Tom “Buzz” Bernard, laser engraving expert and monthly columnist for Awards & Engraving Magazine, shares tips about how to start a laser engraving business, choosing the right laser engraver, laser training, developing a product line, and creative ways to market your business. [16 min.]
Can you start by talking a little bit about yourself and your experience in the laser engraving business?
I first got familiar with lasers 30 years ago in the die-cut industry. We started a business about ten years ago doing laser engraving or laser vector cutting. We’ve been doing this Laserbuzz for about ten years now.
Give us an overview of the laser engraving business and how these machines work?
A laser engraver is a very simple machine to operate. It actually works just like your printer would. Whatever you design on your computer and send it over, it pretty much will cut or engrave for you. The hardest part of running a laser is actually learning the software that you’re using.
What software program do most people use with their laser?
98% of it is CorelDRAW. There is a few proprietary programs out there with some people’s laser, but most all will import CorelDRAW because that’s the predominant software used.
How much does a laser engraver cost?
To get into a good, decent one that you can make money with, plan on spending between $18-$20,000. If you can spend more, of course you’ll get a much better laser.
What features are important with laser engravers? I’ve seen different wattages and different bed sizes. What are important factors to take into consideration?
Well, if somebody were to ask me what I needed in a laser, first off the most important feature is power. Power will get you speed, will cut through thicker substrate, will run things faster, and make more money for you. Then, secondly would be table size. The larger the table, the more options you have to run other things. There are some lasers with a pass-through feature which makes it really nice. Power, table size, and then a vector table, because you will be cutting things. Air-assist is a must-have feature, I don’t care what anybody or any salesman would tell you. You will need air-assist, especially if you’re going to be doing any acrylic work, cutting wood, rubber stamps. I mean, there’s a thousand different products out there you can make with the laser which you’ll need air-assist for. Other features like rotary attachments, unless you have a very specific need or desire to do something in the round, you can do it without even having a rotary attachment but I would take that money and spend it towards more power than getting a rotary attachment.
So rotary attachment is for lasering things like wine bottles or Maglites or those types of things?
It could be a wedding glass. It could be exactly what you said, a wine bottle. Glass is one of the most trickiest substrates to laser engrave, but there are other ways of doing it without needing the rotary attachment, but some people may want to use it for a baseball bat. They have these small baseball bats you can put in and rotary laser. There’s other round objects like bowls and things that you may make and the laser is the secondary project you do on the product.
What engraving machines manufacturers are popular. Are there any that you’ve heard people having good luck with, or that you might be able to recommend?
I’ll mention a few because people need to do a search on them. I just hope I don’t leave any out. One of the bigger types, more popular in the U.S., are Epilog Laser and Universal Laser (VersaLaser). You have GCC which is the LaserPro. There’s also Gravograph. There’s probably eight or nine laser manufacturers out there. Epilog is made right out of Colorado. Universal is made out of Arizona, which is important when you need backup on parts and stuff.
Talk about the distributor/dealer network. Is it important to find a dealer nearby who can offer you service?
In some instances, there are certain distributors that if you were in certain parts of the country I would say, “absolutely, buy this laser because of that distributor.” Their reputation, their follow-up. They feel that that laser they sell is part of them and they want to make sure that they do everything possible for you. That is not the same across the country. There are some people out there that are just looking to sell the laser, get their commission, and after the sale you pretty much are left to the main distributor, so what you want to do is if you’re thinking about buying a laser, call the head office and ask some questions. See how long it takes to get tech support to call you back. The worst thing you can have is you’re down and you’re not making money and you can’t get a hold of anybody to fix it. So, distributors by themselves, I would not make that my choice as much as the head office, “can you contact somebody there?”
Are there a lot of maintenance costs involved in using a laser engraver?
