Some people might think that selling exterior sign-age falls strictly in the jurisdiction of large commercial sign companies, not engraving/award/personalization companies. At one time, that may have been true, but not anymore. Times have changed, and we need to change with them.
Not too many years ago, most engravers would have sent customers wanting to purchase exterior signs somewhere else—namely, a sign shop that specializes in exterior signage. But the lines are blurring, and it is becoming more and more difficult to distinguish the separation between some of the things that large sign shops do and what our shops can do—and should do—in today’s market. Granted, few engraving shops have the resources or expertise to tackle huge lighted signs mounted on top of 50' pylons, but many of the smaller exterior signs that are needed can and do fall within our capabilities. And the great thing about it is they can be quite profitable using the equipment we have and readily available materials.
Through the years, I have known companies that specialized in both engraved signs and street type signs. The man who got me started in this business, and who I will forever be grateful to, is John Balinski, owner of Balco Sign and Safety in Virginia Beach. He has such a shop.
But you don’t have to inventory dozens of street signs, handicap signs, posts and the like to offer exterior signs. People, businesses and organizations need all kinds of exterior signs and even if you leave street signs to someone else, you can build a strong source of income making signs for exterior use for buildings and facilities like zoos and golf courses.
The first thing you need to do in order to sell to the outdoor sign market is learn which materials are suitable and which ones aren’t. Pick the wrong material and your customer will watch his sign fail and never come back for more. Educating yourself on the various materials and marking methods is critical to your success in the exterior sign market.
Most of the materials many engravers will use for signage of any kind are engraving plastics. A quick look at any of the swatch books from major plastic manufacturers like Gemini Inc. (Cannon Falls, MN), Gravograph (Duluth, GA), IPI (Algonquin, IL), Rowmark LLC (Findlay, OH) or Trotec Laser, Inc. (Plymouth, MI) will show you what the material is made of, how it can be engraved or marked and whether or not it is suitable for exterior applications. Sounds simple enough, right? Well, that part is simple—if it isn’t designed for exterior use, don’t use it outdoors.
But that’s not the entire story. Some materials are just better than others. Does the material have a tendency to bow and distort when exposed to direct sunlight, heat or cold over an extended period of time? What about paint filling reverse engravable materials? Will the paint hold up? These factors and more play a role in how happy your customer is going to be with your product, and you should know the behavior of these materials before you sell them.
Acrylic is a durable material that can withstand outdoor conditions. This LED lit acrylic sign is from Delvie’s Plastics, Inc.
Then there are the customers who want metal signs. What metal products are suitable for outdoor use? Even if it’s rated exterior grade, how long will it hold up before fading or becoming corroded?
Sublimation is another topic we need to consider. Can sublimation hold up to direct sunlight? You might be surprised at how well sublimation will perform if the right materials are used.
Direct print via UV-LED printing has changed a lot in just a few years. How does that fit into the realm of possibilities? And, of course, there is vinyl. How good is vinyl when compared to other substrates? Let’s take a closer look at sign materials for exterior applications.
Here is a rule of thumb that applies to 95% of all engraving plastics. If it is made with acrylic, including cast, extruded, impact, modified or most anything else they might call it, it is probably suitable for exterior use. If the material is made partly or solely of ABS plastic, it is not suitable for exterior use and will fade in a matter of a month or two if placed in direct sunlight.
There are, of course, other plastics that can be engraved and paint filled (such as polyethylene) which are UV stable and can be used outdoors provided the paint used is also exterior grade. I suggest using 1-Shot sign paint or an exterior latex enamel.
My personal favorite sign material for almost any purpose—indoors or out—is Rowmark Textures, a co-extruded impact acrylic. I have one red sign made from this material in direct Virginia Beach sun that has been in the same location for over 20 years and still looks good. This material does take time to laser engrave as most colors require two passes to engrave cleanly through the cap. I haven’t tested texture materials from other suppliers, but I expect they will perform just as well. In addition to being UV stable and outdoor weatherable, the tough textured surface resists all but the harshest of scratches as well.
One word of caution about plastic signs is they like to bow in sunlight. For this reason, many people mount the plastic to something stronger (wood, metal, acrylic) or they use a thicker substrate than the typical 1/16". Most engraving plastics are available in 1/8" which is heavy so it isn’t likely to bow enough to cause any problems.
