A countertop sign at the local spa displaying brochures of the pampering services available. A sleek, modern name badge. A custom key chain advertising the local car dealership. A football ball holder display. A personalized cover for a photo album. It’s these functional applications—plus literally hundreds more—that make acrylic such a versatile and popular material.
Among other notable qualities, acrylic is extremely easy to fabricate. It can be molded into interesting sculptures, cut into detailed shapes for awards and bent to form freestanding signs and desktop items. It is easy to personalize through laser engraving, rotary engraving, sandblasting, screen printing and UV printing. The bottom line? You can create durable, beautiful and highly salable products with a minimal investment of time and money. Let’s find out the “scoop” about this multipurpose substrate.
What is Acrylic?
Acrylic is a thermoplastic material (meaning that it is heat sensitive) made of methyl methacrylate. Most people recognize it under the popular brand names of Plexiglas and Lucite.
As mentioned, acrylic has many attractive and versatile characteristics. It is lightweight, scratch-resistant and a less expensive alternative to glass with better optical clarity. The extreme optical clarity, not to mention shatter resistance, is one of the reasons why it’s popular for applications such as aircraft windshields. The optical clarity also provides a sleek appearance that makes it difficult to distinguish from high-end crystal by merely looking at it.
One major advantage of acrylic over most other plastics is its UV stability (meaning it remains colorfast and does not degrade from exposure to UV light) and weatherability (meaning it’s able to withstand the elements, such as sunshine, hot, cold, rain, snow, etc.). Because it can withstand UV light and harsh weather conditions for a long time, it’s well-suited for industrial uses such as control panels and for applications such as exterior signage.
Acrylic keepsake boxes are available from suppliers and can also be easily fabricated. Photo courtesy of Hamlet Products, Inc.
Acrylic has a unique feature in that it is highly sensitive to absorbing certain wavelengths of light, one of which is 10.6 micrometers. Coincidentally, this is the exact same output frequency of a CO2 laser. The result is that acrylic acts like a sponge for the laser energy and engraves easily and with beautiful results. Photographs, text, logos and other graphics can be engraved with outstanding detail, making acrylic an exceptionally popular material for laser engraving and cutting.
If you’re shopping for acrylic sheet materials, keep in mind that several types are available. Both cast and extruded acrylic are used in this industry. Cast acrylic sheets are manufactured by pouring a liquid monomer into a mold made of two sheets of glass and then allowed to harden to form a solid sheet. These large sheets are molded to several thicknesses. Traditional cast acrylic sheets are available as a single-ply sheet typically in 1/8" and 1/4" thicknesses, although suppliers indicate that the material can be produced in just about any thickness. Gemini, Inc., for example, produces acrylic in thicknesses from .020" up to 1.5" and Delvie’s Plastics offers clear acrylic in .030"-2" thicknesses.
Cast acrylic is known for its optical clarity, strength and impact resistance, and it is easier to machine than extruded acrylic. Engraved lettering and designs on clear cast acrylic will turn frosty white, providing a nice contrast.
Extruded acrylic, on the other hand, is manufactured by a continuous production process, which results in a more consistent gauge tolerance across the sheet. A large machine, much like a printing press, forms the liquid plastic into a continuous sheet of material which emerges from the machine in a continuous fashion and then is sawed into sheets. This type of acrylic is less expensive than cast acrylic but it remains clear or matte grey when engraved. It’s also susceptible to cracking or crazing around the engraved areas. Although not typically ideal for engraving, extruded acrylic has a lower melting point and cuts superbly with a laser, providing a flame-polished glass-like edge quality.
Today, acrylic substrates in this industry are available in a range of optical appearances (clear, opaque, translucent, mirrored, fluorescent, frosted), a variety of finishes (matte, gloss, satin, textured) and a growing range of colors. Reverse engravable substrates are also available for projects like subsurface and backlit signage.
Acrylic is a great substrate for creating custom fixtures. The jig on the left was created to hold a canoe paddle in a UV printer while the one on the right is designed to clamp items such as a golf putter in a rotary engraving machine.
While the focus of this article is primarily on single-ply acrylic substrates, it should be mentioned that manufacturers have developed acrylic blends containing ingredients such as fillers, pigments and additives that vary the physical properties of the material to create “modified” and “impact modified” acrylics. These acrylic blends are used to manufacture two- and three-ply materials with contrasting core and surface colors through co-extrusion, lamination or by adding a foil cap. If you want color in the engraved areas, the different core and surface colors eliminate the extra step of color filling the material using paint or another filler, which is necessary with single-ply acrylic substrates.
