The Hidden and the Handsome

Trust me, weeks pass when all that comes out of the metal shop at Classic Design Studios is hidden infrastructure: flat bar brackets for supporting yet another Dibond panel, tubular steel frames with angle mounting cleats—the necessary, yet mundane.

But lately, we’ve put together some projects that draw on all the talents that show up here every morning. It’s a mixture of materials, designs and engineering and the last year has driven home the point that when all of us have near equal input on a project, the production flows, the finished quality is greater and it is installed with much more pride. Being the “metals guy” in the shop, I’ve been fortunate lately to have my work be more of a centerpiece in the design—good for the ego… and job security.

Our local steel supplier is great for always having what we need. Despite the rise in cost of steel over the last two years, it still remains very affordable and the quality is as good as ever. Being in the Northwest with its many aluminum foundries; the same applies to non-ferrous metals as well.

However, I’ve learned over the years that when looking for non-stock items, I’ve found it useful to buy from an end user instead of the supplier. A recent example was the need for 6-inch diameter thin-walled aluminum tubing. Our supplier found it, but with quite a lead time and it was pricey. I called a local irrigation company and had it in a few hours for a lot less. Another example is thin-walled steel tubing up to 3.5'' can be had at your local muffler shop at a great price and most will bend it if needed.

Being the “downtown” sign shop both in location and reputation, our style of signage and the buildings we install them on have quite a range both in age and architectural style. This allows our shop great diversity in the work we produce as well as the added challenge of installing our work on everything from decaying brick, to beautiful granite, to contemporary aluminum siding.

Many of our downtown buildings, as in most cities, have housed many different tenants over the years. Facades show nasty scars of previous pin-mounted letters, blade sign anchors and the occasional electrical conduit. Despite a building being “machine-gunned”, as we like to refer to it, our shop attitude is “no more holes”. We’ve been able to stay true to our mantra by designing brackets that allow for mounting in mortar lines to minimize building damage and allow for a much cleaner repair if the business moves on and the sign is removed.

Prior to laying out our bracket designs, a thorough site survey is done to mark the exact location of the sign. If the building is of brick or block construction, I begin with taking a center-to-center measurement of the mortar lines. Depending on the overall size of the bracket, I take a measurement of usually three to four feet and total the number of bricks or blocks within this distance to see how consistent the masonry work is. With these measurements, it’s back to the shop to tweak the bracket hole pattern to fall within the mortar lines.

Depending on the size and design of the sign, most of my mounting plates are plasma cut from 3/16'' or 1/4'' plate steel. We just email a dxf file across town and the phone rings a day later for pick-up. Since most plasma cutters do not cut small diameter holes very cleanly, I produce a paper pattern to transfer my mounting hole layout to the plate and drill them with my mill.

Once the bracket components are all completed, it’s off to the welding table for assembly and clean up. I take great pains to hide my welds if at all possible. For example, if a base is a stacked plate design, I will drill my base plate with large diameter holes and plug weld the top plate through the holes on the backside. After final clean up, powder coating is usually my finish of choice due to its durability and cost.

Within the last year here at Classic Design Studios, we’ve had the opportunity to design, build and install a series of corner-mounted signs. Each sign varied greatly in size, design and construction, as well as the surfaces they were mounted to and the architecture that influenced their designs. All brackets were mortar line mounted as they were hung on historic downtown buildings. Here are three examples:

Poblano’s is located on a very prominent corner in downtown Boise. The building is sandstone block construction with plenty of relief to figure into the bracket design. Drawing on the radiused corners of the building, we designed the sign face to match this curve. With the sign extending out from the corner, we felt that the bracket, when viewed from street level, needed to have an airy feel and some fun details.

In the shop and ready for paint. The upper three tabs were attached to rods with turnbuckles and bolted into an above mortar line via angle steel tabs. This allowed for great flexibility in drilling and the turnbuckles made plumbing the sign a breeze. Viewed from below, the bracket has a nice airy feel and lots of simple detail. A great way to reduce the weight of a bracket is to simply plasma cut more detail!

Lead designer Jason Keeble drew up the pepper design, which was plasma cut. The main face frame is 1/4'' steel, which was rolled to form the curve. The actual sign face was rolled .080 aluminum with three vertical angle steel brackets. This allowed for the bracket to be hung first and the sign face simply dropping on via keyhole slots. When at all possible, I prefer to design a bracket that can be attached to the building with the sign face bolting on separately. This provides easier installation and is a lot less likely to damage all your hard work.

Java Downtown

Java was a great little project applying traditional techniques to a contemporary design. We used plenty of smalt and loads of gilding—Classic Design mainstays. This bracket was great fun to build and fits the building nicely both structurally and historically. The bottom was welded onto the sides first from the inside, hiding all welds when viewed from street level and giving the bracket a “formed” feel. The local muffler shop was my source for 3'' exhaust tubing for the vertical structure. The main box frame is constructed from 1'' angle with .080 faces. The small bracket that supports the lower corner was slotted to insure that the sign could be made nice and plumb with the corner of the building once it was hanging from its top mount. I have found that turnbuckles and slotted brackets are two of my best buddies to help ease installation and insure accuracy.

Java has great visibility due to its orientation to the corner. Located on the corner of Sixth and Idaho, obviously! Smalt and gold leaf make this non-illuminated sign stand out in both daylight and ambient city light. The lower corner bracket was slotted for plumbing the sign once the top bracket was secured. The bracket was constructed of five pieces and welded internally. Three-inch exhaust tubing makes the center pole and is attached to a one-inch angle frame. Always remember to figure in your mortar line measurements in your overall layout dimensions. Getting all this to line up takes time and certainly adds to the challenge of the install.

Leku Ona

Our latest major project to come out of the shop, Leku Ona, is a fine Basque restaurant in a newly refurbished brick building on a beautiful corner of Boise’s Basque Block. The sign is constructed entirely from HDU with no internal steel structure. This posed a bit of a problem since the brackets were quite massive and ended up weighing more than the sign itself. This made for one of the most interesting installations to date. All four brackets were placed on the building; the sign was then slid between the brackets while being supported by a platform that was attached to the rails of a scissor lift. The brackets were then bolted to steel inserts that were embedded and sandwiched in the HDU. Twisted square stock was used in conjunction with plasma cut plates that made fabrication a cut-and-weld operation. An MDF jig was used when tack welding all the parts together.

LED lighting, wood-grained HDU and a bit of gold make a nice blend of technology and tradition on this sign.

I must say that I feel fortunate that I don’t spend my days under a welding hood doing the same thing over and over as many production welders do. However, in the sign business, it’s sometimes at install where you discover that maybe you should have done something a bit differently or that a detail or two was overlooked in the engineering. It doesn’t happen often, but making corrections is all part of the fun that makes custom fabrication a challenge and anything but mundane.

Time to go… I have 12 angle brackets to weld to support Dibond panels for a strip mall in a neighboring town… no really, I do…