This company makes laser engravable paving stones (brick pavers) in a variety of sizes. When you use a laser to engrave these bricks, the heat from the laser converts the clay into black glass, creating a black image on the surface of the brick. (For a full review of LaserSketch’s bricks, read “Follow the ‘Engraved’ Brick Road” in EJ’s May 2017 issue.)
   While the bricks have been around for some time now, LaserSketch has recently introduced two new sizes. The new 3" x 3" square brick is made from the same material as the other bricks but is much thinner, measuring only 1/2" thick. This brick is designed to be applied to a wall rather than a floor. The brick offers plenty of room to engrave memorial information or donor information and can then be adhered to most any wall with a variety of adhesives. Because they are light in weight, they bond and adhere well.
   LaserSketch has also introduced a paving stone that is identical to the full-size bricks except it doesn’t have the tabs that separate bricks for sand or mortar. This means the bricks can be laid tightly next to each other or they can be used as border bricks around a group of standard bricks.
   Bricks, large or small, constitute a great profit point for a laser engraving business. Bricks can easily be sold for $30 or more—almost ten times more than what you will pay for them.
   Yet another product from LaserSketch is laser engravable rocks. You read that right, rocks! The owner of the company has found a source for a lava rock that looks like smooth river rock and can be deep laser engraved. These rocks, which are sold in two basic sizes (large and small), come in a variety of dark and light colors, and require no preparation before engraving. These are great for making table nameplates, promotional items, tourist shop gifts or just rocks with inspirational messages on them. This is truly a unique product you just have to try for yourself.
High Density Polyethylene
   I have discovered a new plastic material called High Density Polyethylene (HDPE) that can be laser cut or laser engraved. It is a solid color all the way through so engraving it will require paint filling or UV printing. The advantage is that this plastic is lightweight and is also extremely strong. The material is rigid, has good impact resistance and can be heat formed, cut with a table saw and drilled. HDPE is available from most plastic supply houses and Amazon.com. It comes in a variety of sheet sizes, thicknesses and colors with either a smooth or a textured finish.
   As for applications, I have been using this material for all kinds of projects including a shelf for some Ham radio equipment, the sides of the Kool Plate sublimation cooling devices I make and custom jigs for other laser jobs. Some of the HDPE sheets are referred to as cutting board material meaning it is approved by the FDA for making, of all things, cutting boards for food processing. Cut this material into whatever shape you want, add a few rubber feet to the bottom and you have a custom product to sell. Engraving text or designs is certainly possible but remember that the engraving will have to be paint filled to create contrast and most paints would change them from usable cutting boards to “for decoration only” since the paint would not pass the FDA standards for food contact.

Cork is an excellent material for making products like coasters.

This ornament was made from 1/8" Russian plywood. The material engraves dark without requiring color filling.

The HDPE substrate is available in a variety of colors and many companies will actually make custom colors as well. Photo courtesy of Professional Plastics.

Ceramic Tile
   A common but useful substrate for lasers is “ceramic” tile. Available in a wide variety of colors, sizes and textures from most home improvement stores, these tiles are made from ceramic, porcelain, stone or glass and cost around 20¢ each and up. Most tiles, when lasered, will reveal the white clay substrate that makes up most of the tile. This substrate is soft in contrast to the glass surface of traditional ceramic tiles. In most cases, the laser won’t cut completely through the glass face of the tile, but rather only go part way through it. This makes it easy to color fill using Rub-n-Buff or various paints for applications such as murals and awards.
   Natural tiles, also available at your local home improvement store, usually engrave with enough contrast so that paint filling isn’t required. This is a good thing since the natural tiles are often too rough to be able to paint fill them.
   The other “off-the-shelf” tiles are made of colored glass which can be engraved either on the front or back and then paint filled with Rub-n-Buff. Like most glass, I prefer to engrave these using a 50 watt laser with high speed, medium power and only 300 ppi. For ceramic, natural and porcelain tiles, I usually use high power, 500 ppi and then play with the speed to see what works best with that particular tile. All of these tiles will require a little experimentation to find what works best with your laser and with the particular type of tile you’re using.
   Another option is a specially coated tile available from LaserTile, Salem, OR. The advantage of LaserTile’s product is that it has a laser-sensitive glaze that will change color when lasered, resulting in a permanent image embedded onto the tile without the need to paint fill.
   Tiles, both from LaserTile and your local home supply store, are available in a variety of sizes. LaserTile’s tiles come in “Birch White” and are excellent for engraving fine details, photographs, text and line drawings while “off-the-shelf” tiles work best for line drawings and text.
   Leather products have been making a strong influx into our market. Leather is a great product to laser as it usually changes color to create contrast. Light colored leather generally works best because it provides the best color contrast, but the subtle color shift of other colors can be nice too.
   It can be difficult to generalize about leather because it comes in a huge variety. Not only is leather made from different animal hides (deerskin, buckskin, etc.), it’s also available in sheets, strips and prepunched items such as belts and straps for a variety of laser projects.
   Although there are a number of types of leather, they all seem to laser about the same. Large pieces of leather can be purchased online from a variety of sources and some towns have shops that specialize in leather goods. These shops have the potential of becoming a great partner if you are interested in engraving their leather products on a wholesale basis.
   I once met a lady from Texas who made leather “pictures” to hang on the wall. These were photographs of people or places that had been scanned and run through a program like PhotoGrav and lasered onto a sheet of leather which was then framed.

