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The ABCs of Plastic Products

What can you make with a sheet of plastic? A lot of things—some types of plastic are sublimatable, some are UV printable and many are laser and/or rotary engravable. Plastic, especially engraving plastic, can produce huge profit margins from products that sell themselves, and that’s great news as our economy tries to rebound.

My assignment this month was to write an article listing as many things as I could think of that could be made using plastics and acrylic. Hopefully, there are some things in my list you haven’t thought of before.

As I tried to think how to organize this article, I thought about listing these projects in lots of ways but because there are so many, it just seemed logical to do them alphabetically.

That being said, my list is anything but complete. You can probably think of the many things I missed, but that’s okay. The point is to give you ideas for new things you can engrave or make that will add to your bottom line. Most of these items or ideas are things I have made through the years and continue to make. Some have appeared in previous articles and some are new. Some of the ideas are mine while most were originally from someone else. Either way, I hope you find something that adds to your bottom line.

A.              

Art with light: Engraving an artistic design in reverse engravable plastic and placing it in a lightbox can result in a very interesting keepsake. Likewise, sublimating an image on a sheet of ColorLyte film (available from Condé Systems, Inc.) and placing it in a lightbox (you will need a clear acrylic backer sheet for support) can make an exciting product you can sell.

ADA signage: There are a host of color combinations and millions of potential design possibilities using various plastics to make ADA signage. Although there are regulations about contrast and size for the tactile lettering and Braille, you have creative freedom for the rest of the sign, including using reflective materials, stand-offs and acrylic.

B.              

Black acrylic: Black cast acrylic is great fun to work with if you are lucky enough to have a fiber laser. Black acrylic engraves white when struck by a fiber laser. This makes a terrific plaque, control panel or other project.

Barcodes: Most engraving plastics allow laser engraving both standard and 2D barcodes using a CO2 laser. Many companies order plastic plates with engraved barcodes to attach to various products or for inventory control. Using the new FiberGrave materials by Rowmark allows you to work with special black or white material and a fiber laser.

Business cards: Conde’s new DyeFlex sheet stock is heavy enough and tough enough to make some really classy calling cards with it. First, sublimate the face of it and then cut it out using your laser. You can even cut out portions inside the card or make it some unusual shape.

C.

Chalkboards: Rowmark offers their Message Board line of chalkboard and dry erase acrylic products featuring a special finish. The chalkboard sheet material can be written on with ordinary white or colored chalk. This material is ideal for making memo boards, menu boards and message boards of all kinds.

Coronavirus safety signs: Coronavirus is on everyone’s minds these days. Nearly every business has signs (usually paper) all over the place telling people to respect social distancing, cover when coughing, etc. As time passes, they are going to grow weary of those ugly paper signs and want to replace them with something nicer looking and more permanent. This is a perfect time for engravers to step in with engraved or sublimated signs on plastic. It is also an excellent opportunity to try out Rowmark’s new tri-layer plastic (LaserMax Tri-Layer) that allows you to laser engrave a three-color sign from a single sheet of plastic.

Clocks: You can never have too many clocks, especially if they are personalized and focus on something people really like such as cars or soccer. All kinds of clocks can be made using laser cut engraving plastics and acrylic—and a little creativity.

Coasters (acrylic): A variety of coasters can be made using your laser. Using clear cast acrylic, you can engrave and cut out your own coasters using a CO2 laser or you can use a fiber laser to engrave black acrylic and then cut out the coasters using your CO2 laser. If you want full-color coasters, Condé Systems offers sublimatable clear acrylic coasters.

Control panels: Go after the industrial market by offering custom engraved control panels for everything from electronics to mining equipment. Use a thicker plastic (1/16” or 1/8”) for control panels for things like boats and prototype panels or a self-adhesive foil material like Rowmark LaserLIGHTS for punched metal control panels.

D.

Door signs: You see them everywhere—engraved door signs. Often engraved in a wood-tone plastic with a frame, door signs are used in most businesses, churches and public buildings.

Directories: Building directories or “wayfinding” signage is a must for any public building or church. These can be simple or ornate but they are a must. Directories do not require Braille or tactile text so simple engraved plastic meets the need just fine.

