Over eleven years ago we created a sign package for King Ventures at Sea Venture Resort and Spas. The resort required many different types of signs from room numbers to wayfinding signs and everything in between that a resort hotel could possibly need. The freestanding dimensional monument signs at the entryways were the main focus of our labor and at that time we were very excited to design and create such a high profile sign system. In the last decade a lot has changed in the sign industry from materials as well as the technology by which we as craftsman complete a project today. The interior signs at Sea Venture are doing very well and have been assisting tourists and vacationers to enjoy their stay while visiting the Pismo Beach area.
Some of the vinyl lettering throughout the property will be redone but I am happy that most of the interior work is still in good shape. The freestanding monuments however are in need of repair and we signed on to redo them. Some materials of the monuments are holding up very well and some are not doing so well as can be expected after a decade of service. I should add that other than age there was another reason for the need to redo the monument signs—just recently the resort was in the middle of a repaint on the building’s exterior when a lift truck fell on one of the two monument signs and broke it in half.
This accident prompted our services immediately. While re-creating the new monuments for the Sea Venture resort, I chose to fabricate the signs using different materials (some the same) and of course used the newer technology available today to get the job done.
THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY
While inspecting the old broken sign I noticed a few things right away. We originally used 15-lb. Sign Foam high-density urethane (HDU), which was holding up very well. This included the sign faces and the HDU-skinned posts. The sign was backed with 1" exterior medium density fiberboard (MDF) and it was completely rotten. The MDF was getting wet everyday and simply couldn’t take it and had literally turned to mush. The signs have been subjected to the salt air from the ocean that is fifty yards away, the damp foggy mornings that can be common along the coast and the constant sandblast effect that the beach and ocean breeze create. Add to this the landscape sprinklers soaking the signs almost daily and after eleven plus years I am surprised the signs look as good as they do because the elements described are pretty harsh indeed.
The copper leaf incised lettering was doing pretty well with some slight patina starting to take place in the areas where one could see that the water would sit and be last to evaporate. We redid the copper leaf about five years ago and I would be honest in saying that it was in worse shape at that point with much more patina and dark areas. When we redid the copper leaf we decided to apply more clear coats of Frog Juice, which looking back, seemed to help hold back Mother Nature a little better. Another observation I made was that all of the metal hardware used to fabricate the sign had turned to rust. This seems like a no-brainer, considering the location, but I’m talking about hardware that had been countersunk deep into the HDU and was then filled, primed and finish coated multiple times. Yet the rust still found its way to the surface.
SANDBLASTING TO ROUTING
Learning from my observations helped me to make better choices regarding the fabrication of the new sign. In fact, I ended up using quite a few different approaches this time around. When the signs were first created we were still sandblasting most of our dimensional signs and the Sea Venture sign was sandblasted the first time around. This time we used our Gerber CNC router to do the carving and in my opinion yielded a better looking product as I am not a big fan of the “stucco textured” look that you achieve when sandblasting HDU board.
I did however, hand carve the original incised lettering and it could be argued that the router falls short of the traditional look, especially on the inside corners while generating the geometry necessary to create an incised letter. I don’t get too hung up on shortcomings of this nature because the router look is in fact perfect. What I mean by this is that the geometry is perfect and the rounded off inside corners are perfectly rounded so the eye accepts them as being accurate, albeit not idealistically correct. It becomes the look of the times based on the equipment available to a given era of craftsmen. Frankly, the router carved the lettering in about ten minutes, whereas I would have spent three quarters of a day between carving, sanding and finessing. For me, hand carving this sign would not be a profitable business decision today!
WE’RE NOT AFRAID OF THE WATER
The 1" MDF backer on the old signs had failed terribly and it was the surrounding urethane that kept the signs from falling apart. At the time the product that we used was rated as exterior grade but nonetheless it did not pass the test. This is an extreme exposure situation and I would expect just about any material no matter how well sealed it is to fail in time, and a decade is a decent amount of time.
Fortunately today there is a product that will hold up under such tough conditions and it’s called Extira. I am confident in the performance of Extira because we have done tests to confirm its ability to withstand water. To make a long story longer, we soaked a piece of Extira in a bucket of water for months only to find a slight fuzzy surface, yet very minimal, swelling and no signs of breaking down. I am confident that the 1" Extira we used to back the sign this time will give us the longevity that is needed to support this free standing monument sign for another decade without incurring the absolute failure from the moist environment.
PAINT IS OUT, RESINS ARE IN
The Sea Venture signs have a sand smaltz background consisting of medium grit silica sand. The sand smaltz on the old sign held up pretty well in the harsh environment at the Sea Venture resort. We were using paint back then to hold the smaltz to sign backgrounds as this was the practice from the old days and was how we were taught from the written pages of sign writing manuals. The practice was to fortify the paint with Smith’s cream or the lesser known Jone’s cream, which would then thicken the viscosity of the paint so that a heavy film could be laid down to hold the smaltz.
