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Signs Sell! Getting Into the Sign Business

Copyright © 2016 by Davis Multimedia, Int'l. All Rights Reserved.
As Printed in September 2016, Volume 42, No. 3 of The Engravers Journal
Standoffs can be used to combine materials and provide flair to architectural signage. Photo courtesy of Rowmark LLC.

   Do you include signage in your product line? If you do, that’s great. If not, perhaps you should consider it. Chances are, you can use the equipment you already have to generate a variety of signs and sign products, and easily add to your bottom line.
   Being in the sign business involves at least three things: design and manufacture of the sign, framing the sign and mounting the sign. In this article, we will consider all three of these elements and take a look at the materials and supplies available for creating top-notch signage.
   In recent articles, I have talked a lot about making interior signage using a UV printer, especially ADA-compliant signage. But there are many other types of signage you can offer without a UV printer, including ADA signs.
   As much as I talk about ADA signage (signs containing raised letters and Braille), the one thing we should remember is that the vast majority of signs and nameplates sold are not ADA, and it is all signage you can make if you have a laser engraver, rotary engraver, sublimation equipment or a UV printer. Any one of these pieces of equipment can produce a goldmine of signage that is easy to make and brings a very healthy profit margin.
   As you consider adding interior signage to your product line, you should know a little bit about the law concerning the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). In essence, this civil rights law mandates that certain interior signage in public places should have tactile (raised) lettering and Grade II Braille, with these exceptions: churches, some government buildings and wayfinding signs. Also exempted are signs with “temporary” or changeable messages, including desk nameplates and building directories. Although one might argue that these are exactly the places visually impaired people visit more than anywhere else, that is the law. Furthermore, only the places where the public has free access are required to have ADA signage.
   This leaves a wide variety of signage that is outside the ADA boundaries, including door signs, desk signs, warning signs, safety signs, hours of operation signs, instruction signs, no smoking signs, direction signs, information signs, labels and hundreds more. The opportunities are there, you just need to go out and grab them.


MetalPhoto allows creating high resolution signage, including black and white photographs. Photo courtesy of MetalPhoto of Cincinnati. If you own a vinyl cutter, there are thousands of old vinyl signs like this one that need a facelift. In this case, a new frame was constructed and I simply applied the vinyl.

 


A Wide World of Sign Substrates
   There are a variety of substrates available for making signs, with the most popular probably being plastic engraving stock. Woodgrains, metallics and color coordinated engraving stock from a variety of suppliers offer more than a thousand choices in plastic sign substrates. Some can be laser engraved while others require rotary engraving, but the end result is much the same. (For an in-depth look at plastic, read “The ‘Scoop’ on Plastic Substrates,” July 2016.)
   As mentioned, there is a huge demand for all types of signage that you can easily make with the substrates and supplies available in the industry. For example, simple wall or door signs can be made from a wide variety of plastic engraving stock and sold either with a beveled edge or in a wide selection of frames and holders.
   Signs for more demanding environments or exterior applications can be made with textured plastics. These acrylic over acrylic sheets resist scratches, are UV stable (able to withstand exposure to UV light) and some are weatherable (able to withstand the elements such as hot, cold, rain, snow, etc). I have made some signs that have been out in the sunlight for 20 years and still look as good as new! These plastics are a little more difficult to work with when using a laser as they require two passes and often have to be cleaned after engraving, but they are worth the trouble. Rotary engraving them is a snap if you have a rotary engraver.
   There are other UV stable and weatherable engraving plastics available besides the textured types, and some can be lasered while others require rotary engraving. Just watch the specification information when ordering since some non-UV stable sheets look the same as the UV stable sheets. Also, as just mentioned, remember that UV stable and weatherable are two different designations. And don’t confuse the “UV print” classification (meaning the substrate is recommended for UV printing applications) with UV stability.
   Many small signs, especially those with a lot of detail or signs intended for use outdoors, are made from anodized aluminum. Black anodized metal has been around for a long time and although it is usually categorized as non-UV stable, it is often used outdoors anyway. When exposed to the heat of the sun or intense heat of any kind over a long period of time, this metal can bleach out. Even when you laser it, it doesn’t really engrave, the laser just bleaches the black anodized coating to white. Because of its ability to be engraved with extremely thin lines and small text, this material is often used for applications such as wiring diagrams or legends for motors or other electronic equipment. It is also commonly used for ID products for zoos and botanical gardens.


