While some might miss the good old days when engraving objects was definitely a hands-on process, advances in laser technology now mean that even the most complex of items can be transformed with intricate images, lettering and even complex patterns.
Those systems, more frequently used for cutting and shaping customized metal parts for industrial applications, also have plenty of utility and adaptability for folks in the sign making business.
Many have been using the high-tech, industrial-grade laser equipment to effortlessly zap out customized graphics on flat objects. But now there are a variety of drop-in rotary options that allow the same laser setups to be temporarily adapted to allow engraving on round or irregular-sized objects.
Glassware and bottles are a common medium, but with the right specialized rotary attachments and some creativity, craftsmen are also able to laser-etch customized images or detailed patterns into sporting equipment, musical equipment, vases, flashlights and more.
Ben Sieber, senior graphic designer with Epilog Laser, a Golden, Colorado-based manufacturer of laser engraving and cutting systems, says he’s seen an astounding array of inventive applications for the rotary attachments Epilog sells to complement its laser equipment.
“There’s a lot more capability in these machines than simply cutting the thin sheet or prefabricated items, though that’s what many of our industrial customers do,” Sieber notes. “In the sign business, once they get the specialized hardware, many shops are doing a lot of work on customized objects like trophies, or virtually any sports memorabilia. One of our customers does baseball bats. It’s fun to see people able to do stuff like that.”
Derek Kern, president of Kern Laser Systems, based in Wadena, Minnesota, also offers a range of rotary accessories to go along with his company’s laser equipment. Kern says the majority of his customers use the rotary options for industrial purposes-cutting custom metal pipes for motorcycles, for instance-but says he’s also been surprised by the creative applications shops have found for the rotary engraving equipment.
“We had one customer who crafted a whole set of walking sticks for Boy Scouts, and was able to engrave the different badges using the laser system,” Kern says. “Another used the rotary system to cut pipes and build all the components for game systems he was building for a Chuck E. Cheese restaurant.”
In Epilog’s case, the rotary equipment is a specialized adaptation of the CO2 and fiber-optic laser systems the company manufactures. Sieber says the bulk of the company’s business for the sign industry uses CO2 lasers, which allow engraving on surfaces including wood, acrylic, leather, fabric and sheet metal, but are also suitable for glass objects, using the add-on rotary applications.
The rotary systems are all customized to be dropped into the body of the laser cabinet, below the automated cutting head. Customers can choose from two different styles of rotary add-ons, including systems where objects can simply be set down and spun on a turning bed of wheels, or for more accurate jobs, a system which uses adjustable clamps or three-jaw chucks to spin the object on an axis.
“The rotary attachment is super easy to put in,” Sieber says. “There are a set of alignment pins and three pegs that simply fall into the holes when you install the attachment. You turn the laser off to install it, and when you turn it back on again, it reconfigures and automatically sets itself up for the rotary applications. You set the center spot and the laser moves along the X axis.”
As is the case with other manufacturers’ rotary systems, the engraving process is then a relatively simple matter of electronically formatting the desired image, doing a few measurements and then letting the laser do its job.
For an object such as a wine bottle, Sieber says the first step is to mask the bottle, which allows the laser to blow through and gently etch into the glass surface, leaving a nice, clean edge on the engraved area or image. Otherwise, there can be a lot of flashback as the laser cuts into the glass.
“It’s all a heat reaction, as the laser micro-fractures the glass,” Sieber notes. “If you look at the cuts through a magnifying glass, can see those microfractures. The goal is to get the laser system to just the right setting, as sometimes the top layer (of glass) can fracture off. All of our systems have suggested settings, but we recommend you test it out and fine tune it before doing a bunch of projects.”
In an alternative method, some sign makers sandblast their glasswork to get depth to their images-enough to hold paint in a color job-and then use the laser engraving to get the extra detail.
Using the chuck-mounted rotary head, customers have been able to do design and engraving jobs on musical equipment such as drumsticks; one client also worked with Epilog to create a special fixture that allowed him to laser-engrave guitar necks. Special clips or pressure clamps can also hold heavier or unwieldy objects (such as beer mugs with large handles) precisely in place while they are spun and laser-engraved.
Imaging is set up through a compatible design program on a desktop computer; you’ll need to measure the circumference of the item and use that to properly set up the page size for the print job. Everything else is done automatically at that point, Sieber adds.
Epilog’s freestanding laser systems begin at around $8,000, Sieber says, though machines specialized enough to allow the rotary add-on equipment tend to be in the $10,000 and higher range. A rim-drive rotary system, which simply spins the engraved object on a set of wheels, costs approximately $1,200, while pressure clamp or chuck systems-for applications that require more accuracy-tend to cost about $2,000, he explains.
As a point of pride, Epilog assembles all of its own equipment in-house with 95 percent American-made parts and components. Sieber says the company uses a local vendor to mill the metal for cabinets and other parts, while the laser tubes and technical components are made inside the Epilog shop.
“We don’t have a big stock of equipment on hand, as everything is hand-built and assembled, so typically it takes one to two weeks to build a new system-but we’re always willing to work with customers on that,” Sieber says.
Kern’s large-format systems, typically geared to more industrial applications, begin in the $50,000 price range, and are also made of domestic components and built in its Minnesota factory.