High-Powered Art: The Expense of Engraving

Why is engraving so expensive?

Engraving requires extremely accurate equipment, intricate step-by-step processes, and the proper tooling, among other things. Though engraving has come quite a long way since the days of hand carving, the true expense lies in the details. Total up the man-power, hours of labor, high-end machine costs, and you’ll begin to see why engraving isn’t for the bargain-minded.

Gaze across the fine lines of an engraved piece and it’s obvious why so many companies choose this method for imprinting their products. From simple production marks to filigreed decoration, the engraving method has gained popularity, more so recently. But for the individual, the cost of engraving even a single object can be much higher than any budget will allow for.

In this article, we’ll discuss some of the many reasons for high engraving prices. Because though the technology has become more widely available—similar to 3D-printing—there are still quite a few factors that limit accessibility to those with deeper pockets. At the same time, you’ll also gain a better understanding of the engraving process. This translates to working knowledge you can rely on if/when you price out quotes for your projects. Whether you have a passing interest in engraving or might someday need some engraving done, this article will give you the insight you need.

The Basics of Engraving

At its basest form, engraving is simply removing a small amount of material in a determined design from a larger piece. Most often, engraving evokes some sort of design to decorate or indicate possession of said object. There are a variety of materials you can engrave—simply take a look at the list in our next section for some of the applications of this method.

Most people are familiar with hand engraving. For example, you can easily purchase hand engravers online, for less than $50 even. However, while widely used for decoration, engraving can also be integrated into the production process. Many companies engrave their products with serial numbers or other identifying marks that separate their products from the rest.

One of the most common forms of commercial engraving you’ll encounter is laser engraving. A process that “cuts a cavity through the materials surface leaving a cavity that reveals an image or writing at eye level that is noticeable to the touch as well,” laser engraving is an efficient process employed by a variety of companies. There are many other types of engraving, along with etching, but we’ll get to those in a bit.

The main characteristic to know about engraving is that it extracts a measured amount of material in a precise way. This alone begins to reveal why it is such a costly process. But as you’ll see from the list of possibilities below, it can be lucrative too—if you have the means, of course.

What Can You Engrave

To get a better idea of what engraving entails and how it can be applied, take a gander at the (hardly all-inclusive) list below. These are all the things you can engrave, via one method or another:

Did you see anything you didn’t realize could be engraved? It seems there’s no end to engravable objects—just like you see no end to the cost of engraving as well. So why is it so expensive to engrave something?

What Makes Engraving So Expensive

Each engraving has its own price. Here are a few components that work into the final cost:

  • Item material: It’s much easier to run a knife through butter than it is a block of steel. Translate this idea to cutting into harder materials and you’ll begin to realize why the material of the object you want to engrave matters. Harder materials require stronger cutting methods.
  • Size: Larger objects can be harder to clamp in place while larger designs require more machine time. Alternatively, smaller designs are likely more intricate, which also takes time.
  • Shape: Oddly-shaped pieces are not easy to clamp down and secure. Designs with odd shapes can also mean the machine has to move further or at weird angles across the piece.
  • Design: Simple shapes and text won’t break the bank but anything that might take more than 45 minutes to draw will up the cost quite a bit.
  • Volume: Creating one-off pieces takes a lot of time for machine setup. Multiples of the same design, however, allow for a streamlined process.
  • Timeline: Demand dictates costs. If you want the machines to be running all night, you’ll have to pay for the privilege. Wait the extra week or two to save some money.
  • Item value: The value of the item is almost always a large factor. Though they may not advertise it, the company could be held liable for any damage done on their part. Plus, they have to take extra time with more delicate pieces. More time equals a higher cost.

Understanding what goes into the engraving process will help you determine what bids you receive are valid—and which are simply overcharging for a popular service.

Differentiating Between Engraving Methods

Most people think of engraving as a singular process, in which materials on a surface are removed to reveal a particular design. But while that may be a simplified version of the process, there’s much more happening—and at stake.

Laser Engraving: Line, Area, and Combined

One of the most basic ways to differentiate between engraving methods is to think of the image in lines and areas. For example, line engraving is like an outline of the image. Area engraving, on the other hand, fills in more of those spaces between the lines to define more of a shape rather than an outline. Combined engravings utilize both types for a more detailed look. In terms of pricing, combined engravings are the most expensive of the three. It’s much easier for the machine to hog out large areas than to focus on detailed lines. Doing both just extends the machine time.