One heavy gauge material commonly used for exterior signage is the Rowmark Heavy Weights. This material is unique in that it is available in 1/4" and 1/2" thicknesses. It has a textured finish, is available in 2- or 3-ply and can only be engraved with a rotary engraving machine or a CNC router since the cap is approximately 1/16" thick. Made of polyethylene, this substrate is UV stable and can be worked much like wood with saws, drills and routers. Rowmark Heavy Weights are commonly used for exterior signage in state parks, recreational facilities and golf courses.
The Gemini Duets line of plastics offer a number of exterior grade products including their Laser XT materials. Gravograph offers a line of exterior materials called Gravoply Ultra. IPI also offers a line of exterior products as well including product lines for both laser and rotary engraving. And Trotec Laser offers several lines of exterior grade plastics, including a laser engravable texture material.
Acrylic is a thermoplastic material (meaning that it is heat sensitive) made of methyl methacrylate. Most people recognize it under the popular brand names of Plexiglas and Lucite. Acrylic is a beautiful and versatile material that has many attractive characteristics. It is lightweight, scratch-resistant and has excellent optical clarity. An advantage of acrylic over some other plastics is its UV stability (meaning it remains colorfast and does not degrade from exposure to UV light) and weatherability (meaning it’s able to withstand the elements, such as sunshine, hot, cold, rain, snow, etc.). Because it can withstand UV light and harsh weather conditions for a long time, it’s well-suited for applications such as exterior signage.
Another notable quality of acrylic is that it is extremely easy to fabricate. It can be molded into interesting sculptures, cut into detailed shapes and bent into freestanding signs. It is easy to personalize through laser engraving, rotary engraving, sandblasting, screen printing and digital UV printing. All of this means acrylic is an excellent material for creating durable, beautiful and highly salable exterior signage.
If you’re shopping for acrylic sheet materials, keep in mind that several types are available. Both cast and extruded acrylic are used in this industry. Cast acrylic is known for its optical clarity, strength and impact resistance, and it is easier to machine than extruded acrylic. Engraved lettering and designs on clear cast acrylic will turn frosty white, providing a nice contrast. Traditional cast acrylic sheets are available as a single-ply sheet typically in 1/8" and 1/4" thicknesses, although suppliers indicate that the material can be produced in just about any thickness.
Extruded acrylic is less expensive than cast acrylic but it remains clear or matte grey when engraved. It’s also susceptible to cracking or crazing around the engraved areas. Although not typically ideal for engraving, extruded acrylic has a lower melting point and cuts superbly with a laser, providing a flame-polished glass-like edge quality.
Today, acrylic substrates in this industry are available in a range of optical appearances (clear, opaque, translucent, mirrored, fluorescent, frosted), a variety of finishes (matte, gloss, satin, textured) and a growing range of colors. Reverse engravable substrates are also available for projects like subsurface and backlit signage.
Identification Plates, Inc. specializes in sheet metal and blanks, including aluminum for exterior applications.
METAL SIGN MATERIALS
Obviously, metal is a good material to use outdoors and there are a great many types, weights and colors to choose from. The first thing that probably comes to mind is metal street signs which is certainly a viable product line to offer. There are many different sources for both printed and blank metal signs. I buy from Hall Signs in Ohio.
To mark these types of sign blanks, most people use vinyl lettering. Note, however, that while vinyl is commonly used outdoors that doesn’t mean it is all exterior grade. Vinyl is typically graded in the number of years it can withstand exposure to outdoor elements. The best I know of is 9-year vinyl which comes at a premium compared to 5-, 6-, 7- or 8-year vinyl. Of course, some vinyl will last far longer than it is guaranteed for but beware, some won’t. You have probably seen deteriorating vinyl on signs where the lettering is curling and detaching from the substrate. In the world of vinyl, adhesion is even more of a problem than fading.
