Tough enough to build mountains out of, natural stone is beautiful, durable, elegant and available in many rich, permanent colors. Stone is low maintenance...unlike wood or plastic, stone will not warp, split or fade. Stone is insect and vandal resistant and easily adapted for secondary and directional signage. Stone is amazingly cost effective, in many cases less expensive than a comparable Redwood sign.
Although we usually suggest Granite for the sign face itself, your sign need not look like a tombstone. There are so many attractive colors that you usually have several good choices for your sign needs. Since we use so much 23K Gold leaf in the signs we build, we generally advocate the darker colors of Granite for the actual sign face itself. In addition to the Granites, there are a number of gorgeous Marbles that lend themselves well to signage. Marbles, however, are more prone to vandalism–a knife blade can score Marble but will not leave a mark on Granite. Also, due to acidity in rain, Marble eventually "hones" to a matte finish, although this process can take decades. If you visit an old cemetery, this process is visible on the Marble monuments, although the Granite will still retain a polish after half a century.
The outer structure of the sign itself can be, but is not limited to, brick, cast stone, block, stucco, natural or chopped stone, Redwood, Aluminum or any combination thereof.
Gold leaf is beautiful, colorfast and does not tarnish or fade. It is, as far as color retention is concerned, the most durable finish available. No paint can come close to matching the warmth, luster, look and durability of Gold leaf. In any light condition, Gold appears to glow. One of my employees came up with a 5 word poem that sums it all up: "Gold’s Gold...and paint ain’t!" Gold demands attention and turns heads from far away–the purpose of a sign is to attract attention. If budget considerations do not allow all the main copy to be in Gold leaf, using Gold on the logo or some graphic element helps to attract attention to the sign. Adding Gold leaf to a sign is generally money better spent than taking that same amount of money and adding to the size of the sign without Gold leaf.
There are a number of materials marketed to and by the sign industry as outdoor materials that we have found, in our 30 years experience, to be short term solutions that generate long term problems. Some of these are as follows:
PVC Sheet (Brand names Sintra, Trovicel, etc.)
Although widely used, PVC sheet expands greatly in the heat of summer and, due to its foam like nature, does not necessarily contract back to its original size, causing signs to warp and smear. When PVC sheet was first available for exterior signs in the late ‘80s, we built some free standing leasing signs out of it. In the Texas summer heat, the signs built up so many internal stresses, they literally exploded, showering the parking lot with pieces of PVC sign. At that point, we realized this was NOT a material usable outdoors. Fortunately for us, cars (not driven by anyone we know) ran over the other signs we had built before they too exploded. We replaced them with signs that had Aluminum faces, thus ending the bursting sign episode.
PVC is also easily attacked by UV, yellowing and becoming brittle if not protected by paint. PVC is easy to work, paints and routs nicely, but is more suited to interior work. There are plenty of other options for outdoor signage. We do not use PVC sheet for outdoor signs.
This material is used often for outdoor signs. It is frequently routed or sandblasted. Medex is cheap and available in thick dimensions. The experience of most sign companies is that sections of the sign will wick up water and rot, even if protected by numerous coats of primer and paint. There has been quite a bit of comment on this material on the Bullboard at the Letterheads.com web site. Access the following link to a search on "Medex Durability" and read the expensive horror stories (see discussion here). There are a few people who have not yet had material failure with Medex. One person primes with several different primers and uses abundant top coats. To me, if a material requires that much effort plus the sacrifice of my first born to keep it from rotting out in a year, I get the message that I should try another substrate. Even with herculean efforts to seal the Medex, if the paint gets scratched, the deterioration will soon begin. I refuse to use Medex for outdoor signs.
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Sandblasted Redwood has been a mainstay for the sign industry since the mid 70s. With almost three decades of experience in using Redwood, the limitations and challenges of Redwood have been discovered. Properly finished and installed, Redwood can provide years of use. However, even when utilizing the highest quality of materials and techniques, Redwood is a high maintenance item, far more so than stone. Redwood and other woods are dynamic, expanding and contracting with changes in temperature and humidity, leading to loss of adhesion of finishes, drying, splitting and warping. For the maximum service life, Redwood has to be mounted in such a way as to allow the wood to expand and contract. This necessitates mounting brackets employing oversize or slotted holes. If the wood is tightly fastened, it will later split. To retard warping, it is best to mount sign faces in some sort of saddle or channel that allows the wood to move but inhibits the deformation. Single face sandblasted Redwood signs almost universally exhibit a tendency to curl toward the sandblasted side. They are especially prone to doing so if mounted against a wall or in a brick structure.
