Drinkware continues to be a fast-growing segment in our industry—perhaps the fastest growing single item in our product mix in a long time. With the advent of so many YETI-type mugs, both the market and the number of choices have exploded.
This is not the first article I have written about drinkware. But even with what I thought were exhaustive reports about what is available and personalization options, more and more items continue to come on the market, and they are selling like crazy. Let’s take a look at what’s happening in the drinkware market.
In the laser engraving world, JDS Industries, Sioux Falls, SD, has introduced new products with unique new twists. One is a stainless steel mug with a laserable leatherette band around it. These come in a number of different colors and two sizes: a 20 oz. tumbler and a 2 oz. shot glass. They have also redesigned their Polar brand tumblers which are now powder coated. This creates an extremely durable finish that can be laser engraved to reveal a shiny silver mug. These are available in both 20 oz. and 30 oz. sizes.
Add to that a new line of “Pint” stainless steel cups in 15 colors. JDS also offers powder coated stemless tumblers, a new line of pilsner powder coated stainless steel cups in 15 colors, two new stemless wine glasses in copper or stainless steel and a full line of laser engravable ceramic coffee cups in four different styles and up to 8 different colors. This huge selection gives your customers a lot to choose from.
And don’t ignore their new 64 oz. growler, a double-walled vacuum bottle available in black and silver. Growlers are super popular among beer drinkers as a means to transport beer, and sometimes drink from them, and they love to collect them. As the craft beer industry continues to soar, growlers are commonly sold at breweries and brewpubs as a means to sell take-out craft beer. Landing a brewery or brewpub as a client for custom laser engraved growlers could be a very lucrative opportunity for your business indeed!
Johnson Plastics Plus, Burnsville, MN, has added more than 20 new products to their laser engravable and UV-LED printable drinkware line. The company’s CeramiSteel line features drinkware made from stainless steel with a ceramic lining. Items in the line are available in several different colors and bare stainless steel, and include tumblers in a variety of sizes, a 12 oz. tumbler with a handle, a 16 oz. pint and 9 oz. wine tumbler. JPPlus also offers a complete line of sublimatable drinkware.
Condé Systems, Inc., Mobile, AL, has introduced their Julep line which now includes double-walled drinkware with a sublimatable polymer (plastic) coating. As with other types of popular mugs, the double-walled feature keeps contents hot or cold with no condensation. Included is a 30 oz. travel mug with a black interior, a 15 oz. tumbler with a white interior and a 15 oz. travel mug with a stainless steel interior. Lids are available for all of these. These mugs require the use of a metal insert tool in place of the original interior insert to maintain their shape during sublimation. Once the metal tool is removed, you install the original insert and permanently lock it into place creating a double-walled mug. Unbreakable poly mugs are rare in the sublimation market and none are double-walled, making Condé’s Julep line unique to the industry. These are great for travel, sporting events, toddlers, etc., and fill a much-needed niche in the drinkware market.
Of course, there are other choices in drinkware from sources like Amazon, eBay, Target and Walmart. All offer a variety of metal drinkware ranging from brand names to inexpensive look-a-likes that can be personalized with a fiber laser or a CO2 laser using a laser-markable coating like CerMark or Enduramark. Some of these items have a variety of coatings that can only be penetrated with a fiber laser. Remember, laser fusible chemicals only work on uncoated metal.
Drinkware by Laser
There are a couple of challenges I have encountered when laser engraving drinkware. The first has to do with powder coated items. Although the laser cuts through the powder coating without too much trouble, you might have to run two passes if you’re using a low wattage laser. After engraving, there is often a haze left behind in the engraved areas that has to be cleaned off. Multiple passes with the laser usually won’t help but the haze can be cleaned off using one of a couple chemicals. For years, I have used lacquer thinner for this task. It works well but the fumes are dangerous when inhaled and it is highly flammable. JDS discovered that a common household cleaner will also work so they started selling “LA’s Totally Awesome.” Totally Awesome cleaner can also be purchased from various hardware and grocery stores (and Amazon, of course). It does a good job and doesn’t carry the dangers of lacquer thinner.
The second challenge comes with the 30 oz. or larger tumblers. I use a cone type cylindrical device on my ULS laser. This works well for all the smaller drinkware, but the cone isn’t large enough to hold the 30 oz. and larger styles, so I have had to modify the setup slightly to increase the diameter of the cone. This can be done in a number of ways. The best way I’ve found thus far is to use a small piece of self-adhesive Velcro at the top edge of the rubber pads. Of course, there are larger cones and flange adapters available for laser rotary attachments from Quality One Engravers, Rancho Cucamonga, CA, but unless you are doing a lot of these mugs, these might cost more than you want to invest.
Handles can be a challenge with laser engraved cups and tumblers. Although designs can be created that only laser a portion of a mug which will keep the handle from bumping into the laser head, this can be very limiting. If you want to laser a lot of products with handles, you might want to consider purchasing a 4" lens for your laser. This allows the engraving head to be raised far enough above the product that the handle no longer interferes with the fixture’s rotation.
Drinkware by UV-LED Printing
Laser engraving isn’t the only way to mark these and other types of drinkware, however. The newest technology is UV-LED printing. UV inks won’t do well on all the various items on the market, but they will work on most, including plastic water bottles. Tapered items and stemless tumblers don’t do well because of their shape but some companies have created workarounds for these. Glass is another “iffy” material for UV printing. Some inks will bond to glass while others won’t. Even the ones that do work should not be placed in a dishwasher. Some items will require an application of an adhesion promotor prior to printing to help the ink bond to the product.
One should always test a product before making any promises to a customer when using a UV-LED printer to make sure the adhesion is what you expect it to be. Those who claim that UV ink will print on anything are being overly optimistic about their product.
