Etching vs Engraving: Which Do I Need?

Laser etching is a chemical marking process while engraving is a cutting process. Etching uses chemicals to mark the material, while engraving physically cuts into a metal tag, leaving a deep indentation. Engraving and etching are two excellent processes for marking metal surfaces. They feature high customization and a level of detail.

While they share some similarities, they also differ in areas as well. This guide will walk you through etching vs. engraving to give you a better idea of which best fits your application.

Engraving

Engraved tags use a specialized fiber laser engraver to directly carve a design or data into the metal material. Some manufacturers accomplish this by utilizing high-power laser engraving machines or other laser technology. In terms of engraving depth, the design is cut deep into the material, resulting in a long-lasting, and highly visible permanent marking.

One potential drawback to engraving methods is that it is a very time-consuming process. Each individual element of the design has to be cut out of the material one tag at a time. For large quantity productions, the choice to engrave would be a nightmare. However, if a more detailed design such as an intaglio is needed, engraving is perfect.

Applications requiring extremely large quantities are better suited for a die process such as stamping or embossing.

Durability

Engraved tags feature high durability. The deeply engraving depth means that it will take significant wear and tear before the metal plate is no longer readable. Another major benefit is not having ink to rub off or fade away. It also means engraving holds up in some rough environments.

While they are not on par with the most durable processes, they are still a very viable option.

Materials

One of our engravers’ favorite material choices is aluminum as it has advantages over comparable metals. The anodization process creates not only higher durability and resistance but also the option for colorization. Unlike some other material options, aluminum is very lightweight.

Stainless steel is another popular choice in the laser engraving process. This material offers the highest level of durability. It is able to hold up to some chemicals, high heat, and wear, however it is significantly heavier.

Engraving typically requires the use of thicker material as the cuts it makes are significantly deeper than etching.

Industries

  • Transportation
  • Energy
  • Defense
  • Automotive
  • Many More

Engraved metal nameplates feature some customizable elements. For example, a custom logo added to an engraved design creates a standout look. There is also the ability to add color to the tags with anodized aluminum or painted steel. This will add a single color to the material.

Customization

  • Colored inlay
  • Shape
  • Holes/Thickness/Corners

Etching

Etching works a little bit differently than engraving. There are two main ways nameplates are etched: laser etching and chemical etching.

Laser etching is exactly what it sounds like. A high power laser etcher cuts into the surface of the material to create a lasting design. This can be anything from a basic image, a design, or even just plain text/ serial numbers.

Chemical etching uses a special chemical process to very carefully dissolve the metal substrate. The specified areas of the desired image are the only areas that receive this acid bath treatment.

The main difference between laser etching and laser engraving is that etching is used on a wider range of material thicknesses.

Both chemical and laser etching result in durable designs that are easy to read.

Durability

Similar to engraving, etching is a durable and cost-effective tag process. Exposed metal with these etched laser markings typically last around 5-10 years. Compared to screen printmaking techniques, this is much improved. No topical ink on the tag means no wearing and fading. However, ink fills that may be added are susceptible to wear and tear. This is something to consider when weighing the options.

While the process is durable, there are a few drawbacks. One negative is the ease of obstruction. If dirt or paint covers the nameplate, it will be difficult or impossible to read.

If longevity is the main concern, other custom ID processes such as embossing or photo anodization last significantly longer and allow for more detailed information such as barcodes and QR codes.

Industries

Etched tags are used by a wide range of industries. From aerospace parts to military applications, the process has been adopted by many organizations.

  • Aerospace
  • Automotive
  • Transportation
  • Energy
  • Defense
  • Locker Tags
  • Furniture
  • Many More

Similarly to engraving, many materials are suited for the etching process. Aluminum and stainless steel are the most common and used in a variety of environments and applications.

Material

  • Aluminum
  • Stainless Steel
  • Cold Rolled Steel
  • Brass
  • Copper

Etch and Fill

One special benefit to this process is the ability to etch and fill. After the laser or chemical etching is finished, a color fill is added to the recess. This is a great way to further customize and add high-contrast designs to your nameplates.

One thing to keep in mind is that the color filling is not especially durable. It is prone to fading as well as being removed through abrasion or tampering with a sharp tool as well as chemical contact. The etched design will last for several years, but the added color will not.

Wrap-Up

Engraving and Etching are two incredibly versatile options. They provide significant customization possibilities and are suitable for many applications. Industries across the world utilize both engraving and etching. From Aerospace to Transportation, there are uses for every process. Additionally, using anodized aluminum for color-coding is a great way to easily identify assets or other equipment.

One feature unique to these processes is color infill. Creating colorized text and designs allows for new levels of customization. Keep in mind durability for the ink is not outstanding. Etched tags offer high customization, but aren’t perfect for all applications. While engraved tags are durable, they are also more time consuming to produce. They are a great fit for smaller size runs, but less viable when scaled.

At the end of the day, the best identification solution is the one that is right for your application. By working with your metal tag manufacturer you will find the perfect solution.

Interested in receiving a free pricing quote? Contact us today!