What are some considerations in finishing Redwood? Redwood does not require a primer for paint to adhere, although a stain blocking oil base primer is recommended if final finishing is accomplished using a light color water base coating. Redwood has quite a bit of tannin, a water soluble brown substance that will wick through 15 coats of water base paint if not sealed first. The tannin stains are not generally noticeable on darker finish coats. When we manufacture a Redwood sign, depending on the final colors chosen, we will use Sherwin-Williams Superpaint or equal (over a stain blocking oil base primer, if necessary) or automotive acrylic enamel with a catalyzed polyurethane flex additive. Either of these paint processes are theoretically good for up to 20 years, however our experience is that 6-10 years is a more realistic expectation before the paint needs to be rehabilitated. Outdoor durability is dependent on many factors, Western and Southern sun exposure and sprinkler system saturation contributing to premature paint deterioration.
As far as clear coatings on Redwood are concerned, clear polyurethanes and spar varnishes will fail in a matter of months, peeling away from the wood. I have not yet found a clear coating that holds up on Redwood. In 1981, we built a sign for an automotive paint manufacturer, Western Specialty Coatings, that employed a Redwood tongue and groove siding background. They requested a clear coating. I suggested a stain without the clear, stating that I had never seen a clear hold up outdoors on Redwood. They had their chemists come up with a coating (their cost of the chemicals was $80.00 per gallon). The coating failed after less than 6 months and the sign was refinished with an oil base stain. The foregoing being said, there is now a coating on the market called Pelucid that promises to be an answer to durable clear coats. I have not yet tried it on Redwood but I do know someone who has, with heartening results so far. Pelucid is an expensive, tough, flexible, clear isocyanate type coating that is catalyzed by moisture in the air.
What are some considerations in the construction of Redwood? We carefully select vertical grain, clear all heart kiln dried wood for our sandblasted signs. This grade is extremely expensive (the raw material cost is far greater than any of the commonly used Granites) and increasingly rare. This grade is the most dimensionally stable but still requires special care in installation. We utilize, depending on the application, embedded or exterior channels or saddles to mount the sign faces to the post structure or the wall. If wall mounting, we also install the sign on spacers to allow air to dry the back side when it gets wet. Trapped moisture on the back of the sign face is a leading enhancer of warping. If Redwood posts are used on the sign, we recommend a flower bed or planter around the sign to keep Weedeaters from contributing to a later "beaver chewed" look. Because of the abuse posts suffer at the hands of lawn maintenance crews, we generally recommend Aluminum square tube posts for most of our smaller signs. Aluminum square tubing with a powder coat finish is almost impervious to the Weedeater and costs little more than a comparable Redwood post.
High Density Urethane (HDU, SignFoam, SignFoam II, Precision Board)
HDU is available in various densities (commonly in the 10-18 lb range). It is commonly routed, sandblasted and carved, and utilizing a device called a GrainFraim, can be sandblasted with grain to appear as Redwood. HDU is also shaped and painted utilizing marbleizing techniques to be almost indistinguishable from actual stone, although, in my opinion, why spend all the time and money faking stone when real stone can be used for the same price? If properly coated, HDU is very serviceable, although it is not strong enough to be used as large structural elements of a sign without some sort of additional framework. It is also prone to breakage and delicate pieces can easily be snapped off. For carving and intricate shapes, it is hard to find a more serviceable substrate. HDU is rapidly replacing Redwood in dimensional signage and many sign companies have great expertise in its use.
Even though SignFoam was the original on the market with this type material and still probably has the larger market share (we ourselves generally prefer the SignFoam product line), most sign companies refer to the material generically as HDU when describing it to their clients. The reason for this is that the word "foam" in a name often lends a negative mental connotation, even though this very dense, durable product is nothing like the average conception of foam. SignFoam is aware of this perception and has considered changing the name of the product, however, they have an established name and a fine reputation within the sign industry. I'm glad this is their quandary, not mine.
