|COST PER UNIT||★★★★☆|
Acrylic charms are an iconic staple of any artist alley setup. From simple plastic keychains to glittery shaker charms, acrylic charms offer endless customization options, though they are also perhaps the most challenging in terms of file setup and require more hands-on labor to create a truly special piece. Despite the challenges, acrylic charms can be one of the most rewarding pieces to add to your shop’s catalogue. This tutorial will cover how to bring your art from concept to retail.
While there are dozens of reputable acrylic charm manufacturers out there, each requires their own template and specifications. For the purpose of honesty and accuracy, this post will focus solely on designing according to InkItLab‘s specifications for standard clear acrylic charms, as I have worked with them numerous times and have had an outstanding experience.
In 2020, I drew this silly little parody of the doge meme, featuring Castlevania‘s Alucard in wolf form. I didn’t expect it to go beyond a fun Twitter post, but it got a fair amount of attention. Seeing so many people enjoy it, I wanted to make some fun merch out of it, but I didn’t know where a meme really fits into the art universe: it’s not aesthetic enough for a print and too gaudy for a t-shirt; so I started thinking outside the box.
I have always loved and admired acrylic charms, and really wanted to try my hand at making one, but most of my illustrations were too large and detailed for small scale print. I figured this good boy was a great opportunity to dive into something new!
Before I jumped into manufacturing, I sketched out a vague concept of what I wanted my charms to look like. I was set on using those heart-shaped keyrings I’ve seen in various other artists’ shops. I also wanted an extra dangle charm for a dash of extra cuteness.
Any time you bring a piece from digital format into printed media, you run the risk of quality degradation. To prevent this, it is recommended to work at a minimum of 300 DPI (dots per inch) and in CMYK color mode, to ensure crisp details and the best color accuracy whenever you are designing for print. Most digital artists work at the default settings of 72 DPI and RGB color, a setting which is optimized for small file sizes and quick loading times; while this may look fine on a backlit screen, it usually results in muddy colors and pixelated lines when printed. In general, I keep my Photoshop settings at 500 DPI/CMYK, so that my art is always optimized for print, and save a separate version for posting online.
Even at a high DPI, however, there are small imperfections that are hardly noticeable on screen, but can significantly lower the quality (and value) of your work. For example, compare the edges of the following two screenshots, each taken from the original meme and zoomed in at 500%. While the original meme looks nearly flawless, swapping the background at a high zoom reveals stray pixels that fell outside the lines when I was coloring. This might seem negligible, but when printed on clear acrylic, sloppy mistakes like this can look like dust or scratches—making your product appear cheaply made. Though your image will have a transparent background, it’s a good idea to create disposable white and black backgrounds to toggle on/off while you work; this will help you see your mistakes!
Once your edges are crisp and clean, you’re ready to design the backside of your charm! I chose to draw a separate back view, but I’ve seen other artists use patterns, solid backgrounds with their logo/social media info, or even simply copy paste the same artwork for a charm that looks the same no matter what side. There is no right or wrong way to design a charm—look through other artists’ shops for inspiration and come up with something that fits your brand and vision. Anything goes!
As you can see below, I’ve flipped the canvas (more on that in Step III). Don’t worry—your image won’t be backwards! Duplicate your cleaned-up artwork, and save it as a new layer/folder. From here, start designing the backside of your charm, using a clipping mask to keep within the shape. This will ensure your front and back sides will be perfectly aligned.
Before you start setting up your file to send to the manufacturer, it is important to understand how acrylic charms are made. First, the designated front side is printed behind the front surface of the charm. As this part of the image will be visible behind the clear acrylic, it must be printed backwards so that it shows correctly when flipped over (hence why we flipped our canvas in Step II). The back side, however, is printed directly over the first layer, which is why it does not need to be flipped. This can be confusing for a first-time charm maker, but once you understand the process it is pretty straightforward.
Now, let’s set up a file!
All manufacturers have slightly different templates to fit the specifications of their materials, inks and machines. Be sure to download the correct template from your chosen manufacturer, not a competitor.
InkItLabs uses the following layer structure:
|cuthole||Instructs the machine where to cut. Your keyring goes here.|
|cmyk-front||The front side of your charm. This image must be reversed, as it prints backwards.|
|gloss||(optional) Adds raised texture to the back side of your image.|
|cmyk2-back||The back side of your image. This image will print as it looks on-screen.|
|white||A white layer sandwiched between the front and back. This prevents ink bleed.|
|cut||Instructs the machine which areas are safe to print.|
|BG||Leave transparent. Do not touch.|
At this point in the process, it’s mostly a matter of plugging in your layers. Your front and back sides should already be perfectly aligned from the work you did in Step II. Place your front side artwork in the cmyk-front folder, and your back side artwork in the cmyk2-back folder.
Next, make two copies of either atwork layer and use a color overlay to make these layers solid black; essentially, these layers work as a mask for the machine to read. Place one of these black shapes each in the folders named white and cut.
You may move your cut hole to any part of the artwork where you would like to attach a keyring. Want an extra hole or two for attaching dangling charms? Duplicate the layer as many times as you want, and drag exactly where you want a cut hole. Keep in mind that the red portion will be solid acrylic, with the transparent portion cut out. You may overlay the red portion on top of your art, but keep the transparent center clear of any design elements! Do not resize this layer. Finally, we’re ready to apply the spot gloss layer. This step is completely optional, but adds a very subtle shine and texture that will give your product a professional touch. For this charm, I chose to highlight my signature for an embossed effect and separate Alucard’s sword from the body for a textural difference.
When you’re finished, your .psd file should look something like this:
Every manufacturer offers slightly different services and add-ons. While some acrylic charms do come pre-assembled, these did not. As a result, I had to buy the individual parts separately and assemble each charm by hand. It’s a lot of work, but the end result is a truly unique piece of art merch that doesn’t come off of an factory line. Keyrings, jump rings and split rings may be ordered in bulk wholesale all over the internet. If you’re having trouble pulling up results under “acrylic charms” or “keychains”, try searching for “jewelry findings”; the artist alley industry and jewelry crafting industry use a lot of the same resources!
I also recommend using disposable gloves and jewelry making tools while assembling your products. Not only will you save your hands from cuts, slivers and nail breakage, but you’ll also keep your products sanitary for your customers in a post-Covid marketplace.