signs, hand-made signs

Shop Talk: Custom Signwork on a Budget

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

*Please click images below to enlarge

A few weeks ago, a woman with a small business located in a rural community about 15 miles from the shop called about doing some lettering and graphics for an existing monument sign on the property she had bought. After a short conversation, I told her that I would drive out to her place in a few days and get some measurements and pictures, and see what we might do.

The challenge, as she had admitted up front, was to not only design something that she would like, but that would also fit her very limited budget of $1,000 to get the sign done, and it was a double-sided sign. Of course, I knew that we could not supply this sign with two sets of dimensional logos and letters, plate metal type or even formed plastic. And a couple of rectangular, flat sign panels would not have the look she wanted. So, our options were few if we stayed anywhere close to her price range.

After talking to her I knew a few things. One: Though she wanted something nice, her colors would be few and simple. And two: She was willing to leave how we did the job mostly up to me. It was also up to me as to how we could make her a nice, custom sign and still meet her budget, if this could be done at all.

The name of the business was “Rose Cottage,” and the art had to have roses in it. One evening working at my desk at home, I searched the internet for ideas and found only a little help there. But using a simple art concept, by hand I sketched something that would work for a border, scanned into my graphics program, and be mirrored over for the matching piece. There would be a reverse panel for the phone number, but the letters of her name could not be individual items as the cost of making them and the time to install all these pieces would surely blow her budget.

So, a bold border was used to tie the company name together in a one-piece element, which would bring the total pieces involved to four (per side), involving just two colors, ivory and black. I could not be sure of the labor involved, and would not find out our actual profit margin until the job was done, but told her I would try to stay within her budget. She loved the artwork, but greatly appreciated my intention to keep the job in her price range.

It would take a little more than one 5’ x 10’ sheet of mill finish .090 alum, approximately $100 in cost, to make all the parts. For most signwork, we use the aluminum alloy 5052, instead of the harder and more expensive 6061. The CNC cutting would cost about $100, to be done on a waterjet, but could have been done just as well on a router. The parts would be powder coated in one color only, and the black would be vinyl and also some spray can paint to be used on the floral parts.

When working on a job where cost is a primary factor, I always try to think ahead, and consider how long the install will take and if there are ways to make it simpler or faster. Keeping this job to a very few parts would save on the install, as well as lower the cost of the CNC cutting required.

If aluminum parts are to be painted, I like working with prefinished aluminum that will only need scuffing and cleaning to be ready to coat. Bare mill finish aluminum requires more prep, a primer coat and a top coat. But, if the paint can instead be powder coating, cleaning and lightly sanding mill finish aluminum is all that’s required. We have access to powder coating virtually in house, but I could have subbed out the $200 in powder coating costs.

Be aware that powder coating is not paint, but really a baked-on coat of plastic. Most powders are ground up polyester, which is pigmented to various colors, and this means that some paints don’t stick to it well and others do.

One fortunate thing is that Krylon spray can paint sticks well to a number of plastics, and according to our tests, it sticks well to polyester powder coating with little prep at all. We had never checked this out, but our simple adhesion tests, shown here, showed good adhesion of black gloss Krylon over areas cleaned with lacquer thinner, areas scuffed with steel wool, or both, and it even bonded well on surfaces where no prep was done at all. In fact, we could not scratch off or strip the paint with tape even when it was just applied to a clean surface. The hot thinners in Krylon seem to allow it to bond into polyester, which was good news.

So, all the parts were powder coated in just one color, Tiger Drylac “Bengal Cream.” The phone number would appear on a black panel with a fine ivory outline, which was just a black vinyl reverse. The floral border was the only thing painted black, and this was painted with gloss black Krylon over graphics plotted in vinyl paint mask. We removed the mask almost immediately, while the paint was still soft so the paint edges would not chip, but instead the mask would leave a nice clean line.

All of this was very simple, and only took about two hours to have all the graphics finished. Installation would be the next step, and the hardware would only involve some plastic anchors and #12 screws.

Fortunately, we had powder coated the screws with the main parts of the job, by securing them in a scrap of sign aluminum. They were lightly sandblasted in a blast cabinet, and hung for powder coating with the other parts. While there is some time involved to screwing dozens of screws into anything, the actual powder coating takes just seconds and produces corrosion resistant fasteners that are perfectly color matched.

No install patterns were made or needed, as a few measurements made from our mock up image, scaled accurately, would be all that was needed. Each part was held in place against an irregular rock wall structure to locate a couple of holes in roughly the centers of rocks. Edges or corners of rocks were avoided to reduce any significant chipping when the holes were drilled with a ¼” bit in a Bosch hammer drill.

After a part was temporarily hung with only two screws and checked for leveling and correct placement, other holes were located and drilled through, leaving marks on the wall for other anchors to be placed. Generally, screws and anchors were kept to a minimum as the parts were lightweight and well secured with just a few fasteners. Each hole in the metal pieces was countersunk on the spot, so our powder coated screws would seat in place and be nearly invisible.

After a 20 minute drive, it took one hour per side to install all the parts to this project, and our customer was extremely happy with her finished sign. Did we do the job for her requested $1,000 budget? Yes we did, which made our client even more than satisfied with the service we provided.

I had applied the best methods to make this happen: simple graphics, simple shapes, simple color scheme and easy installation steps. But was it really a $1,000 job? In the final analysis, no. Though we had a profit margin on the project, to have achieved the profit margin we should have, this project should have cost $1,300 to $1,400.

So I bent the rules a bit, and was a little overly optimistic when I bid on this job. I should have known all this, but of course I am still learning, and fortunately I’m still enjoying what I do. And though I know that doesn’t help pay the bills any, it does keep this beginner with more than 35 years of experience going to work at the sign shop every day and not minding it one bit.