Have you ever had a customer who wanted some signs or badges engraved from plastic using a color combination your supplier doesn’t offer? Most of us have. Did you know you can often have engraving plastic custom made with the colors you want? And did you know that, in most cases, it doesn’t even cost much extra?
This article is about engraving plastic. Even with over 3,000 stock combinations of color and material types to choose from, customers manage to request that which isn’t available on a day-to-day basis. This article should help you meet those requests—at least most of them.
A Few Terms to Know
First, let’s define a few terms. As I wrote this article, I realized I used the word “plastic” a lot to describe the 2-ply engraving stock we are so familiar with. In reality, there are many different types of plastic. Almost all engraving materials are made from either ABS plastic or acrylic resin and although they look the same, they are chemically different.
Second, the engraving materials we use are made up of at least two layers. The top surface layer is referred to as the “cap” and is usually much thinner than the second layer. The second layer is the “core” which is usually the thicker piece and is sometimes referred to as the “base” or “substrate.” The core is usually a contrasting color to the cap. Engraving through the cap layer on front-engravable materials reveals the contrasting core color. By the way, the two most common core colors are black and white.
Finally, there are the terms “extruded,” “co-extruded,” “laminated” and “cast.” These terms refer to how the engraving material is manufactured. “Extrusion” is done in a huge, million-dollar machine that takes a resin (ABS or acrylic), melts it and then forces the liquefied resin through an opening in a manner that reminds one of squeezing a tube of toothpaste, “extruding” a bead of paste. As a final step, this sheet-like flow of semi- molten plastic is fed through a pair of heavy rollers that apply heat and pressure as the molten plastic passes through and then cools and hardens into a solid sheet of single-
“Co-extrusion” is when two colors or a combination of ABS and acrylic, for example, are extruded simultaneously and welded together as it passes through the rollers.
“Laminated” engraving stock is when two or more sheets of material are stacked on top of each other and then heated under pressure in a huge heat press. The result of this is a multi-ply (usually two-color) sheet.
“Casting” is a process involving pouring a liquefied substance into a mold and then allowing it to harden into a solid. Acrylic is often made as a “cell cast” material by pouring a liquid resin into a mold consisting of two sheets of glass and allowing it to cool. Cast materials are typically not produced by suppliers in our industry. They are traditionally manufactured by outside sources such as Röhm & Haas, Dow Chemical, Evonik, Manta and Perspex.
Are Custom Colors an Option?
I have a customer who does everything in metallic silver and blue. To make things even more complicated, the material needs to be self-adhesive, thin and flexible. Unfortunately, such a color combination wasn’t available in the thickness he needed so I had the material “custom made.”
The solution was so simple. I just called up my engraving materials supplier and told them what I needed. About a week later, I found ten sheets of metallic silver over blue flexible plastic with adhesive on my doorstep. I don’t remember how much extra it cost me to have this custom made but it was insignificant—10% extra maybe. However, what I was able to charge the customer for custom made material he couldn’t get anywhere else was very significant.
I’m guessing a lot of engravers don’t know this service is available or that it is so affordable. Granted, you may not have a use for ten full sheets but what if you could have material custom made with as few as one or two sheets? You can, and this article will help you understand how to go about it and what is available and what isn’t from each of the major manufacturers. The service is there. All you have to do is pick up the phone.
To understand what can and cannot be offered in custom colors and combinations, it will help you to understand how the various materials are made. Currently, there are five major manufacturers of engraving plastics for our industry. They are: Rowmark LLC (Findlay, OH), Gemini, Inc. (Cannon Falls, MN), Trotec Laser, Inc. (Plymouth, MI), Innovative Plastics, Inc. (IPI) (Crystal Lake, IL) and Gravograph (Duluth, GA). Although there are some differences from one manufacturer to another, the basics of what they offer and how the materials are made are the same. We will look at some of the differences later but for now, let’s concentrate on how the various engraving materials are made, what can and can’t be customized, and why.