Metals like stainless steel and aluminum are commonly used outdoors for obvious reasons. Perhaps the most common method of marking these, other than vinyl, is laser marking with a thermal chemical or with a fiber or YAG laser, although metal sign blanks can also be rotary engraved and screen printed. Paint filling metal that has been rotary engraved or etched with a CNC machine is also common for exterior signage applications. Many industries that use various types of pumps are required to attach a stainless steel plate with a permanent mark (fiber laser or thermal chemical) each time the pump is serviced. These are simple 5" x 7" or 6" x 8" plates and can make a very profitable niche market.
Stainless steel and aluminum plates can be purchased from most machine shops or metal fabricators who can also cut them to size. For thin sheets of stainless, both coated and uncoated are available from Johnson Plastics Plus.
Identification Plates, Inc. (Mesquite, TX) is an industry source for sheet metal and stock and custom metal blanks that can be used outdoors. Included in their line is Ultra Black Aluminum which has a special black coating that will withstand UV exposure for up to 13 years, double-sided .040" aluminum in a variety of color options and satin silver anodized aluminum. Identification Plates also offers three common grades of stainless steel for outdoor use (type 304, 316 and 430) in different environments.
Another type of metal often used for exterior signage is called Metalphoto, which was developed by Horizons ISG, Cleveland, OH. Metalphoto is a photographic imaging process that seals a black image inside photosensitive anodized aluminum, providing corrosion, sunlight, abrasion, temperature and chemical resistance. The finished product features a black high-resolution image which allows for imprinting small text and black-and-white halftone photographs with great detail. This process was developed during World War II and is time proven for making durable signage, plaques, nameplates, labels, control panels, legend plates, etc. If you don’t want to farm out the work, you can set up your own operation with a few thousand dollars’ worth of equipment that can either be homemade, purchased used or purchased new. You will need a processor, a steam bath and an exposure cabinet.
Johnson Plastics Plus carries ColorTuff EXT, a powder coated aluminum substrate that can be sublimated and used outdoors.
Horizons also offers an exterior grade anodized aluminum sheet called DuraBlack that can be engraved using a CO2 laser to produce a durable, high-resolution image. DuraBlack is resistant to sunlight, abrasion, high temperatures and chemical exposure and, according to the company, outperforms standard black anodized aluminum in select applications. This material is available in .005" or .020" sheets, allowing it to be attached to either curved or flat surfaces with adhesive, rivets or screws. DuraBlack is available from Johnson Plastics Plus, JDS and other distributors.
Although they are not intended for exterior use, most of us have probably used engraving metals like black brass plated steel or marbleized brass or even gold aluminum outdoors. If you do use one of these interior metals, you can greatly extend the outdoor life of it by applying an exterior grade polyurethane.
Johnson Plastics Plus also offers an exterior aluminum sheet in gloss black. This material is .040" thick and can be laser engraved, rotary engraved, screen printed or used with vinyl.
METAL SUBLIMATION MATERIALS
Sublimation has never been considered a viable process for creating outdoor products. Even with the best efforts of a great many people, an exterior longevity of 18 months to 2 years was the best anyone could come up with, but that has all changed this year. Suddenly, sublimation has become a contender for exterior applications with products that rival some vinyl.
Four companies have introduced a sublimation metal that they claim is exterior grade. I say “claim” because we sublimators have been down this road before only to be disappointed with real world experience vs. the results companies can get in UV exposure chambers. We, sublimators in our industry, have not had time to see the real world testing results of these new materials which can only be achieved by placing sublimated metal outdoors for the time period being claimed and then evaluating the results. Still, four very reputable companies have guaranteed their new sublimation materials to be exterior safe for 2 to 5 years. Here is how they shake out.
Unisub, Jeffersontown, KY, is well known for quality sublimation metal and the company has been working on an exterior grade metal since they entered the sublimation business. Finally, they have a coating they feel confident will hold up at least 2 years, even with detailed photographs, and 3 years with ordinary text. Previous versions of the metal performed well in real world tests for 18 months to 2 years with text. I know personally that Unisub has done extensive real world testing before making their claim but I haven’t had enough time to verify it myself. The new Chromaluxe EXT sublimatable aluminum is .045" thick and is available in a wide selection of sheet sizes from distributors such as JDS Industries, Inc., Sioux Falls, SD, and Condé Systems, Inc., Mobile, AL.