E.

Exit signs: Installing lighted exit signs or other emergency signage in an existing building is very expensive. An alternative is to use Rowmark’s LaserGlow plastic. This glow-in-the-dark material is approved by New York City for use in place of lighted signage. (Check your local codes for photoluminescent standards.) Depending on the sheet stock you select, it can be rotary or laser engraved or done as an appliqué to create tactile lettering.

Electrical box identifiers: Many city and state electrical codes require all commercial breaker box circuits be marked with a permanent tag. Usually it calls for white with black text. These can easily be made using plastic. If the specs call for fire retardant material, consider Rowmark’s Safe-T-Mark material. A small display in local electrical wholesale supply houses can help you find business.

F.

Full-color plastics: Currently, we have at least three sublimatable plastics: ColorLyte clear acrylic, ColorLyte film and fiberglass reinforced plastic (FRP) by Unisub. ColorLyte is exclusively from Condé Systems while the Unisub product is available from most sublimation suppliers. These plastics allow creating products like signs and badges with full-color images.

G.

Glitter plastic: “G” is for glitter and Trotec Laser, Inc. and Delvie’s Plastics has the glitter plastic to meet the bill. This plastic, which is actually acrylic, isn’t engravable but it can be cut into almost any shape you can imagine. Let your creativity go wild and design things like cake toppers, ornaments, jewelry, point of sale displays and much more.

Guitar picks: Condé Systems offers sublimatable plastic guitar picks. These little plastic picks make great promotional items or gifts and can be personalized with full-color images.

Guitar pick guards: People have been making pick guards for guitars and similar instruments for decades. You can make custom guards using a wide variety of engraving plastics.

Did you know that Fender, the famous guitar maker, offers custom pick guards made from sublimated FRP? If they can do it, so can you. Just laser cut your guard from a sheet of FRP, smooth the edges and sublimate the image.

Glow-in-the-dark fun stuff: Anyone with children, or even teens, knows they love things that glow in the dark or under a black light. Cut some of the LaserGlow plastic into stars, quarter moons and other shapes and place some poster putty on the back. These can be stuck to most walls or ceilings without causing damage.

H.

House numbers: Everyone should have their house number mounted prominently on the front of their house. Numbers from hardware stores aren’t very attractive and the sizes available are limited. Consider cutting numbers out of exterior grade plastic that looks like metal or a color that contrasts with the color of the house—even glow-in-the-dark plastic. You can easily make the house numbers in any size and font desired.

I.

Industrial tags: There are all kinds of tags needed for various industrial applications, including machine tags, legend plates, product ID labels, motors, electrical devices, schematics, etc. Engraving plastic works well for many of them.

J.

Jigs: Although I prefer 1/8” thick acrylic for making jigs, they can be made out of most any plastic you have laying around. These are great for engraving medallions, coins, badges, industrial parts, watches and a host of other odd-shaped items.

K.

Key chains: Have you seen personalized “name” key chains in gift shops where the name is cut out of a piece of wood or plastic? You can make those too, and quite easily. I prefer using acrylic but other plastics will also work. Just type out the name in any outline font. Then draw a box under the name and position it so it overlaps the name slightly and weld them together. Draw a hole somewhere for the ring and cut it out on your laser. These are especially appreciated by people with unusual names.

L.

Luggage tags: Luggage tags make a great customer appreciation product or product to sell in your shop. They amount to nothing more than a piece of plastic with a hole cut in it and the person’s name and address engraved on one side. If you want to get really fancy, select a double-sided piece of plastic and engrave both sides, perhaps engraving their company logo on the back side. For briefcases and small bags, consider a 1” x 2” rectangle. For larger, suitcases a 2” x 4” rectangle works well. Of course, ovals, circles and other shapes work as well. I prefer using a nylon loop (available from Johnson Plastics Plus or JDS Industries) but a leather strap can also be used.

Labels: Everyone uses labels of all kinds for all kinds of things. Typically, labels are very inexpensive when ordered in large quantities, but customers often don’t need a huge roll but rather only a dozen or maybe a few hundred. Using the self-adhesive plastic films available, you can fulfill that order. If you need full color, you can do that too, just order some Rowmark Mates and sublimate it.