The JRS Company manufactures a wide variety of sign frames. Photo courtesy of B.F. Plastics, Inc.

   In recent years, additional colors have been added to the list of anodized metal, including red, blue, green, orange, etc. Colored anodized metals are intended for lasers but they can also be diamond (scratch engraving) and rotary engraved.
   Some industry suppliers also offer gold, silver and white coated aluminum that engraves black. These are laser only materials and work well if you need a black image over a gold, silver or white background. These materials work great in situations where gold or silver plastic isn’t wanted or won’t work. Note, too, that if you have a fiber laser, you can create a black mark on a variety of metals, including brass and steel.
   Black brass or black brass plated steel are also used for interior signage. This material scratches too easily for my taste but when used in environments where people can’t deface it, it makes a beautiful sign. There are both rotary engravable and laser engravable versions of these metals available. Other colors of brass, including screen printed marble colors, are also available and are much more durable than either type of black brass. (For more information about the metals available in the industry, read “The ‘Scoop’ On Metal,” March 2016.)
   Perhaps one of the most interesting materials available today is glow-in-the-dark engravable acrylic. This is available for either laser or rotary engraving, so be sure to order the correct material. There are different types of glow-in-the-dark plastics available, including applique, ADA-complaint, reverse engravable and two-ply front engravable materials. The two-ply front engravable materials are available with a black, red, blue or bright green core that shows through the surface of the material when engraved. The face of the material (the unengraved area) actually glows in the dark so well, it is considered acceptable by the New York Fire Department for use as exit signs and directional signs in stairways in buildings. If you want the letters to glow rather than the background, you can cut them out of the applique material and apply them to a non-glow-in-the-dark blank.
   Most of the sign materials mentioned so far are available in a variety of thicknesses. The most common are 1/16", 1/32" and 1/8" but both thinner and thicker options are available for many materials. For instance, textured materials are available from 1/4" to 1/2" thicknesses for heavy-duty applications. I often see these used in state and national parks.
   AcrylaStone and AcrylaThins are two very unique products manufactured by AcrylaStone, LLC. AcrylaStone is a 1/2" thick hard surface plastic that looks like Corian and comes in several colors and standard plaque sizes, or you can order custom sizes. It can be engraved with a laser or rotary system and can be printed with a UV-LED printer. It is extremely durable and has a modern appearance.

Molded letters that screw together and contain LEDs are another unique signage option. The letters light up and offer variable flash speeds. These signs were made using Rowmark’s LaserGlow photoluminescent plastic. The photo on the right shows how these signs glow in the dark.

   AcrylaThins is best described as a Formica-type material, but it’s much thinner. At only 1/32" thick, it’s ideal for face mounting onto whatever substrate you want. It is both laser engravable and UV printable. AcrylaThins will also work well in most frames on the market, although it does require a backing sheet to give it support when used in JRS slides.
Options in Frames
   Most of the time, a sign needs more embellishment and a great way to dress it up and add immeasurable functionality is to combine the plate with a sign frame. Frames add a finishing touch to most any sign and allow for easy change without damaging the wall it’s mounted on.
   One option when it comes to sign frames is to utilize a sign “system.” These systems usually consist of a package deal where you can buy a variety of coordinated frames or modules in various sizes. Some suppliers also offer a package deal with pre-cut inserts. This option offers considerable variety and makes it easy for you—all you have to do is engrave or print the insert and mount it in the frame. With some of these systems, you can select from any number of engraving stocks for the inserts to create a color combination that works for you, the customer and the budget, while others offer the systems in specific colors.
   Probably the most common sign frames used in this industry are metal frames made by The JRS Company. These frames have been used for many years and are available in a wide range of stock options in addition to custom designs. Available from most sign material and accessory suppliers, they come in a variety of colors, although most suppliers only stock gold and silver. Ask for a sample kit to see all the other colors, including the very popular industrial bronze.
   JRS offers a wide variety of traditional aluminum “slides.” These frames come in 1" or 11/2" increments up to 4" high, and 2" increments in lengths up to 12" high. You can also buy 36" slides and cut them yourself. JRS also offers many other types of sign frames, ranging from tamper-resistant sign directory frames to molded plastic designer frames to frames suitable for outdoor applications. The company also offers custom frames in a wide range of sizes and shapes.
   Most recently, the excitement in the sign industry has been over metal stand-offs. Available in a variety of sizes and several finishes, these screw-together devices hold two sheets of material apart from each other to create an interesting dimensional appearance and can be used to anchor the sign to the wall, making a really clean installation. Stand-offs provide the ability to easily combine different types of material in one sign, such as glass, plastic, acrylic, etc., to create truly unique architectural signage.

