sign making

Rick Williams: Between a Rock and a Hard Place

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.

*Please click images below to enlarge

Every year we sell and install a number of plate metal letter and logo jobs, and in the past two or three years we’ve been able to do the manufacturing ourselves as well. Before this, we would order a turnkey set from a major manufacturer or work with local CNC cutting vendors and powder coaters.

Nationally, a number of manufacturers make plate metal letters and logos, anodized or powder coated, and virtually all of these types of jobs are installed via threaded studs and typical stud patterns. Jobs like these can be ordered with stud patterns included, or a sign maker can make his own patterns, which I always do, so the spacing of each element can be exactly how we want them, not how some technician at a manufacturer saw it.

Usually the patterns are made with no regard to exactly what type of brick, stucco or stone wall they will be installed on. The sign maker takes on the task of making the stud pattern, however it was done, work on the wall at hand.

Recently we were given a chance to bid on a fairly large job of making and installing a company’s logo and lettering, cut in 3/8” thick aluminum, powder coated Texas A&M maroon (the owner of the establishment is a proud “Aggie”), but the rock wall they were to go on was nothing typical. In fact, it was man-made rock, which is a specially shaped and colored concrete product, in this case formed in such a way as to make a very rugged wall. There were many stones laid on edge, and the wall was littered with very pronounced protrusions of some of the rocks.

Man made rock is the most difficult type of wall to work with because it will certainly chip, and it usually shows chips worse than natural stone. And this wall was so unevenly set that it was going to matter exactly where each hole would be drilled. Holes at the edges of rocks would chip badly, so trying to hit each hole in strategic places would be a must. But how do you do that? Certainly not with the letters drilled and tapped in advance, using a stud pattern made with no consideration of where the holes would go in the wall.

When I first went and visited the owner about this project, I failed to look at the wall’s surface seriously enough. Once I bid on it, and went back to get exact color choices and so forth, I looked more seriously at the project I had just gotten myself into and did not much like what I saw. Putting a paper pattern up on the wall first would do little good, since I could not see through it, so I thought about making an acetate or clear Mylar pattern. Though that would have worked better than paper, the more I thought about it the more I thought there was probably a better way.

The final solution worked quite well, and accomplished the producing of a targeted hole pattern like none we’ve ever needed before. But, since these extra rugged walls are becoming popular these days, we will surely be doing this again and I thought I would share the solution with “Shop Talk” readers.

As shown by the accompanying photos, the final strategy was to cut a cheap corrugated plastic template that could be temporarily secured to the wall, complete with its removeable set of letters and logo parts. Cut like the real plate aluminum ones, this template could be used as a perfect guide to where each and every hole should be located and give us an easy way to mark the backs of the real letters and parts for drilling and tapping.

Using a waterjet as we did to cut the metal parts, we cut the plastic template in three easy-to-manage sections. Of course, we saved the large stencil or background parts, as well as all the letters that now fit in place with the small tolerance of the waterjet stream itself. Out on the job, the template was accurately screwed to the wall using a few small “tap-con” screws.

With this done, it was easy to clearly see the best locations for each hole we needed to drill, and marks were made on the template to indicate this. One at a time, the letters were then placed into their respective places and marked where the studs would go, then taken out and holes were drilled in them with a small masonry bit.  The letters were fit back in place and held while the same bit was used to drill through them just enough to mark “dots” on the wall itself.

Then, before taking down our template and leaving the job, following the “dots” we had made on the rocks, all the holes needed for the install were drilled with a hammer drill using a ¼” bit masonry bit.

Though we had to produce these plastic templates, the cost in material and waterjet cutting was less than $150 and this step eliminated the need for patterns at all. Next time we have a similar job we will have the templates cut from corrugated plastic when the letters themselves are being made. With this type of template, every single hole was easily placed in the best possible location. No holes were placed at edges of rocks, and no rocks were cracked or chipped even after drilling 200 holes or so. Success!

Back at the shop, an assistant was assigned the task of taping the corrugated plastic letters and logo parts placed face down on the backs of the real 3/8” thick aluminum parts, and a small bit was used to drill shallow marking holes in each part by drilling through the small holes we had made in plastic template letters and logo sections in the field.

Since the tapping had to be done almost last, it was going to be up to the sign maker to tackle this chore. We are fortunate to have a Flex Arm tapping machine, and we used it together with a basic shop drill press to get this part of the job done without spending too much time on it. The tapping could certainly have been done by hand, and we have done sets of letters this way many times before. But, having the right machine for the job is a plus.

When finished with all the drilling and tapping, each hole was filled with a 3/16th diameter eye screw and then all the letters and logo parts were very lightly sandblasted on all surfaces. Some of the small eye screws were to be used to hang up the parts for powder coating, and some were merely there to protect the threads in each hole.

The job filled one large and one small powder coating rack, and the parts were coating with a beautiful deep maroon, to be exact RAL 3005, in a high gloss Tiger Drylac polyester powder. If you sometimes work with powder coaters and need a deep true burgundy or maroon, not too red or purple, this color, which is listed on any RAL Powder Coating color chart, is a good one. (RAL colors to powder coaters are like PMS colors to printers).

In the end, the installation of this set of letters and logos on a problematic rock wall, was simpler than most stud mounting jobs we’ve ever done. Once the powder coating was finished, we were ready for the final trip to the job site. This trip did not require drilling any holes, taping any patterns, or even taking a single measurement. All of that work was done in advance, and after using a small air compressor to blow out the dust from the holes, silicone sealant/adhesive was used as typical to secure each element in place.

The studs, some of which would visually show in this rugged wall, had been painted a color that blended with the rocks. This step is often forgotten by sign makers, or they paint the studs to match the letters, which is a mistake. The studs need to be as invisible as possible, especially on rough walls that tend to expose them more than usual.

There may be a better way for doing a tough install like this, but I don’t know of it. This throw away stencil strategy worked so well it turned an install wanting to be a disaster into another day at the office. And that’s exactly what we wanted. If you find yourself facing this type of annoying and difficult install, this method may be the easiest way to solve the problem, guaranteed to take some of the stress and frustration out of your life. And that, I’m sure you’ll agree, is always a good thing.