The idea behind modified acrylic is to utilize the advantages of traditional acrylic (weatherability) with the performance characteristics of multi-ply, multi-colored engraving stocks. Modified acrylic materials are available in an extensive number of color combinations and finish options, and can be fabricated using many different methods, including both rotary and laser engraving. In addition, the use of modified acrylic in these two- and three-ply substrates makes most of them UV stable and weatherable so they can be used for both interior and exterior applications.
In addition to acrylic sheet stock, there are numerous suppliers in the recognition and personalization industry that supply ready-to-engrave plaques, awards and other blanks. These blanks are cut from large sheets using saws or high-powered lasers and then polished using progressively finer wet sanding and polishing operations. Just take a look at these suppliers’ catalogs and you’ll be amazed with the selection of beautiful acrylic awards and desk accessories like paperweights and nameplates that are available. Acrylic blanks are available in hundreds of different shapes featuring unique accents such as chiseled or iceberg edges, and graphic elements like stars. Some of these blanks are standup awards and plaques while others include bases. Others have screen printed (marbled) backgrounds for reverse engraving or a blue, gold or clear silver reflective mirrored bottom that disperses color to the bevels and edges of the award. Yet another option is an acrylic blank that sandwiches a color print in between two pieces of clear acrylic which is held together with magnets. In addition to a huge variety of stock products, many of these suppliers offer custom design services as well.
Acrylic is unique in that it can be used to create sleek, contemporary subsurface signage. Photo courtesy of Rowmark LLC.
But acrylic isn’t just an engraving material and it’s not just for awards. All in all, the many attractive attributes of acrylic make it suitable for many different applications and projects that you can’t do (or don’t normally do) with traditional engraving stock. Here’s a look.
Taking a look at the products available in this industry quickly reveals an important fact. You can create just about anything you want in acrylic. Awards, desk accessories, display fixtures, clocks, frames, jewelry displays, sports cases, certificate covers, wall displays and many, many more products are possibilities in acrylic. Here’s a look at some of the many applications.
Awards are a major application for acrylic and, as mentioned, there is much to choose from. One of the most popular acrylic award applications is plaques. Stock acrylic plaques are available as wall or freestanding styles in many different shapes, including geometric shapes like peak, round, beveled, square, circular, pillar, teardrop and wave designs, and more specific styles like stars, trophy cups and animals. A variety of edge finishes are also available to give the award a unique look. Just some of the popular edge finishes include waterfall, flame, white cap, iceberg, bubble and chipped.
Manufacturers can add color to transparent acrylic award blanks in a variety of ways. As mentioned, the back of the award can be painted, screen printed or digitally printed with a colored, marbled, geometric or other interesting pattern, and then reverse engraved to create a stunning award. Or the awards can include a mirrored bottom that reflects color into the cuts and bevels in the piece. Some manufacturers also used digital printing to dress up award blanks, e.g. with colored awareness ribbons, eagles, graphic designs and more.
You can also purchase acrylic plaque plates that can be engraved and attached to a plaque board. Acrylic plaque plates make an attractive alternative to standard metal and plastic plates, providing your customers with yet another option to choose from.
Acrylic is a very popular choice for certificate and plaque covers since it serves to protect what’s beneath it while allowing it to be very visible. These covers are often predrilled for mounting and are used to protect certificates, documents and photos while making the award more permanent.
Acrylic is available in various colors and can be cut into different shapes for different applications. Photo courtesy of LaserBits, Inc.
Desk accessories work as both gifts and awards and there is no shortage of products available from suppliers or that you can fabricate yourself. Consider acrylic nameplates, desk bars, pen holders and paperweights in just about any shape, in addition to clipboards, letter openers, coaster sets and rulers. Acrylic’s durability is an attractive characteristic for items like these because they often see a lot of wear and tear.
Business card holders are also popular desk accessories that are made from acrylic. Business card holders can be designed to hold several cards at once or as a transparent block that one business card slides into for display on a desktop like a nameplate.
Acrylic is an excellent material choice for display fixtures for several reasons. Its optical clarity readily transmits light thereby allowing items placed behind it or encased in it to be very visible. Acrylic also tends to highlight the product, not the case or display fixture itself, and it offers a professional and classy presentation.
One of the things that really sets acrylic apart from just about any other material is the ease with which it can be cut and fabricated, including the cutting of custom shapes, bending and gluing. More about this later.
Acrylic display cases can be created for collectibles, memorabilia and special items like flags. There are also display cases designed specifically for showcasing sports items, such as a baseball, football, basketball, bat or hat. Some of these cases can be designed with a cutout for holding the item in place, e.g. a circular cutout for holding a ball, others are basically an appropriately sized acrylic box, while others are holders, e.g. several acrylic “prongs” for holding a baseball.
