Engraving Substrates

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

Acrylic, Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene (ABS), metal, wood, glass and leatherette are just a few of the substrates that are great for either laser engraving or rotary engraving.

Whether it is plastics for ADA signage or fancy metals for trophies and awards, sign shops can add additional streams of income while using engraving equipment they already own.

Gary Harder, director of sign distribution products for Duets by Gemini in Minnesota, says that his company deals exclusively in plastics, either acrylic or ABS.

Duets by Gemini produces DuetsTactiles, impact-modified acrylic with a matte finish that is used for ADA signage, wayfinding, architectural signage, exhibit and retail displays and interior branding. DuetsTactiles comes in two-color sheets so that when it is engraved, the engraving appears in a darker color than the background material. The product is UV stable outdoor and indoor, front engravable and comes with adhesive back options. It can be laser or rotary engraved and comes in three different thicknesses: 1/32”, 1/16” and 1/8”.

The company also offers ABS, which is typically used with routers only. The benefit to using ABS is that it is usually 20% to 30% cheaper than acrylic.

“The disadvantage is ABS does not do well in the exterior. It doesn’t have good UV or weatherability characteristics,” Harder says.

Whether a shop is using a router or a laser, “you are introducing heat and so, in both cases, it is about speeds and feeds,” Harder says. “In the case of a router, the speed of a router, how fast it is moving, will determine how much heat you are introducing. ABS will warp with heat. That doesn’t mean nobody lasers ABS but it is a lot more touchy.”

 If a company is not sure it is using the right bit, speed or substrate, Harder recommends shops talk to the company that supplied them with their router. Laser manufacturers offer starting settings on beginning materials, anything someone would be engraving or cutting. They usually give a list of substrates, the recommended speed and power for engraving and the recommended speed and power for cutting.

“Different brands may require small adjustments,” he says.

The most profitable applications for engraving are ADA signage, trophies and awards, name tags, general signage and industrial badging, Harder says.

ADA signage is one of those products that isn’t going to go away because it is driven by regulation, he says. Any time a building is built, remodeled or repurposed, ADA signage must be replaced. Nobody pops off the ADA signs and moves them.

Trophies and awards continue to be a big business. That’s because plaques and trophies aren’t just for sports teams anymore, although that segment makes up a good chunk of the business. They are also used for corporate recognition.

 “We’re seeing some degree of growth in all five areas, depending on what industry they are in,” he says.

JDS Industries in Sioux Falls, S.D., offers retailers a catalog of 14,000 items that can be engraved, including double-walled, vacuum-insulated tumblers; Laserable Leatherette, a faux leather product; and wine accessories, such as openers, gift boxes and wine bags. It ships these products from 14 warehouses located across the United States. The company doesn’t offer engraving. It sells engravable products to sign shops and award and promotions companies that are looking to get into this business.

Most award shops have laser engravers, but there has been huge growth in the number of sign shops, Etsy stores and related businesses that are buying them as well, says Mike May, chief operations officer for JDS Industries. Everyone is looking for ways to branch out and diversify their revenue streams.

Engravable insulated mugs are one of the most popular items JDS Industries sells. They are very popular because they keep cold drinks cold and hot drinks hot for hours. May says he took one of the company’s 30-ounce tumblers on a trip to Mexico. He would take it to the bar, fill it with cold beer on tap and, even in the 80-degree heat, “the last drink was as cold as the first drink. They literally work that well,” he says.

Laserable Leatherette is one of JDS Industries’ biggest sellers. It is used for book covers, coasters, frames, portfolios, office accessories, drinkware, keychains and plaques.

What makes it appealing is that “it is different, it has got a high perceived value, the cost is low and it is very simple to personalize,” May says.

Another popular product line is cutting boards. This product is popular with awards, gifts and incentives companies as well as online businesses that offer personalization. The cutting boards come in a variety of solid woods, including maple, walnut and bamboo.

Industrial badging is one of those great unknowns. Harder calls it the hidden market for engraving. Just about every company needs small engraved signs for the industrial sides of their business, whether it is a sign to mark a shut off valve or let someone know a pipe is hot. But there isn’t a registry out there that lets sign shops know who uses industrial badging.

“It is also a hard market to break into,” Harder says. As an example, he talks about the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota that has a big department that uses engraving stock. They don’t want to bother changing vendors for their materials because it isn’t a major part of what they do every day.

“Their purchasing people are not worried about engraving stock. I believe that is the case for many industries. If they are producing equipment, they might need industrial badging, but this is a very small part of their equipment. They are already embedded with material or a vendor,” he says.

Unless the vendor gets into a ton of trouble, it is difficult for a competitor to break into that business.

“The good news is that once you break into it, it is hard to lose it too. You’ve got to be out there; have a good web presence,” he says.

At Rowmark, the most popular substrate for laser engraving is the company’s LaserMax material.

“This micro-surfaced, impact-modified acrylic lasers cleanly and is perfect for fine detail engraving,” says Bobbi Payne, call service center supervisor at Rowmark in Findlay, Ohio.

Primary uses for LaserMax are interior and exterior signage, personal identification and awards and recognition. The product is available in a broad color palette.

When looking for a multi-purpose material for rotary engraving, “Rowmark Ultra-Mattes is by far ‘best in class,’” Payne says. “This laminated impact-modified acrylic is a true work horse in the industry. Its durable matte finish offers excellent UV stability, outdoor weatherability and fingerprint resistance making UltraMattes an ideal material choice for high traffic, industrial and harsh environment applications.”

Both of these materials offer excellent profitability due to their broad range of applications, ease of fabrication and the stringent consistency with which they are engineered and manufactured, she adds.

Back in February of this year, Trotec Laser, Inc. launched a full laminate line with more than 400 products. The line includes laserable materials as well as those that work well with rotary engravers.

“Even as a laser company, we realize that some of our customers and others in the industry work with rotary equipment or dual shops with both laser and rotary materials,” says Meredith Newman, director of marketing for Trotec Laser, Inc.

Its TroLase line is a UV-resistant acrylic-based laminate for both indoor and outdoor applications. A very thin top layer allows it to have detailed engraving at higher production speeds.

Because Trotec doesn’t use regrind in its materials, it minimizes residue and reduces the amount of cleaning that needs to take place. That allows the laser to engrave at maximum output, she says.

TroLase is used for interior and exterior signs, badges, industrial signs and legend plates. It can be laser or rotary engraved or cut with a saw.

The company also offers an ADA line that is acrylic-based and can be used to produce tactile or braille ADA signs. It is UV stable and good for indoor or outdoor applications.

Trotecs TroLase Thins is “acrylic-based and has a thin foiled surface that allows for detailed, elegant engraving and that can be used for curved signage, like in an entryway,” Newman says. “This could be used for an ornate engraved sign to fit around a curved surface or used in small applications like trophies or name plates.”

Its premier option is finger-print resistant.

TroLase Reverse is clear acrylic glass that can be mirror engraved from the back and infilled with color. TroLase Metallic & Scratch Resistant offers an authentic metallic finish that makes it ideal for trophies, plates and signage; and TroLase Metallic Plus has a UV-resistant top coating on metal look laminate that allows it to be used for outdoor signage.

Trotec’s digital print series is modified impact acrylic that is a little denser, allowing it to be used in laser engraving, printing and cutting.

“It is a pretty big deal. We’re really excited about this product. It is perfect for interior signs, point-of-purchase displays and marketing materials,” Newman says.