What makes a sign a sign? Is it the size, the number of words, the graphics or the application? According to Webster’s Dictionary, a sign is “a piece of paper, wood, etc., with words or pictures on it that gives information about something.” Or, in simpler words, a substrate with words or pictures. It says nothing about size or even the application other than it “gives information.” With that being the basis of the definition, much of what we do is signage, even if we call it something else.
We have so many fantastic sign materials to work with nowadays with an ever-growing selection of substrates for sublimation, rotary engraving, laser engraving, UV printing and vinyl cutting. Over the past 20 years or so, we have seen a long list of materials come on the market. Plastics for engraving both with a laser and with rotary machines, specially-coated materials for UV printers and sublimation, and an array of sign vinyl add up to one important fact—it’s easy to make just about any kind of sign you can think of.
In today’s market, many of our limitations are not due to a lack of substrates but rather on size limitations. Because of that, we have seen a big push toward bigger and bigger printers, lasers, UV printers and heat presses over the past few years.
Take sublimation, for example. A few years ago, a common 16" x 20" heat press could be used for just about any sublimatable product available. Now, more and more sublimators are upgrading to larger printers and much larger heat presses. To some degree, the move to larger printers is fueled by lower prices and much better printers, including the new Epson printers that come from the factory set up specifically for sublimation. Heat presses, on the other hand, haven’t dropped in price but there are many more to choose from. The reason? Substrates. More and more substrates are being introduced that require a wide-format printer and heat press. Towels, pillow covers, floor tiles, ceiling tiles, banners, flags, entrance mats, automobile floor mats and cut and sew sports clothes have all driven this change, and there are even more products ready to be released in the near future. Perhaps the biggest success story is sublimated photo images on metal up to 4' x 8'. These same materials are being used as white boards/magnetic boards in schools, wall panels and all kinds of large-format signs.
But having great materials is only part of the path to success. The other part is the marketing aspect. Who do you sell the signage to? Let’s consider several popular substrates available today and the great marketing potential they can open up for you.
ADA appliqué materials are available for creating raised-letter signage that complies with the ADA. Photo courtesy of Gravograph, Inc.
ChromaLuxe is a new technology in coatings that has taken sublimation metal to levels we never thought we would see in sublimation. Not only is the image incredible due to the extra thick layer of the sublimation-receptive, scratchproof, waterproof coating, but the new coating is also said to beUV stable for five years or more! This puts it on the same par as most vinyl signs. ChromaLuxe metal is .045" thick, so it is stronger and more rigid than previous sublimation metals, making it ideal for all kinds of interior and exterior signs.
Another popular sublimation substrate is sublimatable hardboard. This material can be easily cut with a laser into any shape you need and then sublimated. Like ChromaLuxe metal, hardboard can be used for dry erase boards, a product that is used extensively in all kinds of establishments, ranging from schools to car dealerships to hospitals to just about any business with a conference room. Anyone who needs to convey and constantly update information is a potential market: restaurants, military facilities, doctor’s offices, dentists, security operations, airports, retail establishments and many more. Show them a custom sample and ask, “What kind of a sign do you need?”
The next material we will consider is the fairly new “glow-in-the-dark” engravable plastics. Rowmark’s LaserGlow and Innovative Plastics’ Nightlites are both reported to meet or exceed the photoluminescent standards for DIN, NYC local law 26 of 2004 and other life safety photoluminescent standards. After being exposed to natural or artificial light, the fully charged sign will glow all night long. Both laser engravable and rotary engravable glow-in-the-dark plastics are available in sheet sizes up to 2’ x 4’ that can be easily cut with a safety saw or laser. There is no limit to the number of potential clients for this material. Any business that must have exit signs can make use of these over doors, in staircases and in locations that are not suitable for electrically-illuminated signs. Just imagine how much money a company can save installing these signs rather than having electricity run to a bunch of remote locations. Consider offering these to architects, commercial contractors, schools, churches, state facility coordinators, facilities with dark rooms, shop owners and restaurants.
(Here’s a fun project: My wife is always losing her keys in the bottom of her purse. I made her a key fob out of glow-in-the-dark plastic. Now she can see her keys even at night when they are buried in the very bottom of her purse.)
Acrylic is a fun material to work with because it is so versatile. In addition to clear acrylic, there is a wide variety of opaque, translucent and mirrored colors available for many different sign applications. Most acrylic sheets are 1/8" thick but some are available in 1/4" thickness, and you can special order acrylic in many other thicknesses as well. You can create classy-looking multi-layer signage by combining different types and thicknesses of acrylic in one sign, e.g. using stand-offs and other sign hardware.
