3D Custom Routed Signs

​Ryan N. Fugler is a former editor of WRAPS magazine. 

It’s a thing of beauty. It demands attention. That sign that causes unassuming people passing by to do a double-take. Mesmerized. To stare wondrously and think, “How did they do that?” That’s the draw of a three-dimensional routed sign. It’s art. It’s a story. It’s alive.

The end product is an amazing testimony to hard work, genius design and thoughtful implementation. How to get to that end point is a tale in itself. Sign shops may wonder: What are some tips in creating such signs? Novices may not know where to begin. Sign industry veterans may be stuck on one component or another. A layman might be lost completely.

In this article, two very capable sign shops were interviewed to shed light on what exactly goes into a three-dimensional routed sign project; but they have completely different arrangements. One works across the gamut of sign projects and employs an ample staff of employees; the other is focused strictly on routed signs and is run as a very nimble operation.

Make no mistake, both are vastly talented. And both have stories to tell.

The Introduction

Ben Ziglin is the president of Ziglin Signs in St. Louis, Missouri. He has seen many sign projects come through his shop, not all of which involved a router. But some eventually led to routed work. His 35 employees seem to work around the clock; some designing, some creating, some producing, some assembling—and Ziglin is constantly noticing.

“They always say you have to find your niche and stick to it,” Ziglin says. “Well, unfortunately, my niche was the jack-of-all-trades and the do-it-all.”

His work of banners to LED to “everything in between” is listed prominently on his website. Ziglin admits that the all-encompassing model of the company sometimes “hurts,” it also gives Ziglin more liberty to provide more from a customer service perspective.

“It’s allowed us to give our customers everything that they need. We have three full-time designers and full-time printers that run our flatbed and roll printer,” he says. “And then we have our fabrications and our full install crews.”

A few states away, another sign professional is conducting his business.

In Frisco, Colorado, Roger Cox, owner of House of Signs, has a trusted and respected crew. He has operating since 1989 and excels in hand-carved work. But even with all of his experience, he puts a lot of trust in his staff.

“Peris and I are the primary designers, and I art-direct all projects,” Cox says. “Peris takes the designs into our 3D software program and turns out the concepts into 3D magic. Steve, one of our fabricators, is involved on the front-end of engineering, as he builds many of our structures and handles our in-house welding needs.”

As you can tell, it’s a close-knit group at House of Signs. A bit of a different business structure than Ziglin Signs but they both share some of the same sentiments.

“We have a Multicam CNC router and that is our workhorse,” Ziglin says.

Cox had an almost identical answer.

“Our CNC router is one of our workhorse tools.”

This should tell sign shops in the 3D sign-making market that no matter their background or configuration, there is one constant—reliance on the machine. Using the right CNC router will provide optimal results and repeat business. But some aspects of routed signs also include additional care—outside of the machine. Custom hand work can improve the look of these types of signs.

“When it comes to the molding that’s all done by hand,” Ziglin says. “We do a lot of fabrication with aluminum—some steel but not much. Every once in a while we’ll use some sculpting aspects where we’ll carve.”

Keeping all parts of the project under the shop’s supervision is a big advantage. It allows the shop to stick to the timetable and ensure that nothing is overlooked.

“We do a lot of in-house welding and building of wood structures,” Cox says. “Keeping the work in-house allows us to get very creative and keep projects moving efficiently.”

A “How-To” Approach

First steps can be the biggest. Shop owners should ask themselves: What should I consider when approaching a three-dimensional sign project? Cox says, “Our normal process begins with a client meeting to gather information, and educate them with our knowledge of design and materials.”

Following that initial meeting, House of Signs conducts a site visit and then starts to draft a concept to present to the client.

From Ziglin’s perspective, there are a couple of starter steps to follow. He says the “dimension factor is always number one,” and keep these two questions in mind:

  • How are you going to make the project—is it routed or hand made?
  • What is the concept of it?

“Figure out how you’re going to make a realistic file because the file is the key,” Ziglin says. “With everything now in laser and CNC, it all boils down to the file. So creating the file or having help creating the file is crucial to the whole 3D aspect of it.”

From there, it’s on to actually getting the design in place.

