Though LEDs have become the standard light source for channel letters, Michael Florio of Superior Wholesale Signage, a wholesale channel letter manufacturer based in Daytona Beach, Florida, says that requests for neon where neon is not needed continue to flow into the shop.
Florio says neon is an appropriate light source when the neon aesthetic is required to add a traditional look to an environment, either in an exposed application or in reverse channel letters. However, many of these neon requests would be better served with LED lighting for all the reasons covered here in Sign and Digital Graphics magazine continuously: they’re easier to work with, more efficient with low voltage, and easier to install, among other benefits.
“We have to explain to them that 99 percent of what we do is LED, unless they insist on neon that has to be exposed for some reason and the customer wants that look,” explains Florio. “There are still a number of shops that don’t know you can use LEDs as an alternate light source, so we explain the difference and why LEDs are a better fit for their sign, especially today and the way the manufacturers are making LEDs; they’re great. Some of the things they order you can’t even do with neon, like channel letters in a Times Roman font with strokes less than 1 1/2”. That’s not going to happen, especially for UL-listed neon signs, since neon requires a wider and deeper channel that won’t accommodate a narrow font.”
Meeting the Standard
Speaking of UL, Florio adds that sign companies ordering letters, or manufacturing the letters themselves, need to be well versed in local standards and permitting since some of these standards will exceed UL specifications.
“Everything we manufacture is UL-listed, but installation is a matter of jurisdiction. You need to know the local standards, in addition to UL,” says Florio. “The big installation issue we hear about from our customers has to do with permits. Some of our clients say it takes two or three months to get a permit, while others can walk it through in just a day. It depends on the municipality. We ship all over the U.S., and we’ve found that some municipalities are awful while others will help in any way they can. That’s why it’s so important to establish the permitting parameters and what’s required to get one long before any channel letter sign is sold.”
After permitting, the next crucial step prior to installation and quoting a final price is a thorough site survey. A cursory survey may lead to big, unforeseen issues at the time of installation and cause the sign company to lose money on the project.
“A lot of companies will meet with a customer, come up with a drawing and sell them the sign. We’ll manufacture the sign, but when the installer arrives at the destination he finds out that behind the fascia is a steel beam, a security gate, or some other obstruction. They can’t get in to do the remote wiring. That changes the cost of installation; sometimes they re-coup the extra cost and sometimes they take a bath,” says Florio. “Before you order anything, make sure you can get a permit and everything is legal, then survey the inside of the building to ensure you can get in there to do the wiring. If it’s on a raceway sign, make sure you can get in there with your equipment.”
Also before the beginning of a channel letter project, don’t forget how design affects the success of a channel letter sign. It’s easy to lose sight of the final channel letter application in the abstract of a design concept, which is especially important when translating a two-dimensional set of type on a computer screen to the three-dimensional reality of a channel letter installation.
“The most common mistake I see with channel letter design is that they don’t put enough space between the letters,” says Kevin Kane of CLN of South Florida, a manufacturer of routers and fabrication machines based in Belle Glade, Florida. If you just type it into the computer and let it do the normal spacing, as you would with a vinyl or printed design, once you create a three-dimensional letter you actually need more spacing in between each letter. If you don’t do that, when the channel letters are installed and you look at it from the side, it all blurs together. You have to add a minimum of 10 percent more spacing to ensure readability from all angles.”
Similarly, proper spacing needs to be taken into account between lines of text. For example, a channel letter sign that has two sets of 12-inch tall channel letters on two lines should include at least six inches between each line, according to Kane.
“The rule of thumb is to add space between the lines of copy that is at least half the height of the letters. It’s possible there’s a concern about exceeding the square footage of the sign for whatever reason, but in that case you should think more about what needs to be said on the sign to get the point across in as little copy as possible,” Kane says. “Another solution that reads better is a short, fat letter, as opposed to a tall, skinny letter. If you’re new to channel letter signs, you should familiarize yourself with effective viewing distances for readability, both for pedestrian and vehicle traffic.”
A Truck that Fits
At the time of installation one of the biggest hassles can be setting up a crane truck—given increasingly congested roadways and parking lots. A big truck can be difficult to maneuver, especially in strip centers for smaller installations where the majority of channel letters are installed.
“For us, the trend we’re seeing is that sign companies are dealing with congestion and trying to get in and out for the installation, so they’re looking more toward a smaller piece of equipment,” says Darrell Wilkerson, Jr., of Wilkie Manufacturing, a lift-truck manufacturer in Oklahoma City. “That’s why our Wilkie Model 52XLR on the smaller Ford F-550 truck has been so popular. It’s more maneuverable and in a lot of instances it has more height than you need, but many times you’re lifting not so much for the height, but you’re reaching over areas to get where you need to go, like sidewalks and landscaping. You may only need to go 20 feet up, but you need to go 30 feet out to get to it.”
The Wilkie Model 52XLR has a 52-foot working reach and 45-foot maximum lift height. It has a small jib winch in the basket rated at 200 lbs. That 200-lb. rating may not seem like much, says Wilkerson, but channel letters weigh less than they used to when they were all made with neon.
“These days a 50- or 60-lb. channel letter is a heavy channel letter,” says Wilkerson. “With LEDs, now it’s just ounces of lighting going into the letters.”
Perhaps most importantly, the smaller truck doesn’t require a special operator’s license to drive it, or a crane operator certification. Larger trucks require certifications, and finding qualified drivers can be difficult, particularly in areas like Oklahoma where sign companies compete with the oil industry for qualified lift-truck operators.
“A lot of companies are looking for a smaller, more versatile piece equipment. The Model 52XLR is rated so that it’s way under the crane operator certification for the crane lift part of it; that’s a big benefit for smaller companies. Plus, it’s not a highly technical piece of equipment. You can take someone who’s relatively new to the industry and with some training you can turn them loose on it,” says Wilkerson.