By Peter Poanessa
Posted on Friday, July 15th, 2022
From the time I was a youngster, I dreamed of being a jeweler. I liked working in 3-D and looked at each piece of jewelry as a miniature sculpture. Fast forward 10 years: I was working at other jobs and stumbled onto the sign business. I suppose that my interest in sculpture pushed me toward the carved sign segment of the business.
For my first twelve years in the sign business, I produced everything by hand—hand-drawn patterns, freehand routing, sandblasting, incise and relief carving. I was always excited to get a “good” job; you know the ones—a good budget and clients who want something unusual, carved or dimensional.
After a while, the challenge of carving a big sign or a great-looking relief began to feel like routine work and I yearned for greener pastures. In 1996 we decided to buy a 9100 Precix CNC router and expand the options for creative dimensional work.
It turned out to be a great fit for our style of work and unleashed lots of pent-up energy for new and more unique design ideas. In the never-ending quest to find new ways and materials to make our signs unique, we started to experiment with shaped metal for dimensional effects.
A number of years ago I had the good fortune to meet Mark Goodenough, a local metalsmith. He was sort of the shop man at a small sheet metal shop that I used from time to time. Whenever I went to pick up something at the shop I was greeted by his dog Yukon— a big German Shepard who would leap right up on the tables and benches to greet you eye to eye.
Over time, Mark and I became friends and I learned that he had worked as a taxidermist for a number of years. He is an outstanding sheet metal fabricator and loves the challenge of doing accurate, complicated work. He is also interested in blending his industrial metal working skills with an interest in fine art, and it shows in his work.
Eventually Mark came to work with me part time in the sign shop. We often talked about different ways to fabricate sculptural and dimensional elements for signs. Through Mark, I learned how effective it can be to build a dimensional sign from metal.
First, the metals…
Copper is my favorite. It’s not cheap, but it is cheaper than bronze. It is quite soft and easily worked, and it has an eye appeal similar to gold. It mixes well with gold in a color sense. I often use them both on the same sign.
Another advantage to copper is that you can control the color/patina with tarnishing and polishing, and it is very durable and weather-resistant. We’ve been able to “lock in” the patina with clear finishes.
Given enough years, it will eventually turn green, but it can always be brought back with elbow grease. One of the drawbacks is that it is very hard to cut with a router because it is so soft. Most tool manufacturers recommend against cutting copper with a high-speed spindle.
The other issue is galvanic corrosion. When copper comes into contact with aluminum, the copper will cause the aluminum to corrode quickly. Copper will also corrode mild steel, but a little slower. This can be easily overcome as long as you plan for it. Wherever there is contact use either rubber washers or adhesives or sealants to prevent the two metals from actually touching.
Aluminum is also very easy to work with, although most of what you find in a sign shop is not the alloy you would want for shaping. The harder alloys like 5052 cut nicely, but shape poorly. The softer alloys like 3000 shape nicely, but won’t cut worth a damn.
We’ve done some routing work for a local sculptor, Jonathan Clowes [www.clowessculpture.com], who has built a couple of large mobiles featuring aluminum doves. One project included about 1800 pieces, and we went through and tested the shaping and cutting qualities of the various alloys. As it turns out, the better it is for one use, the worse it is for the other.
The lesson is that if you try shaping aluminum, make sure you get the right stuff. If you use what is on hand, you’ll probably end up frustrated. Aluminum is durable outdoors and tends to hold its color over time.
Bronze is an excellent metal for our purposes, but it’s getting very expensive. It looks like gold when polished, so to my eye it doesn’t offer a different color than gold, which we already use frequently. Bronze is a good metal to get to know, though.
Bronze fasteners are okay for contact with copper, since the two are close together on the galvanic series table. They also make excellent general fasteners for high-end outdoor sign projects. Boat building supply houses are the best source for these fasteners.
