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This or That—Sandcarving Edition

SIPHON SYSTEM OR PRESSURE POT?

When you decide to buy a sandcarving system, you need to make some choices right away, not only about what brand to buy but also what type of system to buy. One of your first choices will be between a siphon system or one with a pressure pot

This or That—Sandcarving Edition

FROM PURCHASING THEIR SYSTEM TO WORKING ON EACH SUBSTRATE, SANDCARVERS HAVE CHOICES TO MAKE TO ENSURE THE RIGHT FIT FOR THEIR BUSINESSES, PRODUCTS, AND CUSTOMERS

By INSIGHTS Staff, with the assistance of Peter Norman of IKONICS IMAGING and Liz Haas of RAYZIST PHOTOMASK

SIPHON SYSTEM OR PRESSURE POT?

When you decide to buy a sandcarving system, you need to make some choices right away, not only about what brand to buy but also what type of system to buy. One of your first choices will be between a siphon system or one with a pressure pot

SIPHON SYSTEM

A sandcarving cabinet with a siphon system uses suction to pull media through a hose and to the nozzle that the user aims at the substrate. Siphon systems are less expensive than pressure pot systems, but the nozzle is much larger and produces more air and a wider blast spray, which makes them better suited for industrial or architectural applications than small, fine-detailed sandcarving work. Grit is recycled through the system, and interior parts could potentially last longer because they aren’t being hit with high-pressure media.

PRESSURE POT

A pressure pot system pressurizes a closed vessel containing the abrasive media, forcing it and the pressurized air through the hose and into the nozzle. The media comes out at a higher pressure to get the job done faster and allows for deep carving.

This requires greater up-front costs, and in-cabinet components may need replacing sooner—but most personalization professionals use the pressure pot. Why? Writing for Rayzist Photomask, Art Aguilar used two analogies in comparing the system—and explaining which is better: “We often say the difference between the two is like taking a bullet and throwing it at someone (siphon system) or sticking the same bullet in a gun and pulling the trigger (pressure pot). One could also say the difference is like sucking through a straw or launching a rocket.”

 

Pressure Pot System Photo
Courtesy of Ikonics Imaging

WASHOUT FILM OR DRY PROCESS OR LASER?

You must mask your substrate before you sandblast it. The mask acts like a stencil, protecting the areas you don’t want to blast and exposing the ones you do. But there are plenty of options for film type, and your decision will be based on the processes used to get the artwork onto the film and remove the film from the right areas. From there, you still have to make decisions about thickness and whether you want the film to be self-adhesive.

 

Washout Film and accessories Photo
Courtesy of Rayzist Photomask

WASHOUT FILM

Long available and commonly used, washout films are prepared by exposing a black image printed onto a transfer and the film together in a UVlight unit.

Once exposed, the film must be washed out to finish the development process. Whether done manually or with an automatic unit, a spray of hot water is directed over the film to dissolve and wash away the parts that would have covered the areas you wanted to blast. Once everything that needs to be washed away is, the photomask—also called a stencil— must dry before it can be applied to your substrate for blasting.

DRY PROCESS

A newer technology in sandcarving, dry-process film eliminates the water/washout step. Like its traditional counterpart, this specialty film is exposed to the printer artwork with UV light in a specialized unit. However, instead of washing out the film for the spaces you’ll blast, the film comes out of the exposure unit intact but brittle in the areas you want blasted. The exposed film is applied to the substrate and sandcarved. The brittle areas fall away quickly, exposing the substrate for carving. Because the film can continue to develop, it should not be exposed to UV light after exposure.

LASERABLE FILM

Normally, artwork is printed on the photomask film before being applied to the substrate, but with laserable film, you can apply the film to the substrate first and put the filmed substrate into your laser, where you can either cut through the film and etch the substrate surface (if you plan only to laser it) or cut through the film, creating a mask for sandcarving. If you choose the latter option and you lasered your art as a vector image, you can weed the film from the areas you plan to carve. (If the artwork is set up as a raster image, no weeding is required.) Take the prepped piece to your sandcarving system to personalize it. With this method, you get the carving depth, beauty, and detail of sandcarving without the need to expose or wash out film.

FILM WASHOUT: MANUAL OR AUTOMATIC?