Roll Engraving

While line, area, and combined engravings employ a laser for cutting, rolled engravings use a “curved, hardened steel plate that is rolled over the surface of the steel being engraved.” Rolled engravings can be both tricky and expensive, however, as you have to engrave the reverse image of the final engraving on the steel plate before it rolls over your final product. At the same time, roll engravings work well for designs that are mass-produced, such as those on gun barrels.

Rotary Engraving

If you’re looking to engrave simple text on flat surfaces, rotary engraving is one of the best methods. When complete, rotary engraving looks similar to hand engraving. You can use this method to create single, one-off pieces or on large-production pieces as well. Rotary engraving describes “the process of rotating a carbide bit cutting tool in a motorized spindle, which is moved through the material to produce a groove at a specific depth, usually an average of .003 to .007” deep.” Plastics, wood, glass, textiles, marble, and anodized aluminum can be engraved using the rotary method.

Etching

Acid and galvanic etching are two of the common ways to etch instead of engraving. In both cases, the engraving or image itself appears once either acid or electricity acts upon the metal where the image is to be placed. That is, the acid and/or electricity removes the metal to create the image. Acid etching works best for intricate designs with small, fine details.

Commercial Engraving Services

Engraving, whether it’s on a large or small scale, can cost you quite a bit of money. That’s why there’s opportunity for many companies to specialize in engraving. Most companies will specialize in a few types of engraving, each depending upon what types of machines are available to them—and of course, those that make the most profit.

While it’s impossible to ballpark engraving prices, just based purely on the fact that it is such a specialized market, there are ways to get a sense of how much engraving can cost. For instance, the rotary engraving done in malls on pet tags is relatively cheap. You’re only completing one word of text that’s in a set font or fonts. Trophies and plaques run a bit more but you’re still looking at less overhead than you would pay for things like engraving jewelry and other hard substances. Anything upwards of that brings the cost up with it.

What About Hand Engraving?

Paying for engraving doesn’t have to mean you plug in a machine and turn it on. Hand engraving is a popular alternative to commercial engraving; though not in its prime, hand engraving is still alive and flourishing. So what would make you choose hand engraving over machine engraving?

Well for starters, many people enjoy the look of hand engraving. They want to see the authentic carving marks made by another human being. After all, the term “handmade” often translates to higher prices when it comes to marketing. At the same time, like any art form, hand engraving moves beyond the lines and angles found in programming a machine and centers upon the imagination.

There are drawbacks to hand engraving, too, just like there are in machine engraving. Most hand engravings take weeks or months, depending on the size of the piece, the extent of the design, and the material of the object you’re engraving. Precision is a debatable topic, because not all hand engravers work the same way. And though they may be using their own hands, many hand engravers aren’t exactly cheap to hire.

These are all things to consider when looking for engravers. Whether you go with the commercially-available machines or choose the traditional method of hand engraving, there are pros and cons either way. The best way to decide is to determine what you’re looking for in a design and of course, as we discuss at length in this article, how much you want to spend.

Alternatives to Commercial Engraving

Now that you know a bit more about engraving, there are some alternatives to consider if you don’t have large amounts of money to spend. Some do require a bit of money but it’s always nice to know you have options to choose from.

One of the “cheapest” and most common types of engraving is done by hand—and by cheap, we mean done by your hand. As Annie’s Hours states, “hand engraving is fairly easy to learn—but does require a great deal of practice to do well.” You can engrave by hand on most of the surfaces you would with a machine.

Speaking of machines, there are a few affordable options available in that realm, too. Laser engravers are the most common. Many can be found in the $100 to $5,000 price range, with varying results of course. If you are thinking about purchasing an engraver, you’ll want to keep a few things in mind, the foremost being: “Not all laser engraving machines are created equal, and with even the cheapest models costing several hundred dollars, it’s important to invest wisely in a high-quality machine that will last.” Sure, you might be able to pick up an engraver for a couple hundred bucks. But what are you really getting out of that machine?

If purchasing your own laser engraver is something you’re considering, shop around. There are many reviews and guides that will help you not only in choosing the proper engraver for your needs, but advise you on the characteristics and features you’ll want—along with the gimmicks you should avoid falling prey to.

Engrave On!

We hope you’ve enjoyed this article on engraving. While it’s true that engraving services are costly, and even purchasing your own machine could be setting you back a few thousand dollars, there are ways to get around such things. Tap into that creative spirit and see where it takes you!

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