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Rotary Engraving Remains Essential

With each new media, trend watchers predicted the doom of its predecessor. Television was going to kill radio, mp3s were supposed to destroy compact discs, and the Internet was to end print publications.

Rotary Engraving Remains Essential

Rotary Engraving Continues To Be the Best Option for Many Products, and It Can Open Sales Opportunities in New Markets

By Heather Henstock

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

With each new media, trend watchers predicted the doom of its predecessor. Television was going to kill radio, mp3s were supposed to destroy compact discs, and the Internet was to end print publications.

The media landscape certainly has changed, but new media doesn’t eliminate its predecessors. In fact, they’ve had to improve to survive, and each one has carved out its own important role in the world of mass communications.

Similarly, the awards and personalization industry also has seen its fair share of change through the years with the introduction of new equipment, processes, and products. Rotary engraving, no longer the go-to process for every job, remains a key tool for retailers and an essential service for their customers. There is a growing demand for rotary engraving in new markets, particularly in industrial marking and gift personalization.

“Years ago, the trend was to start with a rotary engraver, add a laser or a plotter, then add color processes,” said Fred Schwartz, of Quality One Engravers in Rancho Cucamonga, CA. “Today many shops will start with the color processes or the laser. That is certainly a complete reversal.” The awards and personalization industry has diversified its processes with the advent of laser engraving technologies and new color printing options. Rotary engraving, however, is here to stay and continues to open a world of new opportunities for retailers.

“Those that stay with rotary engraving have capable equipment, newer software, and conviction. They’ll be able to reap the benefits of this process with higher job compensations,” Schwartz said.

With the right tools and training, rotary engraving has no rival for some applications, and rotary engraving technology has improved over the years as well.

“We continue to improve the speed and utility of engraving systems. As a result, the productivity and return on investment are even better today” said Guy Barone Jr. of Xenetech Global in Baton Rouge, LA. “For example, our systems produced today are three times faster than in 2003, and the great news is that older systems are upgradeable.”

Both rotary and laser engravers have their place in the industry. Each works best for specific projects, and retailers often use both. Lasers may be best for high volume, large-character applications, and they may better engrave photographs and intricate logos, particularly on wood, leather, and laserable plastics.

Rotary engravers may be the better choice for deep metal engraving, ADA signage, gift engraving, and some plastics. “Rotary engravers are typically less expensive to purchase and maintain, and no specialized cleaning, critical alignment, or periodic recharging is required,” said Joe Ivanenok, president of Vision Engraving & Routing Systems.

The ability to control the depth of cut and the broad variety of engravable materials are key advantages to rotary engravers. “Routers are capable of engraving glass in fine detail,” Ivanenok said, “and have a wide range of engraving and routing tools, which allows faster engraving areas. Lasers are limited to the beam’s diameter.”

Rotary engravers can engrave on warped or uneven material and create beveled edges with ease. “They have the ability to mark metals, including stainless steel, without the extra time and expense of applying a chemical coating,” he said. “Routers also do not produce harmful fumes when cutting PVC, which is toxic when lasered.”

A system from Vision Engraving & Routing Systems engraves words and a dragon image on a 3-D metal plate atop a wooden cutout. The dragon image moves seamlessly between the metal and wood thanks to the versatility and technology of the engraving system.


The type of rotary equipment needed by a retailer depends on the products being engraved. Barone breaks rotary engraving equipment down to two major categories: flatbeds and gift engraving systems. Each category includes systems in a multitude of sizes and with numerous capabilities.

Xenetech Global is an ARA supplier that manufactures and sells rotary and laser engraving systems. “If you already have a laser engraver and you just want to use a rotary engraver for diamond drag on medallions or plaques, you probably only need a small flatbed engraver,” Barone said.

He recommends the large flatbed systems for retailers who need a workhorse to do a lot of plastic, metal, and ADA type engraving. Gift-engraving systems offer the capability to hold odd-shaped pieces and provide surface sensing for even engraving of curved pieces, such as jewelry, wine bottles, bowls, mugs, and other gift items.

Control of engraving depth is a distinct advantage for rotary engravers. “If you don’t have surface sensing, it would potentially give you an uneven depth and noticeable quality difference across the engraving area,” Barone said. “I think it’s important that you have surface sensing by character or each time the cutter goes down as opposed to by line or by plate. More readings provide for continuous adjustment, better consistency in depth and better quality across the engraving area.”

Like Barone, each manufacturer offers different types of systems and can explain which are best suited for the type of work and volume you expect to be doing.

Plates, bowls, loving cups, glasses, jewelry, tags, gifts, rings, industrial parts—it all can be engraved with rotary system like Xenetech’s Viper® GE. With an automatic surface sensing capability, cylindrical engraving, and a touchscreen, this is a huge step up from years-old systems that may be collecting dust in retailers’ work areas.


Once you determine which system you need, you’ll need to take a look at available accessories. Various cutters, holding devices, and other tools can be fitted to the systems depending on the substrate or product.

“You need a good variety of cutters to create the desired finished look of the product. Diamond drag, burnishing, and deep engravings all require different cutters,” Barone said. “Another popular feature that rotary engraving companies like is a diode pointer to help position text on a particular item.”

Engraved finishing options are vast, but burnishing, diamond drag, deep rotary, and tactile signage are among the most popular. (See the sidebar on top right of this page for a full range of the top rotary engraving applications.)

