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Etched in Glass

With origins dating back more than 3,500 years ago in Mesopotamia, glass engraving has spanned the ages. Back then, glass was engraved with any material that was harder than the glass itself, typically rocks. But glass engraving really flourished during the Renaissance period in Europe in the 1500s, a time when nobles and royalty cherished these works of art. Fast-forward to present day, and engraved glass is still highly appreciated. But today it’s more affordable and can be appreciated by the masses.

Etched in Glass

Expertly Etch and Engrave Glass Using These Tips and Tricks

By Mark Conde, Firepoint Creations, Fishers, IN

(Originally published in the February 2016 issue of Insights.)

With origins dating back more than 3,500 years ago in Mesopotamia, glass engraving has spanned the ages. Back then, glass was engraved with any material that was harder than the glass itself, typically rocks. But glass engraving really flourished during the Renaissance period in Europe in the 1500s, a time when nobles and royalty cherished these works of art.

Fast-forward to present day, and engraved glass is still highly appreciated. But today it’s more affordable and can be appreciated by the masses.

Etching glass remains an excellent choice for awards and trophies. Glass is heavy, giving it a sense of strength, but it’s also delicate, which conveys a sense of rarity. Add in engraving and you have a high-end award or gift worthy to celebrate the most notable achievements.

There are four basic methods to mark glass:

  1. Chemical etch process
  2. Sand carving process (sand blasting)
  3. Laser engraving
  4. Manual engraving with a diamond tip bit

All four get the job done, but one of these processes has more checks in the pro column than the negative column. Laser engraving proves the more efficient method to engrave glass because

  • no mask or stencil is required (unlike sand carving)
  • no harmful chemicals are required (unlike chemical etching)
  • it’s a one-step process, making it efficient.

CO2 Laser Systems and Glass

The CO2 laser will not engrave glass. It will not produce a deep engraving. It will, however, etch the glass, leaving a fine, frosted line that will be accepted by your customers and the market. Plus, it’s a fast and efficient process that compared with other methods, which matters because time is money.

It’s important to understand how the laser interacts with the glass so we can understand the best tips and tricks for this process. The CO2 laser will etch glass with very good results. Other laser types, like a fiber laser, will not work as well.

We all know that materials that are lasered are never mechanically touched. But other engraving processes require physical contact, like in a rotary diamond drag process, where a metal or diamond-tipped bit contacts the glass and etches.

The laser operates on a completely different platform. The laser beam concentrates heat energy onto the glass and creates small fractures, resulting in light etching that is a frosted color.

This process also functions very differently from sandcarving. Sandcarving blasts small beads of “sand” or other small media to carve the glass, leaving a deep, crisp engraving. But sand carving is a multistep process that requires a sandcarving system and masks to protect any glass that you do not want to etch.

Tips and Tricks

There are several tips and tricks you can use to engrave glass. I have used all of these, and in my experience they all work well—except for one. Just remember: These tips and tricks are not meant to be used to together. Each one can work on its own.

1. Use a Mask

This is a really easy tip. Simply place a low or medium tack mask onto the glass, and laser engrave as normal (see FIGURE 1). The mask does two things: absorb some of the heat from glass created from the laser, and minimize fracturing at the edges of the design to provide better resolution. I like this method, but removing the mask can be tedious.

2. Cover with Liquid Soap

This is a popular trick. Take any liquid dish soap and cover the glass with a light coating of soap film, then engrave as you normally would (see FIGURE 2). The soap absorbs heat and also catches some of the very small glass fragments. I have used this tip for years with great success.

3. Lay Down the Paper

This tip was the first one that I tried more than 4 years ago. Take a sheet of regular copy paper and lay it on the glass, then spray the paper with a good mist of water. Make sure there are no air bubbles under the paper; it must be flat on the glass. This tip is designed to reduce heat, with the wet paper acting as a coolant. In my experience, however, this results in poor etching. My laser’s air-assist and exhaust fan easily dry out the wet paper, which then can lift off the glass. This can cause problems, with dry paper flying around and potentially catching fire. I know there are many laser operators who use this method successfully, but this is my least favorite option. As you can see in FIGURE 3, the paper dried in the middle of the glass and did not etch.

4. Use 80% Color

I love this last trick. It requires no mask, no soap, and no wet paper. When you create the text or graphic in your design software, change from 100% black to 80% black (see FIGURE 4). In CorelDRAW, select the black that is the third level down from the top in the color docker, then engrave as normal.

All four of these tips are designed to minimize heat, which can destroy your glassware. If the glass overheats from running the laser at too low speed or too high power, there is a chance the glass will break or, worse, shatter in your machine. To determine the best setting for your laser, start with the guidelines in FIGURE 5 or turn to your laser’s manufacturer for glass settings.

The Universal Trick

There is one universal trick that works great on most every laser system when engraving glass: use the 400 DPI setting when creating the file you’ll send to the laser. The 600 DPI setting is probably the most used, but it is not needed to etch glass. Using 400 DPI means you will engrave 400 dots per inch (DPI). This will inherently reduce heat, which is a plus. You can even go as low as 300 DPI and achieve outstanding results. This trick will make a huge difference in your glass laser etchings.

Types of Glass

There’s a plethora of glass types in the market, and customers are always finding wild and unusual glass products for us to etch. Here are some common glass types and how well the laser will etch them.

1. Leaded Glass

Leaded glass is just what it sounds like: glass that contains lead oxide. You cannot see the lead, but it is there. We all know that CO2 lasers will not mark metal, so it’s no surprise that this combination does not work. Don’t even try. At worst, the lead will absorb the heat from the laser beam, cracking the glass. Leaded glass is more expensive than most other glass types. Again, leaded glass should not be used with the CO2 laser.

2. Colored Glass

Colored glass can be etched in the CO2 laser as long as it does not contain lead. See Number 1 on leaded glass for more information.

3. General Glassware

General glassware, such as that found at restaurant supply houses, for example, etches very well with the CO2 laser. However, some glassware may contain small amounts of zinc or other metals, which will negatively impact your results. Understanding the material content is always a benefit.

4. Inexpensive (Cheap) Glass

This is the best type of glass to etch. It contains no metal fillers and leaves a nice, frosty etch that customers love and appreciate.

Wrap Up

Now that you are armed with the best tips and tricks to etch glass with your CO2 laser, get back in your shop or studio and start etching. Your customers will be impressed.


Mark Conde has been in the awards and personalization industry since 2011. He and his wife, Lisa, own and manage FirePoint Creations with their sons. FirePoint Creations offers personalized gifts, trophies, and awards online and in their new brick & mortar studio. If you have questions or comments for Mark, e-mail him at markconde@firepointcreations.com.

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