What Can’t Be Custom Made Single-color sheets of translucent and opaque acrylic. This material is easily identified because it looks a lot like clear or colored glass. Most of what is available is translucent (that is, light will pass through it easily) but there are also opaque acrylic options. This material is single ply, meaning there is only one layer and it is the same color all the way through. It can have a matte or gloss finish, and particles like glitter can be embedded in it. It comes under a dozen or more names including Lucite, Duraplex, Plaskolite, Plexiglas or just plain acrylic. This can be a bit confusing because most modern engraving plastic is also made of a “modified acrylic,” but the end result is quite different.
The acrylic we use in our industry comes in two forms: extruded or cast. A rotary engraver works equally well with either of these and a laser can cut either type. However, when it comes to engraving with a laser, cast acrylic is the better choice because the quality is better and the engraved areas turn a frosty white which provides contrast. With extruded acrylic, a laser produces a clear mark and the quality isn’t as good. Therefore, most such materials on the market from engraving suppliers are of the cast variety, although major distributors like Johnson Plastics Plus (Burnsville, MN), JDS Industries (Sioux Falls, SD) and Delvie’s Plastics (Salt Lake City, UT) offer extruded acrylic as well.
Because these materials are not made by the manufacturers in our industry and involve a totally different manufacturing process than traditional multi-layer engraving material, to order a custom sheet of this material would require an order of thousands of sheets (or pounds of resin) and a lot of cash to boot.
Specialty materials not made in-house
Most manufacturers don’t handle much in the way of specialty materials but there are some. For instance, Rowmark offers a line called the “Heavy Weights.” This is a 3-ply product with a very thick cap on each side and either a 1/4" or 1/2" core—far thicker than anything they could extrude in-house. This material is commonly used for outdoor rotary engraved signage. Because it is a specialty material, custom color options aren’t offered.
Co-extruded engraving stock
Some engraving stock is co-extruded. That is, both the cap and core are extruded at the same time and adhered together under heat and pressure. Although it might be possible to have a custom color/color combination or thickness made this way, it would be very expensive and require several hundred sheets as a minimum, making it more impractical than impossible. An example of this is the Rowmark Textures which is not only co-extruded, but the textured surface is also added during the process. To do a custom color would require making special resins, running exhaustive tests and tying up a million-dollar machine for countless hours on multiple occasions for a single run of custom material. Rowmark says they will do it but it requires a 300-sheet minimum plus setup fees.
What Can Be Custom Made Film over core
Most modern plastic engraving stock is made using a single color, single-ply sheet (core) with a very thin contrasting colored coating applied to one or both sides. This process reminds one of a hot stamping process because heated rollers transfer the colored pigment from a thin film carrier sheet to the extruded core material. Note that whenever you hear about “microsurface” engraving stock, this refers to sheets made using this film-over-core coating process.
This is ideal for laser engraving since the thin film allows for extremely low heat and high detail. It is also good for rotary engraving since cutters as small as .005" can be used with an engraving depth of only a few thousandths of an inch. These plastics can also be used for screen printing, hot stamping and most can be UV-LED printed as well.
This is an excellent material for creating custom color combinations and even custom colors although creating a custom color is a bit more involved than just creating a custom combination of existing colors.
The custom color process involves selecting a PMS color from a chart and ordering a film to be printed in that color. This might be a solid color, metallic, imitation wood or some design (similar to wallpaper). The process of creating this custom film takes six to eight weeks and the cost is considerable since one or more rolls of the film must be printed and sliced into 4' sections. Although this may not be too involved for big accounts, it is likely too costly for use on low quantity orders.
Creating unique color combinations, however, is a different story. Instead of creating custom individual colors, we are selecting the cap color of one (standard) stock item and applying it to the core color of another stock item. This is what I did when I needed that metallic silver over blue. Both colors were available, there just wasn’t a stock material that combined the two. Not all cap materials can be mated with all cores in a manufacturer’s inventory, but most can. Rowmark, for instance, offers over 40 solid sheet colors in their ADA substrate line. Any one of those can be combined with a (stock) film overlay to make whatever color combination you want.
