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Creating Braille for ADA Signs

Copyright © 2017 by Davis Multimedia, Int'l. All Rights Reserved.
As Printed in July 2017, Volume 43, No. 1 of The Engravers Journal
Figure 1: Before the spheres can be inserted, holes must be drilled into the substrate to the proper depth. This can be done with a special rotary engraving tool that holds a tiny drill bit.

   Do the words “ADA-compliant” sound intimidating to you? Do you know what Braille is but don’t really understand what you have to do to add it to a sign? Do you avoid a lot of good business because you are uncertain about how to make signs that are truly ADA-compliant?
   Well, you aren’t alone, but the truth is making ADA signage really isn’t that complicated. First, of course, you need to understand what the law requires. The sidebar accompanying this article outlines the most recent ADA guidelines as they pertain to signage. You can also read chapter 7 of the Department of Justice’s 2010 Standards for Accessible Design for more information (www.ada.gov, www.ada.gov/regs2010/2010ADAStandards/Guidance2010ADAstandards.htm or http://www.ada.gov/regs2010/2010ADAStandards/2010ADAStandards_prt.pdf for a direct link to a .pdf file). Also, check your state building codes as there may be more stringent rules in your state.
   In addition to raised lettering, the other main component of ADA-compliant signage is Grade 2 Braille. As a sign maker, how do you include Braille on a sign that complies with the law? That’s what I will discuss in this article.
What is Braille?
   Braille is the literary language of the blind, where each letter consists of a series of raised dots that a Braille-literate person can read by running his or her finger over the row of Braille characters. The ADA specifically mandates “Grade 2” Braille which is a slight variation from Grade 1 Braille which is a letter-for-letter translation. Grade 2 Braille utilizes “contractions” which vary the spellings of some words. Braille translation software is used to convert text to the literary Grade 2 Braille.
   Now here is a look at some options for incorporating Braille into ADA-compliant signage.
Raster Braille
   Although it is not the only way to produce Braille signage, perhaps the most common method utilizes “Raster Braille.” Created by David Edgerton of D.A. Edgerton & Associates around 1998 or so, the system was patented and eventually sold to Accent Signage Systems, Minneapolis, MN.
   The principle utilized in the Raster method of Braille is that you use your (rotary) engraving machine to drill a series of holes in the substrate delineating the location of the Braille dots. Then you insert spheres (Rasters) into the holes which provide a tactile raised Braille message.
   Accent Signage is the current owner of the Raster technology and they have greatly improved the original system and the documentation. Today, Accent Signage not only sells the system themselves, but also through Rowmark and all of their distributors, Gravograph and other industry suppliers.

Figure 2: This “pen” not only holds a supply of spheres, it automatically positions them for insertion as you go along. Photo courtesy of Johnson Plastics Plus.

Figure 3: Raster Braille has come a long way from the original insertion tool that used a fish tank pump to pick up and hold the spheres.

   By most standards, the Raster Braille system is a fairly significant investment (and always has been). One has to be pretty serious about making ADA signs to invest in it. Prices range from about $1,995 to $2,235 with a license, depending on which version you buy.
   The Raster Braille system is the preferred method for making Braille signage for several reasons:
   1. The dots, called spheres, have rounded tops which is required by the latest ADA regulations. With other methods, such as cutting away the background using rotary engraving, achieving a rounded Braille dot can be more complicated.
   2. According to the guidelines, the Braille dots are supposed to be raised .025"-.037" from the substrate. The Raster Braille process makes it easy to adjust for this.
   3. Dots that become damaged or removed by vandalism are easily replaced on-site in a matter of seconds.
   4. Dots are inexpensive and available in a variety of colors (black, white, clear, steel, brass).
   5. For large production facilities, there is a fully automated system for both drilling and placing the dots.
The Raster Braille method requires using a rotary engraver for drilling the holes for the spheres and, if you use the automated system, for inserting the dots. You can also insert the dots manually using a special device called a “Raster Pen” which is a simple process that only becomes labor intensive if you do a lot of signs.


Figure 4: The Auto-Raster device attaches to the spindle of your rotary engraver to automatically insert spheres into the drilled Braille holes. Photo courtesy of Johnson Plastics Plus.

Figure 5: This automated Braille bead insertion tool is available from Braille-Oz Pty. Ltd.

