Sign Maker's Journal: Talk About Studs!

This article is a follow up to my article in the April 2009 issue of Sign & Digital Graphics magazine, in which I talked about a job that I had done, where I cut 1/4" aluminum letters on my CNC router. I had welded aluminum nuts on the back of the letters to accept studs for mounting the letters on a concrete wall. This surely was an acceptable method of attachment but not necessarily the quickest or best method as I was to learn later.

One method of attaching a stud to the back of an aluminum letter... not necessarily the easiest or best way. (Right) Close up of a real stud.

I have mentioned in past articles that I am sometimes reluctant when it comes to trying new technologies and processes, but when I finally take the plunge—watch out. Something I’ve always been fascinated with and wanted to learn is welding. I own aluminum- and steel-welding equipment but have never physically picked it up and used it. I have a part-time helper, Roger Phillips, who is an excellent welder and fabricator. When anything needs to be built, Roger is more than willing to take on the task. If Roger isn’t available, I get my longtime friend Bobby Gregory, a professional welder, to do the job. With all this professional help, I never have found it necessary to acquire this skill. Anyway, this is my excuse for not knowing more about welding than I do. It works for me!

As I passed the booth for International Welding Technologies, Inc., (www.internationalwelding.com), they were using a stud welding gun (what they call a Capacitor Discharge Welding System) to attach studs to a sheet of .063 gauge aluminum. “POP!”… another stud was added to the sheet. Now, I admit to having seen this technology advertised over the years but was afraid, uh, I mean reluctant to try anything that involved welding. OK, you got me; I was a big chicken. I had never paid any attention to this technology. As I stood there and watched them use the stud welding gun for a few minutes, they quickly were loading the studs and just as speedily welding them to the sheet.

(Left) Like shooting a staple. (Right) Stud gun loaded and ready for action.

Shortly after the April issue of Sign & Digital Graphics magazine was published, I attended the ISA trade show in Las Vegas. I wandered the aisles for hours with my wife and marveled at all the new goodies that were on the market. LED technologies are making great advances and were strongly represented, as was every conceivable type of printer. Yes, technology marches on, and if you go several years without going to a trade show, as I had done, you’re surely going to be amazed at the things you find. I collected a lot of samples and ideas that day, before my legs and back begged me to call it a day, but there was one “Ah ha!” epiphany I discovered that day, which made the entire trip worthwhile — and it, sadly for me, isn’t even new technology.

“POP!” OK, now you’ve got my attention.

(Left) Some of the many items available. Sizes and lengths vary. (Right) Front of the unit. It’s only about 5” x 12” x 12”

All the welding I’ve ever been associated with required a 220-volt electrical source and sounded like a scene out of the movie “Frankenstein” with shot sparks all over the place and a light so blinding you were required to wear a mask that protected your eyes. I learned the stud welding gun uses a regular 110-volt electric source. I wouldn’t have to get another high-voltage outlet installed, and if I wanted to, I could take this welding gun just about anywhere.I stepped a little closer and recounted the project that I had just finished, in which I certainly could have have used a stud welding gun. One of the guys demonstrated how the stud would break long before the welded connection would break. Another added benefit is that the weld is stronger than the stud itself, and it doesn’t penetrate deep enough into the substrate to dimple or discolor the opposite surface. The fellow at the booth asked me if I would like to give the gun a try. I was a little, uhh, let's say reluctant. Yeah, that sounds better, but I figured what the heck? It looks easy enough. Easy doesn’t begin to describe how simple it really was. As a matter of fact, I’d liken its use to that of a staple gun.

An example of how not to attach acrylic behind a routed aluminum face. I had noticed this sign several times and it came to mind immediately for purposes of illustration. I was shocked to find the manufacturer’s sticker indicating it was made by one of the oldest and most reputable shops in town.

This stud-welding feature for the upcoming job nearly sealed the purchase in itself, but as I realized (this is a fancy term meaning the sales guys were doing a number on me) the many other uses for this welding technology, it became a done deal. I do a lot of wholesale routing for other sign shops and quite often rout out aluminum faces that will be backed with acrylic to make lighted signs. Since I’m not yet a UL-licensed shop, I don’t get into the manufacturing of the lighted signs. I have noticed that, as I travel, I see a lot of these signs where the centers of the letters have been glued to the acrylic, and after a couple of years, the centers come unglued and fall off. I even see where the entire whole sheet of acrylic comes loose when it’s not correctly attached. After 26 years in the sign business, I have seen these signs done correctly but had never connected the stud-gun technology to how studs were attached to the aluminum.

The correct way to do these lighted signs is to attach a stud to the inside of the aluminum cabinet, drill corresponding holes in the acrylic and attach the acrylic over the studs, holding them in place with a nut. The same method is used to attach the centers of letters, such as the center of the letter O and R and such. A stud is welded to the center of the letter and a hole for the stud is drilled in the acrylic and held in place with a nut. Now it’s not going to drop off in a couple of years.Now, this system isn’t ridiculously inexpensive, and if I were just going to weld a few studs a year, it would not be a practical investment. I’m not sure who or how many shops in my area have such an item, but it probably would be easier to just rent one of the units or pay another shop to do the stud welding if that’s all you are doing. My interest in the equipment had been piqued by the fact that I had just landed a substantial project to re-do a condominium complex wayfinding system and signage. Most of the signs were to be Corian material, mounted on an .080 gauge aluminum backer, which would be—you guessed it—stud mounted onto brick walls. This project alone would pay a substantial percentage of the purchase of the equipment. I’ve always been a believer in buying equipment that makes my work easier if it pays for itself.

(Left) Comes in a handy carrying case. (Right) A close up of the business end ... stud ready!

Until next month — now get out there and try something new.There are numerous other applications for this welding technology as well as other metals to which it can be applied. And, in addition to studs, it welds tap pads (a receptacle that accepts a threaded stud) and pins (non threaded rod). Some of the other applications are structural sign frame construction (connecting aluminum angle to aluminum faces), connecting neon tube supports, reverse channel offsets and other things I’m sure I’ll come up with.