Improving Laser Etched Acrylic Panels With Acrylic Paint




Laser etching is a great process but I've often wished I could have higher contrast etched text, colors, etc. Then I realized I could do that very easily. If you're laser etching acrylic sheet it already comes with a protective paper covering which makes an awesome paint mask.

So the basic process is deeply laser etch the panel with the protective paper in place. Paint though this protective paper mask. You can be as sloppy as you like. Then simply peal the paper away. Now you have super clean highly detailed etchings, and the paint is protected because it's actually recessed into the plastic. (That's why you use a deep etch.) You can use any color or combination of colors you like.

Step 1: Deeply Etch the Design With a Surface Mask in Place.

Do a deep laser etch of your design on acrylic with the protective paper in place. I suppose you could also try this by pre-masking non acrylic object. Like putting contact paper on wood, etc. But I haven't tried it and I'm not certain we're allowed to vaporize contact paper in the laser I have access to.

Step 2: Paint the Parts of the Design

Now you can paint the various parts of the design. I use standard art acrylic paint. High contrast uniform colors work the best. I've tried metallic colors as well, but those are more sensitive to stroke direction, evenness, etc. So they won't look as professional. (Although I've had some nice effects using that technique.) You don't have to paint carefully, just make sure you get the colors down into all the nooks and crannies.

You can use any color you like, and paint different areas different colors, etc. Here you can see me making a set of gear dials with different colored accent lines. I'm sorry this doesn't match the previous image of what I was laser etching. I wasn't originally trying to document this process, so I didn't take a picture of every step. Jim said I should make an instruactable about it though, so I am, minus the original laser etching/cutting image.

Step 3: Peal Away the Paper Mask.

Then you simply peal away the protective paper. I usually wait until the paint has mostly dried, but with acrylic paint you don't have to wait super long. I sometimes use the head of the plastic toothpick on my Swiss army knife to unmask very detailed areas. It doesn't scratch the acrylic and you can just scrape around until all the little masking bits are gone. Or just use your fingernail.

The nice thing is that the because the final painted areas are recessed they are super durable and can't be rubbed/scratched off easily.

If you're laser etching a smooth surface that doesn't have protective paper, you can use paint, and a rubber squeegee to get the paint down into the etchings, but that's more of a pain and you have to do a bit more clean up. This system with the acrylic is ridiculously easy.

I haven't tried this with spray paint, or airbrush, but it seems like it aught to work just fine.

Step 4: Enjoy the Fruits of Your Labors

Here's a final close up shot of one of the gears. You can see the amazing detail in the skull's eyes, etc. The whole gear is only maybe an inch and a half across. In this photo you can see I still need to scrape a bit of the paint away from the side of the gear, and from the German Cross.

Well, have fun with this. I know it's opened up a lot of possibilities for me.



    • Frozen Treats Challenge

      Frozen Treats Challenge
    • 1 Hour Challenge

      1 Hour Challenge
    • Pets Challenge

      Pets Challenge

    18 Discussions


    3 years ago on Introduction

    For no apparent reason the "protective paper" that comes on acrylic SOMETIMES contains vinyl or PVC....... and is therefore not suitable for laser cutting (caustic and toxic fumes which can damage equipment). You best bet is to remove that packing paper and use painter's tape or masking tape (big rolls of paper masking tape a[s wide as you need] is available from any sign supply company). If you are only engraving and not cutting through just remove the top piece, if you are cutting, remove both, replace with safer mask.

    2 replies
    John T MacF Moodspandox

    Reply 3 years ago

    I use masking tape for a number of uses, and it doesn't stink too badly when it burns and does lower the burnt edge effect on most materials. It makes a passable resist for etching materials after burning the design.

    spandox, I did not know the arcylic backer paper could produce toxic fumes, you have done us all a great service! Great caution here sir.


    Reply 3 years ago on Introduction

    BTW, paper mask is WAY easier to remove than the "paper" that comes with it......

    We've used the same method in the past as well and find pretty great success using spray paint to fill in even the smallest of vector lines. On one particular project we peeled off some selective areas and sprayed on a few layers of chalkboard paint with pretty great results.


    Reply 6 years ago on Introduction

    look up a product called Laser Protect Mask 5900. I use that all the time for exactly this type of process. Also to keep smoke discoloration off of wood for a sharper edge to the etching. If that is out of your price range, you can always just use plain old masking tape, or paper transfer tape for vinyl, though these may leave a residue on the etched area of the acrylic.

    It's not to late, there is still a trick I sometimes use where you use a piece of rubber to  sort of squeegee the paint into the etched recesses, and off of the surface.  I use one of those pink "SpeedBall" rubber chunks sold for doing print making.  You could get away using other rubbery things like one of those white art erasers, etc.

    It doesn't work that great if you have lots of different colors right next to one another, but other then that it can work even without the paper.

     ohh that sounds ideal! I would just want one color, it's a control panel. Does the paint clean off easily from the un-etched surface while it's dry? I have a dud I can try it on first

    Yup, well it depends on what paint you're using. I just use acrylic paint and try to clean off the surface before it's 100% dry.   When it's not 100% dry you can just buff little marks away with a paper towel, etc.

    Definitely try on a dud first.  :]


    Thanks for your advice. In the end, the paint didn't stick too well, but it is still legible in person. The panel was for a function generator based on a kit that Collin Cunningham designed, and he liked the final results!


    7 years ago on Introduction

    I dont suppose you know the brand, thickness and type of plastic you're cutting out? i just starting to learn to laser cut and having some trouble what can and cant be cut.

    1 reply

    Reply 7 years ago on Introduction

    Well those particular examples were cut/etched in 1/8" Acrylic. You can cut any sort of Acrylic on a laser. Max thickness depends on how powerful your laser is, edge quality you desire, etc. I've never worked thicker than 1/4". (In part because of material cost)


    10 years ago on Introduction

    That is a great technique! i wish i had access to a laser cutter..


    10 years ago on Step 3

    You mentioned earlier that metallic paint doesn't work so well with a brush - perhaps it would be better airbrushed.

    1 reply

    Reply 10 years ago on Step 3

    Good point. I bet that would work much better. I haven't had a chance to try it though. (I think I have all the parts for a very basic airbrush around, but we moved recently and so much of my life is in boxes that I haven't had a chance to track down the bits and give it a try.)