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Sandcarving: The Great Gray Area of Signage

Hardly does one ever find that something is purely black and white. This or that. Absolutely and ultimately definitive. No, in life there seems to be a lot of gray area. In business this rings as true as anywhere else. There are places where the black and the white bleed together in an all-too-noticeable category of crossover. Take, for example, the practice of sandcarving, or sand blasting—using jets of fine sand-like particles to etch images onto hard materials such as glass.

Sandcarving can be performed to create products in both the awards/engraving market as well as the sign market. (And for those who have ever attended an NBM Show, they’ve seen live and in-person how these markets intersect.)

So why would a sign maker have interest in using equipment designed for etching professionals? And alternatively, why should awards professionals keep an eye on technology that can also be used in the signage world?

“Signage and the awards market are very similar at their cores,” says Billy Willis, sales manager at Rayzist PhotoMask Inc. “They are both made to portray an image of excellence to those who view them. In reality, the tools and markets are similar; it’s the end user and viewer that are most different.”

When it comes to sandcarving there are a number of applications that can be created – some that are fits for both markets as Willis states. End products that are hand-carved to present a uniquely configured item. Think about custom plaques that can be given as awards to top customers, but could also serve as an inner-office sign with the company’s name and logo.

“Whether you’re in the signage industry or the awards industry, the sandcarving process and equipment are very similar,” reiterates Jessica Wetzel, marketing coordinator, IKONICS Corp.

What is Sandcarving?

Many sign makers, including experts from completely different fields, may be unfamiliar with the sandcarving process. Others might be involved in this type of work at some level, but outsource the jobs to a third party. To those shops that want a quick lesson in what sandcarving is all about, Linda Tran, marketing manager at Topmost World Inc. has happily obliged.

“The sandcarving process is straightforward,” Tran says. “First, a photomask is applied to the surface that is being carved. Then, an abrasive, sand-like material (such as aluminum oxide) is propelled onto that surface. The abrasive carves the surface only in the open areas of the stencil, while the areas covered by the photomask remain smooth and spotless. Photomask is a stencil made of photoresist film that has undergone a developing process. The stencil design is typically created from custom, computer-generated artwork. The finished photomask is used to guide the sandcarving process, therefore design is everything.”

Some sign makers might already have experience with engraving techniques and projects. There are, of course, several different ways to etch a pattern or design into a substrate. With sandcarving, however, there is a little more to consider.

According to Wetzel, “Sandcarving can be considered more affordable compared to other engraving systems. Another major benefit of the sandcarving process is the unique effects that can only be achieved with sandcarving including: deep carving, shading, frosting, multi-stage carving, etc. Instead of just lightly etching the surface, sandcarving removes the substrate, whether it’s crystal, glass, rock, wood, ceramic, stainless steel, etc. Keep in mind, the deeper the etch; the higher the value. Sandcarving creates a smooth finish with sharp and clean lines. Sandcarving can also be a quick process—as much as 10 to 15 times faster than lasering.”

Creative and Versatile

Price, quality and production time are certainly considerations to any sign professional when trying to produce the best possible work. On top of those benefits, Willis points to the overall creativity in sandblasting, and the process that is implemented.

“Sandblasting will always have a unique look to it,” says Willis, “which comes from the removal of the surface material rather than just ‘scratching’ it. When an item is sandblasted, the engraved area has a natural depth, which is the evidence of this surface removal. The overall look can be likened to a three-dimensional image, giving a perception of higher quality and craftsmanship.”

The versatility of sandcarving is also a great advantage. There are several substrates and materials that are used with this carving method.

“Marble and other stone, wood, acrylic,” says Tran, “just about any hard surface can be sandcarved.”

At IKONICS there’s a true test to what can be sandcarved and what cannot. A sort of “yay or nay” grade as to what substrates are acceptable.

“IKONICS Imaging has a general rule of thumb when looking at materials to sandcarve,” explains Wetzel.  “If it can shatter or chip away when you drop the object, like crystal, wood, stone, or glass, you are able to create stunning, deep etches into the material. If you drop the object and it scratches, like metal, you are only able to get a surface etch, or simply just scratching the surface.”

And there is a final rule of thumb that is the most important, according to Wetzel. 

“If you drop an object and it bounces, like a rubber bouncy ball,” she explains, “sandcarving will have minimal effects to the material. When it comes to sandblasting any material, you can only sandcarve as deep as the artwork’s lines are wide.”

Recommendations for Sandcarving Beginners

  • Acquire the equipment that best suits your space and needs   
  • Start small, experimenting with less costly pieces and simple designs to get your skills honed.  
  • Receive hands-on training, and experiment with the equipment at a trade show or seminar near you.  
  • It is essential for engravers to understand vectorized, black and white artwork in conjunction with Adobe Illustrator or Corel Draw.
  • Be careful to properly apply the mask to the surface, as bubbles or loose areas can blow out when exposed to the pressure, and leave unwanted etching on the item.
  • Be aware of the pressure you are using and the time a piece is left in the sandblasting container, as too much of either will cause unwanted marking.
  • Look into other markets including the beverage industry including barware and wine bottles.