   In addition to using a rotary engraving machine for inserting the Braille dots, you can also use it for cutting the tactile lettering and any symbols or pictograms you might need. Special profile cutters are available for doing this.
   As mentioned, the Raster Braille system for inserting the Braille dots is available in two versions. The manual version is called a “Pen” system, and the automatic version is known as an “Auto-Raster” system. With either system (or any system for that matter), the first step is to translate the text into Grade 2 Braille, which is done using Braille translation software as mentioned earlier. If you are using engraving software from your machine manufacturer, a Braille translator most likely came with it or is a free update, so check with your machine manufacturer first. If that doesn’t work, check out Duxbury Systems. Duxbury Systems has Braille translation software that sells for $595, but they also provide a downloadable translator for free (http://www.duxburysystems.com/product2.asp?product=Quick
   After translating the text to Braille, the next step is to drill/rout the holes for the spheres. This is done with a special tool that works just like a conventional top-loading cutter except it holds a tiny drill bit (Fig. 1). You will have to run a test and make some adjustments to ensure the drill is plunging to the proper depth so the spheres will protrude above the plastic at a height of .025"-.037". Once the holes are drilled, you are ready to insert the spheres.
   The manual Pen system consists of a pen-like device that holds a reservoir of spheres. Each time you press down on the pen, a spring presses the sphere into the drilled hole and then drops another sphere into position so it can be pressed into place (Fig. 2). You can insert spheres as fast as you can move the pen from one hole to another. Three or four minutes per sign is probably a good average for the time it takes to complete a sign. This is a far cry from the original insertion tool that consisted of a fish tank circulation pump and a sharpened metal shaft with a tiny hole in one end (Fig. 3). With it, you would have to pick up the sphere with the tip of the tool (the air pump held it in place) and then manually press the sphere into a hole. Average time to do a sign was probably ten minutes. If you already have a license and just want to buy the pen, the cost is $595 (available from Accent Signage and its distributors).
   The “Auto-Raster” device is designed to automate the insertion process. This tool attaches to the spindle on your rotary engraving or CNC machine. After drilling the holes, you simply install the Auto-Raster device then rerun the program, and the Auto-Raster device automatically inserts a sphere in each of the drilled holes (Fig. 4). Pretty cool stuff!
   Braille-Oz Pty. Ltd. is a company located in Australia that also sells an automated Braille bead insertion tool (Fig. 5). It is similar to the automatic Auto-Raster system in that it inserts the spheres for you and it can be used on most rotary engraving systems and CNC routers. Currently, the device costs about $940 USD but that can vary depending on the value of the dollar. Unlike the Raster Braille system from Accent Signage, this system does not require a license to buy supplies. For more information, go to http://www.braille-oz.com.au/sales.php.

Figure 6: A special rotary engraving cutter can cut Braille dots with a rounded top. Image courtesy of Antares, Inc.

   It is noteworthy that you can buy the Braille spheres in the aftermarket from companies such as Small Balls Inc., a division of AE Sign Systems, Maplewood, MN (www.brailleballs.com).
Rotary Engraving
   Routed out Braille using a rotary engraving machine was the first method used in the engraving industry to create Braille signage. This technique involves, in effect, routing out a cavity but leaving raised, rounded dots encased in a smooth, cutout rectangular area. Since the new ADA regulations require dome-shaped Braille dots, you need to use a special dome-shaped cutter (Fig. 6) for this process since a standard rotary cutter creates a flat dot that no longer complies. Braille dot cutters can be purchased from rotary cutter suppliers such as Antares, Inc., Horsham, PA, and some machine manufacturers.
   The Braille produced by this method looks a lot different than that of the Raster Braille system but it passes legal muster if done properly. With this method, there is actually an indentation cut out of the plastic in such a way that it leaves the Braille dots standing (Fig. 7). Setting the depth of these cutters is pretty easy—you simply use a depth regulator nose and set the depth to achieve a .025"-.037" high dot. Controlling the diameter of the dot at its base is a bit more challenging. Both dimensions should be checked with a gauge prior to production to insure the Braille meets the regulations.
Cast Metal
   Cast metal ADA signage is available from companies like Gemini, Inc., Cannon Falls, MN, and Matthews International, Pittsburgh, PA. These signs (Fig. 8) are made of solid metal, including bronze, aluminum, zinc and alloys, and are durable and vandal-resistant. They can also be used for exterior applications.
   Johnson Plastics Plus, Minneapolis, MN, recently began distributing FusionCast cast metal signage which is a custom order type of sign that looks like metal but is actually mostly resin. FusionCast signs are made using a casting process that mixes high density polyurethane with ionized metals, where a high concentration of metal (bronze, aluminum or copper) is forced to the face of the sign, resulting in a sign the looks like solid cast metal, but is lightweight and more economical.
UV-LED Printing
   UV-LED digital inkjet printing is becoming more and more popular these days and interestingly, it is possible to create Grade 2 Braille and tactile lettering with a UV printer. The process involves using special software (I use a special version of CadLink supplied by Direct Color Systems) and printing multiple passes of ink on the sign blank to build it up and create raised lettering and Braille. When done properly, the multiple passes over the substrate make a perfectly acceptable ADA sign (opening photo and Fig 9).

Figure 7: You can use a special Braille cutter to create Braille using a rotary engraving machine. Figure 8: Gemini, Inc. offers cast metal plaques and signage, including ADA signage.