Here is the one thing you must know about acrylic. There are two types: cast and extruded. You can cut either with a safety saw or a laser. You can also engrave either type with a rotary engraver; however, only the cast acrylic is suitable for laser engraving. Although extruded acrylic can be marked with a laser, you probably won’t like the results because the laser tends to melt the material instead of frosting it.
Clear and translucent acrylic can be used for making illuminated signs by using LEDs to light the acrylic from the top, bottom and/or sides. Lighted acrylic signage is very popular today and it attracts attention just as well as neon without the cost or safety issues involved with neon. Lighted bases are available in a variety of sizes. For instance, Delvie’s Plastics, a supplier specializing in acrylic sheet materials, recently developed a line of table standing and wall hanging LED light bars for illuminated signage.
Rowmark recently added to its ColorHues line of cast acrylics by introducing ColorHues EFX. This unique material features a black cap over a colored translucent acrylic core. When reverse engraved and backlit, this plastic signage looks just like neon.
Glass is not often thought of as a sign material but coated glass for sublimation makes a great sign, especially when sublimated with a full-color image such as a photo. Add a small base and you have a self-standing sign that’s perfect for the lobby of a spa, hotel, restaurant, dental office, etc.
Phenolic is a hard, rigid plastic that is abrasion resistant, heat resistant, strong and chemically inert which is why it is typically used for very specialized applications in demanding environments. Its ability to resist harsh and extreme environments make it a good choice for industrial applications like machine control panels, data plates, ring tags and legend plates. It is also used for military applications on equipment or vehicles that need to withstand fire or intense abuse and still be readable or able to display information. It can also be used for products like signs and badges, especially when the item needs to look good for a long time. However, most shops avoid phenolic whenever possible because it is not considered laserable and its hardness and abrasiveness make it wear carbide (rotary) cutters. It also chips when it’s sawed or drilled.
Phenolic is typically available from industry suppliers as a three-ply laminate in 1/16" and 1/8" thicknesses in a limited selection of colors. These materials typically have a matte finish on one side and a gloss finish on the other.
Another material that offers the same qualities as phenolic without all the fabrication problems is Rowmark’s Safe-T-Mark. This 2- or 3-ply flexible material is available in 1/16" and 1/8" thicknesses, is easy to cut and rotary engrave, and is offered in several colors. Like phenolic, it does not support combustion, it’s not affected by most chemicals, it has great electrical insulative properties and is considerably less expensive than phenolic, especially when you add in the cost of having tools sharpened after working with phenolic. It also doesn’t chip like phenolic does and it can be beveled. Signage made from this material can be marketed to customers such as electrical contractors, military and government contractors, chemical plants, power-generating plants and anyone else who needs signage in demanding environments.
We have talked a great deal about ADA signage in previous articles during the past year so this can be short and to the point. Plastics for ADA-compliant signage are available from several industry sources and consist of a base sheet and a self-adhesive cap or top sheet from which you cut the tactile letters and symbols. For the most part, you can mix or match these matte finished sheets. Just remember the ADA rules require high contrast so light over dark or vice versa should satisfy the regulation. Markets for these signs include almost anyone who owns a public building: restaurants, retail shops, banks, colleges and schools, sports facilities, plants and factories. Churches and many government buildings are exempt from this law but many will install the signs anyway, especially when doing renovations. All public establishments, except for those two exceptions, are required to have ADA-compliant signage. It is the law and stiff penalties can be applied to those who don’t comply.
Engraving plastics probably make up the biggest segment of signage in our industry and there are literally a thousand or more choices available when it comes to types, thicknesses, colors, finishes, etc. My favorite plastic substrates are the textured materials. These scratchproof, UV stable plastics (actually they are made from acrylic resin) are so tough and durable I use them for everything I can. Although a bit limited in color combinations, there are enough basic colors to meet most needs. They can be laser engraved but most people prefer to rotary engrave them. This material makes a great sign substrate for almost any application from “OPEN” signs in businesses to equipment identification signs, exit signs and a million more. These market very well to industrial and corporate customers alike. The bright colors serve to catch attention and the scratch resistance is a highly salable feature.
Second to my favorite textured plastics are the metallics, which are engraving plastics that look like metals such as brushed brass and silver. Today, there are both interior and exterior grade plastics available. These are great for places where a sign is needed but it also needs to have some class. I market these to funeral homes, business offices, banks, churches and government agencies. These materials make excellent door and wall signs, self-standing signs and signs in holders. And it’s noteworthy that these metallic-looking plastics are stunning for use on awards.
