Big Profits In The Sign Fabrication Business
A few years ago it would have been foolish to even consider a
sign business unless you were well qualified to hand paint
letters and illustrations.
But the modern age is upon us: the sign business is no longer
confined to those with special artistic talent. Although it would
be helpful to be able to paint your own signs, it is certainly
not necessary. Some very expensive franchise today involve little
more that a computerized machine that cuts out letters and
figures from self-adhesive sheets of plastic.
This business can be very profitable one, however it must be
prommoted as a sign fabricating as opposed to sign painting
business from the beginning.
You will have little problem explaining that your signs are not
hand painted, and that if hand art work isnecessary, you can
always send it out (for aan additional fee).
Your products arevery bit as stylish, longer lasting and cheaper
than the average hand painted sign -- facts that help gain rapid
In addition to hand painted signs, which are not the subject of
this booklet, there are two basic types of signs that are well
within the average person's ability to learn to produce in a
professional manner: permanent and changeable.
Permanent signs have letters and symbols that are held in place
by nails, glue or self-stick backing; changeable signs are those
with tracts that accommodate letters and symbols that can be slid
in and out to displace various messages at the customer's
PERMANENT LETTER SIGNS
These are signs where each letter or symbol is monted
individually. The only necessary artistic quakifications are an
eye for letter spacing. generally, round letters (O's P's) should
be closer together, square ones (M's I's) further apart -- which
will then appear to be equally spaced.
This is usually easy for most people just by looking at the
letters arranged into words on aline. All that is really
necessary is more those O's closer until they "lok about right"!
The business of permanent letter signs
involves little more than buying or
making the letters and/or symbols,
arranging and applying them to
For letters on a building, once the size of the letters is
determined, a means of anchoring them must be devised. They can
be set onto holders or platforms nailed to the roof, screwed to a
wood surface or they can be glued in place.
Most letter suppliers have different systems for anchoring the
letters that can be purchased at a nominal extra price (which the
customer pays for). Many letters on buildings are held in place
with clear plastic silicon that comes in caulking tubes. The sign
man applies a bead of resin onto the back of the letter and
sticks it in place. If the letter is heavy, masking tape or brads
(painted tomatch, of course) through small drilled holes can be
used to hold the letters until adhesive sets.
before we leave permanent signs, if you have much call for truck
work, look into screen printed fleet signs. These can have about
any type of copy (even photographs), can be nay size, and are
available with permanent glue. To remove them (after they have
"cured" one needs a sander!
Generally speaking, orders for less than a dozen orders are much
cheaper by the screen method. Just be sure to have your customers
order a good supply of extras. The extras cost suprisingly little
-- and even can be "free" if the number of extras takes the order
to the next price break level.
Tip: if you use plywood for sign OR
CUT OUTS, use genuine signboard
This material is more expensive than
plain plywood (about the same as
cabient plywood), but is much better.
It will stand up; the other will not.
Many of those red octagonal STOP signs are made from 5/8"
signboard, and they last for years!
Also, any wood you use in your sign work (except signboard) MUST
be treated. At thevery least, apply liquid silicon (like
Thompson's Water Seal) before painting to help prevent
deterioration. Let your customers see that your signs last.
Extra tip: to make a nice looking
magenetic sign, apply self-stick letters
and symbols to white full magentic
Buy the sheeting in rolls or lengths, cut to size, lay out the
pattern in light pencil or chalk dust and apply your letters.
Also note that in emergencies, you can order extra pieces of
self-stick vinyl make your own small symbols (arrows, parens,
undelines, even logos if you are talented with the scissors).
Profits from changeable letter signs can be made on both the
holders and the letters. Small units are usually sold as kits
that include a basic supply of letters. These units range from
small open/closed door signs and 3 foot wide reader boards for
restaurant menus, to flashing units with 2-3 inch etters
displayed in store windows and those outside flashing arrow
Although most of thelarge ones also come with a set of letters,
they can often be more effective for the customer with additional
colors, symbols and sizes of letters and symbols. if you deal in
these types of signs, it would ne advisable to either keep a
stock of alternatives on hand or have a supplier who can get them
to you fast.
There are two popular types of letter material: vinyl and
styrene. The plastic letters are usually clear, but they come in
two sizes. The wider ones are much more expensive and are usually
on thicker material.
Vinyl letters are long lasting and easy
tocare for. Scratches can be touched
up and the letters "rejuvenated" with a
little Armor-All or similar product.