The biggest downside of using a UV-LED printer is they can’t accommodate products with handles. However, this still leaves a wide range of products that can be produced with a UV printer and since some tumblers come with detachable handles, they too can be added to the mix.
Drinkware by Sublimation
Sublimation is, of course, a viable method for personalization drinkware. In addition to expanding options in sublimatable drinkware, the other exciting news is we can now print odd-shaped items, such as stemless wine tumblers, and even under the handles of ceramic mugs by using a new technique.
Travel mugs, water bottles and coffee cups are nothing new to the sublimation market, but we have always been limited as to what areas we could sublimate. Trying to sublimate a simple coffee cup edge-to-edge and handle-to-handle has been greatly desired but virtually impossible to accomplish. Using this new technique, you can not only print edge-to-edge and handle-to-handle, you can even print under the handle and on the handle. In addition, odd-shaped items like the super popular stemless wine tumblers have been more trouble to sublimate than they were worth—until now.
The new technique developed by Condé, and now being adopted by other sublimation suppliers, uses special shrink-wrap sleeves in place of a mug press or mug wrap. These inexpensive, disposable sleeves, called SubliShrink, are easy to use and they are available in a variety of sizes to accommodate everything from a shot glass to a pet bowl and beyond.
Of course, whatever you sublimate must have a sublimation-receptive polyester coating applied to it just as before. Off-the-shelf drinkware cannot be sublimated. This new technique will, however, make it worth the effort for those who coat drinkware to offer a wider variety of new shapes and sizes of everything from shot glasses to pitchers to gallon jugs. If you have an oven large enough to accommodate it and can convince a coating company to coat it, you can probably sublimate it.
Here’s how it works: First, you need to print and attach your transfer to the item being sublimated. This is done in the same way we have always done it. A couple pieces of heat tape at either end to secure the transfer in place works fine. However, if you have used heat tape on drinkware before, you know it tends to leave a discolored mark on the finished product. Condé has searched out a new heat tape called Premium Gold Heat Transfer Application Tape that is ultra-thin and doesn’t leave a stain like the thicker green and red tapes we are used to using. They call it their “magic gold tape.”
Another difference when using the shrink-wrap sleeves is that you no longer need to use a cover sheet on the back of the transfer, like you do when using a mug wrap or heat press, to prevent sublimation dye from bleeding through the transfer onto something it shouldn’t. Since you are going to toss the shrink-wrap sleeve after using it, the transfer of dye to unwanted places is no longer a concern.
To use these new sleeves, select a shrinkable sleeve just slightly larger than the item you are going to sublimate and drop the item into the sleeve. Adjust the sleeve so all areas of the item will be covered once you apply heat. Some people twist the top and/or bottom prior to heating.
Using a hair dryer or heat gun, heat the shrink-wrap until it is tight around the entire surface of the object to be sublimated. Be sure there are no air gaps or bubbles since those areas may not print properly.
Because the shrink-wrap will adhere to all areas and contours of the item, we can now sublimate coffee cups edge-to-edge without having to worry about streaks or blowouts. These are typically caused by the inconsistency of the cylindrical shape of the mug. Mugs may look like they are perfectly cylindrical, but they rarely are.
Some items, such as the new stemless wine tumblers, are not consistently cylindrical anywhere making it very difficult to design a graphic that will work well. To alleviate this problem, Condé provides a template you can use that, when cut, will fit the contour and curvature of the tumblers perfectly and allows for a 360° image.
The final step is to place the object into an oven at the specified temperature (350° F for the wine tumblers). Use an oven thermometer since most built-in oven thermometers are sometimes off by 50° or more. Depending on the product and the size and number of items being sublimated, heating will require from 5 to 20 minutes. The wine tumblers take only 5 minutes. Items should be placed an inch or two apart to allow heat to move freely all around the objects.
Note that the oven you use should not be used for food. I doubt if the dyes would make anyone sick, but it would be foolish to ever take the chance. Condé and other sublimation suppliers recommend buying a countertop oven for sublimating cups and tumblers, and have tested dozens of models searching for the best design and the one with the most consistent heating pattern. Currently, their findings focus on the Hamilton Beach model 31107 countertop convection oven which has a 9.5" interior height and sells for around $79. The Hamilton Beach model 31103 model has a 10" height and costs around $119. Besides the convection feature, the height of the interior cavity is the most important feature since the taller tumblers won’t fit in many of the ovens.
After the allotted time, remove the items with a heat glove and remove the shrink wrap along with the transfer. Some people recommend dunking tumblers in a bucket of water to stop the sublimation process. Others just set items aside to cool naturally.
There continues to be a growing number of drinkware products to offer your customers, a trend that has been happening for some time now. If you do laser engraving, there are dozens of colors and designs to choose from. If UV-LED printing is your thing, there is a variety of handle-less items for you to imprint. If sublimation is your personalization method of choice, there are new product possibilities because of the shrink-wrap technology and many more products sure to come.
The area of our industry that not long ago was limited to a few coffee cups has grown into an ever-expanding income stream. With dozens of colors, styles, shapes and sizes to pick from, and more to come, drinkware looks like it is going to be the hottest line of products in 2020 and beyond. It certainly was in 2019. If you haven’t brought drinkware into your operation, you may be missing out.
Speaking of missing out, don’t forget to market your drinkware with some add-ons such as laser engravable straws, car coasters, table coasters and huggers. Whether you are offering sublimation, UV-LED printing or laser engraving, there are a host of these available and many of them are new designs. There are also various options in lids for many of these items along with optional handles. And don’t forget the “2-fer” strategy of offering a discount when the customer buys two or more of the same item.
So, come on. Get on the bandwagon and join the party by offering some of these new drinkware options, along with some of the older ones, and see how many of your customers will come back for seconds—and thirds!