Iron Horse Engraving: Train Models Created with a Laser
Quality machinery and laser precision help Iron Horse expand its model train product line.
Thanks to John Pletcher’s background in engineering and technical projects, he was well-versed in laser applications before starting his business, Iron Horse Engraving, back in 2011. Created as a part-time side business, in the last six months John has transformed his venture into a booming engraving business that is a huge hit with customers. John came from a forest product background where he served in an engineering role for industrial employers ranging from custom yacht to large kitchen cabinet manufacturers.
For the past 15 years he participated in a technical outreach program called PennTAP at Penn State University, where he assisted the forest product industry through trouble shooting problems, process improvements and researching new technology. The research John performed in this position served as his introduction to laser engraving, cutting and marking technology.
I like how flexible the machines are,” he began. “Even though most of my work involves wood, I can be marking bottles and glassware in a matter of minutes. The flexibility makes it easy to respond quickly to requests for custom engraving and cutting jobs now that my name is getting out. It’s nice to know the limitation to what you can do is only your imagination and not the equipment used to achieve it.
“In 1987 I had the chance to tour a facility making engraved wooden plaques,” John tells us. “I recall large, bulky equipment that required metal templates being made by an acid wash process in advance, then laid on the wood and passed through the laser multiple times.”
Then around 1993, John observed research being done with 1000-watt industrial lasers to cut nested wood parts for furniture manufacturing. The focus of the research was to improve rough mill yields, which it did significantly, but processing times were still excessively long.
It wasn’t until 2005 that John would encounter laser technology that he could successfully use for his business ideas.
“About seven years ago I was asked to research laser engraving technology for several clients and was highly impressed at how the technology had evolved since I had seen laser engraving processes in the late 1980s,” John said.
“Seeing how the equipment had shrunk in size over the years and with prices that were within reach, I thought this would make a nice side business I could launch from home.
"In 2005, when I was researching laser engraving technology for wood-focused clients in Pennsylvania, I was highly impressed and put the idea of purchasing a machine to start a side business in the back of my head, which I followed up on after attending the Great Lakes Engraving Conference held in Buffalo in 2010,” John explained.
“The conference gave me the opportunity to glean more information from focused workshops, speak with users of laser systems and manufacturing representatives. I was blown away by what folks were able to do with their laser systems operating out of their homes. After assisting many small businesses over the years, the timing seemed right to start one of my own using a laser system from Epilog.”
When it came time to determine the laser features John needed most, he tells us his needs were simple: “A machine that would be durable, reliable day in and day out and, when needed, be supported by a company who stands behind what they make 110 percent,” he said. With those qualities in mind, John set out to make his laser purchase.
“It all started with the prompt and courteous response from Jeff Aichinger of Class Act Engraving, Epilog’s representative in upstate New York,” John began. “When I was initially researching laser engraving equipment for clients, I naturally placed inquiries with all the manufacturers at the same time. Jeff responded almost immediately and I didn’t hear from any of the others until well after Jeff had reached out to me and conducted onsite equipment demonstrations.”
After the demonstrations, John continued his laser research by learning more about the industry in general. “When I decided to purchase a laser engraving machine for myself, I first attended the Great Lakes Engraving Conference to research the industry further, then worked through Jeff to obtain my first laser. I started with a used 50-watt Mini 24. After recently upgrading to a newer 50-watt Helix, I haven’t looked back.”
In addition to the myriad of applications John performs with the laser, he tells us “whenever I had an issue that needed to be addressed, Epilog was there and I was up and running immediately. To me it’s important to have the backing of the manufacturer after the sale.”
Considering John’s background was in the forest products industry, naturally, the majority of the products he makes come from wood. Also, he chose the name “Iron Horse” to convey his propensity to create stunning railroad and model-train related items.
“One of my earlier products was custom wooden oval train signs done for Dechant’s Railroad Express,” John said. “I also do custom train signs that utilize select pictures engraved into the wooden signs.”
Because of his creative designs and laser-precise product offerings, John has recently been selected by Union Pacific Railroad to produce their herald of arms in contrasting wood, as well as heralds of other railroads under their umbrella.
“I also have been licensed by CSX Railroad to do the same with herald trademarks under them,” John shared. “Based on feedback from recent model train shows, I am also making furniture grade full-sized replicas of locomotive builder and boiler plates in contrasting wood.”
To diversify his product line, John is also developing a line of large scale railroad kits and models, the first of which is the caboose from The East Broad Top Railroad and Coal Company. This particular model sports a removable roof with full interior detail. John explained the kits are laser engraved and cut from 1/8” Baltic birch plywood, 1/32” birch plywood and interlocking hardwood under carriage framing.
To further utilize his creative talents and laser capabilities, John also doesn’t hesitate to approach potential customers about unique and interesting jobs. “I approached the Penn State Alumni Association with a product idea that expands the Elms Collection, which is a program that utilizes wood from elm trees that have graced campus for over 110 years, but had to be removed due to hazards from age.”
John tells us the elm material is being turned into furniture, picture and diploma frames and artisan-style furniture. “Not all of the wood is suitable for furniture,” John explained, “so I saw a real opportunity to laser engrave select images from campus on this material. The alumni loved the idea to utilize the material in this way, so I set out to get licensed through the Collegiate Licensing Company and my engraved offering was added to the Elms Collection the end of last year. This opportunity was a classic example of being at the right place at the right time,” he said.
John tells us that his Epilog system has played a large role in the success of his business. “I like how flexible the machines are,” he began. “Even though most of my work involves wood, I can be marking bottles and glassware in a matter of minutes. The flexibility makes it easy to respond quickly to requests for custom engraving and cutting jobs now that my name is getting out. It’s nice to know the limitation to what you can do is only your imagination and not the equipment used to achieve it.”
Approaching his third year in business, John isn’t shy about sharing his advice to new and potential laser owners. “Go with the largest platform you can afford,” he advises. “If the need arises later down the road, it’s easier and more cost effective to up-grade the machine with a higher power laser tube. Additionally, I can’t stress enough the importance of dealing with a company that stands behind their products. When I’m ready to upgrade again and/or purchase another laser, I will be dealing with Epilog.”