Introduction: Glass Engraving - Fun and Easy

Etched and engraved glasses make great personalized presents. Most people really appreciate a custom set of wine glasses, a beer mug with their name and an important emblem or something else that says you cared enough to put real effort into a gift.

I have already written an Instructable on glass etching so I would like to make the distinction clear. In glass etching, vinyl is used as a mask and a chemical is applied to the unmasked area. The etchant is washed off leaving a frosted surface with no real change in the surface thickness.

Glass engraving uses a rotary diamond burr to grind away bits of glass leaving an image that is carved into the glass surface. When you feel the surface, you can feel the change in depth.

One of the real pluses to glass engraving is that tools are relatively cheap. If you already have a Dremel or other rotary tool, you can buy a set of diamond burrs for about $6 and be off and engraving.

Step 1: Safety and Tools


The tools used are very safe. The diamond burrs are not sharp and, although they are rotating fast, are very small and fairly fine grit. This results in a cutting edge that can be touched while it is spinning and not cause more than a light scrape. The tools are not very powerful but the basic rotating tool precautions should be done: - Tie back long hair - No loose clothing or jewelry (necklaces, ties) - No gloves - Safety glasses. Always.

I have had glass break in my carrying container but never one I am engraving. Care should still be taken handling the glass since it can be sharp when broken.

Now for the real safety issue. It is not a good idea to breath glass dust. Let me rephrase that. It is a *REALLY* bad idea to breath glass dust. Precautions should be taken. Here are some:

- I live in a rural area and sometimes work outside with a small fan blowing the dust away from me.

- On my bench, I made a dust collector from a squirrel cage motor, coffee can and vacuum cleaner bag. Possibly another Instructable for a future time.

- For demos and portable use, I have a box with two fans that draws air in through a cut down 5 micron furnace filter. I made a plexiglass shield for this collector to channel the air flow and provide enough space for two students to work.

- I always carry some better quality dust masks, just in case.

- You can even use a regular vacuum hose taped down to the counter as long as the vacuum has a good filter.

Here is a neat little secret about dust filters and vacuum bags. They filter finer particles the longer you use them without a heavy cleaning. I tap my filters every once in a while to knock the dust loose but don't get aggressive cleaning them (no compressed air or vacuuming). This keeps the larger holes blocked by dust and as long as there is good air flow, improves their fine dust filtering.


So, as per the last step, be sure you have an adequate way of dealing with dust and safety glasses that fit. I wear bifocal glasses and work with a lot of machinery so I have prescription safety glasses that have the focus set at 12" for the main lens and 6" for the bifocal. This keeps me from tipping my head to get a closer focus.

I will admit to being a tool junky. I cannot even guess how many rotating tools I own. The good news is that the minimum you need to do glass engraving is inexpensive. The only thing I would suggest you avoid are the <$15 motor tools. The burr will wobble and that will cause chipping near the edge of the line you draw. You can do perfectly fine work with a Dremel or other brand tool with a motor in the handle. Lighter and easier movement is helpful.

Flexible shaft tools like the Foredom have their pluses and minuses. The handpieces are small and light but I don't really like the stiffness of the shaft.

My favorite tool is an air driven micro die grinder. I got mine at Harbor Freight. I think I changed the collet to match my burrs. It runs very fast, is small and stayed cool in my hand for about $30. It does require an air compressor, however.

After that, a dental tool I picked up on ebay is really excellent. I got the low and high speed heads for it. The high speed head can hold 1.65mm burrs so it is great for fine work. It is fairly expensive, however.

My tool that I use for demos and teaching is a Proxxon 28510 12v tool and a Proxxon 12v transformer. I use the larger 38704 transformer because I have two students on a station or am using both size engravers, but a transformer with a single output is fine. The 28592 Proxxon engraving tool is nice for very precise lines and is very inexpensive. One thing to watch is that the standard burr sizes are different for the two engravers. The 28510 comes with an 1/8" collet (3.125mm) while the 28592 has a 3/32" (2.35mm). I don't like the adjustable chuck since any wobble (runnout) in the burr is a problem.

For burrs, I use spheres almost exclusively when engraving glass. I can get packages of one size on ebay or sets of 20 with about 4 spheres of different sizes on Amazon. If I have a choice I usually buy medium grit, about 160.

Good lighting is a must. I have a swing arm LED lamp with a 5" magnifying glass on my bench.

I have a small pad that I rest the glass or my wrist on while engraving. I usually keep a small plastic container with a damp (clean) white sock in it to wipe away the dust and keep the glass slightly moist to minimize the airborne dust.

