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The idea for the piece came quickly and I scribbled it down using my pen and ink drawing style. The scale drawing was done on my iPad Pro using a stylus. I didn’t sweat the details as I knew more ideas would develop as I went along.
The vectors for the piece were done in EnRoute Pro using the sketch as a reference. I then created the 3D reliefs. I used the new warp tool to bend the reliefs, making the engine and tracks curve vertically a bit.
Once the pieces were routed and glued together I cut some wedge slices out of the pieces to bend the engine horizontally to add drama and action to the finished piece.
We cut the flat steel pieces on our MultiCam CNC plasma cutter. With CNC, everything fits perfectly. I never even had to use a level or square to assemble them.
A pencil rod frame was welded to the basic structure to form the bones. Expanded lath was tied to this framework to hold the sculpting epoxy skin.
I applied a thin coat of Abracadabra sculpting epoxy to each piece and then used a sharpened popsicle stick to create the woodgrain and other details. I worked on small areas in five- or ten-minute sessions.
After each step I test fit the pieces to make sure we stayed true to the original vision (or the current version). The wheels won’t be glued in place until the painting is well under way.
I went online to search for some pictures of trains for reference. Rather than a specific train I modeled an era that I liked. No excessive detail or rivet counting was necessary. That’s not my style. I wanted a sketch that captured movement.
As I sculpted I decided to have the train breaking through the sign panel instead of coming through a tunnel. I cut some angle-shaped pieces of corrugated plastic and coated them with epoxy. These were molded into the sign face at random angles. It was just the effect I was looking for.
There are still lots of sculpted details to come, along with all of the painting. But the piece is starting to look like the first concept drawing done a few short weeks ago.

A steam train sample project

By Dan Sawatzky

Posted on Tuesday, February 28th, 2017

The Sign Invitational Challenge is happening again at the International Sign Association Show [April 19 to 22]. Competition will undoubtedly be friendly but very fierce. The theme for this year’s event is “Sign Magic”. MultiCam is making room in their booth for even more entries this year.

As always I got an early start. I knew our spring season would be busy with many large projects along with lots of business travel. The key to getting my project done on time was to sneak five or ten minutes of work on the piece a few times through each workday rather than large blocks of time. I didn’t want to rush the project or have to pull an all-nighter (or three) at the last minute.

My project was inspired from my mural painting days. So often I heard spectators comment that the subjects of my murals often seemed to come right off the wall. My choice of themes was easy, because steam trains were my favorite subject for my historical murals. A painting by Norman Rockwell of a sign painter will serve as inspiration for the sculpted figure.


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Dan Sawatzky

Dan Sawatzky's shop, Sawatzky's Imagination Corporation, is in Chilliwack, British Columbia, Canada. Dan shares his experience in his Sign Magic Workshops on 3-D sign making, and his Sculpting Workshop.


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