Wax on, wax off.
Yes, that's the famous mantra from the 1984 cult classic "The Karate Kid," but the phrase also describes what employees do at Industrial Engraving and GB Embossing in northeastern Wisconsin. But they add a twist to the familiar quote: Wax on. Wax off. Etch. Repeat.
More specifically, the workers use wax and chemicals to carefully etch patterns onto large steel rolls, which their customers then use to create the patterns people see on the toilet paper and paper towels they buy.
Those patterns — whether they be flowers, diamonds or a brand's logo — aren't just created for marketing purposes. They actually affect the paper's absorbency, softness and bulk, among other characteristics.
Companies spend a lot of time and money getting just the right texture and look, and if a business notices that a competitor's designs start to look too similar to their own, they might take them to court.
Creating these patterns is a both an art and a science, and many engravers in the Green Bay area have spent decades perfecting the highly-skilled craft.
Wisconsin businesses share long, overlapping histories
While there are other engraving companies across the United States, none cater to the paper industry quite like the ones in the Green Bay area, according to Steve Jossart, engraving general manager at Precision Roll Solutions Pulaski.
GB Embossing and Industrial Engraving are located together in a facility — which is about 7 miles south of Pulaski in the Brown County town of Pittsfield — where they employ about 26 people. GB Embossing dates back to 1992, while Industrial Engraving launched in 1957. Today, they are brands of Precision Roll Solutions.
Over in Green Bay, Northern Engraving and Machine has operated since 1939, and it has roughly 45 employees. The company works closely with Paper Converting Machine Company, which is also headquartered in Green Bay. Both are part Barry-Wehmiller network and BW Converting.
Jossart not only has a professional connection, but he has personal ties to these businesses. His grandfather, Robert Carstenson, started Northern Engraving, he said, and the founder of Industrial Engraving got his start working for Carstenson.
Pattern preferences differ around the globe
There is a seemingly endless number of possibilities, but the way a pattern looks on a sheet of paper may not be the same as how it looks on a paper towel roll. It might also not produce the effects that a company is trying to get.
That's where Jossart and his colleagues come in. They guide customers through the steps of turning a design into reality, helping them with research and development, based on their many years of experience.
The engraving companies work with businesses locally and around the world. In Europe, for instance, the appearance of a product is very important, and customers may pick a pattern based on how well it matches their bathroom décor, according to Sergio Casella, president of BW Converting's hygiene division.
Europeans also have toilet paper that has as many as five or six plies, Casella said. This is made possible through the embossing process, which also creates the patterns on the paper.
Engravers can spot their patterns anywhere, even on restaurant napkins
Inside the Pittsfield facility, there's a room full of green shelves, stacked with small, cylindrical tools that employees previously used to make patterns in past decades. Some of them have popular fast food chains' logos on them and were used to emboss napkins.
David Ludke, the engraving plant manager at Precision Roll Solutions Pulaski, helped make some of the historical tools on the shelves. Today, he said he sees patterns that his team made out in public "all the time."
When Ludke sits down in restaurant, he immediately studies the design on his napkin, he said. Before working in this field, Ludke said he never thought twice about it.
Even though engravers don't see their company's name on a napkin or a paper towel, they can find their "signature" in the pattern, Jossart said.
Longtime employees learned how to engrave through hands-on training
There really isn't a school that people can go to and learn how to do engraving, according to John Zellner, Northern Engraving director.
"It's all on-the-job training," said Zellner, who's spent two decades working at his company.
Engraving requires focus and precision. Employees can't just turn a machine on, let it run for a predetermined amount of time and return to find a finished product, according to Zellner. Rather, they need to monitor the process each step of the way, and be able to "read" what's happening with a roll, he said. Is there enough wax? Is it sticking? How is the acid reacting with the steel?
“Everything has to match up perfectly," Zellner said. "You can't have any seams in the pattern, or it will show in the customer's product.”