License plates & frames: In states where only a rear license plate is required on vehicles many people like to have a custom “vanity” plate showing their name, initials or something to do with a hobby, club or church on the front of their car. Exterior grade plastics are great for this and can be customized with whatever the customer desires. If their state does require license plates on both the front and rear, they can always use a license plate frame. I prefer the metal frames with plastic inserts. This is another good place to use a textured plastic since they are UV stable and very durable.

M.

            Medical face shields: Many folks have taken to making face shields using their lasers for our medical heroes in hospitals and many other support activities during the coronavirus outbreak. One way to do that involves laser cutting the various pieces of the mask and then assembling them. For example, you can use your laser to cut thin clear flexible plastic (such as polyester film) for the shield, foam to go between the forehead and the plastic shield, adhesive to attach the foam to the plastic and nylon cord to hold the shield on the head. 

Membership signs: Many organizations, especially those that charge dues, present a membership plaque to members, especially if they join as a business since businesses often like to display these to show they support the community. These usually have to be inexpensive and often have room for an annual sticker to indicate they have paid their dues. These are often extruded plastic but that doesn’t easily allow the name of the person or business to be engraved which opens the door for us. Engraved plastic membership signs allow the addition of a name and even a logo along with a series of date stickers made with a self-adhesive plastic foil.

Mirror: Although most mirrors are probably made of glass, we have some beautiful mirror engraving plastics. Consider placing a piece in a nice frame but before you do, engrave a flourish, flower or monogram in one corner. It’s a quick, simple way to make a one-of-a-kind gift item that is not only pretty unique but useful as well.

Mailbox signs: Although those who live in town may not need a sign on their mailbox, people in rural areas do and there are millions of us. This is a good application for an exterior texture plastic with some Tesa tape on the back.

Magnetic signs & refrigerator magnets: Did you know there is a magnetic sheet stock that is laser engravable and can be cut with a laser? There is and it comes in gold and silver with black engraving plus black with gold engraving. Available from Johnson Plastics Plus and JDS Industries, this material is great for making refrigerator magnets, save-the-dates and more.

Multi-layer projects: One way to make multi-colored products with plastic is to stack cut pieces on top of one another, such as a laser cut logo in one color on top of an engraved badge in another. Although more labor intensive than single layer products, these can be very distinctive.

N.

Name badges: Name badges have to be the number one engraved plastic product of all time. You can make many shapes and use a thousand color combinations. Try using reverse engravable material and paint filling the text and logo for a truly unique and colorful badge. For full color, try sublimating FRP badges and add a plastic frame for a stunning and unique badge.

O.

Outdoor signage: This is something you might have thought is beyond your business scope but it’s really not, and it can be quite lucrative. Many places, such as state and national parks, are using engraved plastic (ABS) exterior signs and the material for it is readily available in our industry. The material is called Rowmark Heavy Weights. It is tough, attractive, tamper resistant and won’t split, warp or weather like wood signs. Available in ¼” or ½” thicknesses and sheet sizes up to 4’ x 8’, it has a textured surface and is double-sided. It has an unusually thick cap, so it has to be rotary engraved or cut with a CNC router. Of course, we have been making small outdoor signs for decades, but you can also get into larger signage, depending on the size of your rotary engraver.

P.

Promotional products: Self-adhesive ultra-thin films such as Rowmark LaserLIGHTS, Gemini DuetsContours, Gravograph Stickalase or Trotec TroLase Lights can be engraved and adhered to a wide variety of products to produce promotional products.

Picture Frame Inserts: Picture framers are always looking for someone to engrave the brass plates they use on picture frames but in the place of brass, try using thin metallic colored ultra-thin plastics like Rowmark FlexiBrass, Trotec TroLase Thins, Gemini DuetsContours or Gravograph Flexilase. These materials look like real brass (silver, bronze, etc.), but are much easier to read than real metal and are thin enough that they won’t cause the mat to bulge when mounted behind the mat or when mounted under glass. For plates mounted directly onto the frame, use 1/16” plastic.