Easels are another useful display item that can be made of acrylic. They are often used to display items like platters, plates and frames on a shelf, table, etc. Acrylic pedestals can be used to highlight a variety of items, from your customer’s collectible statues to merchandise in a jewelry store.
Acrylic display fixtures can also be used in all kinds of businesses and organizations. Various shapes and sizes of these fixtures can hold brochures, catalogs and other literature on a countertop or wall.
Rowmark LLC offers mirrored acrylic that can be used for accents on awards and signs, among other applications.
The public’s fascination with photographs continues to grow, and people frequently display photos of family, friends and coworkers in their homes and offices using picture frames. Acrylic makes a great material for picture frames since it can be fabricated into any shape and style, ranging from an easel type frame to a four-sided cube frame to a frame that encases a photo(s) between two pieces of acrylic.
Another unique application for acrylic is removable photo album covers. Photo courtesy of Hamlet Products, Inc.
Acrylic award blank suppliers offer stock blanks with preprinted designs and graphics for a custom look without the cost. Photo courtesy of R. B. Fabrication, Inc.
Acrylic’s durability is a key factor in its popularity for manufacturing items like vanity license plates (plus it’s easy to personalize the acrylic plate with a name or catchy phrase). Acrylic also works well as a license plate frame, as strips for frames and as plate protectors, i.e. a piece of clear acrylic that fits over the license plate itself to protect it from the elements.
Key tags are another popular application for acrylic. In addition to a variety of stock tags from suppliers, you can cut acrylic into virtually any shape imaginable and create custom tags in minutes using your laser or rotary engraving machine.
Acrylic’s weatherability makes it well-suited for both interior and exterior sign applications, so it’s a natural for signage. Sign letters and symbols can be cut out of colored or clear acrylic and can also be back-painted to match custom color requests and then mounted on the side of a building or behind the counter in a retail establishment, for example.
Besides individual letters, complete signs can also be made from acrylic. For example, freestanding countertop signs are popular in restaurants and other retail businesses. And don’t forget about acrylic badges, badge holders (the slip-on pocket type is a favorite among many) and badge frames.
Different sign-making methods are used within the industry for achieving the “designer” look that is so sought after in architectural signage. One that produces a truly unique look is engraved subsurface signage.
Subsurface signs are signs with lettering and graphics below the material surface—the sign’s front surface is completely smooth. The appearance of subsurface engraved signage is very attractive—it is both clean and contemporary—and it looks quite different from surface engraved signage. Subsurface signage is also very durable and vandal resistant. Because the engraved design is protected, the engraved areas cannot be damaged, and if the engraved areas are paint filled, they are better protected against peeling and cracking. Subsurface signage is also popular for outdoor applications, such as golf courses and zoos, because weather elements cannot easily reach the painted letters and graphics.
Subsurface signage is usually created by reverse engraving (rotary or laser) a clear acrylic blank or a two-ply acrylic sheet containing a thin colored back layer and a thicker transparent front surface. Engraving material suppliers offer acrylic or modified acrylic sheet stock specifically designed for reverse engraving, including Duets Laser XT from Gemini, Inc., Gravoglas from Gravograph, and ColorCast Acrylics from Rowmark LLC. These two-ply acrylic materials consist of a thick clear surface (as viewed from the front) and a thin colored layer on the back. When the colored layer is reverse engraved, the letters and graphics show through the clear base material. The engraved letters and graphics can then be paint filled to add more color to the sign design.
As another option, you can back-paint clear acrylic blanks for subsurface signage. There are hundreds and hundreds of paint colors available, and you can also have colors mixed to your customer’s specifications, e.g. to match the colors in a business logo or a company’s decorating theme.
The ability to easily laser cut acrylic with quality results opens up a host of creative product opportunities in awards, gifts and other merchandise. Photo courtesy of R. B. Fabrication, Inc
An emerging trend in the industry is backlit and edge-lit signage, and acrylic is an excellent material for this application because of its transparency and optical clarity. When you engrave a piece of transparent acrylic and edge light it, the graphics literally glow. Delvie’s Plastics, a supplier specializing in selling acrylic sheet materials, recently developed a line of table standing and wall hanging LED light bars for creating backlit and edge-lit signage. A quick Google search for “LED light strips” will also bring up hundreds of sources. This is suitable for interior applications and, thanks to acrylic’s weatherability, exterior applications as well. According to Derek Kern, president of sales for Kern Laser Systems, the popularity of using LED lights in signage has grown exponentially because of the enhanced control these lights provide and the cost savings from reduced energy use.