The Pittsfield and Green Bay facilities have many longtime employees who've spent decades mastering the engraving process.
Ludke, for instance, was born and raised about two miles from where he works today on Kunesh Road. He was hired thinking it would just be a summer job before going to college.
"I'm still here, 43 years later," Ludke chuckled.
There's a lot of trigonometry and math that go into engraving and design process, and Ludke said he found that intriguing.
Engraving evolves from handmade tools to lasers
Patterns used to be created by hand, and employees still do touch-ups and fixes that way. Today, they also have access to newer technology, which can help speed up the engraving process.
The Pittsfield facility uses digital transfer technology, which engraves patterns through a computer system. Employees also coordinate with their peers at IR Engraving in Virginia, another Precision Roll Solutions brand that uses lasers in the process.
Still, there are traditional methods that require skilled hands and a careful watch.
What techniques Precision Roll Solutions chooses to use depends on a customer's needs, according to Matthew Pursel, the company's CEO.
Employees engrave rolls with wax, chemicals and a whole lot of patience
One day in mid-August, Jared Staszak stood in front of a large roll at the Pittsfield facility and carefully placed a small, patterned tool into the steel, creating an indent and displacing the wax that he had already applied. Staszak then dipped the roll into a pan of acid, and the acid ate away at the exposed steel.
Staszak did this over and over, moving the tool over an inch at a time. He marked where he began to avoid messing up the pattern.
"It's a slow process" that requires a "good set of eyes," according to Ludke. He estimated Staszak probably spent about 50 hours just to get halfway across the roll.
In another area, two employees used a matched engraving process. They had a master roll on top, made through the conventional engraving method that Staszak was using. The master roll is used to create a pattern on the customer's roll beneath it.
The employees added and scraped off excess wax, sprayed the roll with water to get rid of air bubbles and then dipped it in the acid. The exposed steel sizzled in the liquid.
With each dip, the employees gained only tens of thousandths of an inch of depth. Ludke expected it would probably take the employees two weeks to finish the roll they were working on.
How pattern disputes wind up in court
Many of the patterns that big consumer brands use are very recognizable on store shelves, Zellner said, so companies might copyright or trademark their designs. They also protect the intellectual property that goes into making their base paper.
With all the time and money invested, companies tend to become wary if a competitor makes products that look a bit too familiar.
Around that same time, Georgia-Pacific claimed that the quilted design on Kimberly-Clark products was too similar to its own. When a federal appeals court decided the case in 2011, a circuit judge remarked how "this case is about toilet paper, and who really pays attention to the design on a roll of toilet paper?"
"The parties, however, are quick to inform us that in a $4 billion industry, designs are very important," the judge said.
Companies are always watching to see what others come out with, and "when one person does something, everybody wants to follow," said Mark Hines, vice president of sales and marketing at Precision Roll Solutions.
In such a competitive market, businesses try to keep information about their products confidential. Sometimes when his team does a sample run for a company, Ludke said the customer will ask for all the tests back — including the scraps.
Engraving companies work on more than just paper
The facilities in Pittsfield and Green Bay built their roots with paper, but they work with other industries, too.
Over the years, engraving has evolved to help make new products look and perform better, according to Pursel, Precision Roll Solutions' CEO. As long as there's a need to convert and add texture to products, companies like Pursel's will continue be in demand, he said.
Engravers in northeastern Wisconsin create the wood grain patterns found on garage doors. They work with lids and wrappers for dairy products. Embossing also makes trash bags stronger and more stretchy.
In the Pittsfield facility in mid-August, one employee used a caliper to measure the thickness of a foil material that is used on the backing of insulation, while his coworker made a pattern for decking products.
"You’d be amazed what has been embossed in some way," Hines said.
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Reach Becky Jacobs at firstname.lastname@example.org or 920-993-7117. Follow her on Twitter at @ruthyjacobs.
This article originally appeared on Appleton Post-Crescent: Precision Roll Solutions, BW Converting engrave toilet paper patterns