The Raster system on this Quest Engraver from Quality One Engravers makes easy work of creating accurate Braille on ADA-compliant signage. Because the law mandates tactile signage in many public places, this can be a lucrative new market for engravers. At the side of the system is the pendant that puts the control of the system right in your hand.


Burnishing is the process of removing only a thin surface coating of material to expose the base metal. The cutters are shaped like chisels to sweep away the top coating as they rotate. “With colored brass sheets, for example, the process removes the coating to expose the brass,” Schwartz said. “Burnishing has been used for years on trophy brass material.”

The appeal of burnishing is the high-quality finish it brings to metal engravings. “You can burnish a piece of metal for a very nice polished finish,” Barone said. Burnishing is not restricted to metal, however. Coated pens like black Cross® pens, acrylic awards, and identification plates also benefit from burnishing. “ID plates for equipment are often hard to diamond drag to get good clean letters and (they) deep engrave very slowly and messy,” Schwartz said. “Try burnishing. The results may surprise you.”

Diamond Drag

The most common type of engraving is diamond drag, which uses a steel shank with a conical pointed diamond embedded in one end. The diamond point drags across the surface without rotating.

“Many customers like the engraving depth that a diamond will produce, like on a watch back or cake knife, for example,” Schwartz said. He recommends doing two passes on diamond drag engravings to make the base color more vibrant. “The first pass tends to push some of the top material into the groove, and the second pass cleans it up,” Schwartz said. Diamond cutters come in three standard angles suited to specific jobs:

  • Pointed (90-degree)—These are best on coated surfaces or hard glass for very fine detail text or logos. The pointed diamond is not recommended for heavy, everyday use.
  • Standard (120-degree)—The standard diamond is the workhorse of the industry and is well suited for medium-strength metal marking.
  • Blunt (140-degree)—Wider and stronger, this diamond is best for marking hard metal, like stainless steel. It also works well on soft materials, such as pewter, because the wider point keeps the diamond from gouging and leaves a clean line.

Deep Rotary Engraving

Rotary engraving penetrates material to a specific depth. With a rotating motion, the cutter removes the material. The depth can be adjusted to make a shallow mark, a deep groove for paint fill, or to completely cut through the material.

“Rotary engraving into plastic is one of the best uses of this type of machine,” Schwartz said. Metal also can be deep rotary engraved if you use sharp cutters and allow for extra time. “When engraving metal, feed rates are much slower, and the speed of the cutter descending into the material must be slowed,” he said. “Think of yourself drilling into soft butter and a block of stainless steel. Your approach to each of these drilling processes will be completely different. The same is true for your engraver.”

Tactile Signage

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires compliant signage in many buildings. These ADA-compliant signs are also called tactile signage because they are required to feature raised letters and Braille text. The law dictates color contrast, font sizes, and more. A rotary engraver can be used to create the raised lettering and the Braille. Special tools can make it possible for an engraver with a rotary machine to create the rounded dots for the Braille by digging out the substrate around them. An easier option is a licensed method in which the cutter routes out space for the insertion of Raster beads that will form the raised Braille. A hopper and inserter are needed for this type of engraving. “ADA signage is in high demand, so you’ll need these tools,” Barone said. The process is patented, so a license must be acquired to use the Raster Bead method.

Tactile signage or ADA-compliant signage can be created using only a rotary engraver, as shown in these samples from Xenetech Global.


As demand for engraved products continues, manufacturers are introducing new technologies to improve quality and speed. Vision, for example, is introducing a tool changer model later this year to speed up production time on jobs that require the use of multiple tools. Xenetech offers a machine that combines laser and diamond drag engraving on the same job so retailers don’t have to move a product between engraving systems to get the best results.

Another feature benefitting rotary engraving systems is the addition of touch screens attached to the machine, allowing users to preview and adjust jobs on the spot rather than returning to their computer.

Opening up the jewelry market, rotary engravers can mark directly on uncoated and coated metals without the need for a special marking product. Even better, today’s engravers often feature new technology to cope with curved surfaces.

Most of the training time required for using rotary engravers is spent educating users on the software and maintenance of the machines. On new engraver installations, some manufacturers may spend a day or two helping to train their customers’ staff.

New market opportunities abound for retailers with rotary engraving expertise, especially in the areas of ADA signage, gifts, and industrial engraving.

“Industrial is probably the biggest growth area for rotary systems right now. I think there’s a lot of opportunity for recognition retailers to expand industrial applications for the government, military, and manufacturing companies,” Barone said.

An optional rotary or cylindrical attachment, as shown on this Quest Engraver from Quality One Engravers, essentially gives engravers a fourth axis. In addition to the X, Y, and Z options, the attachment can rotate a cylindrical, conical, or round object to allow it to be engraved all the way around.

For these companies and organizations, valuable tools, assets, or products must be permanently marked—often with engraved metal tags—for ease of tracking, safety, and theft protection. Though lasers may have the upper hand when engraving barcodes, rotary engravers can mark virtually any metal without applying a special coating, making them a good choice for applying serial number tags to large products, for instance.

“The demand for rotary engraving has been pretty constant,” Barone said. “A lot of folks thought the demand would go away with the advent of the laser but, in fact, there is still good demand.”

Rotary engraving also allows for the creation of signage, sometimes beyond the capabilities of other technologies. This sign from Vision Engraving & Routing Systems is made from wood, though rotary engravers can be used to create signs from plastic, metal, and more.

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