Step-by-step: Complex sign with a tight deadline

By Mike Jackson

Posted on Friday, July 30th, 2021

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This project contains a mixture of basic skills and tools, along with a little help from another sign company and some of today’s advanced tools and techniques. When inspected as individual elements, not much jumps out as overly complicated; however, when combined and finished, the project comes together as an interesting and eye-catching facade sign.

While the client was on a reasonable, but not unlimited, budget, we attempted to give the project as much “bang for the buck” as we could—and work in our limited space using our limited equipment. The client had a pretty firm visual idea of what he wanted: arched lettering on top, a main line of text and an inverted arched ribbon below. I added the panel and ends to hold everything together and add some “old time” look and feel.

The design started with some graphic elements from Golden Era Studios’ Americana Collection of Panels and Ornaments. It was fitted with custom text and a few additional lines using fonts from Billhead 1890, Billhead 1900, and Billhead 1910, and Smalts.

The design was easy to visualize as three dimensional, but we don’t own a CNC router or sandblast equipment now, so I sent the file to Danny Baronian [Baronian Mfg., Concord, California] and we came up with a price I could add into my pricing.

If accepted by the client, Danny would cut the lettering out of SignFoam high-density urethane (HDU) board on his Gerber Sabre router. Everything else would be fabricated here in our small shop, mainly using overlaid plywood and a saber saw.

Oh, yes—the client was hoping to get the sign within ten days. Once the original artwork was accepted and the price agreed upon, we picked up a couple of sheets of overlaid plywood and told Danny to begin. He had the box of letters at our door within a few days. Darla and I made a full-sized pounce pattern using our Gerber plotter. I cut the panels with the saber saw, then we began priming and painting the panels.

Overall, things went smoothly on this job.

When the panels were dry, Darla began applying vinyl ornamentation, along with hand-painted trim colors, a 23k gold cove edge, and some gold accents. The center panel was an add-on piece, and I opted to offset it from the background with some scrap ¾-in. stock. That also reinforced the two panel halves.
The main lettering consisted of ¾-in.-thick foam letters with a rounded over edge. Detail edging was done with foam sandpaper pads and files. They were later gilded with 23k patent gold leaf. The arched lettering was also ¾-in. foam with a cove, and the small tag line was cut ½-in. HDU board.

The background on the oval panel is coated with black glass smalts, which is easy to do and adds a bit of extra texture to the design. I get mine from Letterhead Sign Supply.

The installation was to be done by the client. He was in the construction business prior to starting the grill, so I knew he could handle the simple install. We made a spacing pounce pattern that followed the top edge of the sign panel and explained how to install the foam letters to the wall in a few easy steps.
We had the sign ready at the ten-day mark, but, of course, they weren’t really ready when we called on Friday. On the following Monday, the client arrived with a flatbed truck to pick up the panels and letters. A few days later, I drove by to see everything installed and completed, including the touch-up on the screw heads.

Projects like this one are both fun and challenging. Part of the challenge, of course, is to stay within the budget and make a profit at the end. We far exceeded the client’s expectations, yet resisted the urges to add in a lot of extras that could have drained the profits.

When evaluating the project after completion, I feel we met our goals and still supplied a sign that reads easily and projects the image of the customer’s products, along with the “western” look and feel needed for a business in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

Here’s the black-and-white artwork, designed in Gerber Omega software. The panels and scrollwork were created mainly from the Americana Collection of Panels and Ornaments from Golden Era Studios.

The artwork was colorized in Adobe Photoshop, mainly to give myself a clear visualization of how the final image would look. With a tight deadline on this project, we didn’t have a lot of room for trial-and-error with the colors.

A full-sized pounce pattern was made on our plotter. We used that pattern numerous times. Here, the pattern was pounced on the plywood before cutting out the two main panel halves. The same pattern was used for the lower ribbon elements and the overlay panel.

The pounced charcoal image was sprayed with fixative to hold it down while cutting. Artists’ fixative, hair spray, or spray shellac works fine. The panels were cut out using a handheld jigsaw, then sanded and filled as necessary.

The outer edges on the two main panel halves and the overlay panel were coved using a handheld router. All edges and coves were sealed with clear, paintable caulking prior to priming and finishing.

Once the background colors were dry, Darla began applying the vinyl parts and painting a few detail areas with lettering enamels. 23k patent gold leaf was applied to the coves and ornaments.

Darla is applying the vinyl film to the painted panels.

As soon as the design had been accepted, we sent one of the original files to Baronian Manufacturing. In a few days, the letters arrived at our doorstep ready for painting and finishing. That step saved us a lot of time on the project and allowed us to continue working on the backgrounds.

Using a hand-held router with a ball bearing bushing, I rounded over the edges of the letters. For the tight corners I used a chisel, file and sandpaper to finish them off. The cutout letters were painted with three or four coats of fast-drying latex paint.

Just to make sure things were going correctly, I did a quick test fit of all the parts prior to painting the fronts of the letters.

The front sides and edges of all the HDU letters were painted with two coats of Chromatic Block Out White, followed by at least one coat of finish enamel.

The cove edges of the Old Town letters were sized with One Shot Quick Size, then gilded with 23k patent gold. A little bit of imitation gold lettering enamel was added to the gold size to give it a color tint.

Once the finish coat of imitation gold was completely dry, we applied the same mixture of gold size and lettering enamel to Grill as used on the Old Town letters. In this case, however, we added a little more yellow to the mixture, since the underlying paint was the same color. That made it easier to spot voids in the size. The letters were gilded with 23k patent leaf.

To apply the main letters to the overlay background panel, we reused the original pounce pattern to get the exact location of each letter. We sometimes drill holes through the panels and then screw the letters on from behind. For this job, I used 7/8-in. wire brads, nailed in about one third of their length. The heads were clipped with a pair of nippers. The backs of the foam letters received a nice layer of clear adhesive caulk, and then were carefully pressed down over the protruding brads.

The add-on oval panel was also cut by Baronian Manufacturing. We painted it the same way we did the black Old Town letters. I cut a mask using Gerber Mask, then applied it to the panel. NazDar Screen Ink was daubed thickly in the open areas with a cheap brush.

Once covered with thick screen ink, I simply poured a thick layer of black glass smalts over the panel. (At this point, a thick layer of smalts is better than a skimpy one.) This was allowed to set up for an hour or so.

Once the screen ink had a little time to set, I carefully removed the masking, revealing glossy black in the protected areas. The ampersand was added using cut-off brads as before.

The overlay panel got a little ¾-in. spacer underneath it to help reinforce the two main panel halves. It was then screwed in through countersunk holes that went through the back layer and spacers and into the panel. With everything completed and touched up, we cut off the top section of our pounce pattern at the top edge of the main panel. This was given to the client for alignment and spacing of the lettering during installation. I poured some blue chalk line chalk into a piece of an old t-shirt so he would have a working pounce bag.

From SignCraft, September/October 2006

Mike and Darla Jackson operate Golden Studios in Loveland, Colorado, and do a variety of sign-related projects. Mike’s website is His email address is You can see more of Mike’s photos at and

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