Next come the woods. Not real wood mind you, but rather the plastics that look like wood. These come in both acrylic (laserable) and ABS plastic (rotary engravable only) and in a wide variety of simulated wood finishes. They work great for almost any application, from desk easels to door signs to informational signs and more. Recent changes to the woods make some suitable for exterior applications. These are good for lawyer’s offices, doctor’s offices, banks, retail applications, eateries, government institutions, churches, zoos, museums, etc. I have made a lot of house numbers using woodgrain materials as well.
Real wood opens up many signage possibilities as well. Several industry sources offer the real thing, including cherry, walnut, aspen, oak, mahogany, maple and others, all of which can be rotary engraved or lasered. You can buy wood in sheets and you can also purchase custom and stock blanks from suppliers such as Big Sky Woodcrafters. There is nothing that says “quality” like real wood. This is a great material to sell to cabinet shops, home remodeling businesses, antique shops, western apparel stores and wood workers.
Reverse engravable plastics are also available for creating interesting subsurface signage. Gemini, Inc., for example, offers Laser XT Reverse as part of its Duets By Gemini line of plastic engraving stock. This 2-ply modified acrylic material consists of a clear top layer with a matte finish and a thin colored core, which allows reverse engraving intricate details with a laser or rotary engraving machine. You can also back light or back paint this material to create attractive signage for applications such as wayfinding, retail displays, exhibit displays and interior branding. Laser XT Reverse is also outdoor weatherable making it suitable for a variety of exterior applications such as sign-age for golf courses and zoos. In addition to an attractive appearance, subsurface signage is very durable and vandal resistant. Because the engraved grooves are protected, the engraved areas cannot be damaged and if the engraved areas are paint filled, they are better protected against peeling and cracking. Subsurface signage has many appealing characteristics that can meet the requirements of major sign buyers.
There are, of course, many other engraving plastics available that are too numerous to mention, except to say be sure you choose the right plastic for the application and for the type of equipment you have. Some are laserable and some aren’t, and some are suitable for exterior applications while others are not.
Ultra-thin plastic engraving stock is a two-ply material with a very thin impact acrylic core and a very thin cap, typically .003" or less. The overall thickness of these materials is only about .005"-.030". Some of these products also have a pressure-sensitive self-adhesive backing.
Ultra-thin engraving stock is available in brass and aluminum look-alikes and several colors, woodgrains and marbles, and are mostly sold in sheets although some varieties are available in rolls. The notable characteristic about all of these materials is that they are extremely thin, flexible and bendable so that they can be applied to nearly anything, including curved and tapered surfaces. These super thin sheets are easy to cut with a rotary engraver or laser and are great for adding appliqués, dimensional accents and multiple colors to signs made of other substrates. This material works well for security labels for schools and businesses to mark computers, calculators, desks, chairs, file cabinets and other property. The fact that customers can order small quantities already marked with ID information is a real timesaver for the customer. These also make great control panels, elevator panels, brand badges for all kinds of promotional products, safety labels and labels for things like electrical panels, electronics and tools.
AcrylaStone (distributed by PDU) is an often overlooked material that can be used to make unique signage. It is best described as a Corian-like product but is actually an acrylic substrate. It is extremely durable, easy to rotary and laser engrave, and definitely has a high-end stone look and feel. This material has fabricating characteristics like wood. It can be cut on a table saw, sanded and routed like wood.
AcrylaStone is UV stable and can be used outdoors for applications such as garden markers, pet memorials, zoo signs and house numbers. Some primary customers for this material include pet cemeteries, zoos, botanical gardens, parks, museums, funeral homes and churches. One of the nice features of this material is it is relatively vandal proof. If someone scratches it or spray paints it, the surface can be sanded off and, if necessary, the engraved areas can be paint filled again to make the sign look just like new.
AcrylaThins is a sister material to AcrylaStone. It is actually a thin version of a Formica-like material. At about 1/32" thick, it makes a great applique material for AcrylaStone or any number of other materials to add graphics, color and depth to a sign. It can be cut and engraved with a laser or rotary engraver and is UV stable. Unlike conventional plastic engraving stock, laser engraving this material doesn’t reveal a second color but rather a different shade of the same color as the surface.
Although you will have to buy it from a local metal supplier, regular run-of-the-mill stainless steel has a great market. Customers for these stainless signage products don’t care so much about what the sign looks like because their applications are intended to serve a specific purpose and/or to meet certain government regulations. Stainless signs and plates are excellent for their resistance to many hazards like salt water and abrasion. You see a lot of these on elevators and boats.
