Becoming a Channel Letter Champion

Andy Stonehouse is a Denver-based freelance writer who has been covering the automotive industry for more than ten years.

Smaller sign companies with a bit of experience under their belts often wonder how easy it might be to break into some new territory—can your expertise and some basic equipment (some already on-hand as well) allow you to become a master of channel letter installation, for instance?

Industry insiders say the steps required to begin doing channel letter install jobs are not impossible, especially if you outsource the sign construction work to a wholesaler. The real trick, most say, is mastering the skills and know-how to manage the business bureaucracy, government regulations and approvals required for most signs, which can present the biggest challenges for newcomers—not to mention the electrical and construction skills often required for even basic channel letter jobs.

Warren Sciortino, owner of LetterFab, a sign manufacturer and wholesaler located in Crested Butte, Colorado, says he has plenty of clients who are doing great business on a do-it-yourself basis, using manufacturers to tackle the sign-making work and then simply renting lift equipment from a big-box home construction store for their install work.

“I sell signs to one guy who used to work for a bigger sign company—he went out and bought a lift, and now he does the service work and installation himself, and loves it, and makes good money,” Sciortino says. “A lot of people are getting into it, and even picking up their own equipment, as bigger sign companies sell off their crane trucks because of CDL concerns or overall expenses.”

But before cruising the classifieds looking for major hardware, Sciortino cautions newcomers to consider the much broader skill set they’ll need to be able to translate a potential client’s cocktail napkin sketches into attractive and acceptable signage, much less the sometimes daunting work of drilling through other people’s property to do a proper install job.

“The biggest problem with a good installation is the need to ask all the right questions,” he says. “You’ve got to take pictures of signs in the area and see what the other guys have, the colors and the styles. And then it all depends on the landlord and his specs, and those can be tight. The landlord doesn’t want you putting a lot of holes through his building, either.”

Franchisees, such as folks opening their own UPS store, will often be able to get company-approved drawings demonstrating appropriate signage styles, but Sciortino says even those require specialized expertise to render and install correctly.

“They’ll get drawings for both direct and raceway styles; raceway is a lot less expensive, as you just have to run a whip through, wire it up and do the installation, which you could do in a couple of hours,” he says. “Direct is much more complicated, with direct wiring and power supplies for each letter, and metal boxes per UL standards. Sometimes a disconnect switch will also be required. They can be a big job with lots of bucket-time.”

Bob Chapa, president of Signarama of Troy/Metro Detroit, says the municipal and county regulations governing the size, style and brightness of any channel letter job can also be a headache for newcomers, especially if they haven’t dealt with the issues (or the government departments and documents) related to public signage.

Chapa’s Signarama branch is unique to that chain in that it has both a full-fledged manufacturing team and an experienced sales and design team who can handle the site inspections and much of the bureaucracy required for his Southeastern Michigan-area clients. That leaves them with just the install work to worry about.

“We go out and conduct a detailed site survey, checking out all of the neighbors’ signage and hopefully getting ahead of the curve, permit-wise, by seeing what that city has already allowed,” he says. “And then the design process is just as important, with someone who understands their brand and how they want it represented. Most logos would look terrible if you just simply lit them up as they were.”

Chapa’s team then applies for the necessary permits with full renderings of the finished work. After years of experience dealing with municipal code, Chapa says his team is able to get most local channel letter sign jobs approved in a week.

Working with clients further across the U.S. and in the Caribbean, Sciortino says he’s seen regulations becoming more complex over the years, with some cities requiring engineered drawings, some asking for UL labels on practically every component of signage, and others requiring both an electrical license and a sign installation license to do their job.

Those adventurous souls who want to tackle the design and regulatory approval processes themselves but not deal with the headache and cost of assembling signage themselves can also collaborate with a sign wholesaler such as Richmond, Ohio’s Sign America, which manufactures signage in a largely automated facility, according to client specs.

Sign America's Kim Cronin says the process is fairly simple, provided that a sign shop has done its homework and prepared signage that will be suitable (and compatible) with its customers’ needs and physical space.     

“Small and large companies have told me over the years that it is less expensive to order from a wholesaler than to fabricate themselves,” she says. “Customers obtain artwork for a project and order the job, and then all parts of the channel letter are cut and routed and the faces are trimmed and the letters are assembled. Then we add LED lighting and UL labels, and package it for shipping.”

No matter who supplies the signage, Sciortino says the installation process can present a wide variety of hurdles, and certainly requires a steep learning curve.

“You’ve got to go out and look at what you’ve got to deal with,” he says. “Do you have attic access? Are you going to have to drill through brick—some brick walls are three inches thick and then you still have 15 to 18 inches of block to drill through. Most shopping centers put up half-inch to three-quarter-inch blocking, and you can just bolt or screw the sign onto that.”

As a sign wholesaler, he’s also happy to let new installers know when they may be in over their heads on a first-time project.

“Sometimes, we’ll call them back and ask, ‘how is this mounted? What’s the size of the lift you’re using?’ You have to take the responsibility for the installation, and I can tell when the client really doesn’t know a lot about the job.”