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Etch and Engrave: Mastering the Art of Engraving onto Glass

Nothing shows that you’ve put care, thought, and effort into a gift like custom personalization.

A unique, branded wine glass or ornament always stands out amongst birthday gifts or graduation presents. It’s memorable, heart-warming, and will forever remind the recipient of you!

If only you could make all these awesome, personalized gifts at home. Then, you’d never be scrambling for gift ideas last minute.

Thankfully, you can! With a handful of tools and a bit of guidance, you’ll be engraving custom designs onto glass in no time.

Keep reading to learn more about engraving onto glass and master the gift-giving game!

A man using a rotary tool for engraving onto glass

All About Engraving onto Glass

History of Engraving onto Glass

Glasswork is an ancient art form that has survived millennia.

The first evidence of glass etching or engraving dates back to the Roman empire, as early as 3600 BC, when they used a wheel to engrave onto glass.

Centuries later, Islamic artists and glassworkers refined the engraving process to produce more detailed, intricate designs.

As glass engraving spread throughout Europe, it took on different forms and techniques. In the 16th century, glass engraving was industrialized, significantly lowering the cost and increasing accessibility.

These developments further perfected the engraving and etching processes, leading to more and more intricate and geometric styles.

But in the 19th century, though it remained popular, the prevalence of engraved and etched glass began to wane in favor of stained and colored glass.

Engraving onto glass became a much more niche art form, relegated almost exclusively to artisanal or craftsman spaces.

However, in recent years, glass engraving or etching has seen a resurgence in popularity amongst DIYers and craft bloggers.

In its infancy, glass engraving was an emblem of wealth and luxury, an expensive artisanal practice afforded to only the upper echelons.

Today, you can engrave onto glass in your own home with just a few inexpensive tools.

The Difference Between Etching and Engraving onto Glass

Though closely related and often used interchangeably, etching and engraving aren’t technically synonymous.

Typically, the difference can be summarized pretty simply.

Etching involves a chemical abrasion that doesn’t significantly change the surface thickness or relief.

Engraving, however, uses a tool to dig into the glass and carve an image into the surface. Here, there will be a noticeable change in thickness or depth.

Not every artist or glassworker will totally agree with this difference, but generally, this consensus stands.

Neither method is superior, and they both have their pros and cons. Ultimately, it’s a matter of preference.

In this guide, we’ll take you through a few techniques for both etching and engraving onto glass!

What You Need to Get Started

For this process, you’ll need to gather a few tools. Though you’ll likely have a lot of these items on hand, you may need to pick up a few things if you’ve never worked with glass like this before.

For safety, you’ll need:

For the actual task, you’ll need the following:

A Step-by-Step Guide to Engraving onto Glass

Engraving onto Glass Using a Laser

For more committed craftsmen or anyone looking to engrave larger pieces, laser engraving machines will likely be your method of choice.

Before getting started, make sure you’re glass is safe for laser engraving. Typically, this will be glass with a low lead content, like soda-ash glass.

Find or create your chosen design and send the information to your laser engraver. This process will be different depending on the model but usually involves connecting the laser to your computer.

Once you have your design, position your glass as necessary.

There will likely be a different method to properly position the glass depending on whether it’s flat or curved, so consult your laser engraving machine’s manual if you’re unsure.

After you have everything set up and ready to go, grab your protective goggles and respiratory mask and let your engraving machine do its job!

If you want to prevent any frosty, foggy-looking engraving onto the glass, apply a moist paper towel and press out any gaps or air bubbles.

Engraving onto Glass with Etching Cream

The most efficient way to impose a design onto glass is by using etching cream.

To do so, you’ll first want to pick your template and carefully tape it onto the glass. Designs that are well suited to this type of glasswork are larger, less intricate styles.

A set of etched shot glasses

Text, simple images, or logos tend to work great.

You can work from a preexisting design or draw your own! Either way, you’ll need to transfer the design onto contact paper or vinyl and cut it out with a hobby knife.

Then, slowly and gently, wrap and smooth the cut-out design or stencil onto the glass and secure it with tape if necessary.

You want the paper or vinyl to be as flat as possible to the surface to ensure the etching cream stays exactly where you’ve placed it. Any gaps or bubbles will cause the final product to be less precise.

Take a small, clean paintbrush and apply an even coat of etching cream around the design where desired. Leave the cream to sit for 5 minutes.

Remember, before you go to remove the cream, it contains harsh, acidic chemicals that are not safe for your skin, so be sure you have some protective gloves and goggles on when handling etching cream.

After 5 minutes, use a spatula to remove as much of the cream as possible.

As strange as it may sound, etching cream is actually reusable, so any amount that you recover can be returned to its container to use again.

Once you’ve removed the cream, use a wet wipe or towel to wipe off any residue, then wash the glass thoroughly to rid any traces of harsh chemicals.

You should be left with a clearly embossed design on frosty, etched glass!