Sandcarving is a Fit for Sign Makers

To be certain, there are some shops that may want no part in carving and engraving – those that can’t handle the workload or would prefer to stay in their own specific niche. However, there are others that are likely curious about why this is an advantageous endeavor for them, both sign and award shops alike. These shops will want to listen to what Wetzel has to say about breaking in the market.

“The process utilized to sandcarve an award can also be used to create breathtaking signs,” she says. “Sandcarving is as simple as creating the artwork, exposing the film, applying the film to the substrate and sandblasting. The main variable would be the scale of the project.”

Take our previous example of the “top customer” plaque. An awards shop might be comfortable making several of these types of plaques as a smaller-scale project, probably churning out several for many different clients. A sign shop would be able to use these same skills and methods to mirror the plaque, possibly on a larger scale, making a sandcarved sign of the company’s identity to be displayed in the company’s reception area, for instance.

“In many signage businesses, large-format production is always a need,” says Willis. “Rayzist not only has the tools and technology to produce large-format stencils (up to 50-inch by 50-inch), but also large sandblast systems able to accommodate large-format signs and monuments, as well as portable pressure pots that can do any size work without the restriction of a cabinet space.”

The cabinet, or the contained area where the sandcarving takes place, is essential to the sandcarving process – to be clean and durable for this type of work. IKONICS, Rayzist, and Topmost World all have professional solutions that fit with sign projects.

“Whether you are a new company looking to get into sandcarving or a company looking to expand your business, IKONICS Imaging provides state-of-the-art sandcarving cabinets, ergonomic equipment, innovative photoresist films, and personalized training resources to help you succeed,” Wetzel says.

At Rayzist, Willis says his company “offers an array of products and services specifically designed for the sandcarving market. These products include self-contained sandblast equipment, photoresist films (for stencil production), marketing tools, and ready-to-use stencils made to order for any size production run.”

Topmost World is on a bit of the other end of the sandcarving process; according to Tran, it offers “blank crystal and glass products that can be easily sandcarved.”

Addressing those specific substrates used for sandcarving, Wetzel suggests to those shops getting into the signage market to “use the same material you are comfortable with using for your first few signs. For example, if you have a lot of experience carving marble or granite, use that same material to sandcarve outdoor signs. If you have experience with glass, you can carve indoor signs such as donor walls or lit-up company logos. Regardless of the substrate, we highly recommend utilizing photoresist film as it allows for finer details than vinyl.”

Important Trends

As explained previously, the importance of a clean and strong cabinet is paramount; however, it also benefits the user to be comfortable and at-ease during sandcarving. Since the individual performing the sandcarving will be doing a lot of hand work in the process, “the handling of the product is very important,” says Tran, “with glass and crystal especially. Sandblasting requires more time with hands on the items, so there is more chance of chipping or breaking.”

This in mind, having “ergonomic (cabinet) features to help make every system efficient,” according to Wetzel, along with training resources and online purchasing, “makes every sandcarver’s life easier.”

Because sandblasting cabinets are now formatted to accept both small and large-format projects, there is much more technology being developed – a great deal of which applies to sign makers and awards professionals alike.

“There is always something new coming out that connects with the awards and trophies market,” says Willis. “This year, we’ve seen a drastic increase in the interest for engraving into stones for pet memorials. Many pet owners are willing to spend the money to memorialize their pets and have something to remember them by, and are willing to pay the costs involved.”

Additionally, some alternative materials have had an expanded role in sandcarving. Says Tran, “The use of acrylic on plaques is becoming more popular since it is less expensive and fragile compared to glass or crystal.”

Automated Washout

Washout systems, an automated process to wash photoresist film for designs, are maturing in the sandcarving market. According to Willis, “many businesses are investing in the technology of automatic washout systems. We’ve seen an increase in the sales and production of these machines, and rightfully so, as businesses are preparing themselves for increased sales and production in the coming years.”

Rayzist has a newly developed and manufactured “Self Propelled Washout System” that does not use electricity to washout one full sheet of stencils in 45 seconds.

“This system can take any small business to the next level in production,” Willis asserts. “More than doubling their output of usable stencils in a given time frame.”

Regarding washout technology, Wetzel says that “IKONICS Imaging supports the use of AccuBlack films for printing artwork; Accu-Films create dark and denser images than other films. By printing your artwork on AccuBlack, you are able to regulate exposure times, reduce washout time, and create finer details in the finished product.”

Overall, the positives of sandcarving are notable. Those who are employing sandcarving techniques effectively will amplify their business in the signage and awards crossover markets, and likely realize some new business opportunities along the way.

As Tran explains, “Sandcarving produces the most dramatic results, and can add more value to the product than any other marking method. There is much more value in something that is sandcarved, because it is an extension of the creative process. With many other personalization/marking methods you are simply putting a piece into a machine, and letting it run its course. With sandcarving there is constant interaction between the artist and the piece, making it a true artistic endeavor.”

This type of product creation coupled with the latest offerings help to wipe away the line between what belongs to the awards market and what is relevant to sign makers. It is possible to have this artistic type of functionality and availability in both markets. If you can envision your business benefiting from sandcarving techniques, then maybe you’re ready to take a step into the great gray area where sign and award products meet.