Looking for Trouble: On the Face of It

Butch Anton often says that he “hates white vinyl.” I feel this way about plain acrylic letters. I rarely see them as a finished product. There are an unlimited number of decorative options available to take them to another level. I have found that clients are inspired by the eye-catching treatments I have been offering, and they have been willing to pay a bit extra for them. I’d like to focus on some of the tricks and small epiphanies that have helped me enjoy success with an ever-widening range of finishing techniques.

Pre-painted letters

I frequently order Gemini plastic letters, and I’ve found that determining letter finishes is an art in itself. I have made it my business to navigate the many options and details that are possible. I’m often amazed at how appreciative my clients are when I nail a custom spec exactly. It is important that I consider each aspect of my Gemini parts to be my own work. At times, it seems that I actually am not doing anything, but when accurate orders become a consistent pattern, I know that the mark-up I have charged is justified. I’m making good money when I know my product well. I’m losing money when I make ordering mistakes.

The best way to understand and sell pre-finished letters is to obtain Gemini samples. It is my goal to get the client excited about something they will want to pay for without hesitation. I’m constantly working to improve my sales-speak, but a hard sample can outdo me in less time and is more effective. For example, I have one small sample of a polished anodized aluminum finish that has brought in at least $3,000. The client just happened to see it and wanted it, even though it was more expensive. It never occurred to me to show her that one, but once she sold herself on that selection, then nothing else would do. One treatment I like to show is the matte plastic option. It is simple stock plastic with a clear coat that knocks down all of the shine. These can provide an elegant look for eye-level jobs, like office lobbies. At a distance, the flat black appears to be a type of wrought-iron.

Paint them yourself
It is helpful to have a solution for a client’s custom color requests. I have mixed and painted special colors with 1 Shot enamel. This still is an option, but now I’d prefer to select a Pantone spot color and bill $70 right from the catalog because it so convenient. Either way, I’ll sell it as my own work. In the case where a customer asks for a paint company color, like Benjamin Moore, I’ve found that Gemini can match many of them. I recently was thrown off by a request for a set of letters that would blend perfectly with the gloss and color of interior flat latex wall paint. I solved the problem by locating the actual paint and using it on the letters. I primed the white acrylic letters with spray shellac and painted them with a foam brush. I’m sure there is a spray plastic primer that would have worked at least as well, if not better, but my result was just what the client was hoping for. I have a lot to learn about store-bought spray paint, but there are some terrific design possibilities in this realm. I have seen some letters by Scooter of Coyote Signs on which he used the Krylon “hammered black finish.” The selection of designer spray paints is in constant flux, and it pays to study them for sign applications. This also is true for metallic rust and patina activator paints. They are fun to do work with and add enormous value to a stock acrylic letter.

The Easiest Gilding

Gilding refers to any type of leaf or powder treatment that uses a sticky size. There is a choice of fast or slow oil size and water-based size that essentially is thin glue. Surface gilding is easiest when there is just the right “open” time to work comfortably when the size is sticky and just the right style of leaf is used. Slow size takes more planning but is easier because large areas can be done uniformly with no need to rush. Fast size is handy for small projects but can become unexpectedly difficult when the size and weather conditions vary. Water-based size requires the least amount of skill because it is useable within minutes and lasts for days. Its drawback is that it does not self-level, like the oil-sizes, and the gild tends to have a brushy texture. This does not matter when applying heavy leaf, like copper, aluminum, brass or pure silver. With these materials, you want a sticky surface that is long lasting with a lot of grab.

In every case, the easiest way to gild is with patent leaves, no matter what the alloy. Patent leaf comes attached to a rubbing paper but only is usable on a relatively flat surface. One great way to elevate the value of a flat plastic letter is to gild only the flat faces. I sometimes leaf the whole letter, including the returns, but it is so much easier to do only the face, which allows me to use patent leaf. Gilding rounded or shaped letters with loose leaf is drastically more challenging and uses much more material. Ron Percell, of Letterhead Sign Supply, suggests the “face only” tip to me. I was resistant at first because I thought it would make the letters look incomplete. Ron pointed out that if there is a contrast between the face and sides, then we have created a “two-tone” letter. If appropriate, the contrast between the faces and returns of the letters can be intentionally increased for a unique effect. Ironically, it is rather difficult, if not impossible, to tell the difference between gold leaf on the face and metallic paint or plastic on the sides of a letter. At a distance, our eye seems to fill in the finish as long as it is anywhere close to a compatible tone.

As it turns out, plain acrylic letters can offer both artistic opportunities and greater sales. Either from having greater knowledge of outsourced options or expanding into in-house paint and gilding effects, the common acrylic letter can be taken to new heights. Mastery of these simple effects can elevate us as sign artists beyond the limited domain of “outputting” stock items. As we add new finishes to our repertoire we begin to offer something special, and consequently we elevate our trade, which makes us more valuable as sign professionals.