When using photomask, you’ll need to wash out the areas you want to sandcarve. (With dry-process or laser film, you don’t do this step.) Both manual and automatic washout options exist.

MANUAL

Whether done manually or with an automatic machine, washing out film refers to spraying water onto exposed film to wash away the unexposed areas, leaving behind your sandcarving mask that will protect the areas you don’t want to blast. Many people starting out in this process use their shop’s existing sink to save money. This can, of course, make a mess and risk getting something on the mask from the sink or area around it. Often, sinks aren’t set up or well placed for this type of activity—or using the sink means others in the shop can’t—and you may need to add accessories to hold the film and get the right water pressure. Some sandcarving suppliers offer tabletop and floor washout booths, which are affordable but need to be hooked up to a water source and drain. Suppliers also offer sprayers to help users get the needed water pressure and easily maintain a consistent distance from their film.

Automatic Washout System Photo
Courtesy of Rayzist Photomask

AUTOMATIC

Automatic washout systems have a lot to recommend them, but at a price. These large floor-based systems aren’t inexpensive, but they wash out film fast. They also require a hookup to hot water and a place to drain the water. In the unit, the film is hit with just the right amount of water at just the right pressure and temperature— and the operator doesn’t have to do the work, risk getting soaked, or worry about maintaining a specific distance or moving to spray the whole film. Washout units use less water than manual processes and free up the operator to prep the next sheet of film for high-volume production.

SILICON CARBIDE OR ALUMINUM OXIDE?

The abrasive media or grit you use to actually blast the substrate isn’t sand, despite the name “sandcarving.” The two mostused options are chosen based on the type of products you expect to carve, and they offer different features and drawbacks.

SILICON CARBIDE

More costly than the alternative grit, silicon carbide has a lot of features that make it perfect for personalizing glass, crystal, metal, and ceramic. “It is commonly used for blasting metals because it leaves behind a polishing effect,” Rayzist Photomask advises.

Compared to aluminum oxide, silicon carbide gets results faster because it is sharper, stays sharp over time, and can be used longer. It also doesn’t create static electricity during blasting. “A side benefit is that it actually ‘glows’ when hitting the substrate, which can be used as an indicator of nozzle aim,” according to IKONICS Imaging.

 

Sandcarving Photo
Courtesy of Rayzist Photomask

With newer sandcarving systems and high efficiency dust collectors, silicon carbide recycles similarly to aluminum oxide. However, Rayzist Photomask says that because silicon carbide is sharper, it can wear out your nozzles and sandblasting hoses faster than aluminum oxide.

ALUMINUM OXIDE

Less costly than silicon carbide, aluminum oxide is sand-like and coarse, making it the preferred media for blasting stone, including granite and marble. Other solid surfaces it blasts well—and deeply—include glass and wood. “Aluminum oxide is an economical abrasive with good cutting ability and is used prevalently in the industry. It is reusable and provides a fine finish,” according to IKONICS Imaging.

LASER OR SANDCARVE?

In addition to the decisions made by sandcarvers, personalization shop owners have to decide if they even want to be sandcarvers. Most personalization retailers already have a laser, so they may see the laser as their best option for marking glass and crystal since it doesn’t require a new investment in equipment. But many retailers—especially those who can do high-volume sales in sandcarved glass, crystal, ceramic, stone, and metal—invest in a sandcarving system, or two, and never regret it.

LASER

Lasers can mark the surface of glass, leaving a frosted white appearance. But getting a good-looking, smooth result when lasering glass or crystal requires working to dissipate the laser-generated heat that can cause the “etched” surface to look and feel rough, like there are shards on the surface. Tricks for reducing how much the glass or crystal heats up during lasering include altering artwork and applying wet paper, masking tape, or dish soap before lasering. If the results still aren’t up to par, laser users use various pads or polishers to smooth the “etched” surface.

Alternatively, laser masking material sold by sandcarving suppliers can be used in place of the wet paper, masking tape, or dish soap for results closer to that achieved with sandcarving—or the laser can be used to mark the mask on a glass or crystal item that is then moved to a sandcarving system for deeper etching than is possible with the laser. The mask can even be left on for paint filling.

