Pretty much everyone agrees that one of the hottest sellers in retail personalization right now, if not the hottest seller, is stainless steel travel mugs. Brands like YETI and RTIC (pronounced “arctic”) have exploded into the marketplace turning what was once a good market for these types of products into an enormous one—everyone wants a YETI.
So what’s the big deal? Isn’t it just another travel mug with a cool name? According to YETI, the magical appeal lies in the construction. Kitchen-grade 18/8 stainless steel and double-wall vacuum insulation work to keep your favorite beverage at its desired temperature for extended periods of time. That means your iced drinks stay cold (even in warm temperatures) and your hot drinks like tea and coffee stay hot. (Google YouTube YETI or RTIC challenge sometime. There are tons of videos—some even showing ice remaining in the mugs after 24 hours!) Plus, they are nearly indestructible. Other manufacturers have followed suit and there are now several top-name brands that make the same claims.
So what happens when you take a top-selling product and offer your services to add some personal flair to it? How about a logo, slogan, graphic design, name or other text on that mug to make it uniquely yours? With the ever-growing desire among consumers for personalized products, there is no doubt that personalized stainless steel mugs are a hot commodity and something you should definitely consider offering if you have personalization services like laser engraving.
There are lots of opportunities to sell personalized travel mugs to get your share of this burgeoning market. Beyond selling them as individual personalized gifts, consider the promotional products market where there are nearly unlimited potential customers. According to ASI, 53% of U.S. consumers own promotional drinkware and half of those who own logoed drinkware use it 2-3 times a week or more. That’s some pretty powerful advertising!
Engraving stainless steel travel mugs with CerMark is easy. Create the design, coat the item, engrave the coated mug and rinse away the remaining CerMark. Photos courtesy of Epilog Laser.
Customers can hand these out at any promotional event to all of their clients to leave a great lasting impression of the business and its services. In just one case, a construction company handed out logoed travel mugs in conjunction with the grand opening of a business building the company had built which resulted in new contracts for the company.
Businesses like coffee shops and stores can purchase tumblers personalized with their logo in bulk to sell to their customers. Companies use them as corporate gifts and incentives for both employees and clients. Schools use them in fundraisers. Colleges and universities can sell them and use them as welcome gifts for incoming students and parents. Suffice it to say that by taking a quick look around, you will see potential customers everywhere.
As mentioned earlier, the travel mugs this article is focusing on have a stainless steel body and some of them feature double-wall stainless steel insulation to keep beverages either hot or cold for a long time. The mugs include a “travel” lid which is typically a plastic or acrylic lid with a locking slide or flip-top mechanism that opens so you can drink out of it and then locks closed to avoid spills. Some of the lids, such as some in the RTIC line, are “straw friendly.”
Travel mugs are available in different sizes. The 18 oz., 20 oz. and 30 oz. styles are among the most popular, although many mugs are available in sizes ranging from 8 oz. to 64 oz. Different shapes of mugs are also available but a typical travel mug is narrow at the bottom and wide at the top to be able to hold enough of the beverage yet still fit into a cup holder.
Powder coatings are available in a huge variety of colors, including metallics, in addition to various finishes, such as gloss, matte and textures. Drinkware can be coated with one or multiple colors, and special effects can also be achieved such as fades and custom designs. A two-color powder coat process is also a possibility where the cup is coated with two layers of contrasting powder coat. When laser engraved, the top coating is removed revealing the underlying color for contrast.
You can purchase powder coated drinkware from suppliers or you can purchase stainless cups and have a professional powder coating company coat them. There are many companies that offer this service. JAS CustomZ, Schertz, TX, is one company that offers powder coating services in addition to laser engraving.
Another option is to do the powder coating yourself by purchasing a powder coating system, which is essentially a paint gun, and powder coat paint. However, the process is messy and will certainly take some time and experimenting to perfect. And if you engrave a lot of powder coated cups, there will be a good deal of extra labor involved.
On the other hand, there are engravers out there who are doing it and doing it with great results. Stetson Schwake, owner of S&S Customs, Salado, TX, is one example of someone who has perfected the process and has created some beautiful work. One of the techniques he uses involves powder coating the metal and, instead of curing it in an oven, using his laser to set the image areas in the powder coat. After engraving, the powder coated image areas remain on the metal while the non-image areas are washed away. Check out his work on his Facebook page.
Laser Engraving Travel Mugs
There are a few different options for laser engraving stainless steel travel mugs. If you are engraving bare stainless steel, you can use either a fiber laser or a CO2 laser. The difference is a fiber laser marks metal directly whereas you need to use a laser-markable coating like CerMark in order to mark bare metal with a CO2 laser. The other option is to engrave powder coated mugs with either a fiber or CO2 laser.
For any of these methods, you will want to use a cylindrical attachment on your laser if you have one. If you don’t have one, you might want to look into purchasing one, especially if you engrave a lot of mugs and other roundwork. It’s easier to engrave round items using a cylindrical attachment and you have a much larger area you can engrave in one setup. You can even engrave around the entire circumference of the mug if it doesn’t have a handle.
If the overall size of the image is relatively small, e.g. less than 2" wide, you can typically get away with engraving a round mug without a cylindrical attachment. As the laser beam moves farther out on the curve of the object, it starts to lose focus and, as a result, some of its power density. The further out of focus it is, the more power is lost. Keeping this in mind, it’s possible to engrave some things with the laser considerably out of focus. For instance, using a 2"-21/2" focal length lens, the laser can still engrave most round items when it is 1/4" out of focus. If you use a 3" or 4" lens, you will have more area on the mug to work with before the laser goes out of focus.