Engraving onto Glass with a Glass Engraving Pen, Dremel, or Rotary Tool

As far as engraving onto glass at home goes, using a rotary tool is probably the most common method.

There are plenty of tools out there that ultimately function the same way. You might see them called a rotary machine, a glass engraving pen, or maybe a Dremel.

Any will do the trick! Ensure you’ve read the instructions thoroughly for your specific tool before starting.

Select a design and use a dry-erase marker or other marker that will show up on the glass to trace or freehand the design onto the glass surface.

If you are tracing, tape a printout of your design to the backside of your glass so you can clearly see it and trace it more precisely.

Alternatively, you could also use a vinyl or contact paper cutout like you would with etching cream. The choice is yours, and what you decide is down to preference more than anything.

Once the design is neatly secured, grab the tool of your choosing with the correct bit. Depending on the design, you may want to have several different size bits on hand to create different-sized lines.

After properly fitting your tool, turn it on to the recommended speed stated by the manufacturer and begin to carefully trace the design.

When using a tool to engrave onto glass, take all proper precautions to protect your face.

Both a respirator mask and goggles are highly recommended to keep any particles from getting in your eyes, nose, and mouth. It’s also smart to work within a well-ventilated area.

As you trace, try not to press down too hard. Though adjusting your pressure could add some cool dimensional effects, bearing down too roughly could crack the glass.

Keep a cloth, a dry paintbrush, a small bowl, and some water nearby. You’ll want to clean the glass or any residue or particles periodically to get the best view of your work.

Continue slowly tracing and wiping until you’re happy with your design. You’ll have a glass with a beautifully, dynamically engraved design when you’re all finished.

Different Engraving onto Glass Techniques

The methods outlined above are great for beginner to intermediate crafters looking to get started or advance in their glass engraving skills.

However, it’s by no means an exhaustive list of techniques used to engrave onto glass.

Intaglio is the general term used to describe most basic glass engraving practices, referring to images or inscriptions being carved into a glass surface. This is sometimes also called “point engraving.”

But, the origins of glass engraving involved using a wheel, usually stone or copper, treated with an abrasive slurry of some kind to stamp the glass.

Another method uses a diamond-tipped stippling tool to crate and shade designs made of small dots. This method has become rare in favor of quicker, less laborious processes.

Window with sandblasted fish image

For larger pieces, some glasswork practitioners use a sandblasting technique. Using a spraying tool, a fine, gritty abrasive is blasted onto a stenciled piece of glass on a larger scale, leaving a finished product similar to etching.

Lastly, and maybe the most unique of them all, is the Swedish Graal technique. This combines engraving with glass-blowing on layers of colored glass to reveal a detailed, multi-hued image.

Engraving onto Glass Tips and Tricks

If you’re new to etching or engraving onto glass, one great tip is to practice on less expensive or important glass objects first.

These glasswork techniques are crafty skills that can take some time to master. It’s okay if you’re first few tries aren’t perfect!

Once you’ve had a few practice rounds, you’ll get the hang of it and will be ready to move on to bigger projects.

With engraving onto glass, usually less is more.

Thicker lines are much easier to trace than thin ones, and you only need a little bit of pressure to engrave your design.

Typically, etching or engraving onto glass by hand, as opposed to an engraving laser, is best used on small pieces like cups or small ornaments. Leave the window-sized pieces to a bigger machine.

When engraving by hand using a rotary tool, you’ll have a few choices of material when picking your bits, usually diamond, silicon carbide, or tungsten.

Generally, diamond tips are best for sharp, straight edges and more intricate designs. Tungsten or silicon carbide tips are better suited for shading or larger lines.

As you work with these different bits, best practice is to work from one end of the image to the other rather than going back over previous etchings.

Applying too much pressure to one area could lead to cracking, so it’s better not to retrace your steps.

Engraving onto Glass: FAQs

Is engraving onto glass dangerous?

If you are well informed and prepared, you shouldn’t face any danger when engraving onto glass.

However, you will be working closely with glass particles and sharp, powerful tools. If you haven’t done your research and aren’t equipped with the proper materials, safety gear included, you run the risk of harming yourself.

Can I engrave onto glass with other tools?

Sure! There are lots of different methods for engraving onto glass. Some folks even use a Cricut!

But before you dive into engraving headfirst, double-check that your tool of choice has been approved or shown to work on glass. Again, improper equipment can lead to injury.

What kinds of glass can I engrave?

Any kind of glass can be engraved in some way, shape, or form. The only technique that might require you to pick your glass more carefully would be engraving with a laser.

This process typically works best on glass with low lead content, such as borosilicate glass, soda-ash glass, or lead crystal glass.

Engraved beer mug

Wrapping up the Guide to Engraving onto Glass

The days of expensive, hard-to-obtain engraved glass are long gone! With a few tools, a couple of simple steps, and a bit of practice, you can engrave onto glass like a pro in your own home!

If you want to put your new-found engraving skills to the test, check out our guide on Wood Laser Engraving.