Another example of this is the steel plates used to identify gas valves. These valves have to be rebuilt from time to time and marked with a thick (1/16" or more) engraved stainless plate that includes information in a specific format with spaces for dates to be stamped in. These tags are attached to huge valves used to control natural gas, oil, propane and other chemicals and gases. You can mark stainless steel with a fiber laser, rotary engraver (machinable grades only) or a CO2 laser and a laser-markable coating. The customers for these products include industrial construction companies, pump and valve companies and companies that specialize in rebuilding valves or building pipelines.
AlumaMark, manufactured by Horizons Inc., is an aluminum material designed specifically for laser engraving. This aluminum material is treated with a proprietary “specialty coating” that absorbs CO2 laser energy. When the laser hits the material, it turns the surface black, providing excellent contrast between the engraved characters and the background. AlumaMark is available in silver, gold, bronze, brass and an assortment of colors and finishes. In recent years, Horizons has introduced a series of color combinations that match many school colors, including yellow and black, red and black, etc., which opens up a new market opportunity for this material. AlumaMark is especially well-suited for reproducing photographic images and can be used for many different interior signage applications, such as wayfinding signage in places like hospitals, museum and display signage, donor plaques and just about any type of architectural signage for businesses like banks, real estate offices, salons, etc.
DuraBlack is also manufactured by Horizons Inc. and is a CO2 laserable black anodized aluminum designed to be extremely durable, even in harsh operating environments. DuraBlack is resistant to UV light, abrasion, high-temperatures, salt spray and chemical exposure. Because of its ability to perform across a range of challenging environments, DuraBlack meets several government, industrial and military specifications and is rated to withstand harsh environments for 10+ years. The .005" thick material is flexible enough to bend around curved surfaces, while the .020" thick material is designed for jobs demanding greater rigidity and durability. Common applications include outdoor signage, property tags, barcodes and industrial tags.
If you have a vinyl cutter, you already know the possibilities of using or adding vinyl to a sign job. With an exterior life of up to about eight years, this is a good choice for many exterior signs, including glass window and door signs for businesses, banners, vehicle lettering and yard signs. Although yard signs are often screen printed for quantity orders (there is no reason you can’t sell these as well and job out the work), small orders or personalized signs are often better done with vinyl. For example, many school PTOs sell personalized graduation yard signs as a fundraiser that are ordered on an individual basis. That’s something that you could easily offer.
Yet another market for vinyl is street and parking lot signs. Vinyl parking lot signs are very common, such as “15 Minute Parking” or “No Skateboarding,” etc. I recently saw one that said “Reserved for Military Wounded in Battle.”
Looking for a list of customers to sell your signage to? Just start a list of everyone you know, such as retailers, restaurants, offices, factories, airports, schools, churches, doctors, dentists, vets, hospitals, storage facilities, packaging/shipping facilities, banks, etc., and consider the many ways these businesses and organizations use signage. Virtually everyone needs a sign from time to time. A great marketing technique is to give potential customers a free sample like “Thank you for your business” or “Thank you for not smoking” with your contact information on the back with a header like “Need a sign? Call….” If you want to go after wall signage, give them an ADA-compliant sign for one of their restrooms.
Signs do come in all sizes, shapes and for all kinds of applications. Broadening our definition of what a sign is can greatly expand our target audience for selling signs. Some signs are called by multiple names such as tags or labels, but they are still signs. House numbers and yard signs may seem a little out of the core market but why shouldn’t we sell signs like these? Perhaps best of all, those big sign companies don’t want to compete for these little jobs. They want pilaster signs, lighted signs, neon and now LED screens. In fact, one of your best customers may be the sign companies themselves. This way, they get a piece of it and they will bring in customers you would never otherwise see. I have worked with sign companies as a sub-contractor for years and it has worked out great.
Whether you decide to go after ADA signs, information signs, parking signs or door signs, there is a huge market. Just look around—how many signs do you see? Depending on where you are standing, you might see dozens or even hundreds. Someone had to make those and someone will have to update and replace them, not to mention the thousands of new signs that need to be added. It is a viable market and we have so many substrates, capabilities and so much support from manufacturers, why aren’t you selling signs?
One of the things I hear from engravers is that their business is up and down with the seasons and that’s true if all you do are sports trophies, but what if you add signage to level things out? You already have the equipment to make some kinds of signs—start there and let it grow. This is one of those things that, if you let it, will take on a life of its own. Go for it!