LaserSketch has recently introduced a unique laser engravable rock product.

   When it comes to a variety of finished products that are ready to engrave, JDS Industries, Inc., Sioux Falls, SD, offers hundreds of products in a variety of colors. Colored leather usually engraves so the engraved portion is the same color as the surface.
   A couple of sources for leather include: www.weaverleathersupply.com, www.springfieldleather.com and www.tandyleather.com.
Silicone Wristbands
   Silicone wristbands have been popular for some time now and they are laser engravable. Although it may be less expensive to buy them from a company that also marks them, you can engrave them yourself when small quantities are needed or the customer needs them more personalized. In case you are wondering how to engrave them, just slip them over a piece of wood to create a flat surface. Blank bands are available from a variety of sources, including Amazon.com. Although these can be paint filled to create contrast, it is probably too labor intensive to make it worthwhile and I really don’t know what type of paint might work best since it would need to be flexible to withstand the rigors of being stretched and twisted.
   Applications for engraving these wristbands in-house include promotional items for special and awareness events at church, birthday parties, remembering service members, supporting a cause such as cancer research and school activities. Because these can be purchased pre-made so inexpensively, in-house applications will likely be for small quantities or rush orders. On a 50 watt laser, settings should be high speed, 300 ppi and low power.
   Paper can be both engraved and cut using a laser. Two unique product, that can be offered with this material, are laser engraved invitations and greeting cards where the text is raster engraved and an intricate design or shapes are vector cut out of the paper creating a truly custom item. Although these can be time-consuming to make because they must be engraved one or two at a time, the price they fetch can be worth it. Stock paper and envelopes can be obtained from internet companies like www.doubleupaper.com and at office supply stores such as Staples and Office Depot. Heavier weight papers work better than lighter weight. I suggest 80 lb. or heavier. As an alternative to engraving the text, most papers can be laser or inkjet printed before cutting out intricate designs in the paper, making a product that can cost only pennies and sell for upward of $2 per piece.
   The most difficult part of vector cutting paper is getting a design that works well. Elaborate and ornate designs may be beautiful but they might cut away too much of the paper, making it too weak to be functional. Cutting out text is also a problem since the letters must have “bridges” to hold the inner parts of letters, such as “o, e, g, a,” together. As mentioned, one solution to that problem is to actually raster engrave the text (using high speed and low power) and cut out the design (using high speed and more power).
   While you are considering laser engraving paper, why not create your own business stationery? A cut out trophy cup or similar icon can make an ordinary piece of computer generated stationery look really cool. Be careful, however, not to cut away too much of the paper, otherwise it won’t feed properly through a printer.
   Unfortunately, I find it best to cut and engrave paper one sheet at a time. Cutting goes very fast in most cases so a few seconds might be all that is needed but standing in front of a laser to cut 200 invitations can seem like a very long time.

This mural is segmented onto three pieces of LaserTile.

