Mounting an attractive plaque in your garden can add meaning, sophistication, and aesthetic appeal to your labors. Plaques have adorned public and private gardens for centuries. Though some are used to identify specific trees or plants, many are intended as dedications or memorials. Garden plaques come in a variety of sizes, styles, materials, and price points. Knowing what to buy and how to mount it will enable you choose the best plaque for your garden.
Bronze is King
Without doubt, bronze is the most durable and historically esteemed plaque. But it is also the most expensive. Bronze plaques are ‘forever plaques.’ You will find them on centuries-old grave markers, and cast bronze pieces date as far back as 2500 B.C. Modern bronze (an alloy of copper, zinc, and tin) is hard enough to withstand almost any punishment. Unlike brass, aluminum, zinc, and most other materials, bronze plaques can be mounted at ground level and hold up even under foot traffic. Typically, bronze garden plaques are mounted on walls, fences, boulders, garden rocks, or metal stakes. Some are affixed to specially made, cement foundations.
A bronze plaque may last forever, but the paints and sealants used to coat it do not. All protective coatings, including paints and clear coats, gradually wear down over a period of time. The end result is usually the traditional, green patina of aged bronze. A patinated plaque makes a handsome addition to any garden. The patina actually forms a barrier against further corrosion. The Statue of Liberty, which is made of copper sheeting, has only lost 0.1 mm in thickness since 1886! Some customers purchase their bronze plaques without paints and sealants to avoid the unsightly degeneration of these coatings and hasten the formation of the patina. Other bronze owners prefer to have their plaques refinished. Plaque refinishing is a service performed by most foundries. Typically, the cost is one-fourth to one-third the price of a new plaque.
Cast Aluminum Alternative to Bronze
Aluminum is the most popular metallic plaque owing to its price and relative durability. It is not as hard as bronze, but it lasts for decades. Aluminum plaques should not be mounted at ground level in your garden. Typically they are supported by metal stakes or mounted on walls and fences. These plaques come in two types. The first is solid, cast aluminum which, like its bonze counterpart, has raised letters. The molten aluminum is poured into a sand mold at the foundry, forming one solid piece—letters and all. The second type, which I will talk about later, consists of a cast frame/backer which holds a thin, aluminum text plate.
Unlike bronze, cast aluminum plaques do not form a patina. In fact, unpainted aluminum is not very attractive. To maintain the appearance of an aluminum plaque, the old paint should eventually be removed and the plaque should be repainted and sealed. The longevity of these coatings depends on exposure to sunlight, temperature, precipitation, etc. Sand and salt spray will hasten their demise. It is reasonable to expect that most coatings will last about 10 yrs or more in a shady location. Unfinished aluminum will weather, sometimes unevenly, to a powdery white or gray coating. As oxidation occurs, this coating hardens to form a protective layer.
Ever Popular Aluminum-Photo Plaques
If you are looking to purchase a quality garden plaque, but want to minimize your expenditure, an aluminum-photo plaque might be what you are looking for. As noted above, this plaque is actually two pieces—a frame/backer and an attached text plate which is ‘etched’ using a photographic process. Both components are made of aluminum.
There are actually a number of incentives for choosing this type of plaque in addition to lower cost. The single greatest incentive is flexibility as regards text and images. Cast bronze and aluminum have strict font and character limits imposed by the casting process. Letters have to be large enough and thick enough to allow molten metal to flow freely. Images suffer from the same limitations, with the additional requirement that they can only be drawn in black and white (i.e., black parts of the image are raised, white parts are recessed; there is nothing in between).
By contrast, a text plate allows you to choose the size and style of font, and to squeeze more words onto a plaque. It also enables you to add photographic images and logos in both black and white, and grayscale. For example, some pet owners like to add paw prints to memorialize their pet. Plates come in an aluminum (silver) or gold finish. The aluminum frame can be chemically treated to match the gold plate. On aluminum-photo plaques with thick frames, the text plate is set far enough back in the frame to give an attractive shadowbox appearance—another reason these plaques are so popular.
All of this flexibility and variety come with a trade-off which most customers find acceptable. Unlike cast bronze and aluminum which have raised letters, the text plate of an aluminum-photo plaque is perfectly smooth. Letters and images are photographically ‘etched’ into the microscopic pores of the metal’s surface. The plate looks like it is printed rather than engraved. Though scratch resistant, the plate is relatively thin and can be dented. Moreover, text and images will fade over time, especially when exposed to direct sunlight. Nevertheless, under normal weathering and exposure, a text plate is expected to last about 20 years or more. Replacing it is relatively easy and costs about half the price of a new plaque. Despite these offsets, the aluminum-photo plaque continues to be the garden plaque of choice for most individuals, businesses, and institutions.
Choosing the Best Plaque
You may have noticed that plastic and color plaques have been conspicuously absent from the discussion thus far. When our company first opened, in 2001, we produced plastic plaques. They always look spectacular when new. But after a few years, the material looks weathered and the colors fade noticeably. That’s when we dropped plastic in favor of the more durable metal plaques discussed above. Though color text and images can be transferred to a metal plate (also to ceramic and glass) through a process called UV printing, the colors begin to fade in 2-5 years, even with an additional protective coating. A garden plaque is an investment that most people expect to last for years. Plastic plaques and color printing will disappoint those expectations.
When you are ready to buy a plaque for your garden, your first decision should be guided by budget. There is an enormous range of prices owing to different materials and sizes. Having a price range in mind will quickly narrow the selection. Second, develop the content of the plaque—the inscription and image (if any). If you have a short inscription without images, cast bronze and aluminum are a good choice if you can afford them. Lengthy inscriptions and images are better suited to aluminum-photo plaques. Adding an image may involve additional cost. Finally consider how you will mount the plaque. Corner holes and screws are commonly used for wood surfaces. For brick walls and rocks, most plaques employ hidden studs which thread into the corners of the plaque (be aware that masonry installation is more challenging ). The vast majority of garden plaques are sold with a metal stake which is angled for better visibility.
In addition to these plaques, there are numerous custom designs, combinations, and materials available, including brass, copper, and zinc. Whatever type you choose, a durable and attractive plaque will embellish your garden and serve as a lasting memory for many years.
Bill and Barb DiPuccio are the owners of Sacred Engraving, a family business since 2001. https://sacredengraving.com/