By Larry Elliott
Posted on Saturday, October 28th, 2023
Like most sign companies, we handle a wide variety of work at our shop. When you have to price a plaque one minute and a monument sign the next, it’s easy to overlook something.
When you make custom signs, most projects include many techniques. It’s not cookie-cutter production. It is very easy to overlook a few simple steps, and this time loss can cut deeply into profits.
Learning how to accurately estimate labor costs is the hardest part of making signs. For years I based my time estimates on previous jobs and trying to remember where I lost or gained time. But I often forgot simple steps like material handling or edge sanding.
You may think it doesn’t take long to get a sheet of material out of the rack, set up the sawhorses, measure for your cuts, clamp on a straight edge, set the blade depth, run the cut, remove the straight edge, get out the sander, dress the cuts, put the tools away and sweep or vacuum up the sawdust.
But time it. You’ll find 10 to 15 minutes have flown by. Multiply that by the hundreds of jobs done throughout the year, and you’ll find quite a few hours have slipped by that you never charged for.
One thing that has helped us avoid lost profits is putting together this checklist of the materials used and the steps involved in the typical jobs that come through our shop. It’s easy to run down the list and note what was used to create this particular sign.
Sure it’s still hard to foresee all the steps in custom sign work, and I still shoot myself in the foot at times. But it really does help to have a checklist. It works for our shop, and hopefully it will make a good starting point for your shop.
Where the profits go
Here are nine things that we found were eating into our business’s profits. See if you recognize a few of them:
Miscellaneous consumables: Sandpaper, tape, paper towels, wear and tear on tools/bits/blades, etc.—all these need accounted for. Otherwise, at the end of the year they will have come out of your paycheck.
Material handling: Do you have the materials in stock? Will you have to special order it or pick it up? Your mark-up on materials should cover basic material costs once you have them on hand, but the time spent for shopping for specialty materials must be factored in.
Clean shop/tools: This is an added step that must be done every few days or sometimes a few times a day. The cost must be passed on to the customer. Tools need to be cleaned and maintained. It doesn’t take long to sweep the floor, but it is still time that must be accounted for.
File prep for cutting/printing: Once a layout file or logo has been created it still needs to be prepped for production. In most instances this may not take long, but it is still time we often overlook and absorb at our expense.
File prep for CNC: Prepping for CNC production requires a bit more time than for cutting vinyl or printing. Are you giving all that time away?
File prep, logo reconstruction: Not many customers understand what you mean when you tell them you need vector artwork to produce their signage. Rarely will they send you a file ready to use, and you can spend quite a bit of time recreating a complex logo. Let them know up-front that their artwork may need edited to make it ready for sign use—and there is a charge for that.
Sales, estimates and billing: Most every job requires “sales time.” You have to talk with the client, get their ideas, then make an estimate. For small jobs this can be done quickly and considered as part of your hourly shop rate, but for complicated jobs, it may require several hours. That must be added into the overall cost of the job. Larger shops might be able to incorporate the salary of the person responsible for the office work into the overhead of business, but for the smaller shop it may be better to estimate it into each job as well.
Service trip, site survey: Every time you leave the shop to measure or look at a customer’s project takes away from valuable production time—even if you do this while on another errand. You are losing time that you fail to bill for in the end. I’ve tried for years to create a flat rate charge for site surveys and meeting with clients but it never worked. Now I base it on actual time, and I let the customer know that they are being billed “by the hour” for my time to visit their site. It keeps them more prompt for meetings, too.
Load/unload: Okay, so it only takes a few minutes to load the sign, some tools and equipment to deliver and install a sign. But did you forget to include that? And once it’s installed, you take a photo and reload your gear. Back at the shop you have to unload, clean the tools and put it all away. Have you added that into the cost of the sign?
It’s not easy to change things that have been done a certain way for years. I’m just offering a few tips that may help show others how their time (and profit) slips away. After all, we’re in business to make a better living for our family and ourselves. All those dollars in lost time cut into our bottom line. –Larry
Larry and Kay Elliott’s shop, Elliott Designs, is in McLemoresville, Tennessee. You can learn more about his approach to running a successful sign business in his article, “Successfully estimating custom sign production“.
