How we made it: Graphics for a nature center

By SignCraft.com

Posted on Tuesday, May 25th, 2021

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Sometimes a single creative project can call on a sign maker to use a multitude of their fabrication skills. Redgie Adams and Jon Moore [Adams Signs, North Little Rock, AR] recently completed one such project, providing all the graphics for the Ozark Highlands Nature Center in Springdale, Arkansas.

“The Arkansas Fish and Game Department developed it,” says Redgie, “and they did a beautiful job on the 42-million-dollar project. We were glad to be part of it. It was great to have so much input into the graphics.

“This was a large project. It includes several other signs, including some sandblasted granite plaques that you don’t see here. The point is, though, that you don’t have to be a big company to handle a job like this. Jon, who has worked with me for 33 years, and I did all of these signs in the course of a couple of months.”

The signs and displays use a number of techniques: CNC routing, metal fabrication, LED lighting, solar power and timber framing. The finishes were unique, too, using rusted steel and Modern Masters Oxidizing Iron Paint to create a rust finish on aluminum. Redgie shared photos and videos of the project with SignCraft.com.

Faux rusted background for the primary sign

The main sign uses CNC-cut PVC letters on an aluminum cabinet with a rust patina finish. It’s mounted on a tubular steel frame faced with sheet metal on the lower portion to create the base. The sheet-metal was treated with muriatic acid to cause the rust. The Fish and Game logo up in the top corner is HDU board.

“We drilled the backs of the PVC letters,” Redgie says, “and installed studs which we used to mount to the aluminum face. We made a paper pattern on the computer to mark the stud locations. I used a punch to mark each hole, then drilled a hole that was a very snug fit for the studs.

“You can’t rely completely on silicone to hold the letters to the rust patina finish, so the studs gripped the aluminum somewhat. We put a few dabs of silicone on the backs of each letter, then a dab of silicone on the stud on the back of the sign face secured the letters.”

After drilling the aluminum cabinet, it was finished with Modern Masters Oxidizing Iron Paint to create the rust effect. To keep the holes for the studs from filling with the thick rust patina, Redgie plugged each hole with a large wooden matchstick. In this photo, he’s removing them after painting.

“It was a fun sign to build and install because there were a lot of challenges. It had to be very durable and appealing, plus there is no electric power at the site, which is quite a distance from the main building. A solar panel was used to provide the electricity for the lighting.”

Special effects for the donor wall

One key aspect of the project was the donor wall, which needed to be more interesting than a simple list of donors. The solution was to create an underwater pondscape with the donors’ names on the silhouettes of native fishes.

The clear polycarbonate face was printed with black ink on the back using 10% ink coverage to create the effect of looking through water. The further the objects are from the back of it, the more blurry they appear, just as they do underwater. The leaves and branches are all cut from PVC and ACM. The exterior frame is aluminum finished with Modern Masters rust patina finish.

The display is illuminated with green and blue LEDs that can be dimmed, and the white LEDs above add to the feel of being underwater. The fish for each donor was laser-engraved on Johnson Plastics black over white engraving stock. Each one is mounted on 1/8-in. acrylic and spaced off the background with clear acrylic threaded rod. The acrylic was drilled and tapped to receive the rod.

“I bought an old battered canoe for a hundred bucks,” says Redgie, “cut it in half lengthwise and refinished it to sit on top of the display. I distressed it to make it look authentic. We later added river rocks and cedar stumps on the floor in front of the display so the kids won’t be up there hanging on things.”

These videos show the donor wall in progress and complete:

Faux woodgrain panels and cedar timbers for wayfinding signs

Redgie built 13 single pole signs and two double pole signs for the site to serve as informational and wayfinding graphics. Each was mounted on 5×5 cedar timbers capped with copper caps and assembled with pegs and epoxy to fasten the joints. The textured woodgrain background on the HDU sign faces were from Dan Sawatzky’s Texture Magic CD and done on the CNC router.

“We wanted the look of hanging signs for the single pole signs,” Redgie says, “but wanted a more durable mounting. We fabricated aluminum frames that we inset into the CNC-routed HDU faces then assembled them with Gorilla Glue in a caulking tube.”

Avoiding visible fasteners and using paint masks

“As you can see in the photo, we routed out the background on the Foundation for Marksmanship sign to accommodate our brackets and also to make it a little lighter. We wanted these installations to have no visible fasteners through the faces, so we were able to mount the aluminum bracket to the wall, then install the face with screws through the edges.”

“I wanted to use Matthews Acrylic Polyurethane paint for all the signs,” says Redgie, “because I wanted the durability and a sprayed finish. Since we had multiple colors to deal with, we used the laser to cut heavy paper masks for all the areas. The laser-cut masks were a perfect fit. That way we could expose each area as we sprayed it, then cover it as we sprayed the other colors.”

The mask was laser-cut from the same file used for the CNC routing. The video shows the paper mask being removed after the dark brown paint was sprayed and dry.

A granite marker on an aluminum base

Among the other signs for the project was this granite marker. The base was made from ¾-in. aluminum plate and the 28-in.-wide sign face is sandblasted black granite.