signs, hand-made signs

Shop Talk: Shapes of Success

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.

If you ever sit in on city hall meetings when the powers that be are writing a new sign ordinance, you soon find out there are lots of people out there who are not fans of signs, especially unattractive and boring signs, and some of these people have clout. As professional sign makers, we have several priorities, and one of them is to make a profit and stay in business, but another has to be to make the best looking sign products our clients can afford. This is good for our customers, good for our business and good for the sign industry as a whole.

A sign, any sign, never has to be boring or ugly, but unfortunately many are, and vinyl letters applied to rectangles or squares are certainly part of the problem. But not all clients will spend a lot more for nice dimensional letters or really custom signwork. However, there are fairly easy ways to improve how many signs will look, and one such method is to forget the squares and rectangles and produce signs in shapes that have some style.

By cutting a sign into a simple shape, the sign’s final appearance is much improved and the sign looks more custom and will sell for more, and CNC cutting is so readily available that this is not much of a challenge anymore or particularly costly to do. As compared to individual dimensional letters, installs of this type of sign are simple and fast because they involve only a few elements, a benefit to the client and sign maker.

When making signs cut into shapes, we almost always use mill finish aluminum of a .080 or .090 thickness, which will lay very flat but is not very costly. The painting or finishing will be done by powder coating, and all of this was true before we had the capacity to do each of these steps. At WPC Services, our other business, we can do CNC cutting and powder coating, but these services are available just down the street from other vendors at reasonable prices.

Aluminum, normally 5052 to be specific, cuts very quickly on any CNC machine, either router or waterjet, and since service providers basically charge for how long it will take to cut a project on their equipment, cutting costs for projects like the ones shown here are not very expensive.

When outsourcing this type of work, the sign maker can make himself a favorite client of the CNC shop by providing good, clean vectored files, and even doing a decent job of nesting the work first. Providing one’s own material can be a plus, but most important of all is to always bring a check and pay when the work is picked up. Your work may be put in front of a number of other jobs if your subcontractor knows he will be paid on the spot. Trust me, he has many clients who never, ever do that.

As mentioned, we prefer powder coated finishes to any kind of painting, and fortunately nowadays the color choices are not very limited at all. Of course, powder coating will outlast any vinyl graphic we can apply, but then vinyl graphics years down the line can be redone.

If I plan to use self-tapping screws on the install of a job, I like to have them powder coated at the same time to match the sign elements perfectly. To prepare them for powder coating, they can be screwed into a scrap of sheet metal, or even into wooden blocks with hooks for hanging them on racks. They can be preheated in the oven before spraying which will make the powder bond to the screws even if they are not well grounded.

Nearly all of these types of projects that we do will involve a heavy shadow or a bold outline of all the elements, which connects everything together nicely. These jobs may involve as few as two or three parts, or a few more but there will not be nearly as many to deal with as when installing dimensional letters. The top color, applied over the powder coated parts, is normally just high performance vinyl. The two-tone aspect of it, since we are putting vinyl graphics over solid colored parts, improves contrast on most building surfaces we will be mounting the signwork to.

Though we sometimes use pre-finished screws, our normal fastener is “Pop Rivets” which are touched up to match the signs as the last step of the install. On metal buildings, we may need some shop-made Z-mounts, formed from strips of .063 aluminum. We will paint these to match the building, not to match the sign. Fortunately, very few will be needed because the shapes we are dealing with are typically large enough to hit multiple ribs in metal buildings.

The several jobs shown in the accompanying photos are some we have done recently. All these clients are very happy with the quality of their work, and with the fact that they are not getting another flat, rectangular sign.

For us, jobs like these are simple and even fun to do, partly because the installations are so easy. For example, the McKinney Measurement job looks like there are a number of elements involved, but in reality it was a one-piece graphic except for the ampersand, all cut from one 5’ x 10’ sheet of aluminum. This order was for two graphics, and we installed both, one a bit larger than the other, securing them temporarily with a few self-tapping screws, and then mounting them permanently with rivets, which were painted to match.

When putting connecting to pieces of one sign element, I try hard to hide the seam, normally fitting it around a letter in a way that helps disguise it. Especially with waterjet cutting, the precision of the cut is so good it is easy to make a joint that is hard to see. The puzzle-like fit shown in [Photo #7] is a good example of this.

From production to installation, jobs of this type, though basically simple, are accurately perceived as a higher quality product than just vinyl letters stuck to sheets of metal or laminate, and therefore sell a better price. They are really a good compromise between a very boring sign, and a truly custom one, and with this type of compromise, both parties win. And so does the public, who will be viewing these handsome and durable signs for a long time to come.