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Signmakers Cross Over to Digital

Traditional Techniques Incorporate Print

By Kim Crowley

Traditional signmaking is rooted in durable materials such as wood, exceptional craftsmanship, hand painting, and finishing—including routing and sandblasting. Large format digital print technology enhances these common techniques.

Many traditional sign shops add digital printing to their service offerings. “That is the way we see the industry going,” states John Harris, director of sales and marketing, MultiCam, Inc.

Advanced technology allows signmakers to craft traditional-looking, long-term signs more efficiently. Digital print-and-cut machines produce vinyl letters and logos used to stencil and form permanent signs. UV flatbed printers image on a range of rigid substrates, then allow signmakers to apply traditional routing and handcrafting techniques. “Many of our UV printer customers come from a traditional signage background,” notes Jason Su, product manager, inkjet product line, GCC.

Traditional signmakers cross over to digital print to expand offerings and service customers with more than an outdoor entrance sign. With digital print, they can provide banners, POP, vehicle wraps, and more.

“The majority of our customers have shifted or are shifting from traditional signage to digital. The digital printing market exploded in the past few years. In order to stay in the traditional sign business you have to embrace the technology and offer digital printing capabilities,” states David Tebon, sales manager, ZŸnd America, Inc.

Traditional Equipment
Devices used in traditional signmaking include laser engravers and cutting devices. By adding one of these products, shops that start out strictly as a digital print business gain entry into more traditional signage.

GCC manufactures laser engravers and cutters. These are used to produce a number of sign and product applications as well as digital print work. Universal Laser Systems, Inc. also manufactures laser engraving and cutting equipment. “Our laser systems engrave, mark, or cut a variety of materials from plastic to metal, wood, glass, stone, ceramic, rubber, acrylic, and textiles,” shares Cherie White, marketing manager, Universal Laser Systems.

White notes that if a shop does a lot of acrylic work, the savings with a laser system on acrylic letters alone improves margins 500 percent versus buying pre-cut letters. “This enables the shop to control their production schedule while offering customers more choices in fonts and acrylic,” she adds.

The promotional product business carries a high premium, with nearly $20 billion spent annually, adds White. In addition to offering banners for a golf tournament, a laser device allows shops the ability to offer promotional products such as awards, golf towels, and keepsakes, she notes.

Computer numerical controlled (CNC) routers precisely and repetitively cut material using a revolving spindle and cutter. “We see a definite trend toward traditional sign customers purchasing multifunction machines equipped with both routing, vision, and knife cutting capabilities,” explains Harris.

MultiCam’s CNC routers are well suited for traditional signmaking applications. The machines also tackle digital print production as well. They are fully compatible with the MultiVision digital camera system, which automatically reads printed registration marks and adjusts for print skew/distortion and part rotation.

These routers are fixed-table, moving gantry style machines with open height under the bridge to handle a variety of material thickness. They are compatible with MultiCam cartridge-based EZ knife cutting systems, which feature tangential oscillating, ultrasonic, and drag knife capabilities for cutting a wide variety of graphic arts substrates.

Techno Inc.’s CNC routers feature Techno Vision with a digital camera that reads printed reference markers and corrects for linear and rotational distortion. “This accessory is most commonly used with cutting graphic images, but our machine can produce other complex signage production parts such as channel letters, sign displays, 3D engraving, and complex 3D carvings in a variety of materials such as plastic, wood, and non-ferrous metals,” says Roy Valentine, sales manager, Techno.

Cutting systems are important in both the traditional signage and digital print world. “Demand for overall routing increased the past few years due to the rise in the number of rigid UV printers on the market,” states Tebon.

ZŸnd offers digital cutting and finishing systems that fall into the multifunctional category. “They convert a wide variety of materials whether printed or unprinted. We offer routing for rigid stocks such as Sintra, Dibond, wood, and acrylic to name a few. Knife cutting includes kiss-cutting and through-cutting of materials from paper, vinyl, and thin plastics to scoring and creasing capabilities for corrugated and carton stock,” he adds.

The ZŸnd G3 table is scalable to grow with a business. “If there is a need to produce traditional vinyl cut graphics and labels the system can be configured at the outset with kiss- and through-cutting capability,” says Tebon.

Sandblasting the Moon
RC Signs in Alpharetta, GA is a custom sign company, founded and operated by Patti Huxford, which specializes in commercial and residential developments. The shop creates all types of signage in addition to vehicle wraps and offers consulting, design, permitting, fabrication, installation, and maintenance services.

About 75 percent of RC Signs’ output is traditional, while 25 percent is digitally printed. “RC Signs celebrates nearly 20 years in business,” notes Larry Holbrook, account manager, RC Signs. “We always offered digital solutions when required, but with our move to a larger facility early last year, we now offer more digital print options.”