The cool thing is you can engrave photos and fine details on these mugs.
Engraving with a Fiber Laser
Fiber lasers use fiber optics with ytterbium that are stimulated with LEDs (light emitting diodes) to generate and deliver a laser beam instead of using the traditional hard optics and beam delivery method that CO2 lasers use. A major advantage of fiber lasers is their ability to engrave on a variety of materials, including uncoated metal. In addition, a fiber laser can produce a spot size of .0005"-.001", which is about 10% of the spot size produced by a CO2 laser. This small spot size provides extreme power density and exceptionally high engraving resolution.
As with any of these engraving methods, you will need to do some testing to determine the appropriate laser settings both for your laser (all lasers are different) and the types of mugs you will be engraving. Epilog Laser suggests these settings as a starting point based on using their 30 watt Fusion M2 fiber laser: 6% speed, 100% power, 3% frequency. Other laser system manufacturers also can offer suggested machine settings for their lasers.
Most laser manufacturers offer a cylindrical engraving attachment for their lasers. Photo courtesy of Trotec Laser, Inc.
Engraving with CerMark
The wavelength of a CO2 laser will have no effect on uncoated metals. In the case of stainless steel, it can be marked by applying a laser-markable chemical coating prior to engraving. When heated by the laser, the chemical bonds with the metal making an extremely durable black mark. CerMark is a popularly used laser-markable coating available from most laser engraving suppliers. The most commonly used is LMM6000.
Before applying CerMark, make sure the mug is indeed bare metal and doesn’t have any coatings on it that could affect the chemical bonding. It’s also important to make sure the metal is absolutely clean. You can clean the surface with denatured alcohol to remove dirt, oil and other contaminants that could prevent the chemical from bonding with the stainless steel.
CerMark is available as a paste that can be painted on or as a spray, either in aerosol spray cans or used in an air spray gun. If you are using the paste, try diluting it with denatured alcohol to create a thin consistency that is easy to apply and also to avoid wasting it. The choice between paste and spray is up to you. Aerosol is easiest to apply but the paste is more economical, especially if a large area needs to be covered.
After cleaning the mug, spray or paint a thin, even coat of CerMark over the desired engraving area. It’s important that the coating is thin and covers the area completely. A thick, uneven coating takes longer to engrave and won’t produce good results. Let the coating completely dry for at least 5-10 minutes.
As noted earlier, you will need to experiment with different machine settings to get good results as every laser is different. If the machine settings aren’t right, the black mark will rub off. You don’t want to make mistakes on an expensive travel mug, so you might want to experiment on scrap stainless from a machine shop or some of the tools around your shop to fine tune your laser’s settings. Epilog Laser’s suggestions for engraving CerMark with a 50 watt CO2 laser are 50% speed, 100% power and 600 dpi. On lower wattage lasers you will need to reduce the speed, e.g. 10%-20% speed and 100% power.
After engraving, simply rinse away the CerMark with water and dry the mug with a paper towel. If you use the right speed and power settings, you’ll have a good quality black mark and fine detail.
If you engrave a lot of mugs and roundwork, a cylindrical engraving attachment is a good investment. Photo courtesy of Epilog Laser.
Engraving Powder Coated Mugs
With powder coated mugs, the laser cuts into the powder coating to reveal the underlying metal. You can use either a CO2 or a fiber laser to engrave through the powder coating on mugs.
As with most laser jobs, you will need to go through some trial and error in order to determine the correct settings for your laser and the mugs you are engraving. According to experts, the thickness of the coating and other characteristics varies from supplier to supplier and even from mug to mug or color to color in some cases.
If you or your customer are working with a company that specializes in powder coating, you can ask to have a small plate powder coated so that you can do some testing on that, rather than the final product. Angel Hinojosa, owner of JAS CustomZ, says that they will provide sample mugs for testing when necessary. He also says that his business has perfected the powder coating process to ensure the coatings are consistent and durable on the mugs.
You might need to make two or three passes with the laser to completely remove the coating, engraving slow and hot on the first pass and faster and hot on subsequent passes. You can also try removing any remaining residue with rubbing alcohol, Goo Gone or Simple Green and a stiff bristle brush. Some people have also had success removing any hazing with a Magic Eraser, but be careful not to damage the powder coat on the mug. If you experience any flaming, you can mask the area with transfer tape prior to engraving.
Note: Generally speaking, there are two types of cylindrical attachments available for laser engraving machines, a four wheel roller type and a chuck type. With the four wheel roller type, the mug essentially sits on the rollers and rotates as the rollers spin. With the chuck type, the mug is held at each end between centers. Some users have reported issues with the engraving lining up when making two or more passes using the roller type fixture because the mug shifts slightly in the fixture. Again, you will need to experiment with your own equipment to determine what works for your particular situation.
As a general guideline using a 60 watt CO2 laser you might try 75%-100% power and 100% speed. On a 30 watt fiber laser, Epilog recommends 40%-50% speed, 100% power and 100% frequency. You might also look for recommendations from your peers. For example, the Laser Mug Engraver’s Heaven Facebook group was launched as a forum to share engraving settings and CorelDRAW design files and could be a good resource for you.
Some engravers are having success color filling engraved powder coated mugs. You can do that by masking the area with a medium tack paper mask, then laser engraving the design into the mask. You can then paint fill the engraved areas using a durable paint like epoxy appliance paint or enamel.
The popularity of personalized travel mugs is continuing to soar, so much so that there is plenty of room for you to cash in on your fair share of it. Do a little research to see what’s out there in terms of mugs, powder coating options and what other engravers are doing with their creative skills. It’s a fun time to be in the Recognition and Personalization Industry—take advantage of it!