Metal Shop 101

Rick Williams

Rick Williams owns Rick’s Sign Company, a commercial sign shop in Longview, Texas. He has been in the sign industry since 1973 and has been a contributing editor to Sign Business since 1986. Contact Rick via e-mail at ricksignco@aol.com.

In our commercial sign business, one thing we could not do without is the capacity to make sign frames and other fabricated sign items in-house quickly and according to customers’ requirements. There simply is no way to buy wholesale and pre-manufactured all the various sign frames, sign supports and other items our customers need and want.

Some sign shops, located in retail areas or with limited facilities, may not be able to have any fabrication capabilities to speak of, but for most commercial sign businesses, having some ability to do light welding and basic fabrication is easily possible and usually essential.

Let’s take a look at some items we build that may be of use to other sign makers, how they are assembled and finished, and what it takes in the way of equipment to do this type work.

We go through a lot of sign frames each year, and for several years have made our own. This is the only way we can offer our clients their preferred frames, and all the variations they want.

One basic item is the typical 18" x 24" and 24" x 36” steel (angle) frames that all sign makers sell every day. Unlike many commercial signs shops that sell most of these to realtors, builders and contractors, we sell more of these signs in northeast Texas to oil and gas customers. And they have a problem with how most wholesale sign frame manufacturers make their frames. Typically, they produce their frames by notching and folding over the part that makes the legs and tops. While this makes a smooth top edge and saves them two welds, there is nothing to really hammer on to drive the signs into the ground. Just stomping the bottom member hard enough is not always easy.

The single folding leg we make is used on 2' x 3' frames and standard 18" x 24" H-style frames. As shown, the pieces to make this hinging leg are simple. They are held in a jig for welding and hinge fine but require no chain.

 
 
 

Our customers want to take a small sledge hammer and get their signs in the hard summer ground quick, and they damage sign frames doing so. So, when we make our frames, the legs and the top member are all different pieces, and we leave the legs sticking up an inch or so on all our standard frames, giving them something to bang on without damaging the sign itself. We fabricate all our frames, so this is easy, though we just as easily could notch and bend the frames, like the ones we can buy. The customer is always right, as they say.

We have found our clients sometimes want frames that are different sizes than one can typically buy wholesale, such as the 36” x 36” size frames we have built lately, or some other less than typical size. Having a small fabrication shop makes this no inconvenience to us and helps our clients a lot.

We have found, especially for our 2' x 3' frames, we have clients who want them to fold open and not go into the ground at all. If the sign is single-sided, a folding A-frame sign really is a waste of their money because they just need a third leg, a folding leg.

The design we have come up with has worked well, and we have sold a lot of them. It is shown in the photos and made of some all-threaded rod (or cut off carriage head bolts), four nuts, two short pieces of ¼"  flat bar and some 1” angle iron. This type of folding leg, which hinges using threaded rod and nuts as the hinge, requires no chain to hold in either folded out or in, since there always is a bit of tension or friction on the nuts.

It bolts at the top of our frames, which we now punch with extra holes for this purpose, since some will be sold in folding fashion. We can cut the same leg to be the correct height for a smaller 18 x 24” frame, as well, and sometimes use them this way.

When a two-sided sign--an actual “A-frame” type of sign--is needed, we have a design that works well and is easy to fabricate. These are standard frames, of 1” angle, which have somewhat shorter legs because they will not go into the ground and no lower cross member. But at the top, we weld two tabs, approximately 3” long. These tabs are made from ¼” plate steel, and each one has a single 3/8” hole near the top. They are angled, flat on the bottom and rounded (no sharp corners) on the top.

The spacing of the tabs is 7.25” apart when they are welded to the top member of our folding sign frames. A single 5/16” x 8” long bolt, secured with a nylock nut, holds the frames together and serves as both handle and hinge.

Any frame we commonly make is welded together accurately using a simple jig, usually made from a piece of MDO and strips of MDO screwed into place, to make guides to hold the pieces of the frame while welding. One might think these wooden jigs would soon be burned too much to be useful, but this is not the case. Simple jigs, like this, are easy to make and also simple to alter or affix additions. The same jig might be used to weld 18" x 24” frames and 24” x 24” frames. The cross member location changes and perhaps the length of the legs, but the same jig can accommodate several variables.

