Many sign shops have embraced laser engraving as an outlet for their creativity. Not only do laser engravers work on a variety of materials, but they can create wonderful effects.
Golden, Colorado-based Epilog Laser began making laser engravers in 1988. The sign industry was pretty quick to adopt the tool because of its versatility. Now, 15 years later, the price of laser equipment has dropped drastically, making it fairly easy for small mom and pop shops to adopt the technology.
Laser engravers can be used on acrylics, plastics, metals, cork and wood, says James Stanaway, director of marketing for Epilog. The wide variety of substrates is fueling many creative techniques. Epilog features new ideas on its blog every week. Customers are encouraged to send in photos or descriptions of new sign projects or uses for their laser engravers.
Laser engravers can be used for cutting, etching and engraving.
“Laser engraving is deeper and has more depth to it,” says Eric Johnson, a sales consultant with Kern Laser Systems in Wadena, Minnesota. Laser etching just marks the surface of a sign. You can’t see depth to it, but laser etching creates a nice contrast, he says.
Johnson says that many people are turning to laser engravers as a cutting tool as well because CNC routers aren’t ideal for cutting metal and many sign makers work with metal, foam or just about any type of plastic.
Duets Direct by Gemini in Cannon Falls, Minnesota, recently started producing substrates for use in laser and rotary engraving. Gary Harder, director of the company, points out that all of the materials his company produces can be rotary engraved, but not all can be laser engraved. He recommends that shop owners who want to work with laser engravers buy acrylic.
The company produces many different colors of acrylic. Some are layered, with one color underneath and one on top, like red on white. When the material is engraved with a laser, the letters or designs stand out in white seen against the red background.
Acrylic also provides UV stability and can withstand harsh weather, Harder says, which makes it a good substrate for exterior and wayfinding signage.
“We see so many different creative and artistic ways people put signage together,” Harder says. “Architects, construction builders and building owners don’t just want a rectangle with letters, numbers and braille on it. They want to do branding, marketing with the building or company. They want to put their logo on every sign. That is very common to engrave a logo into the sign. It is really limitless in terms of being artistic,” Harder says.
Epilog’s newest feature is an eView Camera Module, which is available for the company’s Fusion M2 laser. The camera uses registration marks that are placed on the substrate to cut more precisely around the item. If a sign requires multiple passes through the laser engraver, it can be hard to line up the project. These registration marks and the three cameras on the laser engraver make it a cinch.
“We’re able to find the same starting position each time,” Stanaway says.
One technique Stanaway is excited about is inlay. Many furniture and sign manufacturers are learning that they can create inlay projects fairly simply using a laser engraver. First you engrave the pocket that will hold the piece you are engraving and then you cut the same shape out of veneer and glue it in, he says.
Another technique that sign companies have embraced is 3D engraving, where you use the gray scaling effects of a graphic to create curved effects.
In 3D engraving, the “laser is changing its power while it is going back and forth across the piece of wood (or other substrate). The software is designed to turn on higher power and turn on lower power over a gray scale image and that makes it very one of a kind,” Johnson says.
A popular free software program from Autodesk, Inc. called 123D Make is revolutionizing 3D engraving. “This will take a 3D graphic and slice it so you can cut out pieces with the laser and put them back together to build some really intricate 3D designs,” Stanaway says.
One customer started using his Epilog laser to make 3D modeling kits of dinosaurs that it sells to hobby stores. The pieces in the kit are numbered and the dowel holes make it easy to line up the pieces, Stanaway says.
“That’s the fun of the laser. Every time I talk to customers, there is something fun they are creating,” he says.
Laser engravers can cut small to large and interior or exterior signage.
“We’re finding out that being in the sign industry, people want the newest and latest materials that other people don’t have so it will capture people’s attention,” Johnson says. “Whether it lights up or is just a bold unique texture or they are just a traditional substrate that people are used to or comfortable with.”
LED edge-lit signs are very popular as well. To make these you use a laser system to etch an acrylic panel. When LED light strips are attached to the edges of the acrylic, the etched graphic will glow like a neon sign.
Coated stainless steel is another popular sign substrate that can be laser cut, engraved or etched. The stainless is coated to look like copper, brass, chrome or bright colors like blue.
More high-powered lasers can cut deeper images. Kern’s lasers come equipped with 150-watt to 400-watt lasers.
“In the future, what I’m seeing is higher (cutting) quality and higher speeds. That’s something we are always aiming for,” Stanaway says.