Engraving items yourself is a terrific way to add personal touches to gifts, customize home-crafted or store-bought objects, and to provide identification on personal belongings.
Before getting started on your engraving journey, you have a decision to make: to pursue hand-engraving techniques or more modern machine engraving.
What’s the difference between hand engraving and machine engraving? Hand engraving can be done with either hand tools or a rotary tool to create unique designs of various depths. Machine engraving uses a laser to burn designs into a surface, and while the results are clean and precise, the cuts are often quite shallow.
Those new to the hobby have several options as far as engraving methods are concerned, and choosing the right one can be admittedly confusing.
Let’s look carefully at what hand engraving entails and the machine engraving options available today so you can decide which method is right for you.
Hand Engraving Methods
There’s nothing quite like the satisfaction of creating something with your own two hands.
Engraving items by hand ensures truly unique results and is arguably the best approach for adding a personal touch to items made from a variety of materials.
I go into more detail about what items can be engraved here, but for now, know that it is possible to engrave wood, glass, plastic, leather, metal, pottery, and even stone with simple hand-engraving techniques.
Hand engraving allows artists to creatively express themselves while enjoying the pleasure that comes from working with their hands.
Traditionally, hand engraving was performed using only non-electric hand tools, such as gravers, chisels, and gouges, depending on the material being engraved.
Surface material is methodically removed, bit by bit, until the chosen design is complete.
The invention of the first rotary tool in 1935, aptly named the Multi-tool and later the Moto-tool, revolutionized the world of hand engraving.
This simple, compact rotary tool can be used to sand, polish, cut, grind, drill, saw, and yes, even engrave.
With this handy, multipurpose tool, engravers can now enjoy the best of both worlds – working with their hands and benefiting from labor-saving devices that produce accurate results.
Of course, some crafters prefer to stick with the old-school hand tools.
Others find that employing the use of a simple, handheld machine provides more accurate results in less time while still qualifying as hand engraving, and thus, is the superior method.
You, however, will have to decide for yourself.
Using Only Hand Tools
There are plenty of people who choose to forego all forms of modern technology when it comes to engraving.
Wood, metal, plastic, leather, and stone can all be engraved with a few simple hand tools, a steady hand, and plenty of patience.
While a quality set of chisels and gouges, like my favorite Schaaf wood carving set, is really all that is needed for carving wood, for harder materials, like metal, you’ll need to use gravers, also called burins, in a variety of sizes.
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- Quiet work environment without any noisy machinery.
- Each engraving will be unique.
- Less dust and small, potentially harmful particles are produced.
- Can be done on heat-sensitive materials, like plastic.
- Tools last a long time if cared for well.
- Deep engravings are possible.
- This method will take the longest time.
- Large projects can be tedious and hard on your hands.
- Mistakes can be easily made.
- Rough cuts may be visible (slight imperfections are common).
- Requires skill and can take years to truly master.
- Edges may be rough and require smoothing.
- Tools must be sharpened routinely.
Using a Rotary Tool
A rotary tool is by far the most common way home crafters engrave items. (Find out why and view my top recommendations in this article.)
Depending on your skill level, designs can be completed in mere minutes, and, as when using hand tools, many materials, such as wood, plastic, leather, and stone can be engraved.
However, because of the gentle rotary action as opposed to the forceful chiseling of hand tools, even more delicate materials like glass and pottery can be engraved with a rotary tool.
As long as you have the correct burrs for the job at hand, either tungsten carbide or diamond tip depending on the material’s hardness, an ordinary rotary tool, such as this one by Wen (I use my mine all the time for household jobs) will be all that you need.
However, there are also rotary tools made specifically for engraving. Most of these models are made with comfort in mind and come with everything you need to get started.
Some, like the Original Easy Etcher, look much like a pen but are powerful enough to engrave even hard materials, like metal.
Other models are a bit larger but can perform all of the same functions of regular rotary tool.
Personally, I think I would go with the Uolor Engraving Kit, just because it comes with so many accessories and bits/burrs, but the Utool Engraver is another excellent option, complete with everything you need.
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- Engraves a wide variety of materials.
- Can be used on more delicate materials, such as glass and pottery.
- Interchangeable bits allow for different effects and cutting possibilities.
- Most have several speed/depth settings.
- Comfortable to hold and easy to use (similar to writing by hand).
- With practice, precise results are possible.
- Some models are rather noisy.
- Produces saw dust (if used on wood) and other particles – a mask should be worn during use.
- Mastering control will take practice.
Over the past few decades, the popularity of laser machines has skyrocketed.
Several men, including Bill Lawson and Tom Zarden, are credited with advancing laser technology to make it suitable for engraving work.
Today, laser engraved items are commonplace, and the array of images and artwork that can be reproduced onto nearly any surface is nothing short of astounding.
How Do Laser Engraving Machines Work?
Laser engraving machines utilize massive levels of focused energy to remove surface layers from various materials by literally vaporizing the particles.
In most cases, designs are sent to the machine from a computer, though smaller machines only call for an app installed on your phone.
The laser machine “reads” the design, and the laser burns away layers to replicate the design exactly.
Ready to be impressed? Check out the following video to witness exactly how fast these machines operate and the amount of detail possible.
Large laser engraving machines can cost a small fortune, but a hobbyist engraver wouldn’t have much use for equipment of that size anyway.
Smaller, portable desktop versions are a much better option for those wishing to occasionally engrave relatively soft materials, such as plastic, wood, paper, and leather.
For those who have never experimented with a laser machine before, I have two recommendations.
Both are easy to use, yield great results, and are small enough that they won’t dominate the room. Just be mindful of their limitations, as they are not large, industrial machines.
The Twotrees DIY Engraver Kit sits on a sturdy, horizontal frame and is capable of both engraving and cutting.
Designs as large as 30 by 40 centimeters in size can be easily and quickly engraved on wood, leather, plastic, paper, and bamboo.
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The Laserpecker Desktop Engraver is controlled by a phone app and is easily positioned on any flat surface, or you can utilize the included tripod for more angles when engraving hard-to-position items.
Like the Twotrees Engraver, this model works best on fairly soft materials.
- High level of accuracy.
- Most machines will only engrave flat surfaces.
- Smooth edges and crisp, clean engravings.
- Very fast.
- Uniform results for mass production.
- Lacks individuality.
- Grooves are typically quite shallow.
- Small models cannot be used on metal, stone, glass, and other hard materials.
- Depending on the material, fumes may be dangerous.
- Due to the lack of depth, engravings may not last as long as with other methods.
In a Nutshell
Though the decision is yours, most people opt for hand engraving with a rotary tool because it can be used on so many materials, is easy to learn and use, and is capable of producing engravings of various depths.