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Etching and Engraving

In one sense engraving has not changed since the classical era, but Harry Mottram has taken a look at how new technology has changed the industry and how it could shape its future

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Trotec has worked hard to demonstrate how investing in a laser engraving system could help open up new fields of business

A precise profit map

In the summer of 1979 whilst at college studying graphic design I took a summer job at Maggs Engraving in Highbridge in Somerset. The main bulk of the work was engraving with small hand controlled machines inscribing brass plaques for solicitors and doctors or engraved plastic substrates for machine labels. The range was limited but then so were the types of machinery and materials —and that according to today’s engravers are the biggest changes.

So, with that in mind, is it still a sector worth diversifying into and making an investment into the equipment, materials, training, and sales facilities needed to make a go of it? The short answer is ‘yes’, it is worth your serious consideration given the ongoing popularity of shows such as Euro Trophex and the ongoing buoyancy of this market segment in the UK. The longer answer though is of course below, and it largely depends on what your ambitions are, and what level of profit you will be satisfied with by moving into this sector.

From hand to lasers

Martyn Wright of Brunel Engineering in Clevedon in North Somerset has been in the industry since the late 1960s and has seen the changes made with new materials and new kit. However, he says in one sense the industry at its core has not changed. He explains: “Engraving hasn’t really changed since it was done by hand. Basically it is the removal of metal or material from a surface that creates an image in whatever shape or form it is.

Engraving hasn’t really changed since it was done by hand

“Where that can go really is up to the new materials and the machines that are being developed. Engraving was always done by hand and then it changed to the use of manual engraving machines. After that computer control came in, where the software is connected to the engraving equipment, which has increased the possibilities. Now we are moving onto chemical etching and laser engraving. The next step maybe could be into fibre lasers, which will actually cut into metal.

Martyn Wright of Brunel Engraving in North Somerset has been in the industry since the 1960s and has seen all the innovations in engraving

“Years ago the materials were always brass and aluminium. Then in came stainless steel and the machines became more durable so they could engrave into this tougher material. The plastics were always the rigid engraving laminates such as Traffolyte, after that came out there were the flexible engraving laminates, which gave us a much greater spread of colours and finishes.

“The most recent material is Corian, which the public know as a seamless kitchen surface that can be used to form sinks and worktops. What we do is to utilise the stone finishes in Corian and we create a product from it. It comes in a granite finish, a slate finish, and all sorts of textured surface finishes. What we have done is to take it a stage further and insert full colour images into it as well as engrave it. We utilise wide-format printing, acrylics, and traditional engraving methods to give us the finish we require.”

Old techniques

The use of Corian is clearly a long way from the stone engravers of the classical past and the trophy etchers of yesteryear, although as Martyn Wright points out the techniques are still essentially the same. With new computer controlled equipment and a host of new materials, a whole new world of possibilities has opened up.

At Kings Plastics in Bristol, another aspect of engraving has been pioneered that takes the basic essential of the art and gives it a modern LED twist. Will Stapleton of the firm, based in the city’s Old Market area, says they still do a large amount of traditional brass and metal plaque work along with control panels for machinery, but edge lit engraving has become a big part of their operation.

Made by Kings Plastics of Bristol, an engraved edge-lit sign using Perspex and LED lighting, and an infill of coloured substrate, creates a bright, sharp, and modern look

He explains: “Edge lit is a form of engraved sign we specialise in using our edge lit system to illuminate panels, which we have engraved on the back using a traditional technique but in a new way. Rather than engraving something and filling it in so you can’t see it, the whole point of an edge lit sign is to engrave it so you can see it.
So, you are cutting into the back of the panel so the light hits the engraving in the panel and that’s the whole essence of an edge light.”

Will Stapleton of Kings Plastics says the world of engraving has gone through a revolution in materials, machinery, and techniques

Kings Plastics feature a wide range of sign-making techniques that encompass built-up letters and large graphics, shop and retail signage as well as the more traditional end of engraving, but edge-lit is seen as a new direction.

 “Edge lit signs are used by anyone and everyone,” says Will Stapleton, adding: “They are really good for office faced businesses. When you walk into an office reception the first thing you want to see is a really big illuminated version of their logo. If the company are sharing their office block then they may not be able to have their signage outside so they need something inside that is really eye-catching and really special and that’s what the edge light brings.”

Kings Plastics’ engraver beavers away creating an edge-lit sign

So, with that left of field application of this sector’s technology now covered, it is worth looking at a firm that could let you diversify into this sector without having to stump up a lot of capital investment. Brunel Engraving may in some ways be seen as a traditional engraving firm, but their work has taken engraving to new markets unheard of a few decades ago. They have engraved Tudor markings into Shakespeare’s garden in Stratford-upon-Avon to mark the anniversary for the bard last year and their use of Corian has been put to use in war memorials, street furniture, and to support, and as part of, public works of art.

Stainless steel automated engraving taking place at Brunel Engraving

Martyn Wright of the firm comments: “I started in the business in 1967, I studied with Taylor Hobson the precision engineers who made a range of engraving machines. I was with them to demonstrate the engraving machines, and then on servicing as well. The basic principle of engraving is creating a mark in a piece of material and filling it with paint, and it hasn’t really changed other than the materials that we are using. It’s the materials and the equipment that has changed.”