Transparent tape and a permanent marker are useful for transferring the pattern.

Step 2: Setting Up Your Work Area

So, set up your dust collection system.

Put your lamp so that it can provide either direct or side lighting as required. Put your pillow in front of the dust collector. Arrange your rotating tool so that it is comfortable in your engraving hand. Have your water and damp sock nearby. My Proxxon has a spot to place spare burrs on top of the power supply. You want to be able to change sizes easily so you aren't trying to use the wrong size burr out of convenience.

Step 3: Selecting the Glass

One of the advantages engraving has over etching is that it is easier to deal with curved walls of glasses. Straight walls or flat glass (like suncatchers, window panes and picture frames) is still the easiest but if you have a curved glass, you can press the pattern to match the shape, even if you get a few wrinkles.

I upcycle a lot of my glass from church sales, garage sales and thrift stores. A set of 6 nice wine glasses that is now a set of 5 is perfect.

Step 4: Artwork

I usually use Goggle and search for black and white images. Vector images are the best because they scale cleanly but you are only going to use the image as a suggestion so a somewhat blurry jpeg will also work. I also have a few DVDs of artwork that I have purchased which are handy when searching for something specific.

I have had excellent results from both silhouettes and line drawings. Unless you have a steady hand, beware of artwork that has lots of perfect curves or straight lines - they are much more difficult than gentle sweeping curves. A soccer ball was one of my more difficult engravings.

I print out the artwork in monochrome at the size I want. Surprisingly, Microsoft Word is the quickest way for me to resize - I just paste the picture into Word and grab a corner and drag it to resize. Sometimes I will print it in multiple sizes to see which I like best.

Be aware of copyrights. The safest methods for obtaining artwork are to either make it yourself or download it from a site that has a clear public domain license posted. Those are my guidelines for any glass that I sell. For things that I keep or give away, I am a bit more liberal.

Lettering is much more easily done with chemical etching. I have engraved about 30 glasses with text on them and as long as you are patient, you will get good results.

Step 5: Mounting the Artwork

Cut the artwork from the sheet of paper with just a little border. Place it inside or behind the glass, move it around until it is level and positioned where you want it and tape it down with a few pieces of transparent tape. Be sure it presses against the glass completely, even if you have to wrinkle it a bit.

You can either engrave while looking directly through the glass or use the permanent marker to trace the lines onto the top layer of the glass. In either case, there is a shifting of the image due to parallax. I find that if I shut one eye and try to keep the other directly over the glass, this is less of an issue.

Since you are using the image as a rough guide and not as an absolute requirement, you can relax about this a bit.

Step 6: Outline the Image

Using a fairly small sphere, (around 2-2.5mm), outline all of the areas to be engraved. If the ball is too big for details (like hair and fingers) don't worry about it. If the lines don't always meet up, don't worry about it. If the lines aren't always smooth, guess what.... don't worry about it.

The harder you press with a sphere, the deeper the cut and the wider the line. Remember, the artwork is just a suggestion - DON'T WORRY.

Step 7: Fill in Large Areas

Slightly dampen the surface with the sock. Don't get it too wet or you will get a slurry that will make it hard to see what is going on.

Fill in the larger areas. When I am really close to the edge of an area, I will go parallel to the edge. Once I am inside the border I use an overlapping elliptical pattern. It is OK if the fill isn't perfect. Let me repeat in case you have forgotten: Don't worry.

Step 8: Remove the Paper

So, now you pull out the paper guide you have been using. Place it where you can refer to it as needed. View the engraved image at a few different angles and move it with respect to the light.

Step 9: Freehand Touchup

The touchup is a stepwise refinement. First I go back to the edges and fine lines. With a small burr I connect things that aren't connected and smooth jagged edges. Next I use a bigger burr and smooth out the filled in areas.

OK, now is the time to worry. Maybe not worry exactly, but start paying attention to the overall look of the work. You can refer back to the image but don't be driven by it. Think about what you like and don't like. Sometimes the fill areas don't look even. Sometimes there is a transition between the edge and the fill area. Sometimes it is a lack of grace in long lines or a need for a sharp end on some hair. Keep examining the work - both in small areas and the overall look until you are satisfied. Wipe it down with water and dry it so you can see the finished results. Change the lighting a bit and look one more time. OK. Done. Stop looking because there is always something else.

Step 10: Finished

Wash the glass. It should be dishwasher safe. If you want to add text and have access to a vinyl cutter, I would suggest using the chemical etching method to save a lot of effort.