 

AcrylaThins is a laserable material from PDU that has an attractive, distinctive look that fits well with many signage and ID applications. These slide-in plate holders have been around for a long time and are still a staple in any sign maker’s arsenal. Photo courtesy of Rowmark LLC.

A Look at Other Types of Signage
   In addition to plastic and metal framed signage, there are a variety of other types of signage that you can consider offering your customers. Here’s a look.
   Wood signs are still popular, both indoors and out. These can be made with a laser engraver, a rotary engraver, sandblasting or a UV printer. The wood substrate can be anything from hand rubbed walnut blanks to rough cut poplar. I have even seen some people try to make ADA signs this way. Although the signs I saw didn’t come close to meeting ADA specs, there is no reason they couldn’t.
   We can’t leave out sublimation. With sublimatable sign blanks, plaques and metal sheet stock, the possibilities are endless. Specially shaped sign blanks are even made just for sublimation. Sublimated signs are intended for interior applications and shouldn’t be used outdoors except on a temporary basis, but they offer the ability to produce full-color as opposed to two-color signs.
   Cast bronze and aluminum offer a wide range of possibilities. Cast signs can be large or small and used indoors or out, and they also make great plaques to mount on stakes for ground-stake installations in gardens, arboretums, etc. Cast bronze and aluminum signs are available from a number of manufacturers who will custom make them to your specifications. Inside or out, these signs speak “class” and will last virtually forever.
   Yet another type of sign to sell doesn’t require anything in the way of equipment other than a small Phillips screwdriver. These are LED illuminated letters that can be attached to each other to form words. They are powered by a small transformer (a “wall wart”) that supplies 12 volts to the signs. Letters retail for about $22.50 each and wholesale for about half that. These are great for restaurants and retailers of all kinds. The letters can be taken apart and made into new words in just a few minutes.


 

For exterior signs in harsh weather conditions, ½" thick textured material works great. Here it is used for a sign in a state park. This metal sheet stock from Horizons Inc. comes in gold and silver, and engraves black with a laser.

   A company called MetalPhoto of Cincinnati makes signs, plaques and other products from using “MetalPhoto,” which is a photosensitive anodized aluminum material. This product is UV stable for exterior use and resists most chemicals as well. The finished product is black on silver and usually has to be mounted on something rigid as it is only about .020" thick. The super high resolution of this product allows for imaging photographs and extremely small text. The company also offers a full-color product but it is for interior use only.
   One final, really unique type of sign to end with: Ceramic. Years ago, ceramic signs were very common and were used by all kinds of companies, including oil companies, soda pop companies, automobile manufacturers, even bread companies. Today, these old ceramic signs are worth big money and are sought out by collectors, but few new ones are being made.
   Enduring Images, Golden, CO, is one company that offers a process for printing full-color images on ceramic, which makes offering ceramic signage a possibility in your business. The process uses a modified Ricoh color laser printer with special toners and a kiln, along with ceramic-coated metal sign blanks. The market for this type of signage is typically related to some kind of memorabilia or replica related application. For instance, restaurants like Cracker Barrel and TGI Fridays use a lot of these new signs that are designed to look “old.” Even more exciting might be the ability to mark ceramic tiles with this process. These tiles can be purchased from Lowe’s or Home Depot for about 20 cents each and sold for $20 singly or even more when used in a mural or sign application. Unlike sublimated tiles, these tiles can be used outdoors, including underwater applications such as in hot tubs and swimming pools. Like other companies, Enduring Images will provide you with the equipment and training to make these products or they will make them for you.
   One other type of signage to consider might be better identified as “ID signage,” which includes small nameplates and tags used to identify something. Of course, the first thought might be pet tags, but there is a world beyond these. Plastic, aluminum, brass, stainless and self-adhesive films are commonly used for safety signs, identification tags, warning tags, information tags, etc. Stainless steel is commonly used in chemical plants or other places where corrosive materials are used. Brass is used for decorative applications such as halter plates for horses. Self-adhesive films are commonly used for safety signs, warning stickers or instruction panels. Because of the low cost, aluminum and plastic are used for most other applications.
   Whatever their use, there are thousands of applications and money to be made with each. For large quantity orders, it is often less expensive to job out the work. Companies like Gill-line, Stouse and National Banner offer a wide variety of labels and tags, and you don’t need any equipment at all to include these products in your catalog.


