laser engraving

Engraving Custom Gifts

Paula Aven Gladych is a freelance writer based in Denver, Colo. She can be reached at pgladych@gmail.com.

As technologies continue to improve, custom engraving becomes easier for the shops that want to expand into this lucrative and ever-expanding market.

Whether you are using a laser or rotary engraver, custom gifts are only becoming more popular with time. That’s because the types of substrates available for engraving are proliferating and the custom gifts made from those substrates are multiplying as well. It makes it easy for shops that already have engraving equipment to branch out into new markets and upsell custom-engraved gifts to existing and new clients.

Amie Roberts, president of Familylaser in Warroad, Minnesota, says that to keep clients interested in their offerings, her shop continually upgrades its product line and introduces new items.

“This is a perpetual part of doing business. It’s like refreshing your inventory in your brick and mortar store,” she says. “You need to give people a reason to keep coming back. More specifically, we offer ‘add-ons,’ such as engraving a special message on the back side or maybe including a separate engraved personal message on a wood card. We offer specials where a customer can buy an additional product at a discount when combined with another order.” 

JDS Industries of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, offers a huge catalog of customizable gifts that can be used by any sign and digital graphics or awards and trophies shop that wants to enter the engraving business. Its two most popular items are stainless steel vacuum-insulated tumblers called Polar Camels, and laserable leatherette, a leather-like coating that can be placed on just about anything from portfolios to keychains.

Tom Leitheiser, fabrication manager at JDS Industries, says that to successfully engrave on uncoated metal, shops need to apply CerMark Metal Marking Spray to the surface. This coating leaves a black mark on the surface of the metal when it is hit with a laser. The leftover marking spray can wash off easily with soap and water, leaving the custom engraving behind.

The coating can be added to stainless steel, aluminum, brass, nickel, glass and copper. The biggest breakthrough with the Polar Camels is that they are now available in 15 colors, not just silver and black, and the company keeps expanding the line. It includes beer growlers, low ball glasses and 20-ounce and 30-ounce insulated mugs that keep ice cold for 24 hours. Early next year, JDS is adding stemless wineglasses that can be decorated with names or logos.

“Any way you can build into that line, people seem to like,” Leitheiser says.

With a rotary engraving attachment, a shop can engrave a Polar Camel in between one and eight minutes, depending on how detailed the artwork, says Sarah Thompson, laser specialist with JDS Industries. Laser engravers can also directly score the coated metal on JDS’ cups.

“It takes a higher power to break through it and then you clean it with acetone to shine them up a bit,” Thompson says.

Taking a laser to uncoated stainless steel wouldn’t leave a mark.

There is a green movement going on in the industry right now, with many people turning to products made out of bamboo. JDS offers bamboo cutting boards, pizza peels, mugs, gift boxes, spatulas and cheese cutters.

“Bamboo products are a stable part of our business,” says Roberts. “Part price point, part durability, they engrave well and it’s a sustainable resource.”

She adds that artisan and distressed boards and Teakwood and Marble Round Board are popular as well.

“Being able to combine functionality with personalization means such products like cutting boards are popular and have an impressive perceived value. Clients can showcase their wedding dates, for example, but still use the opposite side of the board for daily use,” she says.

Familylaser loves working with wood because it provides a wide variety of products that appeal to the masses. Anodized metal is also a favorite, she adds. “It lasers clean and looks professional each and every time.”

The company is also getting a lot of requests to laser cut quilt templates out of acrylic.

Familylaser uses a 150-watt Kern Laser with an open table. It can do both cylindrical and flat objects.

“Our machine gives us the ability to adjust settings so virtually anything engravable can be tackled,” Roberts says. “Trial and error with sample pieces gets us to where we feel comfortable with offering various products to clients. That’s just a part of doing business.”

If a shop isn’t sure how to use their machine or how to treat different substrates, Roberts recommends they join the Awards and Personalization Association, which “features a forum that is nothing short of excellent: great questions and great answers from very qualified people. No need to reinvent the wheel if you’re on the APA forum,” she says.

David Lennon, president and owner of LumaMedia in Grants Pass, Oregon, uses his laser engravers to do a different type of personalization. The company offers a lighting product that is as thin as a credit card. It is two electrical plates with phosphorus material screen printed in the center of them. When electricity touches the phosphorus, the panel lights up like neon, he says.

The technology is being used for everything from race cars and trade shows to light-up advertising.

Lennon first encountered the technology in 2002.

“I was intrigued by it and how it would work and light up. I thought it would be cool if it could light something up on an off-road vehicle. I started doing research on it,” he says.

Using very low power, Lennon’s company can make names and logos not only light up but blink, like a neon sign. They also can make it so different parts of the phosphorus light up at different times. The technology is very popular in Las Vegas, which is where LumaMedia got its start.

LumaMedia uses a Trotec laser to cut out the design. Then it hooks contact leads on it, seals it and puts a translucent print over the top to finish it. Every panel has a 12-volt control unit that sends the correct amount of power to the phosphorus to light it up, Lennon says.

Lasers offer so much versatility, says Leitheiser. “There are so many different substrates you can laser and you can personalize it with a name, verbiage or logos on there,” he says.

He adds that JDS helps its clients by offering information about the laser settings necessary to engrave on various substrates. It also offers templates of what an outline looks like so they know where to add their logo or wording.

Most people in the industry work with CorelDRAW, which is a PC-based graphics software. Other popular graphics programs are Adobe Illustrator and Adobe Photoshop. All of them work well with laser engraving, Leitheiser says.