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Picture of Custom Etched Gifts!
For our holidays this year, we decided to give personalized gifts. Using vinyl stencils and a sandblaster, we were able to achieve a nice, permanent personalization to several different surfaces. Let's take a look at how it's done, and then I'll show you some of the gifts created using these methods!
 
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Step 1: What we'll need

Picture of What we'll need
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We will need a few supplies before we take on this task:

1. Something to etch (Glass, stone, metal, etc.)
2. A design
3. Masking tape
4. A method of etching (We will use sandblasting, but there are also etching creams)
5. A resist (in this case a vinyl decal stencil) for each item (not reusable) to protect the area that won't be etched

If you're cutting your own resists either by hand or a vinyl cutter, you will need tools to weed and prep the vinyl:
1. Xacto Knife
2. Squeegee
3. Application Tape

Step 2: Design and Resist

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For the purposes of this Instructable, i will be etching on a pub glass I found at the Dollar Tree, for you guessed it, a dollar. For your design, it is important (if you are cutting using a plotter or sign shop) for it to be in vector format.  Vector image editors include Adobe Illustrator, Inkscape and CorelDraw.

My design in the Robot and Instructables. I put this together in Illustrator. I applied a slight warp to the design (about +6% bend for this particular glass) to allow it to conform more easily to the glass' shape.

The design is then sent to a vinyl cutter to be cut into sign vinyl.

If you are cutting your design freehand, you have two options:
1. apply vinyl to surface then cut out with Xacto knife, or
2. cut out design in the vinyl then cover with application tape and apply to the surface.

Once the design is cut, you must "weed" the unwanted vinyl. Normally, we would remove everything except the design for a nice decal. However, for a stencil we must remove the design using tweezers, a pick, or an Xacto knife.

After weeding is finished a sheet of application tape is layed on top of the vinyl and rubbed down smooth with a squeegee. After the application tape is applied, I like to trim it to be flush with the vinyl.

*It should be noted that resist color is not important, however if you're sandblasting, a lighter resist will help to see where you're blasted and where you haven't. Resists are also one-time use! So if you plan on doing multiple of the same design, you will need multiple resists.

Step 3: Applying the resist

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To apply the resist, lay the masked and weeded design face down, and peel the backing paper away from it.  I usually eyeball the alignment, using the edges (or lip of the glass in this case) to align the resist.

Once you have aligned it, press down with one finger, from top to bottom, down the center of the decal. This anchors it to the surface, allowing you to THEN smooth from the center left, and then center right.  This will minimize wrinkling and bubbles and reduce the likelyhood of failure of the resist.*

After you have smoothed the design down, give it a good once over with the squeegee and then remove the application tape.

At this point, I mask off the immediate area using masking tape or scrap pieces of vinyl, to protect the surrounding area from over-spray. (Red/Orange vinyl cut into strips in my case)

*When sandblasting, wrinkles and bubbles become weak spots and may "blow-out" leading to unintentional etching in clear areas.

Step 4: The Etching Process

Picture of The Etching Process
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At this point you have to decide which type of etching you're going to do, chemical or mechanical?

Chemical etching involves applies a cream (ArmourEtch) to the areas to etch with a brush, allowing it to work its magic for a set time then washing it off. If you choose this method, be sure to make sure the cream is WELL mixed and be generous with the application, for best results.

Chemical etching offers the advantages of: lower cost of entry, less mess and cleanup and is easier to work with no experience.

Disadvantages of chemical etching include: higher likely hood of splotchy and uneven etch, no depth (only etches the surface) and failure.

Mechanical etching involves using an abrasive and pressurized air (Sandblasting) spraying the surface and "eating away" at the surface itself.

Advantages include: Deeper etching, allowing for more detail by performing multistage etching, and more available surfaces to etch other than glass. The deeper etch also allows for painting the etched areas to allow it to stand out even more.

Disadvantages include: Tighter latitude for error (you can blast a hole in the glass if you stay in one area too long) and resists are more likely to fail from improper blasting technique.

Both methods have differing safety issues to address. Protective eye wear and respiratory protection should be used with either method. Better safe than sorry!

As far as blasting media goes, most any will work, but PLEASE DO NOT USE ORDINARY SAND! Aluminum oxide or coal slag (brand name Black Diamond or Black Beauty) work great and don't have the serious health implications (Silicosis) that regular sand does. I prefer a fine grit coal slag for my blasting as it is a good all-around media for various applications.

I prefer the look and feel of a mechanical etch, and as such perform this in my sandblasting cabinet I picked up from Harbor Freight. It has an enclosed area to work, and recycles the blasting media. It also allows for a shop-vac to be connect to it and keep most of the dust out of the air.

Step 5: Etching (Video)

Simple video showing the sandblasting process.

Glass and metal etch really quick, so it doesn't take too long. Granite and marble take a bit longer for the abrasive to cut into the surface.

That said, a proper masking material (I use Avery Paint Mask) works much better on stone or any other surface that takes a bit for the etch to "bite."

Step 6: Final Cleanup

After blasting or etching, clean up is the final step to having a finished product.  This basically amounts to rinsing the item and then removing the resist and masking. For most items, I run them under hot water to heat up the adhesive of the vinyl and allow it to be removed more easily.  This method also makes for easy label and price tag removal, without the need for chemicals.

Simply allow the hot water to run over for a bit then begin peeling away. The glue will release and come off with the vinyl.  Labels will require peeling and rubbing to remove all of the adhesive, as the paper of the label will usually separate from the adhesive. 

For any stubborn bits a razor blade may be used to remove the vinyl from the surface.  I use plastic razor blades to avoid scratching surfaces (stone and metal especially.)

At this point any items that are empty and made of glass can be put in the dishwasher for a final wash before use. 

For stone and full items (wine bottles, etc.) I give a final cleaning with isopropyl (rubbing) alcohol and a lint free towel.

That's all there is to it!

Step 7: The Gifts (Masked and ready to etch)

Picture of The Gifts (Masked and ready to etch)
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The gifts we gave include candle holders, a glass container, pub glasses, tiles (marble and granite placed in an easel for display) and even a bottle of sparkling grape juice (full and unopened!).

Step 8: The Gifts (Completely etched)

Here are the gifts cleaned up and ready for wrapping!

Step 9: Final Thoughts

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There you have it. Custom etched gifts, quickly and easily. 

Don't have a vinyl cutter? No problem just contact any sign shop, and they should be able to create your stencil for you (I can as well if needed, always glad to help the community!)

Don't have a sandblaster? Just try the Armour Etch cream. It's available in most craft stores and online.

Don't want to mess with either? Well you're still in luck! There is a type of sign vinyl that simulates the look of etched glass (near identical in appearance.)  Quick and easy, though not always cheap. It is also not dishwasher safe and is not a permanent modification (remember removing the vinyl in Step 6? Etched Look Vinyl can come off just as easily) but sometimes that can be handy too.

There's also the Laser method, but that's not accessible to as many folks as the stencil etching methods.

There's something that a gift made with thought and love can deliver that a store bought gift cannot. These went over extremely well, and we're already planning our gifts for next year!

I hope you have found this Instructable to be valuable, and I welcome any comments, suggestions or constructive criticisms you may have!
Made an aperture science one!! XDXDXD rofl rofl
The finished product looks great! I like how clearly the instructions are written, and that you have included safety warnings as well as the pros and cons of various options.
This is cool!!! i have to try this sometime!! haha...1st comment