When I was growing up, we called everything “cool.” It was “That’s cool!” or “Cool man!” Anything we liked had the word “cool” attached to it in some way. Fortunately, we have gotten past that for the most part, but sometimes there just isn’t another word that gets the job done because some things are just “cool.” That’s what this article is about—substrates that are designed for engraving or other personalization which are just downright “cool.”
When I first started in the engraving business back in 1989, the industry was severely limited in the number of materials we had to work with. Almost all engraved plaques used gold brass. Sublimation depended on the same gold brass, which didn’t work all that well, and maybe some aluminum. Lasers weren’t common yet so acrylic and plastics had to be rotary engraved, and there really wasn’t much to choose from. Wood was all but non-existent except as a plaque board or trophy base and although you could, and can, rotary engrave wood, it was rarely done.
Well, things have changed—big time! In today’s market, we have hundreds, if not thousands, of materials that we can use, and some of them are really cool. In this article, I’ll take a look at some examples of substrates that can be used for laser engraving, rotary engraving, sublimation and even UV-LED printing.
Wood: In 1989, as I remember, our options in wood materials were limited mostly to a few species of plaque boards. Today, we have lots of wood plaques in walnut, alder, maple, ash, blue pine and cherry. Wood sheets, sometimes called wood “strips” (depending on the supplier), and veneers are also available in several sizes and a dozen or more species. All of these can be laser engraved, rotary engraved and/or UV-LED printed and, of course, metal engraving plates can be added to any of the woods. But wait, there’s more. Here is a sampling of what’s available.
These plaques are made of AcrylaStone and have been paint filled. Available from AcrylaStone and PDU/CAT.
Rowmark LLC, Findlay, OH, has two wood offerings. One is their new ColorShop Woods materials. These come in 20 colors and are made by applying a stained veneer over a sheet of hardboard. When engraved, the natural wood color shows through. They are intended for interior applications. Because they are available in 1/8" thickness, they can be cut easily with a laser or saw. They come in 12" x 12" or 12" x 24" sizes. Although you can engrave much deeper, .005" is adequate to contrast the veneer with the core color (light brown).
The second Rowmark product is their Hardwoods Collection. This material is also a veneer but instead of being stained, it has real wood on each side of a multi-layered core. Available in nine different wood species, it can easily be lasered, rotary engraved or printed. Because it is natural, it will need a finish. Lacquer, polyurethane or spar urethane (if it is going to be exposed to weather) work well. I recommend applying two or three coats with a light sanding with “000” steel wool between coats. Two coats will produce a nice finish, while a third coat should produce a very smooth high-gloss finish. This material is ideal for making coasters, key chains, name badges, interior signs and a host of other projects. Because of the multi-layer core, the material resists bowing and twisting, and comes in both 1/8" and 1/4" thicknesses and in 12" x 12", 12" x 18" and 12" x 24" sheet sizes. Species include walnut, cherry, oak, alder, cedar, sassafras, mahogany and bamboo. One caution for those using UV inks is not to use the adhesion promoter on the raw wood, but that shouldn’t be needed anyway.
Veneers and wood sheets are available from several sources, and some are truly beautiful. Most come pre-finished and although it varies from source to source, woods ranging from 1/16" to 3/32" thick are considered a veneer and anything over 1/8" is considered a wood sheet/strip. The sizes available depend on the source but if you don’t see the size you need, some suppliers will try to accommodate you if you ask. Sources for veneer and wood sheets include: Studio Workshop (Omaha, NE), LaserSketch (Romeoville, IL), Colorado Heirloom (Loveland, CO), The Gavel Company (Lincolnwood, IL), Johnson Plastics Plus (Burnsville, MN), Trotec Laser, Inc. (Plymouth, MI) and others.
Veneers are suitable for laser engraving and UV printing while the thicker strips can also be rotary engraved. Because these are usually “clear” (no knots or heavy grains), they work well for photographs.
ChromaLuxe Natural Wood is intended for sublimation and it will sublimate well but it can also be used with a laser or rotary engraver. These products are real maple veneer on an MDF core. Available are key chains, name badges, coasters, bag tags and ornaments which are finished on both sides, in addition to a variety of sizes of wood panels (intended for sublimated photographs) that can be used for photographs, signs or other applications. Wood panels are approximately .625" thick and finished on one side, and are available from distributors like Condé Systems, Inc., Mobile, AL.