The other metal we use a lot of is mild (low-carbon) steel. It is another favorite of mine because it is cheap, strong and easy to bend, weld or mill. In this instance I am talking about flat bar, square tubing, angle iron, solid square and round steel—not sheet metal. We use mild steel to make all manner of frame or armature. It’s very strong and another good, durable, long-term material.
…then, how to use them
What I like about using shaped metal is that it enables me to add some real dimension to a sign in a way that is difficult to achieve in high-density urethane [HDU] board or other solid mediums. Metal also has a certain look of quality, as long as it is done right. If you add this to some creative mounting methods, you can get some really cool effects.
The most common methods of working metal would be hammering into a carved or shaped mold, hammering into some sort of leather bag (usually filled with lead shot), worked by hand, or using an English wheel. The English wheel is a specialized old-world machine for forming sheet metal. If you find someone who has one and can use it, extraordinary shapes are possible.
We first used hammered copper on a sign project for a local coffee shop called Prime Roast. The design had coffee beans in the center of the sign and Mark suggested we try hammered copper. In this case they were hammered into a simple carved mold.
Here’s that process used on a sign for Vermont Custom Cabinetry:
The mold was made from ¾-in. overlaid plywood
Here’s the mold with the copper sheet that would be hammered.
The copper sheet was hammered into the mold.
The maple leaf for the Vermont cabinet shop was copper hammered into a CNC router-carved mold. It was not a complex 3-D mold, but a rather straightforward shape, and the texture and look came from hammering and stretching the metal into shape. I heated it with a torch to get a variegated look prior to clear coating it.
This technique is a good place to start as the shape is predetermined by the mold. For Prime Roast, the beans were then tarnished and the higher spots buffed; then we soldered solid copper wire to the backs for mounting into an overlaid plywood backer. I knew it struck a chord with sign people when it won the best of show award at the 1997 USSC show in Atlantic City, New Jersey.
While Mark was working as a project manager building a large sculpture for a cruise ship and pursuing his fine art metal sculpture career, we collaborated on a sign, In The Company Of Flowers, for a local flower shop. I drew the initial sketch, which featured what we call “floating lettering” on an arc, with large dimensional elements surrounding it.
The idea behind the design was to give a look of the flowers growing around and over the awning on the building. I thought of using carved HDU but decided to see if Mark was willing to build something that would showcase his work and mine. I think the result was better than what either of us imagined. The sign was made in two main pieces and was assembled in place. It has a steel frame and has various parts made from aluminum, bronze, stainless steel and, of course, copper.
The letters are carved and gilded HDU board on aluminum composite backers with smaller aluminum letters, all on about a 24-in. arc. The sign is 14 ft. wide and about 6 ft. tall and extends 24 in. from the wall. Mary, the owner of the store, says people come in every day because they saw the sign. It has generated a lot of work for Mark and me, too.
If any of this sounds interesting, I recommend you give metal shaping a try. You can experiment easily with small pieces to get the feel of it, and it will help you estimate what you need to charge for the time it will take. Metal-shaping will expand your range and free you from that one or two inches of depth that most dimensional signs are restricted to.
For more information or to see some of our work, we can be found at www.signworx.com. Mark Goodenough’s work can be seen at www.markgoodenough.com.
Peter Poanessa’s shop, Keene Signworx, is in Keene, New Hampshire, where he makes signs when he is not bicycling.
This appeared in the March/April 2008 issue of SignCraft.
The Armadillo sign features a different type of shaped copper—it’s made from sheet metal and copper plumbing parts. We used 1⁄2-in. copper pipe end caps and flattened and hammered 1⁄2-in. pipe. Pretty basic, but it adds a lot to this otherwise straightforward sign.
Finally, here’s a sign we made using rebar or steel reinforcing rod. It was the first Armadillo’s sign I made. My thought was to use rebar for the armadillo because it is rough and scaly, like armadillo hide. Well, I sold the sign, took the deposit, then went back to the shop to hammer out the armadillo. What I didn’t think about prior to proposing this was that rebar is hardened to prevent bending. It took me eight hours to hammer out the parts. I had estimated to take three hours. Chalk one up for the learning curve!