Fussy person seeks labeling solution for tiny physical objects
March 29, 2014 2:25 PM   Subscribe

I carry around a lot of small expensive/annoying-to-replace objects, like my phone, tablet, battery packs, earbuds, eyeglasses and wallet. I'd love your help in figuring out how to label them all neatly, permanently and unobtrusively. Difficulty level: I am absurdly fussy and precise, including about aesthetics.

I like my labelmaker but it doesn't give me as much flexibility as I'd like WRT font, colour, size, etc., and the labels aren't very durable: they eventually peel or curl. A year ago I ordered personalized metal asset tags for my electronic devices: they're a step up from the labelmaker, but I'd still like something better.

I am searching for the holy grail: a labeling mechanism that gives me a lot of control over aesthetics (font, colour, shine level, etc.), that is durable, and that works for teeny things like my eyeglass arms. I'm not interested in tracking services like Boomerang and I already use things like FindMyPhone -- for the purposes of this question, I just want to put contact information on my physical stuff.

All recommendations are helpful. I'm especially interested in hearing about good sources for high-quality metal tags, and I'd also be keen to learn more about the pros and cons of laser engraving. Thanks.
posted by Susan PG to Technology (7 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I am enjoying actual engraving at the moment with saltwater and a nine volt battery. I would get a throwaway email address and etch or stamp it into my tiny items. I would etch on metals, heated stamp on plastics and then have sugru as a base to stamp on other materials.
posted by Iteki at 3:29 PM on March 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

People who have access to laser engravers tend to use them for these sorts of things all the time. My mom has a friend who has laser engraved light switch covers with labels for what each switch does.

With the laser engraver, your main limitation is going to be not being able to safely burn anything for which you are lacking a material safety data sheet. Places that rent time on small lasers generally won't let you burn random plastics you bring in without a MSDS because they are afraid of toxic offgassing (generally of chlorine).

The second limitation is that things like "shinyness" are not entirely within your control because if you want to engrave shiny materials, like chrome, you spray them with Cermark first, burn that, and then wash off the excess. You don't really have total control over the shinyness of the engraved part.

You also can't control the color really at all. The laser burns stuff. You choose a material, you burn it with the laser, the marked area is the color of that material, burned. So with wood, you end up with darker brown. Also, some materials act weird when they get burned. The edges of foamcore (the non-PVC kind) shrink up, etc.

As far as font, size, etc goes, you have total control. You load up your vector file and the laser traces it, burning as it goes. There are some tweaks you might have to do regarding the paths that affect burn time, and you will have to experiment with the power and speed settings to get the darkness you want. That's still a largely trial-and-error process. The laser cutter drivers all ship with a table of rough guesses that will say things like "Engrave Balsa: 20% power, 80% speed" that you can use as a starting point. They are generally fairly high resolution devices, at least 300dpi, so you could certainly engrave something fine enough to fit on an eyeglass arm.

You could order a sheet of some sort of material (lets say metal that you've coated with Cermark), design all your labels in Illustrator or similar, and then do two passes: one to engrave the text at a low power setting, and another to cut out the tags at a high power setting. Some laser drivers can do both in one pass by treating the lines differently. Red lines get run at the cut setting, black lines at the engrave setting. This is nice because it helps keep the registration tighter and avoids any weirdness with changing the focus.

Some materials work especially well with the laser. Acrylic, for instance, engraves nicely, but also has the property that the cutting of the edges "flame polishes" them and leaves them extremely smooth. Laser-cut acrylic edges look much better than edges cut with a plastics saw blade. The edges of clear acrylic generally look as clear as a new piece of cell-cast acrylic.

Acrylic might be too flimsy at the thicknesses you want for your labels though.

The problem you are going to have with making metal labels on a laser cutter is that most small shop laser cutters don't have enough power to cut metal. An ordinary 45W Epilog Helix can engrave metal, but I don't think it can cut it. So if you want to try laser-engraved metal tags, you are either going to have to find a shop with a much more powerful laser (and they might not be interested in jobs as small as yours) or you are going to have to cut the metal pieces out via a different method: making a die, waterjet, etc. There are, however, online services that do laser cutting of very thin metal, like Ponoko. I've never actually used them, though.

Thinking about this more broadly, I think the specific aesthetic you are after will change how you want to do this quite a bit. The old fashioned way of doing something like this would be screenprinting or tampo. That's the way the labels on lots of appliances and stuff are attached. You would have a lot of flexibility here as far as design goes, but it would also be a huge pain in the ass to design your label, print it to some sort of transparency, photosensitize a small screen, burn the screen, and the swipe the ink on to your phone. Tampo works better for things that are irregularly surfaced and that don't generally take paint well, like many plastics, because you can use heat-cured tampo inks and stuff that are designed for adhesion to these materials.

Another thing you could consider would be using a service like Front Panel Express. They have some sort of CNC router or something that machines labels on small panels. They are very popular in the DIY community for faceplates and such.

If the look of laser works for you, though, laser will be roughly 1,000,000 times easier than these other things. Laser cutters are amazing.
posted by jeb at 3:29 PM on March 29, 2014 [8 favorites]

this might be a weird idea, but what about making little labels that you can glue on from shrinky dinks? it's basically a sheet of clear plastic that you can draw or write on, then you heat it in the oven. It will shrink, thicken and harden into a chunk of plastic with your design on. They can be really pretty, and you can choose your own colours and design, the only thing that might make it unwieldy is that the label would be a few millimeters thick. You should be able to attach it to anything with krazy glue, but it will stick out a bit - you'd have to see if that fits with your asthetic. To test that out, you don't really need to buy the actual sheets, #6 plastic will work.
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 5:37 PM on March 29, 2014 [5 favorites]

Dremel engraver?
I know, not your perfect font. But hey...about 20 bucks.
posted by artdrectr at 7:19 PM on March 29, 2014

I have a google voice number and use it as my contact point for labeling stuff.
posted by theora55 at 6:39 AM on March 30, 2014

Color-laser printer with sheets of self-adhesive shipping-label "paper" - it's actually a smooth matte plastic, not paper. I think it's intended to be weatherproof.

Photoshop gives you all the colors and fonts and custom shapes and sizes and images and art you could need.

(For labels that have extremely small contact-area and which also have to withstand a lot of wear, I would additionally put some glue on the surface to ensure the label stays firmly put, and perhaps even a sealant on top of the label depending on the kind of rubbing it had to withstand.)
posted by anonymisc at 6:36 PM on March 30, 2014

DYMO label makers allow you to import fonts from your computer into their label creation software. You will have to use a computer connected label maker such as the PnP or LM280.

Similar to the shrinky dink advice above for eyeglass arms, they make a heat shrink tube that reduces in size when applied to heat. It's made for wires, but it should do the trick on eyeglasses. The IND labels are more durable than the D1 labels.
posted by Andy's Gross Wart at 8:20 PM on March 30, 2014

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