Creating a custom sheet using film and a core of any stock thickness is easy to arrange, requires only one or two sheets as a minimum and the turnaround can be very quick. Even better, the cost is just slightly more than a stock item with the same thickness and film cap.
Some film covered cores, such as the metallic, are highly scratch resistant. This is accomplished with an added surface layer of clear film making those plastics 3-ply but single-sided.
Laminated plastic sheet stock. The traditional type of engraving material, which has been around since the 1960s, is created by extruding two separate sheets of plastic—one with a thin cap color and the other with a thick core color. Incidentally, most laminated materials have a fairly thick cap layer measuring about .008" thick.
Sheets to be laminated are stored until an order comes in and then the colored core is heat fused in a laminating press to whatever colored cap is needed to create the desired color combination. This allows the manufacturer to inventory far fewer finished sheets at any given time and this works very much in our favor since we can place a custom order using any one of those cap sheets along with any one of those core sheets. We can even order 3-ply with a color on each side of the core. Once ordered, the caps and cores are pulled from inventory and fused together using a special heat press.
By the way, although I refer to all of these materials as “plastic,” most are actually extruded acrylic made from resin pellets. Keep this rule in mind: If it is laserable, it is acrylic. If it is only rotary engravable, it is probably ABS plastic. ABS melts at a much lower temperature than acrylic so when lasered, it tends to melt rather than vaporize like acrylic does. This is why most engraving stock currently on the market is acrylic. Some, however, like the Rowmark Satins and some Gravoply and IPI products, continue to be made with ABS and, therefore, are only rotary engravable. These are still made because of their popularity and the vast number of colors (both cap and core) available. Plus, it is usually less expensive to make a sheet from ABS than from acrylic.
When selecting a combination of cap and core for a custom order, it is imperative to choose the proper substrate. If the material is to be laser engraved, both the cap and core must be acrylic. If it is going to be rotary engraved, it can be any combination since acrylic rotary engraves the same as ABS. If you plan to hot stamp, screen print or UV print the material, be sure to ask how the plastic performs for these applications. Also, be sure to use the proper materials if the finished product is going to be used outdoors, in direct sunlight or in some unusual environment such as around a swimming pool, sauna, factory where acids are prevalent, etc. Most all of these products can be heat bent, drilled, sawed, etc., but always double check, just in case.
Custom Color Options from Manufacturers
In addition to being able to choose custom color combinations based on the manufacturer’s standard colors, some also offer the ability to create an entirely new color from scratch. This is typically done by utilizing the “Pantone Color Matching System” (PMS). The PMS is a standardized color matching system used by designers, printers and manufacturers for identifying specific colors. Each Pantone color has an allocated number that helps specify and control colors for projects so different manufacturers/designers in different locations can reference a PMS-numbered color and match it. So, for instance, if your customer had a logo designed using PMS 667 (a purple color) and they want plastic name badges in that same color, you could tell the manufacturer the PMS number and they could match it with custom plastic.
I contacted the major manufacturers to find out who offers what in the way of custom engraving material. Here is what I found out:
Gemini makes the Duets product line which is distributed through B.F. Plastics, Inc. (North Lawrence, OH), Delvie’s Plastics, JDS Industries and others. This product line is made in the USA but sold around the world. Most of their product line consists of a foil sheet pressed onto an acrylic core. Their newest product, Duets Ultimates, is the exception. This material is completely extruded for extra durability. I mention this product specifically because custom color options are not currently offered for it. Gemini’s coated products, however, can be ordered in custom color combinations by selecting a cap and a core color from their inventory.
