By Ryan Harper
Posted on Friday, December 15th, 2023
Save this article! You’re probably thinking, “Oh, I’ll just put it on the shelf with all my other SignCraft back issues.” Oh no, not this one. Keep the original in a safe place, preferably a fireproof strong box with a tamper resistant lock. Then, with the original safe beyond all harm, distribute copies of this article to all family members and employees.
Alumalite Panels: $177
Total Materials: $380
Cutting and shaping: 2
Installation prep: 1
Total labor: 7 hours
Total labor and travel: $1032
Yes, those same family members and employees who sneer at you when you call out, “Hey, don’t throw away that 6-by-6-in. piece of Sign Foam!” or “Set aside that ACM that got run over by the backhoe, maybe we can use the middle part for something…”
We’ve all heard the, “Throw that away, you’ll never use it…” argument. Aside from the positive environmental implications, sometimes the packrat mentality actually produces positive results. Without a tendency toward thrift, this sign would not have been profitable.
Putting scraps to good use
Little Wonders Daycare was remodeling a local church into a toddler pen when I stopped by for a chat with the owner about the next Harper Design project. I knew that the building and lot had sold for about $450K and as a result, cash would likely be tight.
So, I cited local examples of work and their relative prices. Soon it became apparent that we were going to have to get a monument sign done “for about $2200 bucks.” I was on the cusp of informing the client that the mythical $2200 monument sign did not really exist when she uttered the magic words, “We really want something creative.”
How could I refuse such a tempting proposition? But $2200 is a ridiculous price for a monument and leaves no room for anything but materials on a creative job. I cast about for a solution and landed upon the sign for a publishing company that had inhabited the building.
It was solid and sturdy, all we needed for a starting point. In addition, getting permits from this particular city is easier for changes to existing signs than putting up something completely new. We sketched up the work order to assure a professional transaction, she signed on the spot, and off we went.
Starting the fabrication
Now the fun part began. The key to making a job of this size profitable is speed. From signed work order to installation of the sign was ten days. This speed was made possible mostly by not moving too fast. I know it sounds weird, but projects move faster when you go slow initially, plan carefully, and double-check everything before moving on to the next step.
I went through all of the scraps of Sign Foam high-density urethane board that sneering employees told me I’d never use and collected a few pieces of varying thicknesses. Using a paper pattern and saws (there’s no fancy CNC router in this shop), these scrap pieces made up the main Little Wonders copy.
I use an old file for cleaning up deep letters. This file has a smooth edge, making it possible to true-up flat areas quickly, without cutting into the inside corners. As you can see, alternating the letters in the various thicknesses of foam creates a pleasing variety of shadows.
Painting the letters in a series of primary colors (after a double primer coat) helps add to the playful tone. If you’re thinking that the blue looks more “sky” than “primary”, this is not an optical illusion. The colors were matched off of the shop print not the work order—a point we shall have to revisit in a moment.
Assembling the components
The background was assembled while the letters were being cut and shaped. I had decided on a combination of speed and thrift for the background. Other material might be cheaper, but the thickness of the Alumalite aluminum composite board made it the choice for this background.
I already had some ACM on hand, and in the interest of saving time and shop space, ordered the red and yellow sheets prefinished. The blue sheet was primed and painted at the same time as the blue lettering. One sheet of white would be the main face, so I carefully selected the best one before the copy was laid out.
No matter the quality of the glue, I always sleep better at night with physical fasteners in place—in this case, screws. Each letter was placed as it would rest, and I used a Stabilo pencil to mark the corners. Once the holes were drilled, a quick flip over and a hit with a grinder knocked off the burrs at the edges of the holes.
The next step was applying the vinyl secondary copy and graphics. The lower vinyl went on dry with no problems. The stick-figure children, however, had somehow migrated during weeding or masking and didn’t match up. Unfortunately, I didn’t discover this until the film hit the background!
Using a gentle touch I kept the mismatched vinyl loose and used a squeegee to press down the matching pieces. Gripping the tape firmly, I jerked up sharply to remove the mismatched panel and reapplied it where it belonged. A few repetitions and the children were soon learning and playing happily together.
I wanted all the panels to be mounted together using carriage bolts that went through all of the panels. Have I mentioned that I hate, hate, hate visible fasteners? The solution was to pre-drill the bolt holes through all layers and carefully place the letters over these bolts. (A little firm pressure on the letter resulted in an exact bolt mark for easy drilling.)