 

Laser mask Photo
Courtesy of Ikonics Imaging

Unlike with sandcarving, when lasering, you’ll need to position your glass or crystal in your machine and keep it in place. To laser cylindrical or round glass or crystal— like wine bottles and champagne flutes—you may need to purchase a rotary attachment that will hold and move the product as the laser marks it. Odd-shaped items may require jigs to hold them in place for lasering.

An upside of lasering is that there’s a reduced risk of accidentally breaking an item because you’re not holding it throughout the decorating process and only the laser beam (or rotary device or jig) “touches” the glass or crystal. Lasering glass or crystal also takes fewer steps than sandcarving because you don’t have to transfer artwork to a mask before etching it into the substrate. Unlike sandcarving, lasering doesn’t require an active operator to personalize the product once the job starts running, and multiple products can be marked in one job.

SANDCARVE

Most personalization retailers don’t start their businesses with sandcarving systems, so making the leap to sandcarving glass and crystal represents a real investment in the sandcarving cabinet, air compressor, abrasive media or grit, mask-making materials and equipment, training, and more. So why do people do it? For the quality of the finished product. With sandcarving, you control the depth of the carve, allowing for deep- and stagecarved work that lasers can’t achieve. The sandcarved surface of the glass or crystal is smooth and consistent.

Sandcarvers can mark just about any glass, crystal, stone, ceramic, or wooden item they can fit in their sandblasting cabinet without jigs or attachments, although you’ll need to be sure you don’t drop the object or let it connect with the cabinet walls or nozzle.

Because the sandcarver can hold and turn the product as needed, there are fewer restrictions on the area that can be decorated. The process does create more demands on the time of the operator, who will need to decorate each product one at a time, though many can be done in quick succession.

A bigger factor on the time spent sandcarving is the need to make a mask, transfer the art to the mask, apply to the mask to the glass or crystal, sandcarve it, and remove the mask. (Using a laser mask lets you apply the mask first, laser it, and then sandcarve to save steps, especially compared to a washout system.) Stores that sell large numbers of etched and carved items tend to segment the process: creating all the masks, applying them all, and lining all of the masked products up on shelves convenient to the sandcarving cabinet. With this method, a massive number of prepped products can be sandcarved quickly at the operator’s convenience.

Because the sandcarved product is masked and can be carved deeply, paint filling sandcarved glass and crystal is easier than with lasered glass or crystal, too.

GLASS OR CRYSTAL?

Even if you’ve committed to using a clear substrate, you still have a choice to make: glass or crystal? We’ve omitted acrylic since it’s usually personalized with a laser or sublimation. Glass and crystal look alike but have differences greater than their price points.

GLASS

Glass is an amorphous solid that comes in many types. The kind we most often use is primarily made of silica sand. The amount of iron in the silica is altered to change clarity and color. Heavier than clear acrylic and more affordable than crystal, glass is relatively durable and often dishwasher safe. Glass can be personalized through sandcarving, rotary engraving, laser engraving, or UV printing (with specific inks and pretreatments).

The catch? Quality matters. Low-quality glass can become rough, with the etched surface looking chipped when personalized. That’s why some sandcarving companies sell glass products that they stand behind as high enough quality to sandcarve well. So if your customer is choosing glass over crystal to save money, they need to know low-quality glass may not personalize well.

CRYSTAL

Though it’s a type of glass made with oxides, crystal is considered a step up from regular glass. (Optical crystal, which is valued for its high shine and lack of imperfections, is another step up.) Additives may be used during manufacturing to create colored optic crystal, which can be opaque or translucent. Crystal glass is beautiful and can be worked into elaborate designs using the same personalization options as for glass.

 

Sandcarved Glass Photo
Courtesy of Ikonics Imaging

Don’t confuse crystal with leaded crystal, which is made using 10%-35% lead oxide; this luxury substrate is stunning but can leach lead into foods and beverages and is a bigger risk for breakage or chipping during personalization. Unlike lead crystal, regular crystal and optical crystal are food- and drink-safe. Crystal is harder than leaded glass, which can make engravers’ job much easier. Some lead-free crystal is even dishwasher safe.

Like glass, crystal is popular for gifts and awards. Some customers will choose crystal over glass for its beauty, sparkle, and prestige, despite the extra cost. For sandcarvers, personalizing crystal might be a little more nerve wracking only because of the extra cost to replace an item if an error is made.

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