Fundraising with Etched Bricks

Norm & Ruth Dobbins can be reached through their website, www.etchmaster.com, at their e-mail address: normd@etchmaster.com, or by phone at (505) 473-9203 and fax at (505) 473-9218.

Brick can easily be etched with an abrasive blaster, and you can create some impressive gifts in this way.

How would you like to be able to use the same equipment you have purchased for etching glass to make money producing a much-wider variety of high-profit products? We have stated through many of our earlier articles in CGR that the same abrasive blasting equipment you use for glass can also be used to personalize or create custom etched designs on many other materials. We have talked about stone and ceramic before, but there is one material we haven’t ever discussed in an article: Brick.

Brick can easily be etched with an abrasive blaster, and you can create some impressive gifts in this way. You can use full-size bricks or the half-thickness pavers that are also available. It is best to use outdoor bricks, as they are much more durable, and of course, you will want the solid bricks rather than the ones with holes in them.

The subject matter of your brick etching can be family names, names and birth dates, graduation dates, marriage dates, garden bricks with names of vegetables, flowers, spices and many other things. You can create etched images that are all on one brick or that span multiple bricks, for installation into a patio or wall. Your imagination is the limit.

However, there is one application of brick etching that most gift shops never think of, but there is a ready market for all over the country. That application is bricks used in fundraising activities. (Yeah, we know, everything you sell is already a fundraiser—for you, anyway!) Everyone by now has heard of or has seen bricks—in walkways, pathways and walls of institutions and public buildings—that are etched with the names of individuals, families and companies. These bricks are sold by the sponsoring institutions to help raise funds for special projects. Sponsors can be churches, schools, municipal governments, etc.

The way it usually goes is that the institution advertises to sell you a brick with your name etched on it, for inclusion in some part of the building. These are usually for sale in a price range from a low of around $30 to over $100, depending on the institution. The person or company doing the bricks charges the sponsoring institution from about $12 to as much as $20 per brick, depending on how many are done at one time and what the total number are in the whole job. (Keep in mind that if you produce one or a few bricks at a time for gifts, your price to the customer may be $30 to $40 each. The $12 to $20 figure is lower because the institution will be purchasing a much-larger number of bricks.)

When we have done these in the past, our agreement with the institution is that we will be the sole provider of the bricks (unless the job is so big we just can’t handle it ourselves). We agree on a price that is based on having a certain minimum number in each “batch” that we do so we aren’t expected to do them on a “onesy twosy” basis. It does take a certain amount of setup to do these, and we have figured that it just isn’t worth doing if there are less than 20 at a time to etch.

We also base the price on the total number of bricks anticipated in the whole job and how soon the job is to be completed. Most of the brick jobs we have taken in the past have been between 200 and 1,000 bricks. We will accept jobs less than that, but the cost per brick goes up. The bricks themselves only cost 50 to 75 cents, so their cost is minimal.

More costly is the resist you will use, which can run from about $2 to $4 each, depending on considerations like thickness, quantity and type of resist. (The resist is the material that protects the surface you don’t want to get blasted while exposing the letters and numbers that you do want to get blasted.) The other major cost is the labor required to process each brick. If you know what you are doing, you can process each brick in roughly 10 to 15 minutes, earning $50 to $75 per hour after expenses. Since the skill level required to blast a brick is not high, this is an activity that is ideal to have an employee do, since the cost of your labor will necessarily be quite a bit higher.

THINGS TO CONSIDER

Establishing your procedures and customer choices is an important first step. You will have to pick the typefaces you are willing to offer very carefully in order for them to show up strongly enough to easily be seen without bending over, when the bricks are put into a walkway. The letters will have to be quite bold and without serifs. This is doubly important because the bricks aren’t really “solid”. They are full of small voids or holes where there is no material. So you should make sure you don’t offer to etch letters that are very small because they will not show up. If the center of a letter a, b, d, p, etc., falls onto a void in the brick, the center of the letter will just not be there when you are finished.

Needless to say, etching a brick will not yield perfect letters, but larger letters show up better than smaller ones. The smallest letters you should offer are about 1/2”-high capitals. When you have selected three or four possible typefaces, you will need to decide how many lines of text you will allow and how many letters on each line. This will be different for each typeface. In order to determine the number of letters and lines, you should print out some lines of text in each typeface, in a full-size layout. Make sure you don’t etch closer to the edge of the brick than 1/2” all around, or the edges of the bricks will be weakened and may crack when walked on. (If the bricks are in a decorative wall, you can etch closer to the edges, but we recommend against it, since the etched names can appear too crowded if every brick has a name on it.

Just to give you an example of how this works out in real life, one of the typefaces we use is Britannic Bold. In a 50-point size, the letters are 5/8” high; we can get 17 characters per line and (if we want to) three lines per brick. If we are trying to be very competitive, without losing margin, we sometimes offer different prices for bricks with one, two or three lines of text.

HOW TO MAKE THE TEXT STAND OUT

Remember that you will have to etch deeply into the brick or the text will be very difficult to see. This is because the recessed surface of the etched letters looks exactly like the surface of the brick, only deeper. Most people don’t realize that the only way you can see the letters is by light hitting the surface at an oblique angle, casting shadows down into the carved letters. The only way the shadows will be strong enough is if you carve the letters deeply.

