The In's & Out's of Braille

Copyright © 2010 by Davis Multimedia, Int'l. All Rights Reserved.
As Printed in October 2010, Volume 36, No. 4 of The Engravers Journal

ADA signage samples courtesy of Vision Engraving Systems, Phoenix, AZ.


     When you consider that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires all public buildings to use interior signage with tactile lettering and Braille, the list of potential customers that a sign maker can sell to is phenomenal. Schools, colleges, hospitals, nursing homes, hotels, government agencies, corporate offices and virtually any business or publicly accessible building has to comply with government regulations regarding ADA signage for disabled or visually-impaired people. And if industry insiders are correct when they say you can expect a 200-300 percent profit or more, depending on the job, the idea of creating these types of signs becomes more than just a little appealing.
     Of course, you can’t just dive into this market head first without doing your homework. Creating and selling ADA signage can be intimidating even to long-time engravers, and it requires some education on your part. In addition to learning all the ADA signage regulations, you also need to learn about Braille—what it is and how to incorporate it onto various types of signs. This article offers a brief overview of the ADA guidelines related to signage and provides some of the basics about Braille that can help get you started in a lucrative market.
Getting into the Act
     Engravers need to be familiar with all of the ADA specifications relating to sign making because their customers may not necessarily know these themselves. For example, customers can and will request fonts or color combinations that don’t meet the ADA standards. As an engraving professional, you should be able to point out these problems to customers. Your knowledge on this subject will put you in a professional light with your customers, and this can go a long way towards ensuring future ADA signage jobs not to mention possibly saving you the hassle and expense of remaking signs that don’t comply.
     The ADA guidelines were first introduced in 1992. The act mandates that all public places utilize interior signage with tactile lettering, Grade 2 Braille and, in some cases, pictograms. Signs that designate permanent rooms and spaces and signs that provide direction to or information about functional spaces of the building are required to comply with the regulations. Temporary signs, such as building directories and menus, do not need to comply.
     ADA guidelines which are specific to signage map out all the requirements for creating ADA-compliant signage and are quite detailed. They include such things as the finish of the sign material, the contrast between characters and symbols with the background, the specifics of the raised lettering (letter depth, height, type and style), the specifics of the Braille dots, placement of text and Braille and regulations for mounting the signage.
     The sidebar accompanying this article provides the essential sign requirements specified in the ADA guidelines. However, for a more detailed description of these requirements, you can view the official ADA Accessibility Guidelines (ADAAG) by visiting the United States Access Board (USAB) website at Click on “ADA and ABA Accessibility Guidelines” and look for Chapter 7: Communication Elements and Features. You can also check out the official Department of Justice government website for ADA compliance. Accent Signage Systems, Inc., Minneapolis, MN, also has links to ADA-related material on its website (

Braille-Oz has developed an automated Braille bead inserter that attaches to your router or engraving machine.    

Most engraving machine manufacturers include a Braille translator in their engraving software packages. Photo courtesy of Xenetech Global, Baton Rouge, LA.