MDO has been the backbone of the commercial sign industry for decades. Originally developed for concrete forming, MDO is plywood with a Medium Density Overlay of resin impregnated Kraft paper, giving it a smooth, flat surface that takes paint well. Properly finished, it can hold up for years, although, as with all plywoods, the edges are prone to soaking up water causing paint failure at the edge, migrating into the rest of the panel. We generally do not use MDO because of long term durability issues.
MDO is often painted with bulletin enamels, which are not very durable. Bulletin enamels were designed for the bulletin (billboard) sign industry many years ago when all billboard signs were painted and then repainted with a new message every few months. Bulletin paints are available in a variety of standard colors that can be readily mixed for pictorials and coat well with one coat. Being alkyd enamels, they begin to chalk and fade after only a few months. We do not use bulletin or other alkyd enamels.
Acrylic and Polycarbonate Sheet (Plexiglas, Lucite, Lexan, etc.)
Translucent sheet material is designed for the illuminated sign industry. Plastic sheet expands and contracts greatly with changes in temperature. In a properly designed illuminated sign, the sheet is held by a retainer that allows the plastic to change size with the temperature shifts. A common misuse of this material is for background panels for wall mounted signs. Usually these panels are adhesive mounted to the wall or mounted by fasteners through holes in the panel. If the holes are not oversize and the panel loosely mounted, the panel will warp and eventually break. It is very common to see wavy sign backgrounds with a broken corner or a panel loose from the wall because the expansion and contraction sheared the adhesive. For illuminated signs with a retainer mounting, there are few substrates better, for wall mounted sign panels, there are few substrates worse. Wall mounted panels are far better off being Aluminum, Dibond, Alumalite, Lumicore or Alpolic (Aluminum/Polyethylene/Aluminum sandwich materials), MDO or HDU.
These are Aluminum/Corrugated Polyethylene/Aluminum sandwich materials as opposed to Dibond and Alpolic which have a solid Polyethylene core. The corrugated Polyethylene core materials generally are faced with a thin sheet of Aluminum and are quite prone to dings and dents. They are more suited for out of reach wall mounted signs that do not receive the abuse a free standing sign would receive. In some areas of the country with extreme freeze/thaw cycles, it is important that the corrugations be placed parallel to the ground to prevent water from seeping into the channel and freezing, resulting in delamination. In those areas, most quality companies use the solid Polyethylene core materials.
These solid core materials were designed for the counter top industry and have found their way into dimensional signage. They look somewhat like natural stone (until compared side by side), they are strong and machine well with normal shop cutters. There are several brand names of similar products, some are better suited for outdoor use than others. Being plastics, they can be subject to fading from UV and they also expand and contract quite a bit in temperature changes. These materials are commonly used in routed signs since they take a "V" groove routing process well. "V" routed letters are dramatic and especially so with 23K Gold leaf finish. The disadvantages of these materials are cost and long term durability for some (I have seen signs made of these that have faded greatly and broken at the mounting holes because of expansion). These materials actually cost more than natural stone. I much prefer to use Granite, it is cheaper and more durable.
Not all types of vinyl are suitable, by now you have figured out I wouldn’t put the question up here if I didn’t have something I wanted to say. There are a number of grades of vinyl, apropos for different uses.
Intermediate vinyls are calendered (during the manufacturing process, hot PVC material is rolled to proper thickness between rollers). This process is cheaper than casting but adds internal stresses to the vinyl, causing it to want to shrink back to its original size and shape. It is also stiffer than cast vinyl. To combat this, plasticisers are added. Intermediate vinyls are thicker than cast vinyls and are easier to handle in larger sizes, causing many sign companies to use them. Although advertised as 3-5 year outdoor life materials, they will shrink leaving a "ghost" of adhesive around the letters. They are not nearly as conformable as cast vinyls and do not work well on compound curves. We do not use calendered vinyls, they are suitable only for indoor or temporary applications.
Intermediate calendered vinyls are translucent and are often used by sign companies in place of the specially designed translucent vinyls for lighted signs (see Translucent vinyls a few paragraphs below). When used in the high UV environment of illuminated signage, intermediate vinyls will fail and often change color (sometimes in a bizarre fashion–large sections of red letters often turn black after a year or two).
