Shop Talk: Getting out the Big Guns

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

Today’s sign makers work with much better and more expensive equipment than our predecessors would have even considered 40 or 50 years ago. Back then, other than a boom truck or crane, a commercial sign shop probably had less equipment than a local cabinet shop and did a great amount of the work by hand.

There were no printers, plotters, lasers, routers and so forth, but instead we had work tables and easels, plus basic welding and wood working tools. But now we have an amazing amount of technology to assist us in what we do.

However, no sign company can afford to have every piece of equipment that would be useful in sign making because the cost cannot be justified and it would take too much space even if cost wasn’t an issue. That does not necessarily imply limitations, as in most medium-sized or larger markets there are plenty of local industrial service providers who can bridge the gaps and let us do just about anything our clients might want us to provide.

I have been running a small commercial sign shop for more than 40 years, but I am fortunate to be a partner with my two sons in owning and operating another business that offers industrial services that most sign companies would not do in-house, including CNC waterjet, plasma and router cutting services, as well as press brake work, powder coating, sand blasting, roll forming, and various fabrication services.

That doesn’t mean that we have any real edge on our local competition, though, as any local commercial sign company can avail themselves of all these services, through our sister company or through other reliable local vendors geared to offering these heavy duty services at reasonable prices.

Sign companies do themselves a service to become educated on what is locally available and establish a relationship with providers that are in business to serve as subcontractors for all kinds of either high-tech or heavy duty work, which may be unreasonable for a commercial sign shop to do in-house.

No business of any type will be able to justify owning every piece of equipment that on occasion might be needed. So knowing what is right around the corner, or even across town from one’s location, is a very good thing. And developing a relationship with one or more service providers who can do some of the heavy lifting is always a considerable asset.

The keys to getting your work done on time and at a fair price are simple: make sure you do your homework, providing the specifications or computer files that help the vendor get right to work, and always pay for what you get promptly. There’s no rocket science here. Be an easy client to work for and be prepared to write a check or use a credit card when you pick up your work. These two simple things will help move your projects to the top of the workload faster.

As our start-up industrial services company has grown—and such growth can be painful and costly—we’ve upgraded some machines and purchased others in order to provide the services our clients want under one roof. Our sign shop enjoys the relationship, but it isn’t exclusive by any means.

Because one or more of our best clients wanted work to be formed or bent in a press brake, to go with the CNC cutting and powder coating, we recently bought a brand new 12’ AccurPress press brake, and a used roll forming machine. The press brake is serious equipment, really getting out the big guns. And you know your freight charge isn’t going to be cheap when what you’ve bought is the only thing on its own 18-wheeler.

A press brake, with the right tooling, can be used to bend or form just about anything using any type of metal, often for industrial purposes but for sign work too. Fortunately our clients, far more than anything we need to have done, made this make sense. But, whether press brake or waterjet, if one looks around there are likely to be several places within a short drive that can provide these services readily.

While many commercial sign shops may have a sheet metal brake, limits are quickly reached when the thickness of aluminum gets over .080 in thickness and for steel the limits are even less. But a typical industrial press brake can make accurate and true bends in metals much thicker and more structural, and with more uniformity and angle accuracy.

Though CNC routers are great, and really fit well in a commercial sign shop, waterjets are another heavy duty piece of equipment that has many uses for sign making, and they can cut all types of materials with great precision, from sheet metal to granite, stainless steel to glass. So it is good to know where that type of cutting service is available.

As far as cutting goes, a sign maker should also never waste his time making low-precision structural parts, like base plates, gussets, and steel parts of most any kind, when a CNC plasma table can cut them at very fast and at reasonable cost. After hitting the limits of our first low end plasma table, we opted for a 6’ x 12’ German made Messer plasma table with a 400 amp torch that will cut 2” thick steel plate with ease. But, with the right settings and consumables it will cut stainless steel and aluminum sheet well enough for most sign projects and much faster and less expensive than waterjet cutting. Take note though—not all plasma tables are created equal and a really good one is going to provide quality and capacity that a cheaper one can’t.

A very helpful industrial service that sign makers need to avail themselves of is powder coating, a baked-on dry painting method that is an ideal finish for metal parts of all kinds, and especially aluminum sign faces, letters and logos. Structural sign parts, base plates, sign poles, sign frames and hardware are best finished using this method as well, and if a local provider offers this service he will often cost no more to use than the cost of prepping and painting everything in-house.

If there is a reliable powder coating service nearby, it would be a benefit to any sign maker to have a good working relationship with that company. The sign maker will be able to provide better quality work to his clients, and eliminate some of the challenges of doing a good and eco-friendly job of coating his unpainted parts, while he goes on with other important aspects of his commercial sign business.

The bottom line is that being aware of and using local industrial service providers—who have equipment and capabilities that a commercial sign shop is very unlikely and impractical to have—opens up opportunities and solves problems for the sign maker that benefit his business in a number of ways. Some diligent investigation and deliberate relationship building can give him an edge over the competition and greatly lesson the times he has to say “no” to his clients and potential clients … a win-win situation that can make life easier and improve a shop’s bottom line.