     In July 2004, the ADAAG underwent a comprehensive update, including several changes that affect the sign industry. For example, previously simple serif typestyles such as Times New Roman were allowed, but under the new guidelines only sans serif styles can be used for tactile lettering. Also banned are any italic, oblique, script and other serif typestyles.
     In addition, Braille dots must now have a domed or rounded surface and the rules for the spacing between dots and Braille cells have also changed. Other changes with this update involve requirements for raised borders and other decorative elements and sign mounting rules. Once you familiarize yourself with the ADA regulations, be sure to check your state laws regarding Braille as some states, such as California, have their own sign code standards.
Getting to Know Braille
     Braille is a coded system of tactile raised dots organized into cells consisting of one to six dots. Each cell represents a different letter of the alphabet. Vision impaired people are taught to read Braille by rubbing their fingers over the raised dots. There are three common grades of Braille, and each is used for different purposes.
     Grade 1 Braille is letter-for-letter translation and is the method commonly taught in elementary schools. This type of Braille is not used on ADA signage in the U.S., however, it is recommended in some other countries such as Australia.
     Grade 2 Braille, sometimes referred to as “literary Braille,” is based on Grade 1 but also includes over 200 abbreviations and contractions of commonly used phrases and words. This shorthand approach makes the message quicker to read because fewer dots are used to convey the same information. ADA regulations require Grade 2 Braille, and this is the only type of Braille permitted on signage in the U.S.
     Grade 3 Braille is also a shorthand version but includes many additional contractions (over 300). This type of Braille is not used in publications or in the production of accessible signage but rather is primarily used by individuals for personal note taking.
Braille Translation Software
     The first step in creating Braille signage is to convert the message into the appropriate Braille format. Braille translation software is used to convert text to ADA-specified Grade 2 Braille. Today, most engraving machine manufacturers include a Braille translator in their engraving software packages, including Gravograph Inc. (Duluth, GA), Vision Engraving Systems (Phoenix, AZ) and Xenetech Global Inc. (Baton Rouge, LA). In some cases, you may need to purchase translation software separately as an add-on option. Duxbury Systems Inc., Westford, MA, is one supplier that offers translation software for all types of Braille in numerous languages.
     Braille translation software has improved over the years and is now available in over 25 languages. The software works with a Grade 2 Braille font which is essentially no different from standard engraving fonts except that they utilize a system of dots organized in a rectangular cell for the letters and numbers. Today’s software is very easy and convenient to use and it comes with all of the ADA-compliant Braille parameters built in, including the most recent changes. The software has a built-in safety feature which doesn’t allow you to change the height or width of the Braille font. This prevents users from changing the dot size or the spacing between the Braille dots to ensure that the Braille will meet ADA sign regulations.

  Braille sign courtesy of Roland DGA, Irvine, CA.    

     To use a translator, you simply type in the text in a standard engraving or TrueType font, click on “translate” and the software automatically translates the message into Braille dots that can be placed on your sign layout just like any other text. In most cases, the guidelines require lower case text translated into Braille to prevent adding unnecessary Braille. Exceptions include using upper-case letters for the first word of sentences, proper nouns and names, individual letters of the alphabet, initials and acronyms.
     Compliant pictograms for stairs, restrooms, etc., are typically not included in the Braille translator software, but these are available from most engraving equipment suppliers. Accent Signage Systems includes symbol templates on a CD-ROM in its Raster Braille equipment kit.
Routed Out Braille
     Routed out Braille was the first method used in the engraving industry to create Braille signage. This technique involves using your rotary engraving machine to rout out material from the sign face. This technique involves, in effect, routing out a cavity but leaving raised, rounded dots encased in a smooth, cutout rectangle. Since the new ADA regulations require dome-shaped Braille dots, you need to use a special, dome-shaped cutter for this process since a standard rotary cutter creates a flat dot that no longer complies. Braille cutters can be purchased from rotary cutter suppliers and some machine manufacturers such as Xenetech.
     The actual engraving process for this technique is no different from regular rotary engraving. You simply use a depth regulator nose, set the depth to achieve a .025"-.037" high dot and then engrave.
Raster Braille
     Raster Braille is a fast and user-friendly rotary engraving process which is the industry’s most popular option for creating ADA signage today. This method allows you to create rounded dots that meet the ADA guidelines for dot dimension, spacing, height and shape and the result is an overall clean, uniform appearance. The Raster Braille method is patented and trademarked by Accent Signage Systems and, therefore, you need to purchase a license to use their system.

  Braille signs courtesy of Xenetech Global. .    