   Most of the UV-LED printers on the market are capable of printing Braille, tactile lettering and raised patterns, including: Direct Color Systems, Rocky Hill, CT; GCC America, Inc., Walnut, CA; Graphics One, Sun Valley, CA; and Roland DGA, Irvine, CA.
   One question that frequently comes up when talking about making ADA signage with UV printed or sublimated backgrounds has to do with using color images on these signs. It is true that the regulations require characters and symbols to contrast with the background, but that doesn’t include the rest of the sign. Logos, designs and even photographs are quite acceptable so long as a high contrast is maintained between the tactile lettering and the background.
   There is no color/contrast specification for the Braille and indeed most ADA sign products use the same color for Braille as for the sign background.
Photopolymer Signage
   Photopolymer signage is another method for making Braille sign-age that involves using a photosensitive synthetic compound, available in sheet or liquid form, that hardens when exposed to an ultraviolet light source. Nova Polymers, West Caldwell, NJ, has developed a complete system for making photopolymer ADA signage with tactile letters, Braille, borders and symbols in your shop.
   The process involves placing a film negative on top of a sheet of photopolymer and exposing it to UV light in an exposure unit. The unexposed photopolymer gets washed away during the washout step, and then the sign is dried and exposed a second time to fully cure and harden the photopolymer. After that, color can be added to create the finished product by hot stamping the raised lettering and spray painting the background of the sign.
   For this system, you need an inkjet printer to print the negative used in the exposure step, a shear to cut the photopolymer sheet material to size, Nova’s processing unit, which takes care of the exposure step, the washout step and the drying step, and a hot stamping machine. The cost of the system is $45,000 and includes everything you will need plus a couple days of intense training both in production and marketing. As an added value, the manufacturer actively pursues architects, designers and others to specify the Nova process in their drawings and specifications. This is something I have never heard of anyone else doing and actually makes Nova Polymers part of your marketing team.
Laser Engraving
   Can you create Braille with a laser? Yes. Although you may have to tinker around a little to get the settings right, it is fairly easy to create Braille holes using a laser engraver. With my laser, a .09" circle is perfect for a Braille Raster dot. Since these spheres are held in place by friction anyway, as long as the hole diameter is slightly smaller than the sphere it will hold a the sphere just as well as a hole drilled on a rotary machine. Be sure to double check the height of the sphere after inserting it to be sure it is within the acceptable limits. If not, adjust the laser’s power setting and try again.

Figure 9: UV-LED inkjet printers, such as the JF-240UV from GCC America, Inc., can produce ADA signs with one simple printing process.

   Can you create ADA-compliant signs with sublimation? In a manner of speaking, yes. You can use sublimation to add colored backgrounds, graphics, photos and other design elements to a sign blank. However, you cannot use sublimation to create raised lettering and Braille. Instead, you could use ADA appliqué material and a laser or rotary engraving machine to create the raised letter portion on the sign. When it comes to Braille, one option would be to use sublimatable hardboard or MDF board as the sign base and then drill holes and insert Raster Braille spheres into it. There is no reason the spheres won’t hold in these materials. They don’t hold very well in the FRP material, however, and as for metal, I don’t know how you would really go about that without it becoming something of a nightmare. Still, the wood-like sublimation materials should offer an alternate method to UV printing for obtaining a full-color background.
Tactile Lettering
   A discussion about Braille for ADA signage can’t be complete without a word about the tactile lettering portion. Some literature I have read suggests that the current regulations require that tactile lettering must have a straight or perpendicular edge, but this is not true. What was added to the regulations was the statement, “Signs that are designed to be read by touch should not have sharp or abrasive edges.” As a result, you can use either a laser or a rotary engraving machine to vector cut raised lettering, and the edges of the lettering can be either straight or tapered.
   Lasers always cut a straight or perpendicular edge and are faster, while a rotary machine generally creates some bevel around the letters, depending on what type of cutter is being used. Many engravers use a profile cutter or a .020" cutter to minimize the amount of bevel when rotary engraving.
   In conclusion, there is little doubt that the most common and arguably the most attractive method for applying Braille to signage is Raster Braille. This method does require an investment beyond having a rotary engraver but the profit margin for ADA signage should be significant. As long as you have a decent market for the signs, the investment should be just that—an investment as opposed to an expense. The other two methods that offer many options are the increasingly popular UV printed signs and photopolymer signs. Unfortunately, both of these methods require a pretty hefty investment that, unless you have a really good market, may never pay for themselves. The low end investment for UV printers that can do Braille run about $12,000 and can jump up far beyond that if you also want to print large items. Of course, as stated earlier, the Nova Polymers system is $45,000.
   In any case, there is and always will be a demand for tactile raised letter and Braille signage. Perhaps it’s something you should consider adding to your business.