Another technique to make the text stand out is to color fill the text. You can do this by blowing the dust out of the letters with an air gun after etching, and then spray painting the letters while the resist is still on the brick surface. This takes more time, so you will have to charge more for it. Many sponsors don’t want color filling, either because of the extra cost or the fact that the color looks somewhat artificial and eventually will come off if the bricks are installed outdoors.

TYPE OF RESIST

To create the names, dates and other text you will be asked to etch on the bricks, you will need a very thick, tough resist. The reason for this is twofold. First, you will be blasting at a high pressure and with more abrasive compared to that used for glass, and you want your resist to be able to hold up to it. Second, the resist should be stiff enough that if any part of the background resist (around the lettering) falls over a void, blasting it will not bend the resist piece out of the way, making an impression where you don’t want one. For example, the pointed elements between the strokes of an M or W can easily bend over the stroke of the letter while blasting, ruining the letter.

The types of resist that can be used for this type of blasting are standard rubber or thick vinyl blasting resists available in rolls for laser or plotter cutting, or photo resists. Vinyl and rubber blasting resists should be used in thicknesses of 18 to 30 mils. If you don’t have your own laser or plotter cutter, you may be able to find someone to do the cutting for you. Cutting services are listed in the yellow pages.

The regular 3-5 mil thick photo resists are really not acceptable for brick. While the 5 mil may work well on polished stone with no voids, brick surfaces are much rougher, and the resist won’t stick well. Ideally, you will want to use a resist of at least 8 mils. Thick photo resists like this are not widely used and may be more difficult to find, so check with your supplier. We know of a 14 mil thick photo resist from PhotoBrasive, but we haven’t tried it ourselves.

When we produce resists for the bricks, we always produce them in the same size as the bricks, to make laying them out easier. Instead of measuring a smaller resist each time to make sure the edges are parallel with the brick, we just line up the resist edge with the brick edge so layout is fast and easy. The bricks are not all exactly the same size, so after applying the resist, we tape any edges of the bricks that are irregular or that stick out from under the resist edges.

BLASTING THE BRICKS

Set your pressure to 50-60 psi (with a pressure blaster), hold the nozzle about 3” from the surface being etched and etch one letter at a time. Go back and forth over the letter, following the letter with the nozzle, until you have carved at least 1/8” deep. We prefer 3/16” to make the letters more noticeable. The wider the stroke of each letter, the deeper you can go.

A brick with one line of text that has 12 characters can be finished in about three minutes, while two lines of text with 20 characters take about five minutes. As you are blasting, watch to see that none of your resist is lifting up. If you have trouble with this, you may have to switch to a resist with a higher level of adhesion or turn your pressure down and take more time.

Make sure that you blast to an even depth over each letter and number. You won’t be able to blast as deeply on small elements like a dot over the letter i or a dash in a date, but all elements should be even.

ABRASIVES

You can easily use the same abrasive that you use for your glass, but you should be careful here. As you are blasting the brick, you will find small pieces flaking off in chunks that are larger than your abrasive. These are primarily bits of sand used in making the bricks. If you don’t strain these out of your abrasive, they will cause large chunks of glass to be blasted out of the middle of your next glass projects. To strain these out, you will need a very fine strainer, and you’ll need to take quite a bit of time to do it.

What we find easier is simply to keep abrasive used on brick completely separate from abrasive used on glass. Granted, it is a bit of a hassle to empty your blaster and blasting cabinet out to switch abrasives, but it is better than ruining an expensive piece of glass.

If you find that you have a real, regular market for etched brick, it might be worthwhile to consider getting a separate blasting cabinet and blaster just for bricks. This doesn’t need to be a fancy, expensive unit, just the basics. You can easily get a high-quality, but basic blasting setup with pressure blaster for around $1,500 to $1,800. At $15 per brick, less cost of materials, you would pay for the equipment with only about 125 to 150 bricks. Of course, when you etch the bricks for full retail to individual customers, you will be making a much greater profit (though on smaller volumes).

If you get a separate blaster for your bricks, you will be better off switching to a coarser abrasive altogether. While glass etching requires 180 to 220 grit abrasive, and while that will work on brick, you will speed up your etching process considerably if you use 100 grit or even 80 grit abrasive. With glass we always recommend silicon carbide abrasive, but with brick, you can get by with the cheaper aluminum oxide, too.

If you do decide to try bricks, keep in mind that the same setup you use on brick can easily be used on almost all your stone products, too. This includes river rocks, flagstone, granite, marble, and even ceramic tile.

Interest in etching and carving these items has been growing, and we have even started teaching a full-scale four-day seminar in etching stone and ceramic at Aliento Glass School. If you get a chance to come to one of The Awards & Custom Gift Shows this year, be sure to take our introductory seminar (How to Etch on Glass, Stone, Ceramic, Metal and Wood), on Wednesday before the show opens. We’d love to see you.

Never worry again about being caught between a rock and a hard place—now you can etch ‘em and sell them both!