This little Ford Escort was brought to us with a dark grey ﬁnish and left with a black vinyl wrap. I designed the layout with the help of some logos and art the Sheriff and D.A.R.E. folks wanted to use. After careful measurements were made, I laid out the graphics to ﬁt the shape of the vehicle where nothing important would fall into an area that would be distorted or cut away during the install. Digital prints using 3-M Control-Tac were ordered. This was our ﬁrst full wrap.
This CNC routed sign was produced for a local sign shop who told us what their client was looking for. We did a couple sketches for them, then two small edits ﬁnalized the job. The overall size is 20-by-38-in. The panel of the main sign is ¾-in. medium density fiberboard with ¼-in. relief routed lettering and a textured background.
The carved graphic oval at top is two layers of ¼-in. PVC. I started by doing an outline and rough carve with the CNC machine. The shape of the duck was cut and laminated on top to give added dimension, then ﬁner detail was done with a small handheld cable router.
The painted graphic is ﬁnished in satin acrylic latex as are the letters and raised border. The background is a two-level stain wash with a lighter stain ﬁrst and a darker stain on top, then rubbed to highlight certain areas. A clear satin water-based poly was used to coat the whole sign. This is a straightforward type job we do on a regular basis.
These are custom-made backlit letters, constructed with an ACM [aluminum composite material] background panel, PVC letter faces, ABS letter returns and LED internal lamps. Letter faces were CNC machined and rabbeted on the back to hold the returns. Returns were hand formed from white translucent strips welded at corners with multipurpose PVC cement and curved to ﬁt letter radius with heat.
Another set of letters were made with a smaller contour cut and attached to the background for mounting the returns to hold the letters. Each letter is edge/back lit with 12-volt LED high output lamps. This turned out to be a good lesson in engineering, planning and time estimating.
This has been an ongoing project for over a year with many small signs and a few larger custom ones. Each sign or set of signs were bid as the need arose, so keeping up with time and materials have been easy. This would have been a bit more challenging to bid if all signs had been on one job. Most of the exterior signs for the lake project are constructed of 3 mil or 6 mil ACM panels with high performance cast vinyl graphics and mounted to 4-in. square PVC post covers with treated timbers inside.
This double-sided road sign measures 60-by-96-in., not including the posts. Sign face is 3 mil ACM finished with satin acrylic latex, decorated with engineer-grade reﬂective vinyl and mounted on a PVC plank background. The post system is built up with one 4-by-4-in. PVC post bolted to a 5-by-5-in. PVC post and another 4-by-4-in. PVC post slotted to hold the planking for the background. The CCWA logo at the top is routed into a solid PVC panel framed with PVC plank.
All the background “planks” are hollow fence rails. The framing for the top sign panel was cut apart and glued/riveted to create the correct width to hold the panel between the 4-in.-wide posts. This was a simple build with few engineering problems once the materials list was established and we worked out the details for assembly.
This plaque was created to cover the bolt heads from a cast metal plaque on the exterior wall. The CCWA board was concerned that vandals might try to remove the cast bronze for the value of the metal, so we mounted it with bolts through the wall and placed this custom plaque to conceal the mounts.
The backing board for this is laminated from 2-by-6-in. pine for a ﬁnished size of 18-by-30-in. The “plaque” is CNC-machined brushed gold 3 mil ACP with a black core. The backing board was relief drilled on the back to go over the bolt heads and mounted to the wooden wall with screws. The plaque is held in place with a thin wood strip frame.
This wall display shows on the far end a 26-by-32-in.-wide framed certificate, designed to look like old parchment. The center frame is 28-by-42-in. wide for the photo of the ﬁnished headquarters.
The closest print shows the old home place before remodeling and a barn that once stood where the water’s edge is now and is framed the same size as the one on the other end. I took the center photo from the same spot on the property as the original photo to achieve a before and after effect.
The custom frames are built up from white spruce 1×4, 1×6 and 1/2×3 ﬁr window facings to a ﬁnished size of 6-in. wide and 2-1/4-in. thick, then antiqued to ﬁt with the style of the old building.