Well, of all the lasers I have run and I’ve had one currently that’s almost ten years old that’s still running, in eight years the only thing I’ve had to do is have the laser tube recharged. No belts, no bearings, no circuit boards. Nothing has had to be repaired on it. In ten years I’ve had it, I’ve replaced the focal lens, not because I had to, but I thought it was time and one mirror, because I thought it looked a little cloudy. The maintenance on these things are incredible. It takes so little effort, as long as you keep them clean. If you’re running a lot stuff that causes smoke, you want to clean it up and keep the machine clean so it runs good. The more you run it, the better the machine performs. The less you run it, that’s where you run into problems. If you have your laser sit for long periods of time, you’ll start to notice more problems with your laser tube because your gas starts to separate.
What other equipment and supplies do you need in an engraving shop?
We try to push vectoring with your laser. If you’re doing an engraving shop, you’re doing name tags or trophies, or things of that sort, a lot of people will have a scratch engraver or rotary engraver, but usually your laser can handle any of those. The reason why most people start out with the rotary engraver is because the laser is so much more expensive. But if you’ve got your laser, you probably won’t need those other items unless you do a lot of glass products.
Do you need a lot of training to operate a laser engraving business?
Not the laser engraver itself. You’ll need some computer experience and knowledge to run the software. As far as if you can be accomplished with photographs or typing or using your computer, your laser is very secondary in the learning curve.
Can you run a laser engraving business right out of your home?
Absolutely. As a matter of fact, I recommend it. If you do not have to get a storefront, why have that expense? I would probably say 70% of the new entrepreneurs today are running out of their home and I think that percentage is conservative. I think it’s actually higher. If you can create a product line that you can exposure without having to have a storefront, I recommend that.
Is there a lot of competition in the awards and trophy business?
Yes. If somebody said, “I’m going to try to corner the market in the awards and trophy business,” I’d wish them well but that would be very, very tough.
What kinds of things can you make and sell with a laser engraver?
Well, that’s a loaded question. There’s probably 101 to a million and one, because the laser right now is changing so fast, so rapidly. New substrates are coming out every day. New designs, new product lines. The first time I saw somebody making money on a laser was back in the cigar fad and he did over $100,000 a year just engraving corporate names on cigars. It looks beautiful. Now, I know of somebody making over $100,000 a year cutting out fabric for sewing clubs. When they go to a trade show they see just a speck of what can be done with a laser. You’ve got to remember, you can engrave but you can also laser cut any type of product or sub-part. There are a lot of industries out there that could use your service if they knew what your laser was capable of doing.
So, you’re saying to expand your horizons and don’t get tunnel vision about the types of products you might be able to do with a laser engraver?
Absolutely. I’d say, you’d be surprised going to a business park of what they’re paying to have something done that you can be doing cheaper with your laser and making plenty of money with. Right down to I’ve seen where they were trying to encode a piece of wood for these brooms that remove feathers off a chicken. A laser could have done that faster, quicker, and they ended up getting the job which now is the key point of their whole laser business.
What kind of products can you make with your laser which offer the most profit margin for you?
Our industry, or what we do for business, is we create product lines. I try to tell everybody, think about what you can get locally for substrate. Could you take a simple piece of printed paper through your inkjet printer, laser cut it and turn it into a product that could have 2,500% mark-up over material costs? Absolutely. Could you get local wood at a lumber yard and turn it into a major product that you could sell nationwide? Absolutely. Besides doing the onesies-twosies, the plaques, the awards, and name tags, look at what type of product line you can develop with substrates you can get locally.
Laser engravers are such a versatile tool that I would imagine a lot of people buy one before they’ve developed a business plan. Talk a little bit about developing a business plan for your laser engraving business?
You know, any business you get into, if it isn’t a franchise, you have to give some thought of what you’re exit strategy is. What I mean by that, sometimes like when we bought our first laser we had a shop next door that was having laser work done as a sub-part. She was spending money to make it worth it for us to say we’ll buy a laser and we’ll run it for you and that would have paid for the laser. Well, not everyone can walk into something like that. You need to have some idea what type of market you want to target. If that will at least pay for your laser, a one-year or year and a half pay-back, I prefer a one-year pay-back, it worthwhile to buy it and then expand beyond that. If you’re going it into saying, “well, I’ve seen three other people make money with this and I have no idea what I’m going to do,” please wait and figure out what you’re going to do with it first. Business plans, you can get if you join the ARA (Awards & Recognition Association), you can get a CD. They put out a CD once a year which gives you pricing and guidelines for the industry for what people charge for different jobs. Now, they’re careful not to price-fix, but it gives you suggested ideas of where to target but you’ll also have to look at volume. If you develop a product line, volume isn’t so dependent on small-town Maine or small-town Georgia, you’ll can still ship it to a big city like Boston, so that’s why we always try to think about developing your own product line.
