Shop talk 1

Shop Talk: Fabricating and Frame Making

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

One of the things that’s helped keep our small commercial sign shop viable through the years is the fact that we can fabricate almost anything we need, especially in the way of sign frames of various types. There are a number of types of frames we regularly make, and sometimes we create new ones along the way.

Of course, there are wholesalers who do a good job of making the typical angle iron sign frames that realtors and others use, and buying wholesale is fine, too.  But, we have found it beneficial to be able to make a variety of sign frames, different sizes, vertical shapes, oversize frame, and just about anything our clients can think of.

Lately we’ve made a number of sign frames that are mated to what we call a “third leg” folding member, which is a type of folding sign unit I’ve never seen outside of our shop. But this simple and economical portable sign frame has been one of our standards for at least 10 years.

It’s quite simple, and as with the rest of them, they can be made with very basic fabrication and welding tools. The “leg” part is just a piece of angle iron an inch or so shorter than the frames two legs, but the top of the leg features a simple hinging mechanism made from 3/8” threaded rod, four nuts, and a couple of small pieces of flat bar and a short piece of angle. A jig was used for holding things in place while welding, which keeps the assembly of this kind of hinging mechanism simple and predictable.

Our other standard folding frames have “hinge-handles” at the top made from some special tabs with one hole, CNC plasma cut, and one 8” long bolt that is 5/16” in diameter. A nylock nut keeps the bolt handle from ever coming loose, and about 20” of chain sets the folding angle when set up. This type of frame is very easy to make, and we have sold hundreds over the years, in two or three standard sizes, mostly 18” x 24” and 24” x 36” configurations.

Some of our custom frames have no legs, but are made to secure to fencing or buildings or even welded to something in the field. All of them will be powder coated, which our sister company can do, but even before having that ability we would send them to a local coating company so they would have a good industrial finish that would resist rusting and last a very long time.

Powder coating is a superior way to finish products like this, and usually there is a contractor who will be glad to take on the work. However, for rush jobs and short runs of a few special frames, I have also hand-sanded the angle to be used to make just two or three frames of a special size before any cutting or welding is done, which is fast to do in just straight lengths. Then after welding I’ve just wire brushed the welds clean and used spray can primer and then Rustoleum gloss black enamel spray can paint to coat this clean, sanded steel. Powder coating would be better, but I’ve seen these paint jobs last for years just the same.

A number of our safety signs, which typically go out in the oilfield or to an industrial facility, may not fit the standard over-the-counter sign frame dimensions. But setting up a temporary jig and going into quick production isn’t a problem and doesn’t have to be. We will just screw some small MDO blocks to the work table in the correct positions and start knocking out a frame configuration that may or may not ever be used again.

This in-house work is practical because of the simplicity of process, and in our shop and most any shop that intends to do a steady amount of frame building, you can bet there is an “ironworker” around there somewhere. Our little 50-ton unit was made by Edwards, and we have had it a dozen years or so. Ironworkers are ideal for notching corners, punching holes (even “slotted” holes), pointing sign frame legs, chopping flat bar and more.

There are dies from just about any type or size of hole, but the most common we use is the typical ¼” x ½” slotted hole that is typical for manufactured sign frames. The dies for an ironworker wear out after a lot of use, but they are not very expensive and actually last a fairly long time.

Used ironworkers are not that hard to find, and sometimes one can be picked up at a bargain price. But a model like ours even brand new costs well under $10,000. It is like a number of substantial sign shop tools, in that once they are purchased it isn’t long before it’s hard to imagine having a sign business without one.

One thing to note about buying a used or new ironworker is to be sure you get one that works with your shop’s available electric service. Being an industrial item, most are set up for 3-phase current, but many sign shops aren’t wired with 3-phase electrical service. So it will save a lot of money to buy a machine that is compatible with the current that is already available in your building, most likely single-phase 230 volts, which is an option for ironworkers as well.

For all of our standard frames, which includes not only 18 x 24”, and 24” x 26”, both “H” style and folding, but also 10” x 14”, 20” x 14” vertical, 24” x 24” for folding third legs and so forth, we have simple wooden jigs set up, and made of MDO. Yes, it will get charred a little over time, but we’ve never set any of these on fire and they are easy to make and lightweight compared to some type of steel jig we might use. Some of our most-used jigs are made to rotate turn-table style so welding all sides is faster and easier by just spinning the jig to a new position.

This type of welding is easy, and yes, we use a wire-fed welder for the task. Stick welders produce flux that has to be chipped off, wire-fed welders don’t, and they make a lot less smoke as well.

For a sign shop to set up with the capacity to produce any type of sign frame required isn’t particularly expensive and certainly not complicated. The benefit of being able to meet our customer’s sign frame requirements in-house and quickly can be a real asset for typical commercial sign shops and has been an asset to our shop for quite a few years.

My dad, who is 85 years old this year, does a lot of this work for us and enjoys the diversion as well as the income -- a win-win situation. The work isn’t hard, but it sure pays… for both of us.