display lettering

Shop Talk: An Inside Job

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 ricksignco@aol.com.

One thing about the commercial sign business is that there are many different things to do, and many ways to do them. Even though someone may have years of experience, it is always wise to look for ways to improve, to become more efficient and even more professional in how one does his or her work.

In our small commercial sign business, even though I am the owner and primarily the designer/layout person, I also do most of the installs out in the field and look forward to that part of my work. And when I am out on an installation, I try to pay attention to how long the work takes, and how I might do it better, perhaps simpler, and even try to find ways to minimize the damage to walls or surfaces that I may be mounting signs, letters and logos on.

On a couple of interior wall displays we did recently, I thought ahead and really reconsidered the way I was about to go out and drill a lot of significant holes in interior walls that later may well have to be repaired because of my work. And, there really was a better way to get the same job done in less time with a whole lot less damage to our client’s buildings.

The first project was to be installed on an interior wall of the district attorney’s office at our local courthouse. The letters were to be made of .25” thick aluminum sheet, waterjet cut and powder coated an anodized aluminum color, and though some were small and light enough to feel confident about installing them with double-sided tape on a textured sheetrock wall, others were larger and heavy enough to require stud mounting.

Of course, drilling one hundred or so quarter-inch holes in their nicely painted wall would mean serious repairs if the lettering ever had to be moved or changed. But, regardless of how they would be installed, first the letters would be drilled and threaded from behind just to accommodate powder coating. This meant we would be hanging them up by small 3/16” eye screws so they could be hung up on a powder coating rack and be rolled around from spray booth to oven. Out on the install, the tapped holes would accommodate the typical 3/16” threaded aluminum stud, requiring a ¼” hole and silicone adhesive, but that is what we really hated to do.

In addition to the many holes, having to use silicone sealant, or any other adhesive is another negative when the time comes to move or change the lettering. But if I merely used double-sided tape for mounting even the heavier parts, my subconscious dread was of once more having to look like an idiot when called to come repair and re-install some letter or logo part that seemed well in place with double-sided tape, only to fall to the ground six months later. Stuff happens.

I knew from having worked with acrylic laser cut parts -- mounting with studs that are really very small, sharp nails -- that miniature studs like that are not going to let go easily and normally can be used without adhesive. So, after powder coating, instead of putting threaded studs into the tapped holes on the backs of each letter, I merely filled in the holes with a small amount of J-B Weld, pushed the very tiny nails down into the epoxy-filled holes, and let things dry overnight.

The next day, it was totally impossible to remove the studs even with a pair of channel lock pliers, and any nail/stud that was not perfectly perpendicular was simply tapped lightly into the right angle, nothing to it.

Out on the job, the small letters were put in place with double-sided tape, but the larger ones were merely pushed into the wall with the palms of my very clean hands (wearing cotton gloves would have been a good idea) and voila, they were there to stay.

There was a custom-made State of Texas star, which was part of that project, and that was done quite differently, but simply. When designing and fabricating that star, the backplate was cut and then tack welded in place. It had two “key-hole” type slotted holes in it, which meant small screws (without anchors) would hold it in place. The trick was making an extra one of those backplates to use in the field as a perfect hole pattern since these holes had to be right on the money or the back of the star would not slide over them.

The inside the shop prep work for that job, which included using epoxy to bond those very sharp little studs in place did take a bit longer. Out on the job, the install was quicker, cleaner and quieter (a bit important when working inside the courthouse). And, it was a much like the way we’ve learned to install interior acrylic letters and logos we cut on our laser.

But, even the way we install laser-cut acrylic letters has changed a little, at least in some cases, and a recent job will serve as a good example of a simple and practical way to install these types of letters and logos, too.

This project was for a beautiful rural church and would go in the foyer area behind their welcome or information desk. It consisted of a “lighthouse” logo, and about 40 letters, all cut from 3/16” thick black acrylic, which would be left in its natural glossy form.

The large lighthouse was a bit too big for our laser, so it was cut on a waterjet, and the drops around the lighthouse shape would be used as material from which to cut the lettering. The edges of the lighthouse graphic would be coated with “SuperFrog Clear” to mimic the polished edge look of acrylic cut on a laser.

Once all the cutting was done, the method of inserting small, sharp studs would be much like the metal job already mentioned, but this time the studs would be common clear push pins trimmed down, and the adhesive would be thick acrylic weld glue.

The push pins were clipped short with a pair of wire cutters, then each one was sanded down with a small hand grinder so it merely had a short (about 1/8”) dowel that would be glued into shallow 3/16” holes that were drilled on the backs of each item. The drilling was done carefully with a drill press so there was little chance of drilling through the letter or logo pieces.

This job involved one large item and a whole lot of little pieces, and it took a couple of hours to modify about 150 push pins, drill several recesses in the backside of each item, and then get all the studs glued in place. After that, everything was allowed to dry overnight.

The next day, all the lettering and smaller logo parts were pushed into cards made from fluted plastic and put in a box in layers, protected from each other and easily packed in a cardboard box for carrying to the job site about 35 miles away.

Once there, it took about 30 minutes getting everything out, peeling off the masking for the first time, and placing the pattern (which was in six pieces) up on the wall, positioned exactly right.

After that, the install was a piece of cake. No drilling, no glue, no mess, just about 25 minutes to push everything firmly in place, seating all the pushpin studs into the wall, and by some great luck hitting no Sheetrock screws or nails at all.

Both of these jobs, in the end, involved some of the easiest and cleanest installs we know how to do, and, at least in the field, both installs were extremely fast and simple. They are as permanent as they need to be, and as temporary as anyone might later want them to be, and each project was actually quite a bit of fun, too. If we have our preference, a whole lot more of our installations would be like these.