Using a spade or paddle bit, a recess was cut into the backs of the letters to allow them to ride flush to the face. The bolts were inserted into the first sheet only, and it was time to start gluing.
Silicone Type 2 is to sign makers what duct tape is to the average man. Ok, maybe not, but it’s close. This stuff sticks to almost anything, will cure underwater, and doesn’t get brittle or crack like construction adhesive or urethane glues can. Filling the bolt recesses with Type 2 and a gentle bead or two, and the letters are on for good. You can slide the letters around as needed for a couple minutes just to make sure everything meshes well.
When you’re using silicone, remember that you’ll be pressing the glue almost flat, so don’t use too much of it. It’s irritating to clean off the edges. If you do get a little squeeze-out at the edges, don’t wipe it. Just let it dry, slice both sides with an X-Acto knife, and peel off the excess bead. Also keep in mind how rainwater will flow across the face of the sign. Lay down the adhesive in vertical lines and dollops, avoiding U shapes where water will collect. Even a little water can grow nasty stuff.
I screwed the letters to the sign faces from behind, and each sheet gets its own coat of GE Type II adhesive before being gently nested with the rest. Care is taken at this point to match the bolts up exactly with each sheet so as not to pop the letters loose. While those set up, off we go to the site to prep the old sign for installation.
Handling the installation
At the site, the face decoration on the old sign had to be removed first. After removing the back and making sure the power was off, the neon, the channel and aluminum accent pieces were removed and set aside. This sounds easy. However, in the time since its last use, the logo channel on the face of the sign had become home to approximately three billion wasps. They did not like having their neon unhooked. Nor did they like having their home unbolted and rivets drilled out, and they definitely did not like being knocked from about shoulder height onto the ground. All of this was surely more amusing for those driving by on the highway than for us.
Aluminum had been used in this old monument and the lower section was pierced-face back-lighted letters. Covering this up with a sheet of .040 aluminum and using Lord Adhesive’s aluminum adhesive in vertical lines provided a nice, smooth-finished face.
After the primer was dry, Mike Atkinson and I brought the newly minted sign to its new home. The installation went something like this: Since the bolts projected through all levels of the face, Mike and I held the sign up where it would go and leveled it. Then, using a technique I learned from my dad in the shop when I was thirteen, we wiggled the sign vigorously for a second or two. When removed, the bolts had marked perfect rings where their holes needed to be drilled.
I had hoped to further simplify the project by making it a one-man install. However, after the background went together, I tried to lift it to shift its position in the shop. My back and I came to the quick realization that the sign’s weight had grown more than expected. So after Mike’s invaluable assistance lifting Little Wonders into place, bolting it in and replacing the back panels, there was little choice but to include him in the portfolio picture.
Voila, a satisfactory sign, I’d say. The key there is that I would say that. What the client said was, “That’s not the blue we talked about.” Sure enough, it was more sky blue than primary blue. That was an easy fix—just cut in a blue that matched the original proof on the lettering. This took about 45 minutes to do, twice, and the sign was up to snuff. Then a deeper blue vinyl was laid in on the children. Now the sign makes the client happy and will last a long time, thanks to some pragmatism and a little saved material.
Ryan Harper is a second-generation sign writer who focuses on sign, print and Web design. His shop, Harper Design, is in Logan, Utah.
This appeared in the September/October 2007 issue of SignCraft. While the prices have been adjusted for inflation, they may not accurately reflect current pricing for such signage.
Cut letters to shape: 2 hours I used jigsaws and saber saws to cut the letters to shape, then cleaned them up using a hand-held rasp.
Arrange letters and mark corners: 25 minutes After painting the letters (45 min.), I arranged them on the sign face and marked the corners of each letter.
Pre-drill face panel: 10 minutes The letters were fastened with screws and silicone adhesive; these holes guarantee that the screws will end up where I want them.
Apply vinyl lettering and graphics: 10 minutes We had some registration problems with the graphics, but it all worked out.
Countersink backs of letters: 15 minutes A little planning makes it possible to hide the bolt heads behind the letters. Countersinking with a spade bit lets the letters sit flush to the face.
Assemble panels and apply silicone: 30 minutes A light bead of silicone adhesive ensures that the letters will stay put.
Remove old neon: 30 minutes Prior to installation, the old neon and channel letters had to be removed.
The existing sign structure became the foundation for the new sign.
Prep face of sign structure and install new sign: 3 hours Before painting, we primed the structure with marine-grade primer.