   Cork is an excellent candidate for laser engraving. When done properly, it engraves a dark brown to black (striving to get dark black may actually burn the cork). Besides sheet stock, cork products available from local hobby and craft stores include items like coasters and trivets. Although I don’t get calls for them anymore, I have lasered a lot of custom cork manifold gaskets for car buffs. These have to be digitized but they can fetch a good price when lasered from cork or other gasket materials. Usually they are for old classic cars that are hard to get parts for. The last one I did was for a 1932 Hupmobile—bet you don’t remember that one!
   But cork and lasers can make a lot more than engine gaskets. Cork lasers beautifully and can be used to create items like coffee cuffs, bulletin boards, coasters, trivets, dart boards, wall hangings and more. You can even custom engrave wine corks for customers who want to remember a special occasion.
   In addition to premade products, cork can be purchased in rolls, but I don’t recommend it since it is difficult to get the cork to lay flat in the laser. I much prefer sheet stock. If you have no choice, it can be flattened by placing it in a heat press for about a minute at 250°-300°F.
   A couple of commercial sources for cork sheet stock include: http://www.advancecork.com and http://www.widgetco.com but perhaps the best source for cork coasters is Amazon.com where you can buy any quantity you want for 50¢ to $1, depending on the thickness.
Wood Sheet Stock
   Finally, there is wood sheet stock for laser engraving. Wood sheet stock is perfect for making the wood projects, structures, games and countless other cool projects that are becoming so popular in the laser engraving market.
   One of the first versions of wood sheet stock came from Colorado Heirloom, Loveland, CO, and for years, they were the only source. Over the years, they have expanded their offerings to include 13 species of wood and a number of sheet sizes up to 12" x 16" in 1/16", 3/32" and 1/8" thicknesses. These beautiful woods are available finished with two coats of CAB acrylic lacquer or unfinished. Colorado Heirloom offers sheet stock in alder, maple, blue pine, white oak, red oak, cherry, mahogany, red stained maple, black stained maple, poplar, ash, hickory and quarter sewn white oak. This provides a huge selection but take care as some will raster engrave more pleasingly than others. All species cut easily.
   Along with the real wood sheets, sources such as Johnson Plastics Plus, Minneapolis, MN, and Colorado Heirloom also offer MDF board (medium density fiberboard) with real wood veneer on each side. These are available in a variety of species, including walnut, alder, blue pine, maple, cherry and amber bamboo. If you are not familiar with veneers, they are nothing more than two sheets of very thin hardwood glued to a thicker sheet of wood like medium density hardboard.
   Laser Jump Start, Nampa, ID, also offers wood sheet stock which is MDF board with either a real wood veneer or a vinyl-like material applied to each side. They offer a unique product with a different color or wood grain on each side. This means you can stock all 12 colors and only have six actual sheets. Types offered include light maple wood/solid almond, rustic cherry wood/light hardrock maple wood, dark cherry wood/solid white, frosted silver/dark gray, light cinnamon maple wood/solid black and dark alder wood/grand cherry wood.
   The newest entry into this field are the Rowmark “Hardwoods” a line of real wood sheets in five species. Hardwoods are available in 18" x 24" or 12" x 24" sheet sizes and 1/8" or 1/4" thicknesses. These “plywood” panels are made of five layers of hardwood with the grain crossed at 90 degree angles to eliminate bowing and warping. The panels are sanded smooth but unfinished. This product is available in walnut, cherry, maple, red oak and mahogany.
   Another wood sheet stock called “Wood Thins” was originally available from LaserBits (now sold by Johnson Plastics Plus). These 8" x 11" real wood veneers are only .005" thick and come with an adhesive backing so they can be easily applied to products or used with the other wood products to give contrast. Wood thins come in several species of wood and are sold in five packs. These are perfect for adding appliqués and inlays to laser engraved plaques, boxes, etc.

These leather key fobs were created and engraved by Forj’d Leather. Rowmark LLC offers a line of mirrored acrylic called Reflexions. Rowmark LLC’s new Lucent stencil material is available in a variety of colors.

   Another plywood product that is commonly recommended for laser engraving is sometimes called “Baltic Plywood” or “Russian Plywood.” At approximately 1/8" or 1/4" thick, it laser engraves and laser cuts easily. If you live in a big town, you should be able to purchase it at a wood specialty store (I’ve never seen it at Lowes or Home Depot) and it is inexpensive. This makes it well suited for making scale structures and hobby projects. Some sources for these plywoods include Columbia Forest Products (www.columbiaforestproducts.com) and Wolstenholme Plywood Products (www.wolstenholme.com).
   All of these 1/8" and 1/4" thick woods cut easily using a CO2 laser. On my 50 watt laser, I use a speed of 10% or less and just as much power as I need to cut through the wood (each laser is different). Cutting wood is best done with some sort of cutting grid. I prefer a Rowmark RackStar but anything is better than nothing. If nothing else, go to a hardware store and buy a plastic grid for a recessed fluorescent light. That’s what I used for years.
   As for which species of wood is best, that is left to personal preference. Light colored woods like Alder usually engrave dark while dark woods like walnut engrave the same color. Rarely can wood be paint filled or colored in some manner without using a mask of some type to protect any area not lasered.
   As for which company’s wood to use, it depends a lot on the application. Colorado Heirloom offers wood sheets that are finished with clear lacquer meaning all you have to do is assemble whatever you cut out. Rowmark’s wood isn’t finished so you can stain or paint it the way you want. Because it is sanded so smooth, you shouldn’t have to do any sanding but if you want a really smooth surface, allow the stain or finish you use to dry completely and go over it with XXXX steel wool (any hardware store will have it). Russian plywood doesn’t finish well but can be painted. It is usually left natural.
   Wood sheets made with a wood veneer and an MDF core can be finished like real wood. Be careful when raster engraving them however as veneers are very thin and it is easy to cut too deep, exposing the core.
   MDF board with vinyl on each side from Laser Jump Start cuts easily but isn’t great for raster engraving. Their real wood laminates however, engrave just fine.
   Needless to say, more products for laser engraving are being introduced all the time. Just keeping track of them is a full-time job, let alone experimenting with them. In this article, I haven’t had space to recount some of the substrates demonstrated in previous articles like the AcrylaStone and AcrylaThins product I like so much or the many engraving plastics that are not new, but pivot points around which I have built my business. And of course, there are the solid surface materials like Corian and similar products that laser like a dream (you can probably buy scrap pieces from anyone who makes countertops). Then there is Jet Black Marble and a long list of laserable metals…
   Why not pick one or two of these new substrates and give them a try for yourself? If you find something new, let me know so I can give it a try as well.