ChromaLuxe White MDF boards are available in 19 sizes and like the ones just mentioned are a bit over 1/2" thick. Intended for sublimation, these have a black edge with a hard, white face that can be sublimated, rotary engraved or laser engraved. Because of the super hard finish, these are easy to paint fill using ink or paint.
Acrylic: Every laser operator loves working with acrylic—or at least they should. It is a wonderful substrate to work with. Acrylic falls into several categories. There are the solid colors you can’t see through, clear for general use and translucent which means you can see through them even though they are color tinted. Most colors are sold by Johnson Plastics Plus, JDS Industries (Sioux Falls, SD), Delvie’s Plastics (Salt Lake City, UT) and others.
One of the newer types of acrylic available is glitter acrylic. Glitter acrylic has specs of glitter embedded within the acrylic. It is available in six colors (silver, gold, blue, green, fuchsia and red). I know of two companies that carry the material, including Delvie’s Plastics and Trotec Laser. These are a type of solid colored acrylic so it has to be surface engraved (as opposed to reverse engraved) and although it is usually cut into shapes rather than engraved, you can engrave it as well. It can be engraved using a laser or rotary engraver, or printed with UV inks (you will probably need to use an adhesion promoter). The material can be laser cut with a 25-35 watt laser using air assist on a cutting table, but a 50 watt laser will do a faster, cleaner job. Because these sheets are only 1/8" thick, they cut easily with a laser.
Don’t have a laser but would like to engrave this material with a rotary engraver? Try using a burnishing cutter with a burnishing adapter. It won’t cut deep like a plastic cutter, but it will mark acrylic much like a laser does. For cutting with a rotary engraver, place the material on a sacrificial sheet of plastic and cut it with a rotary cutter used for engraving plastic (I prefer a 1/4" cutter but a 1/2" or split cutter will work) or use an end mill cutter.
Mirror acrylic is another interesting substrate that is available from most suppliers. Mirror acrylic is made by adding a reflective foil to the back side of a clear cast acrylic sheet. It can be surface engraved with a laser or burnished with a rotary engraver. The material is available in several colors depending on where you buy it. This material makes great coasters, ornaments, key chains and even awards. It can also be UV printed on the face.
Although there is some imported acrylic around that is sublimatable, it is very expensive and presents little advantage for engravers. Sublimatable acrylic sheets, however, might be a different matter. Available from Condé Systems, this 1/4" cast sheet stock is sublimatable on one side and can be laser or rotary engraved with a burnisher on either side. This allows several options. For instance, you can laser engrave the front and then sublimate it on the back to make something of a 3D effect.
Paper: Paper hasn’t usually been thought of as a major substrate for laser engraving, but now Trotec offers a line of papers made specifically for laser cutting. There are a variety of colors and they can be engraved as well as cut. Although Trotec recommends a vacuum table for holding down paper, I find success cutting it just by placing a couple of weights in areas that aren’t going to be cut or engraved. You can also place a couple pieces of blue painter’s tape around the edges to hold it in place while cutting. I prefer to use air assist when cutting but not when engraving.
Glow-in-the-Dark Plastic: Consider having some fun with Rowmark’s glow-in-the-dark laserable or rotary engravable plastic called LaserGlow. Intended for low-light signage, the material can also be used for making scary cut-outs and decorations for Halloween. You can also make some interesting Christmas ornaments or luminaries with this material. Or what about pet tags for keeping tabs on your pet at night? Once fully charged (by being exposed to light), it will glow for approximately 90 minutes. It engraves black.
Shell Laminate: This material can’t be engraved but it makes a great inlay. It cuts easily with a laser or rotary engraver. It is paper thin so it doesn’t take much to cut it—even scissors will work. This is real abalone shell and is fragile to work with but once inlaid, it is very durable. Johnson Plastics Plus sells this substrate.