Pet tags: With the pet industry reaching into the $800 billion range, a simple plastic tag may not bring in a billion dollars, but it can provide an 800% profit margin.

Q.

Quicksilver: Okay, this might be pushing the alphabet thing a little, but the word “quicksilver” is another word for liquid metal mercury which reminds me of all the nice-looking “metal” plastics available to us from suppliers. These can be used to make instrument panels, signs and a host of other products that would be too expensive or just downright impossible to engrave using real metal. Copper, stainless, brass, silver, gold, aluminum and many variations are available from the various plastics manufacturers.

R.

Reverse engraved signs: Reverse engravable plastics are nothing new, but they continue to bring a long list of potential applications. Ever struggle with an interior designer to get “just the right color” on interior signage? Reverse engravable plastic allows you to have custom paint colors mixed to meet the demand. Ever noticed how many public buildings have paper “Exit/You Are Here” signs taped up rooms? The fact that they are usually downright ugly should place this entry in the “U” category. Why not reverse engrave them which allows the use of multiple colors, a tamper resistant face and a nice frame?

S.

Stencils: A few years ago, Rowmark introduced a material line called Lucents that could be used to laser cut stencils for spray painting or drawing. The translucent material is great for making rulers, stencils and templates of all kinds. The material is available in six colors plus clear.

T.

Trophy plates: Plastic has been used for making trophy plates for probably 100 years and it continues to be used. Today, however, we have better alternatives by using either ultra-thin plastics or self-adhesive films. These materials make short order of the tedious chore of personalizing trophy plates.

U.

UV print receptive plastics: With more and more UV-LED printers being used, there is a host of products that can be made using print receptive plastics and acrylics. These can be used for promotional products, signs, backlit products, awards and much more.

 V.

Valentine’s Day gifts: Everyone knows that Valentine’s Day is a big gift-giving holiday. People both young and old look for sentimental personalized gifts that express love and affection but that’s also easy on the wallet. Grab some red plastic or acrylic, or perhaps some glitter acrylic and get to work laser cutting and engraving those gifts that won’t take you much time but that can bring in some nice profits. Think of things like heart-shaped wall hangings (“Hugs, Kisses & Valentine’s Wishes”), key chains, cupcake toppers, flower/plant stakes, jewelry and more.

W.

Wall décor: The home décor market is exploding right now and a big part of that includes custom wall décor. Plastic and acrylic are excellent materials for making all kinds of wall décor, including letters, family names, meaningful sayings and more. Another wall décor option is to use ultra-thin self-adhesive plastic films to create wall stickers.

X.

X’mas ornaments: Christmas ornaments can be made in at least two ways: Clear acrylic can be laser engraved and cut into ornaments (which can also be used as sun catchers) or double-sided (3-ply) engraving plastic can be engraved and cut into a variety of shapes for the holidays.

Y.

Yard signs: Big yard signs are especially popular right now and they are often made with a corrugated plastic panel with vinyl lettering applied to it. But I’m talking about smaller signs to identify trees, shrubs and flowers or to identify plants in a garden, arboretum or memorial forest. These are best when made from 1/8” engraving plastic but can also be made using a wide variety of materials.

Z.

Zodiac: Okay, I had some trouble thinking of something for “Z” and Zodiac is a bit of a reach but for those who follow astrology, it might not be so much of a reach after all. Zodiac signs, symbols and charts can be engraved on a variety of plastic materials.

Conclusion

Well, how did I do? I admit a couple of the letters were a stretch, but I did manage to think of at least one thing for each letter of the alphabet.

More important, how did I do in adding to your bottom line? Did you find something you can make that will increase your sales? That was the goal after all, and I hope you did find something. Perhaps it was something you already knew about and I only refreshed your memory. If you are new to the business, maybe you found a whole list of things to try. Either way, as we all find our way back to work, may your business soar and may you find both yourself and your customers healthy and financially secure.

The ABCs of Plastic Products
J. Stephen Spence

Copyright © 2020
As Printed in June 2020, Volume 45, Number 11, The Engravers Journal

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