Down to earth

On that prosaic note, Bill Gailey writing on an American engraving forum says customers are not bothered about how engraving is achieved, they only want the finished product to be right. He says: “I bought my first laser in February 1982, an 80 watt engraver. Since then I have owned three different machines. When I started 30 years ago all we could laser was wood plaques, acrylic, stone, and glass. I have watched the supplier side of the industry create literally thousands of new products that can be engraved using a laser.

Bristol City FC’s John Atyeo is celebrated with a statue with traditional engraving on the base by Brunel

“The only way lasers will become obsolete in our lifetimes is if we stop thinking and designing creative solutions for our customers. Every day I find another idea on the forum that allows me to create something I have never made before and that leads me to completely new possibilities for my customers.”

Laser possibilities

Kings Plastics are also well used to innovation with laser engraving. Will Stapleton comments: “One thing we have done before and we are looking into is the introduction of laser cutters. We’ve now started laser engraving as well as generic sort of router, and specific engraving machines using those instead.

“Using things like software programmes in order to convert images into a block file for the laser engraver, so it’s not just a case now of if you’ve got a picture you have to sandwich between two panels. Using the laser engraver you can engrave it straight onto the back of the panel and then you get it engraved. Obviously we can make it negative either way, so we can engrave any image straight onto the Perspex panel, as long as the image quality is good enough.”

Tudor decoration engraved to mark Shakepeare’s 300th anniversary in 2016 by Brunel Engraving

So, what have the new techniques, materials, and machinery replaced? What types of engraving that I learnt to use in the 1970s on those rather primitive machines during my summer holiday have been replaced by the new wave? I turned to Will Stapleton again to ask what, for instance, edge-lit engraving has replaced. He replies: “Edge-lit engraving has replaced in most cases big bulky light boxes located in offices, which were not the greatest thing to look at in the world. Also, I think there’s a small possibility that it could and has in some cases replaced the old glass neon.”

LED has certainly eaten into the market once dominated by neon. The strips of mini lights are now so small and flexible they can be inserted into the most constrained of spaces, meaning the engraved surface is beautifully lit. In short, the style is quite dramatic.

Engraving to take the weather by Brunel at Shakespeare’s birthplace

“It is changing all the time and we are always trying to keep up with trends,” says Will Stapleton, who adds: “Last year we launched a whole new range of LEDs. We started to keep up with other trends using different lenses and colours and that sort of stuff so LEDs are leading a revolution but it is changing constantly and we try to keep up with it.”

On the cutting-edge

Now, another important decision when considering how to get into etching and engraving is of course what technology is on offer and whether its price tag can be recovered and generate new income streams. Now, the UK and Europe is spoilt for choice when it comes to equipment suppliers, just look at the advertising pages in the back of SignLink to give you an idea.

One in particular that has done well to establish a solid market share and offers some impressive technology is Trotec, which specialises in laser engraving systems: “In essence a laser cutter provides friction free cutting of materials by way of vaporising the sign substrate with the laser beam, this means there's no necessity to clamp the workpiece to the table, and as a consequence productivity is increased and sheet materials can be cut right up to the edge, maximising profit from each and every sheet processed,” explains Andrew Campling, sales manager of Trotec.

Corian used by Brunel in this sensitive piece of engraving at a war memorial

To further productivity and with true Austrian efficiency, the lasers have bi-directional feedback from PC to laser, allowing jobs to be quickly and efficiently started.

A chief benefit of lasers is the simplicity in creating cut paths; with a spot size at around just 0.1mm diameter, signs can be created without complex offsetting of tool paths, which is necessary when using a conventional router. To sum up, sign-makers with lasers have the ability to produce more complex and interesting designs, with faster set up and easier work handling when compared to conventional routing.

With the growth of print and cut products Trotec lasers can be fitted with a digital camera, making it possible to pick up on registration marks in order to accurately cut contours. This is a major growth area for many of our sign customers and from printed signage it is easy to port the process into point of sale and digital print media, providing yet another opportunity for expansion.

“Our network of showrooms allows us to be much more than a shop window for our customers, upskilling and open events are run regularly, allowing customers to develop the skills they need to build on the lasers capabilities, and offering scope for expansion,” continues Campling.

He adds: “Last but no means least, any business supplying machinery is only as good as its service and technical support, and being a subsidiary of the Austrian-based company, our customers have the benefit of being supported directly by the manufacturer. Technical support is run from our headquarters in Washington Tyne and Wear, where customers can access our technical managers for hardware and software support during office hours.

We made a huge investment in training our team of regionally based engineers with the regional showrooms providing materials and application based support.”

Last but no means least, any business supplying machinery is only as good as its service and technical support

1979 and all that

Speaking to engravers and seeing the type of work they now do showcased on their websites reveals a dramatic change in the industry since my days as an engraver in the 1970s. Corian and other substrates have come to replace stone in many places while plastics have multiplied in a variety of strengths, colours, and flexibility. Merging photographs with engraved surfaces and imagery of all types, and a vast range of fonts has brought new graphics to the art of the engraver. Computer software and the way they link to the machinery has also seen a revolution with new possibilities for graphic designers.

O Factoid: The first evidence for humans engraving patterns is a chiselled shell in Java, Indonesia, engraved by Homo Erectus humanoids 500,000 years ago.  O

The future seems to be a further widening of the commercial aspects of engraving from trade shows, demonstrations, directional signage, and information graphics that need to stand up to the weather. And the domestic market is set to boom as people want special engraving for weddings and major life celebrations as one offs. It is certainly a whole new world compared to that rather more basic field of engraving I experienced back in 1979.

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