So by developing your own laser-cut product, you could sell it wholesale instead of just retail?
Exactly. A big business right now is pets like dogs and animals. If you can make a product that could sell in a place in New Hampshire, there is a good chance that someone in California who has a dog would want that same product, so technically you could wholesale across the country. Nowadays with shipping and UPS, it doesn’t matter if you’re shipping ten miles or a hundred miles.
Tom, how much should you try to make per hour for engraving?
Well, if you go by a lot of the seminars you’ll hear people talk about how it used to be $60 per hour, or a dollar per minute. Then all of a sudden it went to $100 per hour. Then it went to $120 per hour. Let’s be realistic here. The laser is one of those machines that you can compete against Chinese goods, because the profit margin can be that good, but you have to realize that if you ran just forty hours a week times sixty minutes in an hour, that’s 2,400 minutes a week. If you were making $1 a minute, that’d be $2,400 a week. For an $18-$20,000 machine? I mean, if somebody told me that I could make that kind of money, I’d want to be buying ten machines. The truth is that what you want to do is keep that machine steady. If you kept that machine steady, even at fifty cents a minute, you’d be making a good living off that $18,000 investment. The trick is not how much you make an hour on that machine, as much as it is getting the sales and marketing volume for running that machine.
Talk about some effective ways to market your laser engraving business?
There are many different ways. You could spend a whole seminar day on that. Let’s say we took just our product designs. We have a wall tribute that’s a twelve inch three-dimensional piece that we show you how to make. There’s a little less than a dollar in material costs in it. I hate cold calling. I hate going into a business and say will you buy my stuff wholesale. I could be the fifth person. I just hate the rejection part. So the bottom line is, what happens if I make up ten of these? You have to remember, I only have ten dollars in material costs here. If I walked into that military surplus store and say, here. Here’s ten of these things. Please put them up. If they sell, I’ll be back and would you place an order? If they don’t sell, I’ll be back in two weeks to pick them up and be out of your way. If mean, you’re giving to get. You’re proving to them that your product would sell. So, don’t be scared to say, OK, it’s going to cost me $10, $25, even $50, to set up a good customer, because if it ain’t on the shelf, it ain’t gonna sell. Prove it to them that it will sell and that’s the easiest way to pick up a good wholesale account.
What are some of the most common mistakes people who start a laser engraving business make, and how do you think they can avoid them?
I would say probably the biggest mistake is when they purchase their laser, the biggest mistake – because I did it the first with the the first laser I purchased – all I did was think price, and I bought too little power and the very first good order I got required more power. Lucky enough, it was early enough in the stage that I was able to upgrade. You have to remember, if it costs you maybe $1,000 or $2,000 more up-front, spread that over five years and that’s pennies. I would say the biggest mistake is under-powering or trying to budget too little to get started.
Any other parting advice?
I would say that if somebody wanted to get into a new business, was looking for something very different, something that not everybody has, something that’s almost futuristic and that has many possibilities. We can’t even tell all the different things you’ll be able to make in the future. Then it could be a great business for somebody. It’s just like every other business. I don’t care if you have a transmission shop, a shoe store, or a laser engraving business, without exposure and somebody marketing and getting sales, that’s where the money comes from. This can be a great, fun business and you can make a lot of money and be able to go to work in your garage if you want to.
Tom “Buzz” Bernard has nearly thirty years of experience in manufacturing and is a laser engraving expert who writes a monthly column in Awards & Engraving Magazine. Tom is the owner of Laserbuzz Software which produces ready-to-cut patterns for laser engraving machines.