What sign makers need to know about working with glass

Glass Etching for Beginners

While the various substrates all have their places, most signs seem to be composed of wood, rigid plastic or metal, but glass is often overlooked. Despite this, glass signs certainly serve a purpose in the signage industry with the sophisticated look that comes from etching. With etching, a glass sign has a permanent graphic that adds a classic look to any environment.

 An all-glass entry to a library. An on-site blaster is used to etch a visibility stripe on the large glass panels. The eye-level stripe makes the glass more visible, while promoting the famous authors whose books can be found in the library. 

Glass Signs in Use

Typically, glass is ideal for indoor applications, such as wayfinding systems, door signs, office buildings and hotels, says Ruth Dobbins, owner of Dobbins Enterprises, a glass consulting business in Santa Fe, N.M. Glass gives an elegant, timeless look, but because it’s susceptible to vandalism, glass is usually used in indoor applications where it is better protected. However, that’s not to say glass can’t be used in outdoor applications. Glass can, in fact, be used in exterior environments, but a thicker glass with some sort of pretreatment is recommended.

“There is now a material on the market called Clear Shield that can be applied to any kind of glass, be it etched or not etched,” Dobbins says. “It will protect it from contamination and staining, and that would definitely be recommended. I would not install a sign outside without any kind of preparation like that.”

During the pretreatment process, Dobbins also suggests sign makers use resist materials on the glass as a protectant. Resist materials include soft vinyl, hard vinyl and rubber but the resist vinyls are different from sign vinyls, which are too thin. These resist vinyls are specifically made for etching. To get a deeper etch, a soft vinyl or rubber should be used while a hard vinyl gives a shallower etch. 

Resist material is also recommended for use because it protects the glass from scratches as it’s being transported around the sign shop, Dobbins says. Using a resist material protects the etched glass from skin oils, as well, which can be difficult to clean. 

Desktop signs such as this, displayed in a lighted base, are easy to sell because of their uniqueness.

“Some people are more prone to accidents than others, and they need to maybe do a little more in terms of protecting glass while they work with it than other people,” Dobbins says with a laugh. “You should have adequate man power to handle glass and keep a relatively clean environment when working with glass because it can get scratched pretty easily. Usually, you’ll want to tape off the edges of the glass, so you don’t bang and chip it while handling it. It’s a pretty good idea to do this because you’re already going to be working with the resist materials.”

To make etched glass stand out, Dobbins recommends pairing the sign with LED lighting, which is applied to the edges of thicker glass to illuminate the lines. With LED lighting, the glass sign shows off an extra sparkle and can really catch the attention of those passing by.  

“LED lighting always adds something to glass,” Dobbins says. “It really shows off the etched areas much better than without any lighting. Of course, there you can go also as far as employing colored LEDs. All of that is possible, so it really depends on what look you would be after.” 

The Process of Glass Etching

Although glass can be etched with liquids, Dobbins does not recommend it. Liquid etching requires the use of acid, and that can be a dangerous process. Plus, acid does not allow for any three-dimensional work; thus, she says it’s not the most effective tool for etching. 

A donor wall for the Insectarium of the Audubon Nature Center, New Orleans.

Dobbins instead suggests using abrasive blasting for glass etching. While most people think of sand when it comes to abrasive blasting, Dobbins actually uses silicon carbide rather than sand. 

“Sand is a very coarse substance,” Dobbins says. “You can use it once, and then it’s dull and won’t cut anymore. Silicon carbide is a hard material, and you can recycle it indefinitely; it always stays sharp.”

Using silicon carbide as opposed to sand is also safer, Dobbins adds. Sand contains a crystalline silica dust, and without proper breathing protection, inhaling this substance can lead to silicosis, a form of occupational lung disease. 

To practice abrasive blasting, the glass should first be covered by the resist material to protect the glass, and through the resist material, the design or text is cut, which is peeled out, exposing the glass underneath. The glass is then blasted in those exposed areas until the desired depth is achieved. Once the blasting is complete, the resist material is removed and cleaned to finish the process.  

When determining pricing, Dobbins bases each estimate on the individual job. Substrate thickness, type of glass and amount of graphics all affect the pricing. Each job is different and requires its own set of pricing. 

“You could take same size piece of glass, and if you were to etch one logo in the middle of it and hardly anything else around it, it would be a different price than if you were to cover whole piece with all kinds of graphics,” Dobbins says. “It’s always priced out by job.”

Moving forward, Dobbins expects to see glass play a role in the signage industry, but it is still an application that has room for growth. While glass has a classic appeal, it doesn’t experience the same usage as other substrates, but as sign makers become more familiar with glass, that could very well change. 

“Circa 1889” by Dave Smith.

“Glass will always have a place for those kinds of applications, but it depends on customers and how much awareness also is being put out there for people that make signage,” Dobbins says. “They need to be made are aware that working with glass is a possibility because they usually just think about using the materials they usually see.” 

Etched Appearance Using Vinyl

Of course, since you may be using resist vinyl or other vinyls to protect your glass, perhaps a simple colored vinyl may work as well. If you are looking for an alternative to etching with less permanent results, vinyl manufacturers have options to create that etched-glass look with the ease of installing a wall graphic that requires the same skills used for applying cut vinyl or wrap vinyl. Some options include vinyl that is made to mimic the look of etched glass, and others are designed to accept white ink from a printer.