Agate: Agate is actually a piece of quartz with mineral impurities in it. The impurities create a wide and interesting variety of colors and designs within the stone. Agate forms into big chunks which can then be cut into slices. This material laser engraves very well. Agate makes great gifts with quotes or photographs engraved on the pieces. It comes in a wide variety of colors and shapes, and every piece is different. It is recommended that you use no more heat to engrave than necessary, and don’t engrave with less than 25% speed. LaserSketch offers agate which is “laser quality.” The slices range from 1/8" to 1/4" in thickness.
Mirror: We talked about mirror acrylic earlier, but what about real glass mirror? Most quality mirror has a silver-based backing on it that can be either lasered or rotary engraved with a diamond burnisher and burnishing adapter, and it looks great. To laser, just place the mirror face down and run the laser just hot enough to remove the silver backing. After engraving, you can paint fill the back with almost anything—paint, Rub ‘n Buff, etc.—or place a sheet of colored paper or vinyl behind it so the color shows through. Engraved mirror can be made into signs or decorated with a flourish or some other graphic for a home décor item. Cheap mirrors use a very thin silver film on the back which doesn’t work very well, so I recommend avoiding those. If you are using a rotary engraver, work with a diamond burnisher and an adapter. One pass should cut through the silver coating, but a second pass will clean up any residue. Mirror should not be printed with UV inks because the mirror will reflect the UV light back into the print head and cause the ink to cure inside the head. This will mean replacing a very expensive print head.
Metal: We all use metal and although there are a ton of colors in both aluminum and brass or brass plated steel, there may be a couple new ones you don’t know about.
LaserFrost is a really cool substrate available from Johnson Plastics Plus and Identification Plates, Inc., Mesquite, TX. Available in silver or gold, this is a textured metal (the texture is about the same as Rowmark Textures plastic). When lasered, it changes color from the textured background to a more polished gold or silver that really stands out. This is a very elegant look and makes a great plaque, door sign or name badge. Both companies offer precut name badges with frames. When the material first came out several years ago, there was also a bronze color and chances are, someone carries it, but I haven’t been able to find it. This material is .15" thick and comes in 12" x 24" sheets. It is for interior use only.
Black Sparkle Steel is a metal substrate from ID Plates that is truly unique. It has a heavy textured surface that is black and silver. When it is lasered, it engraves gold. Sparkle Steel is .15" thick and comes in 12" x 24" sheets. It is for interior use only.
Available from JDS, LazerBLAK Aluminum is a metal substrate that comes in seven colors that all laser black. Among the colors are gold, silver and copper which give people without a fiber laser the ability to mark these colors with a very readable black image. Even photographs look good on these three metals. It also comes in white, orange, red and yellow and all engrave black. The metal is .025" thick and is available in 12" x 24" sheets. Although it is intended for indoor use, I have used it outdoors in protected areas for up to six months.
A couple of years ago, JDS introduced a line of brass plated steel sheet stock with graphic designs on it called Tru Graffix Metal. My count is 22 designs that range from a marble look to patterns to brick walls. These laser gold on .018" thick steel. They are sold in 12" x 24" sheets.
Leatherette: Both JDS and Johnson Plastics Plus offer a variety of products and sheet stock made of faux leather (imitation leather/leatherette). This is easy to work with both for laser engraving and cutting. JDS offers hundreds of products in at least 14 different color combinations. Both companies also offer the material by the sheet. Consider engraving a photograph or favorite saying on it and frame it. It can also be used as an engraving plate for plaques.
Real Leather: LaserSketch offers sheets and some products made of real leather. These also laser very well and are extremely durable. Johnson Plastics Plus also offers a few products made from genuine leather.
Marble: Now, I have to be honest here. I’m not a big fan of colored (green and brown) marble. I know that some people will totally disagree, but it does nothing for me. Black marble, on the other hand, gets me all excited. It is easy to laser and carries a very high perceived value. I fell in love with something called “jet black” marble years ago when I discovered it engraved white—not gray—so no paint filling was required for a great looking piece. N & R International, Inc., Marietta, GA, offers products made of jet black marble. I also use a material called “Absolute Black” marble. Like the stuff I fell in love with years ago, this product engraves white. Unlike the jet black marble, this marble has no veins or flaws, just pure white on black. LaserSketch offers Absolute Black marble in a variety of sizes and several shapes. They also offer some colored marble, including a pink marble which I have to admit is pretty cool. Regular black (it has white veins in it) and colored marble is also available from Marco Awards Group, Johnson Plastics Plus and others.
