There are two main types of metal engraving machines, with the rotary kind often being the most popular for small projects because of its ability to deliver deep, durable engravings without ruining the material. The more modern choice, though, is laser engraving equipment, which is often used for projects that require a lot of detail without much depth. Both types of machines also can engrave other materials, such as plastic and wood, and each has its own advantages and drawbacks.
Rotary engraving machines are often a popular choice for metal and are most commonly used to engrave text and simple images into small items, such as nameplates, jewelry and trophies. This type of professional metal engraving machine features cutting tools on a rotating platform, which can gradually take metal away from the surface as it moves. Rotary metal engraving machines tend to cut deeper than the laser kind, and can provide a good result even on curved surfaces. Such equipment is typically about as small as a desktop computer, but there are bigger rotary metal engraving machines available for larger jobs.
Laser engraving machines also can be used to engrave metal and are often best for detailed work, because they are typically controlled by an operator, who can guide the laser through a computer program. With this technology, a beam of light cuts into the metal in the exact shape desired by the operator of the machine, which is why many consider this equipment to be quite easy to use. Some laser metal engraving machines are capable of three-dimensional (3D) images, which can result in etchings with different depths. The laser, however, needs to be cleaned regularly with solvents or other heavy-duty products, so it may be considered higher maintenance than rotary machines. In addition, it tends to require a ventilation system during use, because certain chemicals have to be applied to the surface before the metal can be engraved.
In general, rotary equipment is considered ideal for most small projects involving metal, because the result is usually deeper and more durable than when a laser engraving machine is used. In addition, rotary metal engraving machines tend to be lower maintenance than the laser kind, because they do not require ventilation systems, regular cleaning or special chemicals, though the cutting tools occasionally need to be sharpened or replaced. On the other hand, those who want to engrave a photo, 3D markings or other details onto metal will typically need to use a laser machine. Therefore, the engraving machine should usually be chosen based on the type of etching needed.