Detailed stone etchings are produced with a Vytek MLS 4496 laser.

The laser etches approximately 3 square feet per hour. It took 25 minutes to reach this point in the creation of the image of this frog.
Almost 10 years after graduating from the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale with a degree in graphic design, Jim Smith of Lebanon, OH, has focused his talents on stone etching. While he initially acquired a knack for hand etching on memorials and monuments, he recently turned his concentration to learning how to create the same effect by utilizing laser technology. Following months of researching the possibilities of this craft, the artist opened the doors to Laser Imaging & Design, Inc. on August 15, 2001.

Smith began his career with Lebanon Monument Co., where he was employed for about six years. "My job there was pretty much to be in charge of the computer layout and design," he said. "After working there for a few months, I picked up the basics of hand etching by hanging around and watching the other artist. After doing a few etchings, my boss decided my etchings were actually looking better than the freelance artists they had been using for years." As a result, Smith shifted his role at Lebanon Monument Co. and became one of the company?s hand etchers.

In 1998, Dodds Monuments --one of the oldest monument companies in Ohio --bought out Lebanon Monument Co. "I was the only employee that was kept during the buyout," said Smith. "The company?s biggest concern was that etchings for memorials were in such high demand. They had about an 8- to 10-month waiting period for hand-done artwork. They hoped that bringing me on board was going to ease some of the workload for the other artist."

But the demand for hand-etched memorials continued to grow, and even with two full-time artists, the waiting period of 8 to 10 months remained, explained Smith. "After working at Dodds Monuments for a little more than two years, I started researching the possibilities of laser etching," he said. "I started thinking about how I could incorporate the job that I really enjoyed, yet be my own boss and start my own company. That is when I approached my boss at that time, Eric Fogarty --owner of Dodds Monuments --and threw out the idea of starting my own laser etching company, and asked him if he would be willing to use our services."

According to Smith, Fogarty was not only receptive to the idea, but also offered to assist financially. He remodeled one of his properties, which is now leased by Laser Imaging & Design.

The company also has the capability of making larger images such as this 24- x 24-inch piece.

Setting up shop

The new company¿s production area encompasses 800 square feet, with another 300 square feet for office/design space. It is equipped with state-of-the-art machinery, including a Vytek MLS 4496 laser (2001 model) with a working area of 40 x 96 inches; a Dell Dimension 8100 Pentium 4 1.7 Gig 768MB RAM with 21- and 17-inch Sony dual monitors; a 1-ton Budgit overhead crane rail system for interior use; and a 2-ton Budgit overhead crane rail system, which is used outside.

"Our facility is not that large, nor does it need to be," said Smith. "You can only etch one piece at a time. Even though we are a small company, sometimes small is better when it comes to quality, service and attention to detail. We have a few close-guarded secrets, but having a good eye for design and knowing the software is very important. There is a whole lot more to these machines than just plugging them up and pressing the start button."

Working with Smith is Creative Director Sean Donahue. "Between myself and Sean, there is over 15 years of computer design skills and 10 years of hand-etching skills," said Smith. "Not only do we have a good sense of computer design, we both had years in the monument industry also. I think having a sense of how the natural stone reacts to etching has made for a great asset too."

While monuments account for the majority of Laser Imaging & Design¿s work, the company also produces highly detailed artwork etched into stone tile, countertops, fireplace surrounds and other black granite and marble surfaces. "On granite, we can produce approximately 24 square feet of highly detailed artwork per day --considering the laser will etch around 3 square feet per hour," said Smith. "This might not sound like a lot, but 24 square feet of hand etching can take up to a few weeks to produce."

At this time, Laser Imaging & Design is focusing its energy on expanding its market into the granite flooring industry by creating products such as custom floor murals and marble wall murals, according to Smith. In the future, he also has plans to increase his staff, which consists of four people. This includes himself and Donahue as well as his retired mother Alda Smith, who serves as vice president and accounting, and Patty Meyer, a part-time office assistant.

Additional objectives include purchasing several more Vytek lasers for his facility and investigating the possibilities of waterjet and CNC technology. "One thing I have come to realize over the years is that working on granite has to be the ¿ultimate canvas,¿" said Smith. "The art that I have created by hand over the years --and now the artwork that comes out of here --is virtually going to last forever. That leaves me with a sense of satisfaction."