The cream paint additive would also accomplish the very important task of slowing the drying of the paint, as one would generally need time to paint out the ground on a sizeable sign. Paints have changed considerably in the last few decades and white lead is no longer used (for obvious reasons) as a main ingredient. White lead has incredible bonding strength and was a key principal in holding the smaltz to the ground. Today we are using a marine epoxy resin to hold our smaltz and the new Sea Venture signs were treated with this method. Epoxy resin is the right viscosity without adding anything and if a slow hardener is used we have plenty of time to apply it to a very large sign background. We are tinting the resin with lettering enamel to better emulate the color of the smaltz used. Tinting helps to block the ultra violet rays from prematurely breaking down the epoxy resin. I expect to see the smaltz last a lot longer on the new Sea Venture signs but only time will tell, as this must be proved.
NO MORE NAILS, GLUE IT
The salty, wet air attacked the metal hardware and rust developed on the old signs. It wasn’t that bad—certainly not sticking out like a sore thumb—but wherever there was metal there was rust. I used silicone adhesive and finish nails to attach the border trim pieces that surround the border giving the appearance of a barrel or cask. Each piece was cut, placed into position and then the finish nail held it in position while the adhesive dried. The method was effective but the rust was not acceptable. I also used screws in the face of the sign to hold it in place while the adhesive set the face to the MDF - a little overkill I think, as the silicone was plenty strong enough alone to hold the sign face to the MDF backer.
Needless to say I did not use any metal on the new sign. Instead of nails I attached the border pieces with cyanoacrylate glue. The raw HDU border pieces were glued directly to the raw HDU face and Extira border. I used a gauge to help position each piece for the proper amount of overhang from the sign face. The glue is very strong when used in this fashion. The joint becomes as strong, if not stronger than the HDU itself and the assembly becomes one solid piece. Cyanoacrylate glue has changed the way we fabricate our HDU signs and in this case the border on the new signs is stronger and I don’t have to worry about any rust developing later.
A STICKY SITUATION
Another change for the better is the way I handled the copper leaf lettering. A decade ago I used (slow) 12-hour oil size to attach the leaf and multiple coats of Frog Juice to keep the lettering shiny and protected against tarnish and patina. This method held up pretty good but the inevitable patina would slowly grow and was getting unacceptable in five to six years.
After close inspection I found that the patina was developing most prominently in the cracks of the copper. Cracks will be present when copper leafing incised lettering with 12-hour size because the size just isn’t aggressive enough to hold the thick foil. You can push the leaf into the cracks of the leaf as hard as you can but in my experience the copper will not take in the cracks. We could apply the leaf when the oil size is very sticky but we must really rub (burnish) aggressively with force to remove the wrinkles and loose leaf. The drawback of doing this is that we will run the risk of busting through the overly wet size.
When leafing with the heavier foils like aluminum and copper leaf I prefer to use a different size called Wunda size. Wunda size is a water-borne product that when ready (usually within fifteen minutes) yields a very aggressive tack and is perfect for the heavier foils. Though rated as an indoor product I have found that I can get wonderful results outside unless it is getting soaked with water a lot, as the water will cause the size to re-solidify and can fail. The tack is so aggressive that you can get crack free solid coverage with the foil so that the foil seals the moisture out from reactivating the size (like putting a lid on it). If we clear coat the foil moisture is not an issue. One of the downfalls of Wunda size is that because it dries so fast it doesn’t brush very well and flow out smooth.
I chose to use Wunda size and an automotive two-part clear coat on the new Sea Venture signs. I masked the sign face, cut and removed the lettering and used the airbrush to spray the Wunda size, achieving a smooth finish. I was able to apply the copper leaf by the time I cleaned up my mess and after rubbing the copper aggressively with a piece of velvet cloth achieved a beautiful gild. The automotive clear coat was applied with a brush past the outside edge of the leaf making sure to seal it well. Although the copper on the old signs was holding up fairly well I have found my new method to be superior to the old and expect to get a much longer life this time around.
FROM FAUX TO THE REAL THING
The finials on the posts were done differently as well. The first time around I copper leafed the finials and clear coated them with Frog Juice. Multiple coats of colored glaze were applied by stippling with sponges to give the appearance of old patina. I was able to achieve the look I wanted only after applying lots of coats and building to the right color. The copper leaf was frankly a bit redundant because in the end it had been almost totally covered up. The method was very time consuming and labor intensive.
The finials for the new sign were treated differently and it was much easier to achieve the natural patina finish. I used the Modern Options-Sophisticated Finishes from Triangle Coatings, a water based metal-impregnated surfacing paint that is easy to work with, dries quickly and will yield a beautiful patina every time. The copper surfacing paint was used followed by spraying with the patina green acid solution. The funny thing is 11 years ago I was trying to emulate the look of patina and now I can simply create it with the Modern Options products.
A lot has changed in the sign business in the last decade, some good changes and some not so great, but with regards to the Sea Venture signs I think it has been for the better. Change isn’t always easy but when new products and techniques surface that make our day-to-day work that much easier and efficient you’ve got to love that!
Until next time…Thanks for listening!