Creating Colorful, Dimensional Signage

Copyright © 2004 by Davis Multimedia, Int'l. All Rights Reserved.
As Printed in December 2004, Volume 30, No. 6 of The Engravers Journal
Figure 1: The colorful, dimensional completed Birch Haven sign.  

     Andy Warhol once said, “Art is what you can get away with.” Andy got away with quite a bit during his career (multi-colored soup cans, anyone?). With some forethought and planning, signage can most definitely be art and, with the help of your engraving and sign making equipment you can get away with quite a bit. With that in mind, I made it my goal to “get away with” mixing art with plastic engraving stock to create a sign with multiple colors and dimension.
    Since I began working at Rowmark in February of 2004, I realized that engraving material offers more artistic possibilities than I had ever imagined. Plastic gives you the ability to create the perception of depth…a perspective that’s difficult to achieve on a traditional artist’s canvas.
    Today my canvas is Rowmark’s ColorCast Acrylics, a 1/4" gauge “cell cast” acrylic material. The ColorCast Acrylics product is a laser engraver’s dream. It has greater optical clarity than extruded acrylic and it lasers cleanly, making it ideal for sign making. Additionally, it’s UV stable and outdoor weatherable. I specifically chose this product because it offers the greatest flexibility for color and multiple dimension designs. Any “cell cast” acrylic provides the ability and flexibility of creating a sign with as many colors as your imagination can dream up.
    Even in the early stages of planning I knew the sign that I wanted to design would have multiple colors, yet I wanted to take the sign’s design one step further. I wanted to design a sign that had dimension with various levels of color.
    As with any blank “canvas,” I needed to find a subject for my art. I wanted to create a sign that would lend itself to a practical application for the ColorCast Acrylics product line. That’s when I recalled seeing a sign for a local retirement community. The sign struck me as dry, bland and uninviting. I wanted to take that original boring sign and recreate that sign by transforming it into something colorful, visually exciting and stimulating. My goal was to design and fabricate a sign that would feel warm and welcoming instead of bland and institutional.
Figure 2: After the sign was cut out of the acrylic sheet, it was placed back into the template and the lettering was reverse laser engraved on the sign segment. Figure 3: The four clear squares are cut into the sign.

    To start, I looked through my favorite clip-art websites for an image that would fit into a retirement community’s setting and challenge me as a designer. I wanted to find an image that included some type of foliage, an image perhaps that would signify the changing seasons of life. After a long and arduous search, I found an image that not only captured the look I was going for, but allowed for some creativity with respect to the design elements. This was going to be a project that would challenge both me and Rowmark’s fabrication specialist, Steve Williamson.
    With my graphic image in hand (or on screen, as it were), I searched through Rowmark’s Swatch Binder to find color choices just right for this project. I wanted a rich, warm color that would accent the contrasting fill colors. I chose Burgundy with a matte finish. I imported the vector image of my graphic into CorelDRAW. Next, using the rectangle tool, I sized the sign to 15" long by 13.75" wide. I placed the image into the square (sign template) in the upper left corner of the sign and sized the image to 3" by 3".
    Using the Text tool I entered the sign’s text message. The first line of text read “Birch Haven” and the next line “Retirement Village.” As you well know, choosing a font can be a daunting task. Keeping in mind that the sign would be read most often by retirees I wanted something classy, yet not too formal. It needed to be legible for its intended audience as well. I found the perfect font “Snell BD BI” and adjusted the point size to 130. I highlighted “Retirement Community” and changed that font to “ZapfCalligBT” with a point size of 53. I converted the fonts to curves and went to share my design with Steve for his thoughts and input.
    Steve took one look at the design I brought to him and raised his eyebrow at me. He questioned if I knew exactly what I wanted to do with this particular sign. I replied yes, but I would need his help and technical expertise to make it happen. I asked him simply if it was possible to create what I put before him. He confidently replied yes, and I let out a sigh of relief.
Figure 4: A thin, even coat of paint was applied to each square. Figure 5: The front view of the sign after it has been color filled but before the leaves were added.

    My initial design needed to be tweaked a little. To make the image work we had to separate the four squares of color that combined into one larger square, we needed to take the image apart and move each square 1/16" away from the other. This prevented a 4-color bleed. I ungrouped the squares, and then regrouped each square with its respected leaf and moved them 1/16" away from each other. Now with that taken care of, we could begin the fun part: the lasering.
    To begin the lasering process, we used CorelDRAW to mirror the image as you would with any reverse-engravable material. Steve created the layers for each piece of the design.
     First the acrylic material was placed into the laser face up with the protective masking still on it to guard the product against burning. The sign was then vector cut using several passes. With a razor knife Steve carefully lifted the cut piece out, leaving the remaining background piece in place on the bed of the laser as a template. This easy tip allows you to place the sign cutout back in the laser in the exact position for multiple layer lasering as we did with this sign.
    Next, we turned the sign over and placed it back into the template. The first text file (Fig. 2) was sent over for the first pass. After setting the laser about .004" out of focus, Steve placed the acrylic material into the laser and began to laser engrave the text “Birch Haven Retirement Community” and each of the four squares (Fig. 3) without the leaves. Meanwhile, I headed to a nearby craft store to select my paints (water based non-toxic acrylic paint) for color-filling the sign.
    My color palette for this project would be different hues of subtle greens and rich browns, to give it an earthy, friendly look. While shopping for the paint I found it helpful to have a color printout of my sign design. I selected four paint colors for the leaves and squares: forest green, stonewedge green, spice brown and trail tan. Next I selected a soft color, Buttercream, for the sign’s text. The Buttercream color contrasted nicely with the darker burgundy acrylic material.



Figure 6: The final paint application added the color to the leaves. Figure 7: The completed signage series that was created around the original concept.

    When I returned from the craft store, I was greeted with a sign laser engraved with four completely clear squares. The sign was beginning to take shape, but needed some life. With the color printout of my sign in hand and reminders to myself to think backwards, I began to paint (Fig. 4) the squares. I first applied a very thin layer of paint in one square and then moved to the next square with the next color, until all four squares were painted in a different color. I checked my back-filling work for opacity by holding the sign up to a light to be sure each square was adequately covered with a smooth, even coat of paint.
    At that point we placed the sign (Fig. 5) back into the laser and used the laser’s exhaust to help dry the paint. Once we were confident that the paint was thoroughly dry, Steve laser engraved through the painted areas. After several passes and reaching the desired depth, the leaf patterns appeared. Now the sign was really beginning to take on a three-dimensional look. Steve handed me the nearly-completed sign, and I began to paint each leaf (Fig. 6) with the corresponding color of the square adjacent to the leaf. I continued with the same painting process as with the squares. Again, the sign was placed back into the laser to help the paint to dry. After a period of approximately thirty minutes, Steve and I opened the laser and removed the sign from its template. Steve gingerly removed the masking from the front surface of the sign. We were delighted to discover the beautiful sign that was hiding beneath.
    Steve and I were so proud of the finished sign that we decided to design and fabricate a series of “themed” signs like the one we had just completed (Fig. 7). The multiple layers and colors of the sign came together so nicely, and it truly did have a multi-dimensional look, so I went back to the drawing board and designed a few more signs to compliment the first in the collection.
    What proved to be the most interesting part of this endeavor were the ideas and possibilities that developed. While Rowmark’s ColorCast Acrylics are available in a variety of popular colors, there is also a “clear” alternative. This clear sheet material allows you to customize any project, matching the application to any color or décor by using the time-tested, traditional method of color filling.