Offering traditional signage and digital print services expands possibilities for RC Signs’ customers. “Digital prints can be added to traditional sandblasted or carved signs for a unique look. For example, if we have a high-density polyurethane (HDU) board that needs a lot of text, the main portion of the sign is blasted for a dimensional look and the main body of text is digitally printed and then applied to the sign,” explains Holbrook.

Clients often require traditional signage and digital prints. “A development may contact us for an entrance sign, but they also need marketing signs, banners, window graphics, and/or vehicle wraps—all of which we are able to provide,” he adds.

RC Signs’ signage production equipment includes MultiCam CNC routers, safety cut panel saws, a full metal shop, and a Matthews Paint system with a fully enclosed semi-downdraft spray booth.

Also used, black diamond sandblast media and Hartco, Inc. SandMask vinyl resist for sandblasting applications. The black diamond is a recycled product from the coal industry. “It gives a beautiful sandstone texture to the sign when blasting and cuts great,” says Holbrook.

Much of RC Signs’ work incorporates a lightweight HDU used to simulate wood called Sign Foam3 from Sign Arts Products, Corp. The shop also uses a Sign Arts Products’ Grain Fraim device to simulate wood grain. A Grain Fraim is placed in front of a pre-masked sign, then an operator sandblasts through the Grain Fraim wires until a desired depth is achieved.

For digital print applications, RC Signs uses two 54-inch Roland DGA Corporation VersaCAMM SP-540V large format printer/cutters and cold laminators.

Traditional signmaking techniques and digital printing were used in a sign for Full Moon, a vacation home complex located on the Gulf Coast of FL. Sandblasting mimicked other signs in the area. A digitally printed frog icon completes the sign.

RC Signs first cut the sign shape on the MultiCam CNC table. Next they applied Hartco SandMask to the face of the blank and weeded, or removed, the background mask. This exposed the raw one-and-a-half-inch Sign Foam3 HDU and left the text, borders, and shape for the moon and wave element covered. They then sandblasted the background down to a quarter-of-an-inch using black diamond sandblast media.

After sandblasting, the sign blank was primed and painted with 1 Shot enamel paints from Sprayalat Corp. The gradient was sprayed onto the background, then the borders were painted. “Painting was the main challenge. To get all of the gradients and different colors we probably custom mixed 15 shades of blue,” says Holbrook.

The moon and wave 3D elements were cut from HDU. They were primed and painted with 1 Shot, then attached using silicone adhesive and aluminum studs.

The frog character was printed on 3M Graphics Market Center’s Controltac film using the VersaCAMM printer, then applied to the sign. Finally, Sprayalat’s 1 Shot gloss clear coat was sprayed over the entire sign and then 24k gold leaf was added to the text.

Full Moon’s sign features the traditional, high-end look of local sandblasted signs, with superior handcrafting and the added pizzazz of digitally printed elements. “We are thrilled with the sign, as is the client,” says Holbrook.

Stellar Signs
Starr Studios of San Francisco, CA is a second-generation family business, operated by husband and wife team Sean and Kayleigh Starr. They craft traditional, handmade signs, but also embraces digital technology. “Our passion is making handcrafted artisan signs,” says Sean Starr. “We take pride in keeping the custom side of signmaking—which is rapidly disappearing—alive. We offer all of the amenities of a standard sign shop such as digital prints, banners, cut vinyl graphics, and an array of decorative window films; even with these, we strive to add a custom designed touch.”

A recent digital print job by Starr Studios was for world pizza champion Tony Gemignani’s restaurant. The window graphics, designed to look like old-school NY, were printed on 3M frosted film. Starr utilized the shop’s Vinyl Express 24-inch cutter from Sign Warehouse, Inc.

Offering both traditional and digital signage is essential to Starr Studios’ success. About 75 percent of the company’s output is routed and 25 percent is digital. “I don’t feel like we could survive by offering one option. We find a broad spectrum of sign services allows us to grow rapidly and meet the needs of a wide range of customers,” shares Starr.

Starr first learned the art of traditional hand painted sign work as a teenager. He and his wife do their part to resurrect this practice. “People here in the Bay Area want an artistic creative approach to their signage,” explains Starr, “and the more traditional signmaking approaches seem to fill that need for us.”

Starr Studios does some work on CNC routers, but they increasingly create one-off custom pieces by hand routing. They share a shop with custom woodworker Daniel Mandan, who jumps in when needed to create more elaborate panels.

Starr recently designed an outdoor sign for Her Majesty’s Secret Beekeeper, which sells beekeeping supplies and honey-based products in San Francisco, CA.