The second is a new company to our industry that has, according to their website, been testing exterior applications with sublimation for years and has performed real world testing of their product in Florida sun. The product is called ColorTuff EXT and is being distributed by Rowmark’s partners, including Johnson Plastics Plus. This material is powder coated and is offered in .045" thick aluminum in various sheet sizes and in gloss, matte or textured finishes. Like Chromaluxe EXT, I have not had this new substrate long enough to verify the company’s claim for 5 years outdoors, so I am selling this to my customers with the caveat, “the manufacturer claims…”
The third product for exterior sublimation is a new substrate called Duraluxe and is available from Identification Plates. Duraluxe sublimatable aluminum features a heavy powder coating and comes with a 5-year warranty. It is available in sheet sizes from 3" x 8" up to 48" x 96". According to the manufacturer, this material has undergone extensive testing for UV resistance, scratch resistance, graffiti resistance and resistance to chemicals.
The fourth product is a metal from Australia called “Solar Ban Max.” To my knowledge, the manufacturer does not have a U.S. distributor, but I’ll mention it for the purpose of general knowledge. This metal is said to be UV resistant for up to 8 years. The testing was done in Australia’s back country where it is exposed to constant direct sun. Solar Ban Max is a 1/32” aluminum material available in white and silver. Currently, you can purchase the material direct from the Solar Ban Max website.
UV-LED PRINTING MATERIALS
Although it stands to reason that something printed and cured with UV inks and lights would naturally be UV stable, it isn’t. In fact, most UV inks are not UV stable when used outdoors.
Obviously, for a UV stable sign, both the ink and the substrate must be UV stable. An important part of the UV stable formula is the substrate the ink is printed on. This is because adhesion can be a serious problem when used outdoors. Inks expand and shrink differently than the substrate causing them to crack and peel as well as fade. The UV problem is one I experienced firsthand when I printed a sign for a friend’s business only to see it fade to almost nothing in only a few months—embarrassing, expensive and time-consuming. Not doing my research cost me a lot.
There are a number of plastic and metal products on the market that are made for UV and other direct print methods. These are typically labeled as “Print Receptive.” This doesn’t mean you can’t print on other materials but if you are going to stress the application with weather and sunlight, it is probably a good idea to use print receptive substrates as much as possible.
Many plastics will accept direct print if a prep chemical is used to create adequate adhesion on the face of the material. Still, in an outdoor application, I would suggest using a material that is, by nature, print receptive. In addition, as a general rule, slick or glossy surfaces don’t like UV-LED printing. Selecting a matte material greatly increases the chances of a good bond.
Wood is a beautiful material for exterior signage. This sign was created by Benchmark Signs and Gifts.
IPI offers a special metal for UV-LED printers called “Direct Print Metallics Plus” for use in indoor and outdoor applications. This substrate is available in .020" and .040" thicknesses in white, silver and gold and in gloss and matte finishes. These are direct print and are UV stable for up to 2 years.
Nearly every sign shop and a good many engraving shops have vinyl cutters. Although it’s used extensively for exterior signage applications, it has its limitations too.
Although many people think vinyl will hold up forever outdoors, it won’t. As stated previously, vinyl is available in different grades with the best grade boasting a 9-year outdoor life. This doesn’t mean it won’t last far longer but 9 years is the limit of the manufacturer’s faith in the product.
Lesser quality and lower priced vinyl include 8-year, 7-year, 6-year and, probably the most common, 5-year vinyl. There is also vinyl available that is rated for only 1-3 years. Each carries its own price range and colors. Specialty vinyl that includes gold, metal flake and highly reflective surfaces are not always rated.
Of course, if vinyl is used on vehicles such as fire trucks, it may last far longer than it is rated because the vehicles spend much of their time under shelter and away from the sun.
WOOD SIGN MATERIALS
Wood has been used for decades as a “go to” sign material. It can be engraved with a rotary or CNC machine, laser engraved or sandblasted. Provided it is well sealed with paint or some other sealant, it will hold up for years in an outdoor environment. There are a few woods that will weather without sealant such as redwood, teak, cypress, cedar and mahogany. These woods do not rot but they will change in appearance when exposed to moisture and sun.
Metalphoto can be used for all kinds of exterior applications. Photo courtesy of Metalphoto of Cincinnati Inc.
