Make a Plaque (Laser Inking Anodized Aluminum)

Introduction: Make a Plaque (Laser Inking Anodized Aluminum)

About: Hi, I'm a new media artist, interactive designer, and developer. I'm currently an Artist in Residence at the Instructables offices at Pier 9. I also am part owner of Floating Point, an art collective based i...

So, you think you’re an artist? Well, how is anyone gonna know if you don’t make a fancy plaque for your art with your name on it?

In this Instructable I’ll show you how to make a swanky metal plaque. More specifically, I will cover how to make a permanent black ink mark onto a plate of anodized aluminum, using Thermark tape and a laser-cutter.

You will need:

    • Anodized aluminum (or other sheet metal)
    • Thermark Tape
    • a printer and paper
    • scissors
    • a pencil
    • access to a laser cutter

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    Step 1: Prepare Your Image

    I designed the layout for my plaque using Adobe Illustrator, but since we will be laser-etching our image, you can really use any software you prefer. This is the layout that I am working with.

    Although there is no absolute standard, in general the information you may want to include on the plaque are:

    • title
    • artist name
    • year
    • media
    • description of the work

    Step 2: Prepare Your Metal

    I first cut my sheet of aluminum to size using a waterjet machine. Your metal will probably come with a plastic backing to protect the anodized layer. After your metal has been cut to size, your first step is to peel off the plastic backing.

    Step 3: Testing, Testing...

    I always recommend making a test laser job whenever you are working with a new material. Different laser printers and different materials will respond differently, and that is hard to predict. Start by applying a small piece of the Thermark tape on a test piece of metal. Apply the tape directly onto the metal, with the sticky black side DOWN.

    After much testing, I found that on my 120 Watt Epilog, using the following settings gave me the best quality mark:

    Speed: 20%

    Power: 100%

    DPI: 1200

    I also found that for areas that need a lot of coverage such as large graphics and heavy fonts, I got an even better result by applying2 layers of tape on top of each other.

    Thermark provides a chart on their site to help with finding the best settings, but it is far from complete, and didn't help me much. In fact as you can see, I had to crank the power WAY up to get the ink to stick to my metal.

    Step 4: Make a Paper Stencil of Your Print.

    Once you have found the best settings for your laser cutter and metal, it's now time to make a simple stencil for the final print. This will help us to apply the Cermark tape to just where we need it, and not waste the tape unnecessarily (since it is very expensive!!!). It will also make clean-up faster since you'll have less tape to remove after the etching is done.

    Start by printing out your design on paper.

    Step 5: Cut Out Your Stencil

    Using scissors, cut out your image from the paper

    Step 6: Tape the Stencil to the Metal

    Now tape the stencil onto the metal you will be inking (making sure that it is properly registered and lined up). You will probably want to use a ruler to find the upper-left corner of where your graphics start.

    Step 7: Trace the Stencil With a Pencil

    Use a pencil to lightly trace the stencil onto the metal. Now remove the paper and your pencil outline will tell you just exactly where to apply the Cermark tape.

    Step 8: Apply the Thermark Tape

    Measure out several pieces of the tape and apply them one at a time to cover the entire printable area that you've just outlined. Don't be stingy here, better to over do it a little to be safe, and not miss any spots!

    Make sure to overlap the tape a little bit (1/8") when applying it. For extra heavy text and graphics, I've found that applying a second layer of tape gives better results.

    Now put your paper stencil back over the tape job to make sure you didn't miss any spots and everything is lined up properly.

    Step 9: Press Down the Tape

    Press down the tape firmly using your fingers or a squeegee if you have one.

    Make sure to get out any bubbles as best you can.

    Step 10: Blast That Sucker!

    Place your metal into the laser cutter bed. Make sure you register the home position to the origin of your print. In my case, this is the top-left most corner of metal. Now load up your file and your laser settings, and let her rip!

    The settings I found that work best on a 120 watt Epilog are:

    Speed: 20%

    Power: 100%

    DPI: 1200

    Step 11: Watch the Laser Light Show!

    Sit back, relax, and watch the laser-light show. Since our power settings are maxed out, you will see quite a bit of flaming up. Don't worry, this is just the paper surface of the tape that's burning up. Your sheet of metal will not blow up in flames, but it's always best to stay by the laser as it's doing it's job, just to be safe.

    Step 12: Cleaning Your Metal

    The laser ink sets in as soon as the job is done, there is no cure time, so no need to wait. Take your metal off the bed and bring it over to a sink. Run hot water over the metal and peel away the excess tape. The tape can be quite hard to get off! Use a non-abbrasive wooden or plastic scraper to scrape off all the excess tape. Scrub it down with sponge, soap, and water to get all the gunk and soot off.

    Step 13: Dry and Install

    Dry off your new plaque, and install it by your artwork. I used double-sided 3M VHB tape to put mine up.

    Now all you have to do is make an extra fancy art installation to match your extra fancy new plaque.

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      2 Discussions


      5 years ago on Introduction

      Really cool. I was only familiar with using vinyl lettering (cut from a
      plotter) as a mask. Your thermal
      + laser cutter technique really looks clean!


      Reply 5 years ago on Introduction

      Thanks Gabe! Yeah you can also use Thermark spray or paint on other types of metals, which is cheaper than the tape. But, those don't work as well for anodized metals.

      Unlike using a stencil and paint, laser inking gives you a much more robust permanent mark that won't rub or scratch off, unlike paint.