Your Laser at Work: Custom Appliqués and Inserts

From the May issue of A&E: how to offer upgrades at a profit.

Note: This article appears in the May 2018 issue of A&E magazine.

If you are looking for upgrade options to personalize plaques, gifts, and other products, consider adding custom appliqués and inserts. Plaque mounts are available from industry suppliers. Most are cast metal, and many are available for religious, police, fire, and military subjects. Most of the requests we get are for subject matter that requires a logo, personalization, or a subject matter not readily available. This is where custom designs are a great solution.


An appliqué is a shaped material that is engraved, printed, or sublimated with a graphic and/or text. It is applied directly to the product and is often made of a thick material to provide depth and texture. The size is often larger than a typical insert in an insert holder. Appliqués are most often requested to be mounted on plaques. I have also made them for urns, inside shadowboxes, and for covers of other types of boxes such as wood wine bottles or BBQ gift boxes.

Appliqués can add depth and texture to a plaque or gift box. I love using wood that is 1/16 or 1/8 of an inch. I have even used 3/8 and 1/2 inch. A light wood like alder or cherry on a dark plaque, or walnut on a light plaque adds contrast. The appliqué really stands out when using a contrasting shade of wood and thick material. Wood is also great for grayscale engraving.

Another way of adding contrast is using 2-ply engraving sheet stock. Colors can highlight an organization’s logo or provide other meaning such as white acrylic sheet stock with a red second layer for a fire department. Logos and graphics that need two colors for the best display are perfect for sheet stock. I have also used solid-color ADA sheet stock when creating silhouette appliqués. A great example of a use for a solid color is for military, police, and fire ranks such as a sergeant chevron or fire captain bugles.


An insert is a shaped material – usually a circle, oval, or rectangle – that fits into an insert holder, medal, or coin designed to accept an insert. Sizes usually range from an inch to as large as 3 inches. Insert holders can be metal or plastic. Plaques, award medals, and trophy risers are the three primary products we have requests for inserts. Other products designed to accept inserts include coins, keyrings, jewelry pendants, lapel pins, and tree ornaments.

Metal blanks in standard sizes are available for inserts. They can be laser or rotary engraved, sublimated, or full-color printed. They can also be custom cut from 1/32- or 1/64-inch sheet stock. I have cut some odd shapes to fit the available space on some medals. By cutting these odd shapes, I can take advantage of 100 percent of the space for text and graphics. It’s rare that a client wants too little on the medal. I’ll discuss more about design a little later in this article.

Medals and coins are available with both a single side and two sides for custom inserts. The single side insert often has a cast graphic on the reverse side, such as a sport graphic. Medals and coins accepting inserts allow for personalization of an award and are price friendly to organizations that are cost sensitive.


Appliqués can be any shape that fits the product when applied. Unique shapes are a large part of the appeal. Your laser can be used to cut the blank shape whether you are engraving the appliqué, sublimating it, or full-color printing it. To easily create the outline of a group of vector objects, use the CorelDRAW Boundary tool. Redrawing the outline of many graphics is time consuming. The boundary tool allows you to create it in seconds.

A great example of a custom appliqué is the Dark Horse Marine Unit plaque shown in the images below. The project included a custom designed and crafted plaque along with the appliqué. After the appliqué was applied, a clear liquid epoxy was poured over the appliqué, which greatly enhanced the glossy look.

Once the appliqué’s shape is decided upon, you can begin the layout of the text and graphics. Layouts can be challenging when there is a large amount of text and graphics. I start by typing all the text and gathering all the graphics on my CorelDRAW page. I then separate it all into two groups: important items that I want to be most visible, and the least visible/important items.

I then consider the answers to these and other questions: For the lesser important text, can I place the text around the outline of the appliqué shape? Which text must be larger and stand out? What is the shape (width to height ratio) of each of the graphics? Will the graphics dictate the overall layout? Will I need to place multiple graphics on the appliqué? Do they have different shapes such as wide, tall, or square?

Many projects involving an appliqué feature a unique, single appliqué. When this is the case, you don’t have to be concerned about changing personal information such as a name, title, or number. Occasionally, you may have a project that calls for multiple plaques with appliqués for a group. If information from one appliqué to the next will change, such as a name, design using the longest name. Multiples are common for orders including inserts, such as medals.

Another way you can enhance an appliqué further is to use multiple material colors. Note that the Dark Horse has a red eye made from ADA acrylic. The skull is made from alder and mounted on a walnut square surrounded by an alder border. It is two layers and provides high contrast and depth. This is a premium appliqué that was used for a retirement project where money was less of a concern.


As most inserts are round, the control you have is the size. Make sure you get a good idea of the customer’s desired text and graphics for the project. This allows you to suggest products that will work, or you can assist the customer in cutting down on the text and graphics. You will notice two odd-shaped medal inserts in the photos below. I created those templates to maximize the space available for the two medal products.

Text that won’t change from insert to insert is a good candidate to be curved around the edges. The Corel Text>Fit Text to Path tool allows you to easily curve the text to an outline you have drawn, such as a circle. If you are going to place text at the top and bottom of the circle do it in two steps. Type both lines separately. Attaching the top text with the Fit Text to Path tool will read correctly. When attaching the bottom text to the circle, it will be upside-down and backwards. You then need to select the text and Mirror Horizontally and Mirror Vertically. It will then read correctly.

Text that changes from insert to insert is easiest to work with and read if it is straight-line text and placed near the center of the insert. When the insert contains the complete text for the award, such as on a medal, make sure your customer has considered adding the date or year. It will be appreciated by the recipient in future years when they reflect back.


Pricing custom appliqués is typically more challenging then pricing custom inserts. Other than a possible graphics charge, we price the inserts by size and include anything we agree to include on the insert.

Appliqués are far more challenging. Sizes can vary greatly, artwork can go far beyond just preparing a graphic, and material costs can vary widely – 1/8 versus 1/16 2-ply acrylic has a significant cost difference. Wood differ by thickness – solid versus laminate and alder versus walnut. Make sure you have the complete specifications before you quote a price. You may want to consider these projects on a time and material basis only (at least at first).

Appliqués with common local or regional themes can be made in groups and inventoried. Certain organizations have a greater interest, and if they are large organizations it may be worthwhile having a small supply in inventory. A few candidates include military units, sheriff or police, fire departments, federal government agencies, local governments, and large employers. Generic themes such as a firefighter or soldier are desirable. However, be careful you are not using restricted, trademarked, or graphics requiring a license without written permission.

People buy what they see, so samples in your display room are important. Photograph these samples for your website, Facebook page, or Pinterest and Instagram accounts. Adding these custom services helps differentiate you from your local competitors as well as most online businesses. Make sure anywhere you market these capabilities you indicate minimum timeframes needed to complete the custom project.

Overall, adding custom services can be profitable and interesting, and fun as well.

Bob Hagel

Bob Hagel

Bob Hagel and his wife Dana offered a full line of personalized products using laser engraving, sandcarving, and full-color UV direct print on products for nearly 20 years. The pair sold their 17-year-business Eagle’s Mark Awards & Signs in September 2020. Bob remains an expert in the awards, recognition, and signage industries while he enjoys retirement.

View all articles by Bob Hagel  
Avatar of Charlie Fox

Charlie Fox

View all articles by Charlie Fox  

Related Articles

Back to top button