High performance premium cast vinyls are, as the name implies, of high quality and are cast during the manufacturing process. Molten PVC is poured on glass sheets allowing it to level out to the proper thickness and thereby relieving all the internal stresses. These vinyls generally are half the thickness of intermediate calendered vinyls and have twice the outdoor life (and are several times the cost of calendered vinyl). They are very conformable and can even be installed over rough surfaces and rivets (although the installer will be miserable). We only use cast vinyl for non reflective vinyls.
Normal high performance premium cast vinyls are opaque or cloudy on light transmission and thus not suitable for internal illumination (see Translucent vinyls in the following paragraph below).
Translucent vinyls are expensive, specially formulated premium cast vinyls for illuminated sign application. They are durable and offer even light transmission. We only use these for internally illuminated signs.
Reflective vinyls are very expensive films (several times the cost of high performance cast vinyl) with millions of glass beads embedded in the product providing high reflectance. There are a number of grades of these films, we use only the highest quality Engineer grade. These vinyls, although having a long outdoor life, are not nearly as conformable as cast vinyls due to their multi layer construction. We generally use reflective vinyls for address and building numbers to aid emergency crews (and Domino’s Pizza) in finding a specific address after dark.
Specialty films is a catch all category for items such as fluorescent, holographic, marbled, metal flake and Gold leaf look alike films. Many of these films are for indoor use only, although there are several gold and silver films designed for long term outdoor use. SignGold 22 is one such durable outdoor gold film. It contains actual Gold leaf embedded in the film and will last for years. There are a number of finishes available with it including satin, engine turned and others. It is beautiful and enduring and can be combined with other effects. There are some other faux Gold and Silver leaf films that also look quite real and can be trusted for long term outdoor use. Not to be confused with the durable films are the aluminized Mylar films which come in both gold and silver colors. These only last a few months outside. The gold color quickly fades to a whitish silver. They are only suitable for indoor use.
Yes, there are jobs we turn down. Certain materials do not hold up outdoors and we refuse to use them. If a customer insists on using them, we would rather pass on the job. Also, we do not do work that would violate our conscience. We will not do jobs for tobacco companies, of a military nature or of what we feel to be of an immoral type. We do many signs of a charitable genre for the various Kingdom Halls and do not have the time or resources to do other charity type signs. We do not, except for the Kingdom Hall signs, do signs of a religious character or signs denoting Holiday celebrations. We reserve the right, at our sole discretion, to decline any requested sign order.
Why, of course! One mantra that keeps coming back to me when I look at some of the signs that are built is: "You get what you pay for." I see many examples of wasted money. Often a comparatively small extra expenditure will result in a great increase in the life span and usability of a sign.
One apartment complex that I know of did not want to spend the money it would take six years ago to build their sign in a quality manner and went with the lowest price and lowest quality. Three years later, they had to replace the sign. Now, they are taking bids on another replacement. They still don’t want to spend the money it would take to do the job right (even though rent there can be upwards of $1500 per month). The manager told me, "Yes, quality is important but so is price." I pointed out to her that they are buying their third sign in six years, if they had spent half again as much on a sign on any of the previous attempts, they would not be in the market again for a sign for at least another dozen years. That argument fell on deaf ears. Her boss told her they had purchased a quality sign for 2/3 my price at another property three months ago. I drove by the property to look. The sign was already falling apart. Trim did not fit properly, straight lines weren’t, the lettering was rough and wavy, one logo was installed rotated 45 degrees–the job was trash and the signs will have to be replaced in a couple of years. I would be embarrassed to foist something like that off on a customer–I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I did. As John Ruskin said: "The bitterness of poor quality remains long after the sweetness of low price is forgotten." You get what you pay for.
A management company bought Redwood sign faces for a property from a company that were only a few dollars cheaper than our bid. I was told "They are a quality company, too." After looking at the job, I was offended to be even compared to that company. Within 90 days, the sign had warped, split and the paint had started to come off. I know the person at the paint store where the "quality" sign company picked up the paint. He said they specifically requested the cheapest paint available–$8.00 per gallon. The wood was the lowest grade Redwood, the edges were not trued up, no attempt was made to kern the lettering on the sign or clean up their scan of the company typestyle. The logo, which we had cast out of polyester and finished with 23K Gold leaf on their adjoining property, was carved out of a piece of Styrofoam and painted Gold (which the "quality" sign company told the management company was Gold leaf). Now, four years later, the sign is a total atrocity and completely detracts from the curb appeal of the property. The adjoining property has a Redwood sign we installed six years ago at this writing. There is very little noticeable deterioration in the paint–we used $100+ per gallon automotive acrylic enamel with polyurethane flex additives. A little extra spent on doing the job right translates into long term savings, usability and aesthetics. You get what you pay for.
