Writen by Kristian Steven Wieber on a-e-mag.com

In the past, the only equipment required for an awards business to be successful was a rotary engraver. Even today, a shop could survive—though perhaps not thrive—with rotary engraving as its only form of personalization. However, in recent years a surprising number of shops get by without one. But it seems that no matter how well a shop does without them, it’s not doing as well it could with them. To explain the value of rotary engraving and the questions every shop should answer before buying one, a few of the industry’s top suppliers stepped in to help.


If you work in the awards and recognition industry, chances are that you know what a rotary engraver is and what it does, but we are all taught about the dangers of assumption. Keeping that in mind, let’s explain exactly what a rotary engraver is.

According to Marc Malkin, “This is a type of engraving that takes a tool and spins it at 18,000rpm or higher, then cuts the engraving substrate like plastic or sign foam to create shapes or text. The cutting can be at a predetermined depth or can be set to cut all the way through the material.”

“These systems can also drag or scratch engrave using a fixed diamond that does not spin,” says Dan Wardlaw.  


Now that we know what we’re talking about, let’s discuss the substrates rotary engravers work best with. One of the best things about a rotary engraver is the diversity of materials it can personalize.

Joe Marziano, provides a long list of suitable substrates for rotary engravers, which can provide deep engraving into metals such as brass, aluminium or stainless steel. He says they are also excellent for dibond (aluminium with plastic in the middle), acrylics and hard plastics, as well as routing of woods.

Rotary engravers have the ability to mark metals, including stainless steel, without the extra time and expense of applying a chemical coating. They can engrave and cut out PVC; drill holes and automatically insert ADA-compliant Braille rasters; and accomplish single-pass deep engraving and cutting out of hard woods, Corian and other materials. They can engrave odd-shaped and curved items and are capable of fine-line engraving detail in all types of glass. In addition, they can take care of beveled-edge cutouts.

There are also retail environments in which these machines thrive. “Rotary engravers work best for retail environments, industrial marking or hospitality industries,” says Elisha Kaufman.


While rotary engravers were once the preferred personalization method for nearly all applications, there’s now a lot of competition from other processes. Despite the newcomers, there are still projects for which rotary engravers are simply the best.

“Rotary engraving has a look and a feel that lasers don’t,” says Malkin. “Since lasers burn off the top layer of the substrate, there is need for an exhaust system… you don’t get the variable depth you can with a rotary engraver.”

Marziano says rotary engravers also make sense when a lower initial investment for machinery is desired. He adds that the process is environmentally friendly, creating no fumes or residues other than chips, which are removed by a vacuum. “Laser systems burn material and require extraction systems within your facility. Rotary engravers do not produce harmful fumes when cutting PVC (which is toxic when lasered).” He adds that it is also preferred when precise depth is required, such as when drilling holes and automatically inserting ADA-compliant Braille rasters.

Wardlaw notes that rotary engravers are capable of engraving with depth into metal, whereas lasers can only surface-mark metals. “This is important especially for gift and jewellery engraving. The look and feel of engraved metal is more appealing to most than the marks left by laser engravers.”

Diversity is a key to success in the awards and recognition industry, something to keep in mind when considering the addition of a rotary engraver. Kaufman says, “When you are looking to engrave a vast variety of items, a rotary engraver makes more sense. With a rotary engraver, you have more versatility than you do with other forms of markings.”


Here are some things to consider before purchasing a rotary engraver. “Ask yourself, ‘What will be my number one application?’ With this question answered, it will be easier to find the right engraver for the job,” suggests Malkin.

Marziano gives a list of questions to ask: What is the largest size material needing to be engraved? What types of materials need to be engraved? What types of applications would you like to do now and in the future? What size area is available in your office for a machine?

Does the machine need to be portable? What’s your budget? What throughput do you require (items per hour, day or month)?

Wardlaw adds that rotary systems do not have the power needs that laser engravers do. “Since there is contact engraving, buyers need to consider noise and the potential for some material chips to be tossed up to a foot beyond the engraving area,” he notes.


To get started rotary engraving, the list of necessary complementary equipment is short, according to Marziano. A computer is required, as well as a variety of engraving tools for different materials being engraved. You need a vacuum system for removing chips and correct size and style of engraver.

“Depending on the application, the system will need to be ordered with the proper accessories, i.e. vacuum chip remover, diamond drag adapter, specialty cutters, vises, etc. If you will be engraving deep into a hard metal like steel, you will need to have cutting fluid,” says Wardlaw.

Buyers of any new kind of equipment often ask how long it takes to learn to use it. Given the vast spectrum of variables, it’s an impossible question to answer. “Depending on the size and capabilities of the particular machine, it can take an hour or a couple of days to be fully versed in the machine and software,” says Kaufman.
Most suppliers offer training with the purchase of equipment. If it’s critical to your business to be up and running as soon as possible, this is definitely something you will want to ask about during the purchasing process.

Rotary engraving, as with most skills, has a few basic practices and techniques new owners should learn. File set up is always important, says Malkin. He adds, “Illustrator or Corel are great for designing vector files for engraving.”

Marziano suggests developing or finding employees with knowledge of graphics software, knowledge of material types, and knowledge of engraving cutters and bits.

Kaufman recommends retailers start by developing the know-how to make basic things, such as name tags, trophy plates, etc. “Also, make sure that you know how to engrave on all the basic materials as well—metals, plastic, wood, glass, etc. As times goes on, make sure to become completely versed in your engraving machine.”

The key to producing good work, according to Wardlaw, starts with a good layout. “The only rotary specific skills that need to be learned are how to hold what you need to engrave, and what specific type of engraving you should do for the job at hand. Since rotary engravers are contact engraving systems, the material to be engraved needs to be held securely in place,” he adds.


Perhaps the most pertinent question asked about any new investment is how long that initial expenditure will take to turn into a profit. Again, given an infinite number of variables, this is an impossible question to answer. However, the primary factors are aptitude and ambition. It can be as fast as a single job or as long as never, though usually no longer than a couple of years.

“This depends on the nature of the business and items that are to be engraved,” says Marziano. “Some customers pay for the cost of a machine with one job.”

Rotary engraving systems are less expensive than laser engravers, cost less to operate, and can generate higher price point items, says Wardlaw. Industrial engraving, gift engraving, jewellery engraving and ADA signs have a higher markup than trophy and standard sign engraving. A rotary engraver running 30 hours a week, he adds, can achieve ROI in as little as a few months. The key is to seek out enough work to keep the system running as much as possible.


There seems to be a common thought now that, due to the versatility of laser engravers, rotary engravers are no longer necessary. However, here are some final thoughts on the matter.

“Customers new to the engraving business are probably aware of lasers but may not be as familiar with a rotary engraver. There is a large overlap in functionality between the capabilities of a laser and rotary engraving machine. If you are in the market for some type of marking equipment, take some time to consider the advantages of a rotary engraver,” says Marziano.

Published on: A & E Mag.com

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