Jigs & Fixtures
Another great characteristic of acrylic is that it is an excellent material for building things like jigs and fixtures for your laser, rotary engraving machine and other equipment like a UV printer. EJ Contributing Writer Dale Gruver has made (and written about) a seemingly infinite variety of fixtures by using his laser to vector cut 1/16", 1/8" and 1/4" thick Plexiglas sheet stock to craft jigs and fixtures for the unique and unusual engraving requests he receives. He has made flat jigs by cutting a pattern in a piece of acrylic that matches the shape of the part to be engraved, and he has made more elaborate three-dimensional jigs for jobs such as holding a 1/4" thick piece of acrylic so he could laser a 60º bevel along the edges. With a little planning and ingenuity, Gruver has made specialized jigs and fixtures to hold annunciator indicators, pens, medical instruments, medallions, Zippo lighters, key caps, golf putters, an aircraft control wheel and many more items. He’s also made fixtures like CD racks for customers.
Although acrylic is used to create a huge assortment of personalized gift and award items, it also has a variety of industrial applications. Its durability again plays a role here, making it suitable for products like control panels, legend plates and ring tags.
Mirrored acrylic is transparent acrylic that has been “vacuum metalized” on one side with a silver mirror coating. This type of acrylic has many of the same properties as ordinary acrylic, e.g. durability, shatter resistance, etc., but it can reflect images clearly and with very little distortion. Acrylic mirrors are an ideal (and safe) substitute for glass mirrors in interior architectural applications because they weigh less and are far more resistant to breakage.
Mirrored acrylic is available in many different colors and laser engraves with a white frosted mark. This material can be used for a variety of interesting and unique applications. For instance, acrylic award blank suppliers have incorporated mirrored accents into some of their designs to add color and reflection to the pieces. This substrate can also be used for inlays for products such as signs, plaques, key tags, etc. It’s also popular for products such as clocks, wall hangings, photo album covers, picture frames, nameplates and desk sets.
Acrylic can be cut into custom shapes, engraved and then paint filled, UV printed or screen printed to add color. Photo courtesy of Plexi Fab Inc.
An interesting variation on acrylic materials available today is “glow-in-the-dark” engravable acrylic, which is available for either laser or rotary engraving. There are different types of glow-in-the-dark acrylic available, including appliqué, ADA-compliant, reverse engravable and two-ply front engravable materials. The two-ply front engravable materials are available with a black, red, blue or bright green core that shows through the surface of the material when engraved. This material is approved by the New York Fire Department for use as emergency exit signs and directional signs in stairways and buildings. If you want the letters to glow rather than the background of the sign, you can cut them out of the appliqué material and apply them to a non-glow-in-the-dark sign blank.
This material can be used for other types of wayfinding signs as well, such as dimly lit areas in stairways, garages, underground passages and darkrooms. Other applications include equipment tags, safety signage, control panel/identification marking, etc. Some of these materials work well for novelty items such as key tags, bookmarks and decorations for children’s rooms.
There are many other uses for acrylic that don’t really fit neatly into specific product categories. For instance, the ability to easily cut acrylic into any shape using your laser or rotary engraving machine makes it a great material for ornaments—baby, wedding, Christmas and other holiday or special occasion ornaments are just a few examples. Acrylic is also ideal for applications such as pet and luggage tags, since it can be easily shaped (into a dog bone, for example) and personalized.
Acrylic is even used for functional items, such as wine coolers, cups, tumblers, pitchers and coasters. Acrylic items like these are great for outdoor use, such as on a patio or a boat, since it won’t break and shatter like glass.
Keepsake boxes are big sellers in the personalized products industry. They can be used to hold jewelry, trinkets and desktop items like paper clips and thumb tacks. Acrylic boxes are attractive and unique.
Business customers might be interested in acrylic for its model-making capabilities. Acrylic is commonly used to make imitation glass products designed for display purposes, such as a “fake” bottle of perfume.
Acrylic also has decorative qualities that other materials don’t have. It’s an attractive, contemporary material that is interesting to look at, so it’s a fantastic choice for fabricating home accessories and sculptures.
If you haven’t already added acrylic to your line of awards, personalized merchandise and ID products, maybe it’s time you did. Acrylic is affordable, attractive and easy to work with. And it can be used for virtually limitless applications. What more could you really ask for?
Now that you have an idea of what acrylic can be used for, it’s time to explore the many ways this material can be fabricated into salable products. Stay tuned for part 2 which will cover the “scoop” on working with acrylic, including operations such as cutting, drilling, bending, engraving and color filling.