     After converting the text to Grade 2 Braille, you use your rotary engraving machine and a special Braille cutter to drill small holes into the sign material. The Braille circles in your sign layout are used for the drill points and the Raster drill cutter, which is a specially-designed parallel cutter, is used to create straight sides on the drill hole. Small beads (Rasters) are then inserted into the holes using either a manual or automatic insertion tool. The tool consists of a tube that holds the Braille beads and a spring-loaded assembly that dispenses the beads or “spheres” one at a time into the drilled holes.
     You can use the Braille insertion tool to manually insert Braille beads by pressing the tool into each hole to dispense a bead. Another option allows you to use one of the automatic Braille dispensing and insertion devices that are now available, making the sign-making process even easier and more efficient. Accent Signage Systems offers the Auto-Raster Deluxe and Braille-Oz Pty. Ltd., Queensland, Australia, also sells an automated Braille bead inserter. These devices can be used with many computerized engraving machines and routers in conjunction with your Braille translation software to automatically insert the beads.
     After drilling the holes with your rotary engraver, simply install the automatic insertion device on the engraving machine and rerun the job. The device automatically dispenses and inserts the beads into the sign material to create the Braille. Some machine manufacturers, including Vision, Roland DGA and Gravograph, now offer an offset bracket that can be mounted onto the spindle assembly of your engraving machine to hold the insertion device, saving you the time of having to install and uninstall it for each job. The offset parameters for the position of the bracket can be entered into the Braille software when the unit is first installed. Accent Signage Systems also offers an optional Auto-Raster compressor accessory kit (air compressor sold separately) to provide air pressure hookup that helps dispense the beads in dry, static environments.
     Raster Braille can be used on a variety of sign materials including plastic, acrylic, wood, brass, aluminum, steel and laminates. If the sign substrate is metal or another solid material that does not expand and contract, you need to apply an adhesive to hold the Braille beads in place; no adhesives are needed for plastic or acrylic sign substrates.
     The Braille beads are available in various materials and colors. For example, UV stable acrylic beads come in black, white and clear, while solid stainless steel and solid brass are also available. Plastic beads are the most popular for most interior signage applications. Steel and brass beads are typically used on metal substrates, e.g. for a stainless steel elevator panel. Combining different bead materials with different sign substrates allows you to create more interesting and aesthetically appealing sign designs based on your customer’s preferences.


Gravograph’s (Duluth, GA) GravoTac is an ADA-compliant sign material for creating raised lettering.

    Braille beads are placed into an ADA sign. Photo courtesy of Vision Engraving Systems.

     Accent Signage Systems offers several different kits to get you started creating Braille signage with the Raster Braille method. The company’s Raster Pen License Kit includes the insertion device, special cutters for drilling holes and profiling raised lettering, 10,000 acrylic Raster spheres, a manual that provides tips for creating signage, a CD-ROM with sign layouts, samples of frame colors, a weeding tool and a sign cleaning brush.
Raised Lettering
     To create the raised lettering portion of the sign, you need to select outline fonts that meet ADA requirements for sans serif lettering (without tails, with square corners). The ADA guidelines also require that the tactile lettering be raised 1/32" from the sign surface.
     Creating raised lettering is a straightforward procedure using your engraving machine. The process typically involves using two pieces of ADA sign material. One serves as the sign substrate or background and the other is an adhesive-backed 1/32" thick appliqué material. To create tactile raised lettering on a sign, place the adhesive-backed material on top of the background material and use your engraving machine and a special profiling cutter to profile the raised lettering slightly deeper than the material thickness, e.g. .035", to cut through the adhesive. Then remove the excess appliqué material by lifting it off and weeding the center portions of characters, leaving the raised lettering on the background material.
Signage Material
     The ADA requirements are very specific in terms of what goes on the sign and they are also specific in terms of the signage material. ADA regulations do not require that signs be a specific color, which gives sign makers some leeway in sign design, e.g. creating a signage system that is in a complementary color scheme to a building’s architecture. In addition, the previous ADA guidelines required a contrast ratio of 70 percent between the tactile lettering and the background. The new guidelines have been revised and while they still call for contrast, it has been defined as using “light characters on a dark background or dark characters on a light background.”
     The required ADA portion of the sign also must be made of “eggshell, matte or other nonglare” materials. Note that reflective materials can be used to add to the sign’s aesthetic appeal, but the ADA portion of the sign must be made of a nonglare material.
     Although the sign material requirements have become somewhat less stringent, the problem some people run into, of course, is determining whether a particular material meets the contrast and glare requirements. The contrast may look correct but it may or may not meet the requirements. And while you can use a glossimeter to determine the reflectivity of the material, it is doubtful that very many sign makers have one of these devices.