 

Anodized aluminum is available in a variety of colors and color combinations. It is great for signage that requires detailed engraving, such as electronic schematics. This wood sign doesn’t meet ADA specifications, but it could. Signs made from wood can add a wide variety of options to sign design.

Completing the Job: Installation
   Once the sign is made, the next task is to hang it. Your customers might opt to do the installation themselves but most likely you will still have to accommodate them by incorporating the appropriate hanging or mounting method in your design.
   Hanging signage can range from a “piece of cake” to “requiring incredible ingenuity.” Needless to say, you want to stay away from the latter if at all possible and, most of the time, you can. Here are some typical methods for mounting interior signs so the mounting devices don’t show.
   Silicone adhesive is my favorite. If you can get your sign to hold tightly against the wall for 24 hours, you can mount anything with silicone adhesive. I have 400 lb. bronze signs mounted on brick walls with silicone and four little screws. The difficult part is getting the sign to stay in place while the adhesive cures. If it is a lightweight sign, you can sometimes walk away in as little as 20-30 minutes, but the adhesive takes 24 hours to fully cure so if someone comes along after you and messes with the sign, you may be in trouble.
   One way to use silicone for heavy signs is to drill a couple of holes in the wall and the back of the sign, then fill both the holes in the back of the sign and the wall with silicone. This gives tremendous vertical resistance to the sign and will usually hold it in place for the necessary 24 hours. When possible, you can even use a threaded insert in the back of the sign to help hold the screw and greatly increase the strength of the bond.
   Other hidden mounting methods include Velcro or 3M Command Strips. The nice thing about using 3M Command Strips is they can be removed without damaging the wall while Velcro often does. Most people seem to assume that when a sign is attached to the wall, it is attached with screws and don’t think about pulling on it so these hidden mountings work very well—just be sure to use enough of them so the sign doesn’t move.
   Many signs, no matter how they are mounted to the wall, require the ability to remove portions of the sign for updates or changes. One easy way to do this is to mount a frame permanently to the wall and then use magnets to hold the sign insert(s) in place. This allows you to remove any portion of the sign for updating. Some frame manufacturers offer a steel back plate in their frames for just this reason.
   Another way to accomplish this is to use a frame that has a removable insert. These are usually attached with special plugs on the back of the insert. Once the insert is in place, it can’t be removed without a special tool, which is usually a simple suction cup used to grip the insert and allow it to be pulled loose from the frame. Other styles of frames feature end caps that you can unscrew and remove to slide out the sign insert.


Cast bronze and aluminum signs are a great sign option, particularly where durability and a classy look are required. The pedestals on this entrance sign are decorated with ceramic tiles made with a process by Enduring Images.

   Finally, there is the option of hanging signs. Unlike a few years ago, there are now a variety of nice hanging fixtures available. Gone are the days of rigging wires and chains to hold suspended signs. Most sign supply houses offer a variety of these specialized mountings. They also offer a variety of mountings for cubicles. Although Velcro works on most cubicles, some customers prefer a sign that clips over the edge of the cubicle.
Conclusion
   Long story short: If you aren’t offering signs to your customers, you are leaving out something that is easy to make and, in most cases, easy to install. Pick and choose the types of signs you want to do, make a few samples and you’re in business. You don’t have to offer ADA signage if you don’t have the equipment for it. You don’t have to offer installation, although doing so will increase your sales potential. You can even limit your sales to those 2" x 10" and 2" x 12" slides for doors if you want to, but don’t count out signs. Depending on your choices, they can be fast, easy and very lucrative.

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