A company I know built and installed sign packages for an apartment management company in the midwest and the West coast. They used very cheap paint, thinking they were saving money in the manufacturing. A few months later, a crew had to drive thousands of miles back to those properties, scrape and repaint the signs in the ground. By using cheap paint, they may have thought they saved a hundred dollars or so on a multi tens of thousands of dollars sign package, but was there really any savings? This fiasco not only cost a great deal of time and money but their reputation with the client took a beating. You get what you pay for.
One management company representative wanted to impress her superiors with how much money she saved on the sign package for Phase II of their apartments. She literally spent months trying to "nickel and dime" my proposals, attempting to squeeze every last penny off the price. She did not take any of my suggestions for the higher quality materials. Meanwhile, the construction supervisor was buying temporary building, directional and door signs from FastSIGNS so that he could get certificates of occupancy on the buildings he was finishing so the apartments could be rented out. He needed the signs in November, she did not place an order for any until March. She saved the company a few hundred dollars on the permanent signs, however, they threw away thousands of dollars of temporary signs. Had a fraction of the money that went into temporary signs gone into the permanent sign budget, the package would have been on time, money would have been saved and they would have had even better signs. We still delivered high quality but they could have had even nicer signs. You get what you pay for.
When Phase III came around, they ordered signs made out of Medex from another sign company. They are completely coming apart now (3 years later). At Phase III, they also ordered a Granite sign from that company with painted gold letters. This sign faces North and does not get direct sunlight, however, after 3 years, the paint is so streaked and discolored as to make the sign practically unreadable. The Granite sign with 23K Gold leaf we put up on Phase I six years ago will still knock your eyes out. I use those two signs as examples of the difference between Gold leaf and gold paint. Having customers drive by and look at the difference has sold signs for me. You get what you pay for.
One custom home neighborhood thought they could get their subdivision entry signs installed cheaper. They did. The construction company did not excavate a foundation for the brick, they just poured a concrete pad on top of the ground inside a 2 x 4 frame. There were no vertical reinforcements, the brick wall was not filled solid. Three weeks later, the sign fell over and had to be completely rebuilt. The other sign at the entry, after three weeks, was about to fall over and probably would, if a dog hiked its leg on it! The cast stone top trim was already loose. When we build a monument sign, we dig deep foundations with even deeper piers and install plenty of steel reinforcement. We also introduce vertical and horizontal steel reinforcement in the sign as it goes up. We also fill our columns and walls with mortar and rubble for additional strength. Our foundations are like the proverbial iceberg–there is a lot more below than a person would expect. We may have several tons of concrete below grade. Our signs do not fall over. You get what you pay for.
Stucco is commonly used in construction–I sometimes say: "Stucco covers a multitude of sins". Often, the stucco is applied over an untreated wood frame with plywood or waferboard utilized for the general shape of the structure. After a few years, the wood rots away, leaving 1/4" of stucco holding up the entire composition. I have seen this used on building construction, planter boxes, walls around properties and signs. They may look good on the outside but they are rotten inside (kind of like some people we have all met). Sometimes, these edifices collapse under their own weight, other times they wait for some small distress to precipitate the disintegration. If we build a stucco structure, there will be brick, block or some other robust material behind the stucco coating. Brick and stucco structures may look the same on the outside but there are often real differences on the inside. You get what you pay for.
Sometimes, we get called in and asked to replace a failed, worn out sign with another sign of the exact same material and construction. The reason the sign failed in the first place is because of the material and construction chosen. If the sign is replaced exactly, this same scenario will play out again in the near future. Sometimes the client is resistant to any suggestions to change it, not wanting to spend any extra money. When you fix junk, what you have is fixed junk. An incremental change in the budget will prevent having to go through this again. You get what you pay for.
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