Metalphoto is a photographic imaging process that seals an image inside photosensitive anodized aluminum. Photo courtesy of Metalphoto of Cincinnati Inc.
Another wood that can be used for exterior signage is the newer composite decking materials which are sold under trade names such as Trex, TruOrganics, Tropics and ChoiceDek. These materials can be engraved using a CNC machine. However, not knowing exactly what is used in the manufacturing process, I would not recommend lasering them. PVC is a known additive to at least some of these materials.
Speaking of PVC, PVC boards, like those sold at Lowe’s and similar home improvement stores, make great sign backboards. They are white throughout, textured on one side and smooth on the other, and plastics paint and vinyl adhere easily to them. These boards can be fabricated like wood and resist bowing.
Marine grade plywood is the final wood to be considered. Made with waterproof adhesive, marine plywood features a smooth paintable surface. Typically 3/4" thick, the edges can be covered with trim or multiple coats of paint. When sanded or painted, this material makes a great sign blank for vinyl application or hand painting. For any type of plywood signs, be sure to use the wood without “voids” (holes in the top layer where the knot holes were in the original tree).
CORRUGATED PLASTIC & FOAM BOARD
Corrugated plastic is commonly used with vinyl for outdoor yard signs or advertising signage. It is inexpensive, easy to work with and can be slid over metal frames so the sign can be stuck in the ground. Available from sources such as SignWarehouse.com, corrugated plastic blanks come in multiple sizes and colors and can be easily cut to size using a utility knife.
Another material to consider using for a long lasting sign is foam board. Sold by Johnson Plastics Plus, this is a closed cell PVC material available in black or white. This material can be used with vinyl, screen printing, hand painting, etc.
SIGNS YOU FARM OUT
Another exterior sign option to consider, and one that has the potential to be a great money-maker, is cast bronze and aluminum signs. Companies like Gemini, Healy Plaques (Manville, RI) and Matthews International (Pittsburgh, PA) all make a huge variety of beautiful cast signs that can be used for anything from a subdivision entrance sign to a memorial marker to a house number. Although I always push the bronze when being used outdoors, cast aluminum signage is also available.
A more economical option to cast signs is the FusionCast signage which is being sold by Johnson Plastics Plus and other Rowmark distributors. This is a cast sign but is lighter since it is actually made with a plastic base. When installed, it looks and behaves like bronze but is more affordable and takes less time to make.
A.R.K. Ramos offers cast plaques in bronze, brass and aluminum in several finishes, including multi-color painted and duranodic color anodized finishes.
As you can see, there are a great many materials that can be used in the production of outdoor signage. These signs can be as small as a few inches or as large as 4’ x 8’ or even larger. I think most engraving shops that offer signs let the space they have available and their equipment determine how big a sign they can make. If you only have the space you normally use to make plaques, then signs under three or four square feet may be your limit. If, on the other hand, you have a space like a garage bay to dedicate to sign making, you may want to offer larger signs, especially if you have a garage door access. Likewise, if you have a large laser or rotary engraver (CNC), you are set up to do large signs.
Those who are experienced with sandblasting might want to expand their operation to one that offers sandblasted wood signs, rocks, bricks and stone. This is a market landscapers, home show attendees, non-profit groups and many others will be quick to embrace.
Have a vinyl cutter sitting in a back corner? Drag it out and put it to work. You can make yard signs, house numbers, wayfinding signs and even street signs quickly and at a good profit. Street type signs are sought after by churches, businesses, subdivision contractors and even home owners.
Not interested in taking the plunge into “real signage”? No problem. There is a huge market for engraved plastic signs, tags, labels, etc. Every business, church and group has the occasional need for both interior and exterior non-smoking signs, direction finding signs, and nameplates and door signs for offices. Just make it known you can do the job and the work will come.
No matter how deep you might want to go into the world of sign making, there is a grand market just waiting to be tapped. A few plastic engraved signs a week can add to your bottom line and a few can grow into hundreds. Specialty signs of all kinds are purchased every day. Be it a house number, sign for a subdivision, direction signs for an amusement park, information signs for a zoo, hole markers for a golf course or a control panel or a sign for someone’s new boat, there are a million applications and they all come with a profit. All you have to do is show your customers what you can do.