  ADA signage with aluminum frames. Photo courtesy of Gravo    

     Thankfully, engraving material suppliers have taken the guesswork out of selecting ADA-compliant materials for you. Most suppliers now have an independent line of ADA materials and guidelines to help you and your customers choose the correct material. For example, Rowmark LLC, Findlay, OH, has created the ADA Alternative line that includes ADA Substrate for the background (available in 1/16" and 1/8" thicknesses) and ADA Appliqué (1/32" thick) for the raised lettering. Both of these materials are made of single-ply modified acrylic, can be laser or rotary engraved and feature a matte finish that meets the ADA’s nonglare requirements. Rowmark also offers Ultra Mattes and Reverse Engravable Ultra Mattes that are popular choices for ADA signage. In addition, you can find color contrast charts for materials on Rowmark’s website that allow you to easily select appropriate color combinations.
     Gravograph also offers a full line of ADA-compliant sign materials. The GravoTac line includes 1/16" and 1/8" substrate materials and 1/32" self-adhesive appliqué materials. The company also offers rotary cutters for creating raised lettering and Braille as well as an ADA Signage how-to guide.
Other Processes
     Rotary engraving is the primary method used to create ADA-compliant signage, but there are other methods that can be used with varying degrees of success. For example, laser engraving can be used to create raised lettering and symbols on ADA signage using the same appliqué process used with rotary engraving. The laser does a beautiful job of cutting through the single appliqué layer without harming the substrate.
     It’s possible to do raster-like Braille using a laser, however, many users have reported problems achieving consistently good results. Using the Raster Braille process, the holes in the material must have accurately cut straight sides to hold the bead in position. A laser engraver does not produce a straight-sided hole but rather one that is larger at the surface and smaller at the base. Also, the beads must be a specific height above the substrate material surface. With a rotary system, you can set a specific cutter depth and when the beads are inserted, they will rest at the bottom of the hole, resulting in the appropriate bead height. With a laser system, variations in substrate material density and material flatness can produce different depths and, therefore, would not be ADA-compliant.
     When the ADA was first passed, photopolymer signage gained a lot of recognition as a method to create compliant signage. Photopolymer is a photosensitive compound that hardens when exposed to UV light. For sign making purposes, this compound is applied to a base substrate. An ADA sign layout, including Braille and raised lettering, is output to a film negative that is placed on top of the photopolymer sheet and placed in a UV processing unit. Areas of the image that are exposed to UV light harden and the unexposed areas are washed away leaving image areas in relief of the background.
     Since the ADA has been amended to require Braille dots that are domed, there is some discussion in the sign industry as to whether this method is still suitable. Some industry insiders claim that the photopolymer process produces Braille dots with a flat surface while others claim the method is easily capable of creating rounded dots by altering the artwork. In any case, this method does require additional equipment and supplies, including a system for creating film negatives, a UV exposure unit and a washout tank.


     Sandblasting is the process of using compressed air to force a stream of abrasive to etch material. In the case of ADA signage, the background of the sign is etched away, leaving raised lettering and Braille. However, it is very difficult to achieve rounded Braille with this process and, in most cases, it is no longer being used as an ADA sign making method.
     You also have the option of jobbing out ADA sign-making jobs if you choose not to fabricate them yourself. Accent Signage Systems and Bell Company, Trussville, AL, are among the many different companies that will create custom ADA signage for you based on your specifications. Pella Engraving Co., Pella, IA, also offers custom ADA sign making services using a chemical etching process that creates compliant signage from magnesium and zinc sign blanks. Johnson Plastics, Minneapolis, MN, offers some injection-molded stock signs such as restroom and “in case of fire” signage.
     Keep in mind that when outsourcing ADA sign jobs, you still need to be familiar with the guidelines and you should be able to provide the sign wholesaler with detailed instructions. This includes providing information about the text font and size, borders, radius corners and colors.
Looking for Customers
     Any public access building has a need for Braille signage, so this means the market opportunities are definitely there for engraving shops. If you can locate businesses and organizations that are involved in new-building construction, this is one way to get your foot in the door. You can also contact architects and construction companies to help locate some of these potential customers. School districts and state and federal governments are also good places to market Braille signage.
     Today’s engraving processes for creating ADA-compliant signage are advanced and easy to use. Keep in mind, too, that tactile signage is not just for ADA signage. It can be a nice alternative to engraved signs as well. Tactile lettering can give noncompliant signs multiple dimensions and, by using other substrates such as gloss finishes, metallics and reverse engravable materials, you can create interesting, stylish signs and displays.
     In today’s economy, award shops are always looking for ways to make their businesses more profitable. With minimal investment, interior ADA signage can be one of the highest return-on-investment products that you offer.




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