“3D sign design requires more complexity than flat signage because it entails more moving parts and interesting interfaces,” says Cox, as he compares it to other projects. “How much carving depth and the level of detail required to execute a design should be determined early on in the design phase. Blending materials and finishes to be dimensional and aesthetically pleasing while meshing with an integrated bracket or framework are extremely important aspects that we take very seriously. Very clear vector design is also important before importing design files into 3D software. This allows the CNC router to run more smoothly and quickly.”

When beginning a project, Ziglin sometimes likes to render a miniature model or a sample if it’s a one-off job. But if there’s more than one piece, “it becomes way too labor intensive to do it in that scenario, and that’s where we got into the molding aspect. We do a lot of HDU 3D stuff, but if we’re going to do a bunch of them, then we’ll just do one and cast it in a mold, then pour the mold to help with the production aspect.”

On the Job

“We have been involved with a fantastic project since last year,” Cox says, “And we are currently working on Phase Two.”

Cox explains that the town of Breckenridge, Colorado has created an entire arts district in the community. House of Signs was fortunate enough to create the signage and designs for the campus that included a mix of both new and restored historical buildings.

“Blending the vintage with the more modern elements was the ultimate goal, and the sign system has been very well received,” Cox says.

Cox points to careful attention with this kind of work because “the various substrates, finishes and textures must be executed to be both aesthetically pleasing, sufficiently durable and compatible with the framework, brackets and hardware required to secure the sign.”

Most often the types of substrates that are used, and the methods of installation being implemented are left to the sign maker’s discretion.

“Rarely do we get a customer who is specific about the materials used on the sign,” Cox says.

Ziglin echoes by saying, “We don’t consult with our customers about materials. The customer sees a piece of paper and they say, ‘That looks cool, make it look like that.’ The rest of it is on us and our vendors.”

Very recently, Ziglin Signs was awarded a project that included fully customized elements from concept to finish.

“A customer wanted us to do a 3D six-foot-tall sparkplug,” Ziglin says. “To come up and figure out how to make this and then figure out some type of stand for tradeshows and other venues—there’s a lot that goes into the thought process behind it.”

Ziglin admits, he wasn’t sure which way they wanted to go with this project.

“There are several ways you can skin a cat,” he describes. “Ideally, with the five-axis CNC router and the technology that’s out there, you can do things a lot easier.”

Ziglin leveraged not only his machinery but his team to make the sparkplug project come to life.

“With this particular project, it’s an 18-inch round realistic sparkplug that we sliced into two-inch pieces and laminated all together.”

After that they hand sanded the surface and painted it to make it look as realistic as possible – even as a larger-than-life automotive component.

“It’s very cool when you can take a two-dimensional object on a piece of paper and make it a 3D living and breathing thing,” Ziglin says.

Who's Buying?

Why do customers come back for business, or better yet, come to you in the first place? Cox says, “Most of our customers rely on our design experience and award-winning reputation, that they feel it's best to let the artist take the reins. We prefer this approach, as it gives us 100 percent design freedom, but always welcome their ideas or any reference material they may provide.”

For Ziglin, the process is a little different. In the Ziglin Signs’ world, routed work is just part of the experience. The shop also completes printed graphics, electrical signs and more. Jack-of-all-trades is truly a suitable title.

“That’s where our niche has helped us the most,” Ziglin explains. He says that the sparkplug project came from a much more involved job with brake pads. And that customer started out in the vehicle wraps arena. “They came in one day to look at some artwork we were doing for one of their customers—we were doing a wrap for them—and they saw some 3D stuff we had on our shelf and asked, ‘You guys do this?’ That was it.”

Routed signage by nature is typically a unique type of offering. For that reason, it continues to be in demand and requires a lot of attention. Both sign makers and customers take this kind of work seriously because, in the end, it strengthens both of their businesses.

“Most of our work isn't cookie-cutter,” says Cox. “We have an international clientele that is very enthusiastic with the work we specialize in. Therefore we try to keep our work unique and fresh, so it doesn't become boring and stale—or cookie-cutter.”

These types of signs are a thing of beauty. They are original. They provoke thoughts and questions. They tell a story.