Cutting angle iron requires minimal equipment, from hand-operated shears to metal band saws to hydraulic iron workers, depending on the volume a shop needs to produce. We have an iron worker and a good band saw, but originally cut a lot of angle with a simple manual angle shear with a long handle.

For cutting special parts, like the tabs on our folding frames, we have access to a CNC plasma cutter at our other (WPC Services) shop, but most anywhere, there will be a job shop that will be glad to cut simple parts at very reasonable rates. Just order enough pieces to make it worth their while to cut them and keep extras in stock if necessary. To expedite things and perhaps save a bit of money, prepare them a DXF file they can bring into their CAD software for cutting your work.

Of course, items as simple as these tabs can be cut with a chop saw or band saw from flat bar, and the corners can be rounded slightly with a grinder once the welding is done. Drilling all the holes takes a bit longer, but they can be drilled (or punched) before any cutting is done, which makes handling the part a lot easier for this step.

Another frame item that has come in handy for us and found useful by our customers is a sturdy tubing frame to hold a 36” x 48” face or 48” x 48” face, and these frames are mated with clamp-on “feet” to stand on, making it easily moveable. The feet are staked into the ground with stakes made of ½” round rod, welded in the shape of a “T.” We sell several of these a year and keep a few in stock. They are used at oil or gas drilling sites, construction sites and other places where a good sized sign is needed but may need to move frequently.

These frames are of 11-gauge square tubing 1” x 1”, and the feet have vertical pieces of 1 ¼” light wall tubing that the legs of the frames will slide down. There is a hole near the top of each “foot,” over which we weld a threaded nut, and we provide a T-shaped bolt for the customer to hand tighten and clamp the sign leg into its foot.

The fact that the feet on these signs are removable and not welded into place means the signs break down into pieces, lay flat and are easily transported in the back of a pickup truck.

Every standard sign frame we make, and we make hundreds in the course of a year, is powder coated, not painted. This makes a more durable and damage-resistant finish for our frames than any type of painting. Fortunately, for sign makers, powder-coating shops have proliferated around the country. In most locales, one can find a vendor offering this service who will be glad to do the finishing for them.

The key is to bring enough frames and/or other items at one time to make it worth their while, allowing them to offer a competitive price due to the volume involved. Two or three frames will not interest them much, but 20 or more certainly will.

Being able to do light fabrication in-house allows us to offer much better service to our customers who frequently want some frame or other hardware we cannot buy from a catalogue. But just how much equipment does it take to be prepared for light sign shop fabrication?

A welder, of course, and preferably a wire-fed type. Just don’t buy a hobby-rated unit, as doing repeated welding of sign frames, even for an hour or so, will likely push its limits. Ours is a Millermatic 135, and it does a very good job. Wire-fed welders typically require a bottle of gas (Argon mix) to weld correctly. Keeping a back-up bottle of gas is a great idea. Another good idea is buying, not leasing, the bottles.

Some type of shear for cutting angle is good or a decent metal bandsaw. When cutting steel for several identical sign frames, one can tack weld the ends together of several sticks of angle and then clamp them in the saw and cut several at a time. Set the cutting pressure very light, cut slow and go about other work while the saw cuts. My dad, who does most of our fabrication and welding (at age 78), is a master at working efficiently, and this is how he does it.

He also has set up a narrow platform of rollers leading up to the saw to make feeding metal to it easier, and past the saw on the other side is a length of angle iron for a guide, which he can set “stops” on for repeat cutting without measuring.

What about all those holes? Punching is a lot better than drilling, and one can purchase dies for punching slotted holes, which are better than round. Even without a full-blown ironworker, there are air piston operated units (made by Multi-Cylinder) that can operate a single punch for punching the same common ¼” x ½” slotted holes using regular shop air. Using guides and stops can prevent the operator from having to do much measuring.

And, as previously mentioned, the main thing is making, using and saving simple jigs for the routine items sign shops make. When there are times the order calls for only a few of a certain frame, which is unlikely to be duplicated, simply build one, then set it smooth side up, drive a number of finish nails around its shape and build the rest on top of the first one.

For us, the ability to build what our customers need, when they need it, is very important to our business. Having the right tools and using them efficiently help us stay competitive and prepared to serve our clients well. And in this economy, keeping one’s customers happy and coming back is more important than ever.