AcrylaStone: AcrylaStone is an acrylic material with a unique stone look and feel which is available in the standard plaque sizes from 5" x 7" to 9" x 12". The best way to describe this material is it is a lot like Corian—the high-impact plastic used to make upscale countertops. As it is made of acrylic, it is easy to engrave with either a laser or rotary engraver. You will probably want to paint fill it to provide contrast. This material is hard and smooth which makes paint filling a piece of cake. Most people put paper transfer tape over the face prior to engraving so they can spray paint it, but it can also be paint filled with a brush. The plaques are 3/4" thick, have a cove edge and come in seven colors. They are available from PDU/CAT, Memphis, TN, and AcrylaStone, Wellington, CO. Provided you use the appropriate paints, this product can be used outdoors.
AcrylaThins: Sold by PDU/CAT and AcrylaStone, AcrylaThins is sold in 12" x 24" sheets. Available in a dozen colors, it lasers or rotary engraves well and can be cut with a safety saw or laser. The best way I can describe the material is to say it is a lot like the Formica countertop material they make kitchen countertops out of. It is about 1/16" thick and can be used as plaque plates or signage. It can be paint filled but is often used in multiple layers with the top layer cut out to expose the second layer and obtain contrast that way. This material should be used only indoors.
Rowmark FusionGrafix: Although this is a special order product, the production and ship time is very short, and it carries a minimum quantity of only two full sheets. Here is what it is: Out of approximately 30 choices of laserable sheet stock, Rowmark will add a layer on top of the material to give it a specific graphic design. Color combinations include several reds, blues, greens, a couple of woodgrains and both brushed gold and silver metallics. The overlays include seven patterns. The most popular is probably the Diamond Plate which can be in either black or silver. Using one of these combinations not only will set you apart from your competition but it will also mean the customer has to come back to you to get the same material. These can be ordered through Rowmark distributors.
Slate: Slate is very laser friendly. With its natural gray or black color, it marks white. There is also a version with a white surface that is sublimatable which can also be laser engraved after sublimating or used as a standalone piece with a white face that engraves black. The sublimatable version is called SubliSlate or SubliStone, depending on where you buy it. These are sold by Johnson Plastics Plus, JDS, Condé and others.
Bricks and Brick Tiles: I have talked about bricks in previous articles. Brick pavers make a great fundraiser, but I haven’t talked much about the brick tiles that are available from LaserSketch. These tiles are only 1/2" thick and are 3" x 3" square. These make great coasters, paperweights or plaques for a donor wall. They can be used indoors or outdoors, there is no paint filling required (they engrave black) and they are relatively light, so they are easy to ship and easy to attach to a wall. A smaller tile is also available. It is 27/8" x 17/16" and 3/8" thick.
Message Board Plastic: Another product exclusive to Rowmark is their Message Board line of chalkboard and dry erasable plastic. The chalk receptive material comes in black, white and green (remember the green boards in school?). The dry erase materials come in black and white. Although not intended for engraving, they can be cut with a laser or rotary engraver. These are ideal for restaurant “Specials” boards, “Out for Lunch” boards and “Things to Do” boards. Words can be cut out of the material to give it substance or ADA appliqué can be used to add text, or it can be UV-LED printed. Both materials are available in either 1/16" or 1/8" thicknesses.
In this article, I’ve included a wide variety of different materials that aren’t as well known as the common, everyday materials we use like black brass plated steel or ordinary engraving plastics, and although those everyday materials might be your bread and butter, I hope you have found a couple of new substrates to give your offerings more variety and make your work more interesting. I hope, too, you will pick a couple you haven’t used before and give them a try. Engrave one of the brick tiles and just lay it on your sales counter to see what kind of response you get or make a message board to display your weekly special and see if it increases sales. If one of these products catches your eye, chances are it will catch some customer’s eye as well. Who knows? You might find a brand-new material to add to your “bread and butter” product list. That would be “Cool man!”