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Fill Up on Color

We all know CO2 laser systems can be used to create remarkable projects. The technology’s versatility in engraving small, intricate patterns with accuracy continues to amaze me every day when I’m producing projects. As amazing as the CO2 laser is, it produces monochrome results. The laser cuts, etches, and engraves, but it cannot add color.

Fill Up on Color

Expertly Brighten Your Laser-Engraved Projects

By Mark Conde, FirePoint Creations, Fishers, IN

(Originally published in the December 2015 issue of Recognition Review.)

We all know CO2 laser systems can be used to create remarkable projects. The technology’s versatility in engraving small, intricate patterns with accuracy continues to amaze me every day when I’m producing projects.

As amazing as the CO2 laser is, it produces monochrome results. The laser cuts, etches, and engraves, but it cannot add color.

While the CO2 laser will never replicate a colorful Picasso, you can add color to many laser-engraved projects. It takes several extra steps and some planning, but the process is easy and can be done by anyone—with a little practice. The color-filling process can transform monochrome projects into radiant and colorful products.

If you can engrave it, you can color-fill it. The color-filling process works on many materials including wood, glass, and acrylic. Materials that are nonporous work best, though there are tricks—like coating the material—to make porous substrates color-fill well.

Applying the mask across the entire plaque without pockets of air can be tough. Plenty of practice and a plastic squeegee will get you there.

The Color-Filling Process

The process starts with applying a mask on the substrate.

I’ll use the example of a wooden plaque to illustrate the process, though the concept works well on many substrates. If you are going to color-fill glass or acrylic, the sanding and polyurethane is NOT needed.

Unfinished wood is porous and usually isn’t smooth. I love working with cherry and maple. Pine and other soft woods can be used, too.

First, sand your wood plaque flat and smooth. Start with 150-grit sandpaper and work progressively through finer sandpapers, ending with a 220-grit sandpaper. I like to use a random orbital sander; it’s much faster and easier than sanding by hand.

When the plaque is flat and smooth, use a clean cloth to remove all the loose particles from it.

Ensuring the wood is smooth and nonporous is critical to achieving great results. Sanding makes the plaque smooth, but now we need to finish the wood to make it nonporous by applying 2–3 coats of polyurethane as a top coat. For best results, apply thin coats, allowing each to dry for 30 minute before the next application. The final coat should dry for a minimum of 8 hours. Failure to allow the polyurethane to fully dry and cure will result in disaster in the final steps of the process.

The polyurethane helps the mask adhere and minimizes the bleeding of the paint. I have never experienced a disaster once the wood is coated with polyurethane. It is possible to achieve good results without coating the wood with polyurethane, but you must be certain to sand the wood very smooth and flat and to remove all particles after sanding.

Masking Makes Miracles

Apply a mask to the entire plaque. There are many types of masks on the market. My all-time favorite is a medium tack paper mask from Laserbits. It has always performed well for my projects.

Applying the mask is tricky the first two or three times you try it. Start at one edge and slowly mask the entire plaque, using a plastic squeegee to eliminate air pockets. The mask must have 100% contact with the plaque; air pockets are guaranteed to wreck this project.

Engraving

We are getting closer to making magic happen. When you engrave the plaque with the mask in place, it will vaporize in the areas being engraved—the areas you plan to color fill. Laser engraving at this point achieves two goals: removing the mask in the areas that will receive the color fill and engraving about 1/16-in. deep into the wood so the paint will adhere well.

Engrave too deeply and the paint will puddle, preventing even drying. Bad things will happen if the paint cannot dry properly.

Because we’re using a mask, you’ll need to adjust the settings you’d normally use to engrave wood. I suggest increasing the power of your laser by 1%–2% to ensure the mask engraves away and the desired depth is reached.

Bust out your plastic squeegee again to ensure the mask sticks to the plaque, even around the edges of engraved areas.

It’s Time to Paint

Before using paint to color in-fill, use your squeegee to gently go over the freshly engraved masked plaque. This process makes sure the edges of the masked design adhere well to the plaque. The edges created when the laser vaporized the paper mask don’t always stick perfectly to the plaque without this quick check.

The brush and type of paint used are very important to the color-fill process. Some like to use spray paint and be done with it. I use a more methodical approach because it gives me quality, professional results.

A stiff artist’s brush—the first tool needed to apply the paint—works wonders. The bristles need to be short and stiff to ensure the paint can be worked into the engraved areas. I like to use brushes from any reputable craft store. They are inexpensive and get the job done. Longer-haired brushes can be cut down to be shorter and firmer.

My paint of choice is heavy body acrylic, which is offered by many brands and can be found online or in any arts and crafts store. Heavy body acrylic paint is thick and will not run. It’s almost pastelike compared to other paint types. This thick consistency minimizes—if not eliminates—bleeding into the the wood.

This paint wears well indoors. Because it can fade or bleed when exposed to the elements, it should not be used for exterior jobs. For projects like exterior signage, I use common latex exterior paint. It is more challenging to apply, but it can be done.

Work the heavy body acrylic paint into the engraved areas using an artist’s brush. A little goes a long way, so don’t load up the brush with paint.

I think spray paint is the worst choice. It is almost impossible to control because the paint is very thin.

The heavy body acrylic can be purchased in a tube and squeezed out onto a scrap of wood or cardboard. Using the brush, load a small amount of paint onto the bristles from the scrap “palette.” A little goes a long way. Don’t overload the brush with gobs of paint.

Work the paint into the engraved areas. This is more art than science, and practice will make for perfect results. Avoid leaving a large amount of paint on the mask. The mask can absorb moisture from the paint, start to bubble, and lift away from the wood. This causes an ugly bleeding effect. Move quickly but not so quickly that you miss color-filling sections of the engraving.

Let the paint dry for a few minutes. When the wet, shiny look is gone, it’s time to lift the mask. If the mask is removed when the paint is wet, the paint is likely to smear. You also shouldn’t allow the paint to dry for an hour, seeking a full cure, before removing the mask. This poor practice will result in the paint in the engraved areas pulling out in one big piece.

I slowly and gently lift the mask from each of the four corners and work around each corner pulling up more masking until it is fully removed from the plaque.

With a few practice jobs, this process will become second nature to you.

Carefully remove the mask after the paint has had a few minutes to dry. It shouldn’t be wet and shiny or fully cured.

Get in the Weeds

You are in the home stretch, but first you have to go through the weeds. After you lift the main masking off, the paper in the detailed, cutout area of the design will remain. Removing these tiny remnants of mask is called weeding. The pieces can be small.

To lift them off the plaque, I use an X-Acto hobby knife. I use the knife to carefully lift one edge of the paper remnant, then use my fingers to peel it completely away. Weeding takes fresh eyes, a steady hand, and patience. But once weeding is complete, you are finished!

The plaque can be coated with a final coat of polyurethane, if you wish, but this isn’t needed. The heavy body acrylic paint is tough and can withstand a lot.

Use an X-Acto knife to carefully weed the remaining mask shreds from the wooden plaque.

Color-Filling: Not Just for Color?

The color-fill process works equally well to enhance the contrast of engravings. Many projects that look great with the dark-char of the engraving look even better when a black color-fill is added. The deep black contrasts with almost any material, providing a crisp, clean look that is sure to impress your customer and earn you profits.


Mark Conde has been in the awards and personalization industry since 2011. He and his wife, Lisa, own and manage FirePoint Creations in Fishers, IN, with their sons. FirePoint Creations offers personalized gifts and awards online. Conde’s passion for laser systems is as deep as his passion for e-commerce. If you have questions or comments for Conde, e-mail markconde@firepointcreations.com.

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