Gemini requires an order of ten full sheets (24" x 48") or a setup fee of $95 to build a custom combination. There is a slight upcharge per sheet for the customization service. Custom orders can be placed through a Gemini distributor.
PMS color matching is available but only for very large orders of 1,000 sheets or more and it’s expensive. For smaller orders, you can choose all the custom combinations you want as long as you request colors already offered.
Most of Gravograph’s engraving stock is made in the USA. According to the Gravograph website, the company offers 900 items in 70 colors, 20 thicknesses and 4 finishes. Basically, they will combine any existing surface color with any existing core color from any one of eight of their product lines. These custom products are all offered in either 2- or 3-ply sheets. Any stock thickness core is readily available, but they will also create specific thicknesses if you desire. The surface can be matte, satin, gloss or textured. These are not co-extruded but multiple stock sheets which are laminated with heat and pressure (the standard production method for all these product lines).
Combining caps and cores from Gravograph’s engraving plastic must be within their own families, i.e. a cap from the Metallics line can only be put on a core from the same line. The minimum number of sheets required for most custom combination orders is one-quarter sheet (12" x 24"). Production time is two weeks, minimum. There is an upcharge for this service over stock plastic which is determined on a case-by-case basis.
Custom color matching to a PMS or RAL color chart is also offered although, like the other manufacturers, this is an involved and expensive process reserved for very large orders. According to Gravograph’s website, they can produce over 1,500 colors but only 70 of those are stock colors. Special colors can be created in either ABS or acrylic stock.
This company makes all their plastics in the USA. Much of their material is of the film-over-core microsurface variety so a mix and match is easy in that respect. Some of their material is extruded in two pieces and assembled as needed so that, too, is easy to have custom made. Many of these are not laserable, however, so take care in what you choose if you plan to laser the material.
IPI requires a two-sheet minimum for a custom combination and roughly five to ten days of production time. There is a slight upcharge and orders should be placed through their distributors which include Ability Plastics, Johnson Plastics Plus, Main Trophy Supply Co. (Mt. Prospect, IL), Marco Awards Group and others.
Getting a custom color match from a PMS book is possible from IPI. A minimum order would probably be 1,000 sheets, there will be additional setup charges and production time would be around six to eight weeks.
- Rowmark LLC
Rowmark offers custom combinations, PMS matching, various core thicknesses and even custom co-extruded sheet stock for a price. Rowmark products are all made in the USA and distributed around the world. Some North American distributors include Ability Plastics (Justice, IL), Canadian Engravers Supply (Mississauga, ON, Canada), Johnson Plastics Plus, Marco Awards Group, Panterials, Inc. (Northridge, CA) and others.
Not available for customization are the ColorHues and ColorCast acrylic product lines, the Heavy Weights and the Textures. For all intents and purposes, all other Rowmark product lines can be customized in just about any way you want. Core thicknesses from 1/32" to 1/8" are available, and any wood, metallic or solid color can be adhered to any color core (see Rowmark’s list of ADA substrates for a complete list of available colors). Rowmark can also create 2- or 3-ply sheets and you can request adhesive on the material if desired. If you have special needs, such as adding a texture to your finished product, that can sometimes be done. Although the deep texture used in the co-extruded Textures line is not available, a similar embossing that isn’t as prominent is possible.
For custom combinations, Rowmark requires a minimum order of two full sheets (24" x 48") of material. Production time for the average color combination order is currently about five working days although it may take up to ten days and there is a slight upcharge for the customization service. You can contact Rowmark directly for information and confirmation of their ability to do what you want, but pricing and ordering is done through distributors.
The next time a customer asks you for a sign in PMS 2768 (dark purple) with white engraving, or they want Rowmark’s “Ribbon Pink” for the cap and “Maui Blue” for the core, know that you have options. Engraving plastic manufacturers in our industry will work with you to meet your custom engraving plastic needs, and mostly without a lot of extra time and money on your part. And in today’s world of “I want it personalized for me,” that’s a great resource to have when you need it.