The project utilized a DeWalt jigsaw and Bosch Power Tools & Accessories router. Starr was challenged to meet the deadline for an upcoming Discovery Channel shoot that featured the store and sign. A detailed border and the time crunch required several overnight production sessions. “The customer loves the sign, and we have already received calls from people who saw the sign hanging and love the feel of it,” he states.

At press time, the three month old outdoor sign was vandalized, tagged by a street artist. “We were very upset to see that someone had tagged the sign,” admits Starr. “Graffiti is a huge problem in San Francisco, CA, especially in the Mission District where the store is located,” he explains.

Starr removed as much of the tagging as possible and repainted the sign where necessary. Prior to reinstalling, he applied a clear anti-graffiti coating, manufactured by Ecological Coatings, LLC. “We used the Ecological Coatings clear coat because it is a water-based, eco-friendly system that allows for full removal of graffiti simply by wiping the tagging with a water-based cleaner and sponge,” notes Starr.

What Happens in Vegas
Sign Lab of Las Vegas, LLC is a wholesale sign manufacturer and installation company with a main office in Las Vegas, NV, and an additional store in Los Alamos, NM. Sign Lab of Las Vegas specializes in non-electrical products, such as digitally printed banners, vehicle wraps, contour cut decals, router cut foam logos and letters, acrylic, wood, aluminum, and other products.

The shop’s monthly workload consists of about 40 percent routed products, 40 percent digital, and 20 percent wholesale installations. “Our Los Alamos, NM location was established in 1994,” says Adam Ballew, president, Sign Lab of Las Vegas. “We have offered digitally printed products since opening our Las Vegas, NV location in 2005.”

Sign Lab of Las Vegas’ signmaking equipment includes a SABRE CNC router with dual rotary and plasma cutting attachments from Gerber Scientific Products, Inc., a 72-inch hot/cold laminator, a Universal Laser Systems laser engraver, a metal shear and brake, and a substrate cutter from The Fletcher-Terry Company.

The shop owns a 100-inch ValueJet VJ-2606 and two 64-inch ValueJet VJ-1614 inkjet printers for indoor and outdoor digital prints by Mutoh America, Inc. A flatbed printer is expected to be added next year—an investment that will allow the business to print direct to rigid material, further expanding sign and print making capabilities.

Sign Lab of Las Vegas produces custom signs and other items utilizing traditional signmaking devices and digitally printed vinyl. “With our service focused on wholesale, we are able to custom create letters and logos with unique product combinations that make our products one of a kind,” says Ballew.

A custom product may consist of printed vinyl affixed to the back of a clear acrylic letter shape and then mounted to foam, for example. “We seal the edges with fiberglass, sand it down smooth, and paint the edges and back. So looking through the acrylic, it gives the impression the letter is filled with whatever the print is,” notes Ballew.

Sign Lab of Las Vegas was responsible for the design, layout, and production of the Better Business Bureau’s Las Vegas sign. A traditional type sign was used to mesh with the landlord’s required standard for signage. The letters and logo were cut out of two four- by eight-foot sheets of a quarter-inch-thick black acrylic using a CNC machine.

The logo and letters were mounted two inches off the wall using studs and spacers. Pads for stud mounting were glued to the acrylic using a standard bonding agent. A paper pattern was drawn on a Graphtec America, Inc. 60-inch plotter for the proper drilling location of the studs. Standard hand drills and tile bits were used. Stud holes were filled with outdoor silicone, then the letters were installed into the pre-drilled holes. “The only challenge to this project was drilling the holes through the tile face without cracking the tiles. Using special bits and lot of patience, we were able to accomplish it with no issues,” says Ballew.

The bureau is very satisfied with the final product. “To this day, they compliment us on how well it turned out,” states Ballew. “We were able to offer a very long-term product and, most importantly, a product that can be removed and installed at another location if they choose to move in the next several years,” he adds.

A Combined Value
Nothing is traditional about signmaking anymore. Techniques like routing, hand lettering, and sandblasting marry with digital printing techniques. The coordination of traditional equipment and digital print technology changes the workflow and business model of sign production.

Finishing devices play a role in changing the way signs are made and businesses evolve. “A laser system is a tool that easily integrates into the sign business model and improves margins by allowing the shop to bring a number of products and projects in house,” says Universal Laser Systems’ White.

Traditional signmakers and digital printers find more capability and achieve success as they embrace both the old and the new. The aforementioned shops are dedicated to traditional signmaking skills and embracing digital print. These print providers craft permanent outdoor signs that draw in sales, produce digital prints and POP that communicate effectively, and venture into 3D letters and promotional items. All while keeping their customers happy by offering a variety of applications.

Nov2009, Digital Output

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