Styrene letters (usually white
backgrounds, seldom over 6" in
height) are for inside use. Outside,
they will yellow and crack in just a few
weeks of sun. Both types are sold in
sets called fonts.
A font is a selction of letters based on their use: many t's and
e' fewer j's and q's). A font of letters is designed tobe
sufficient to display most messages without running out of
Note that it is possible to alter or even re-paint the letters.
An R can be made into a P by masking off the tail and using a
little acetone to wash it away. If you do much of this, get
plastic paint (see JOHNSON PLASTICS under BUSINESS SOURCES).
In addition to numerous types, colors and syles of wod and
plastic letters avilabole from commercial suppliers, there are
many kinds of patterns, special saws and jigs available to enable
one to mass produce their own letters.
You can also design and cut out your own. For example, with an
opaque projector (available at any art store) you can show a
blown-up image of a company letterhead or logo onto a large
screen (or the wall).
Cover the image with paper, trace the image and, Presto... a
customized template of your client's logo and/or lettering.
Next, transfer the template to a sheet of treated plywood
(signboard is best), cut out and finish the symbols for a
professionally produced sign that is well worth what you charge
Tip: you can also use a pinwheel punch (a wheel with perforating
projections) to trace over your lines on any pattern.
When you tape the pattern in place on the desied sign surface and
dust with chalk, the dust penetrates through the pin holes in the
pattern. When you remove the pattern, you have a "paint by the
number" outline in chalk!
With a little practice, you shouldbe able to produce good results
and sign fabricating -- a system that has been used for years by
The easiest way tohandle this business is to buy ready-made
leteers and apply them to prepared surfaces.
In most cases, this involves showing the client a catalog of
letters and letting them pick ou what they want. Then you order
the letters and plan how to apply them. While waiting for the
letters plan to layout and do any necessary measuring on the
The customer pays retail (catalog price0 for the letters plus
your labor. You make 40% on them plus any extras. You should be
able to make at least $25 per hpur for your labor, plus
approximately 40% markup on all materials.
One of the "big secrets" in this business is getting the sign to
look professionally proportioned.
certainly it would be difficult to arrange those big letters on a
15 foor ladder and come out anywhere near symmetrical.
This "trick" performed with mirrors, its is done with cash
register tape (buy it at a surplus store).
Mark (paint) a straight line of your garge floor and lay the
letters the way you want them to appear on the sign.
When staified with the alyout, tape a piece of cash register
paper to the floor along the bottom of each letters so the bottom
of the paper equates to the bottom of the line of letters.
next, trace the bottom section of each letter onto the cash
register paper. Mark the center (if your sign is tobe centered),
and you are ready to mount your letters.
Measure where you want the bottom of the letters to appear on the
buillding and chalk a line (with a snap line) at the BOTTOM of
each line you plan to install. Also snap a center line on the
building surface. Then tape the applicable register tape to the
bottom on each line, lining up the center marks on the top with
the one on the building.. Next, arrange the letters one at a time
to conform to the letter bottom outlines on the cash register
It might be helpful to have a helper stand a short distance away
just to make sure you get each letter straight. When finished
remove the cash register paper and let the public admire your
Another category of adhesive letters is die-cut self-stick vinyl
letters with peel-off backing.
It is also quite possible to build your own changeable letter
signs -- either stand-alone, or as part of larger displays. Most
of the signs in this category will use 4,6,8, and 12 inch letters
and some signs will be lit ( from light behind or within the
Building a changeable letter sign involves selecting a background
(solid or translucent for lighted backgrounds) and applying the
proper spaced tracking to hold the letters. If the sign is to be
lit, you can even build a case to hold fluorescent lights and
cover it with translucent plastic. About the only limiting factor
is that the holding frame must fit the fluorescent tubes you plan
For example, to build a 3 by 4 foot sign with two four foot shop
lights, take the light fixtures apart and position the four bulb
holders inside a inner box proportionately, so the bulbs will fit
properly. Then build the rest of your sign around that box.
The inner box serves two purposes: first, it gives strength to
the sign; second, it serves as a spacer between the sign face and
the insides. If the inner box is made from 1x5 inch strips and
the outer box from 1x7 inch pieces, there should be room to fit
the plastic inside the 1x7's to rest on the 1x5's and still leave
a half inch or so margin on the outside. When the sign face is
installed, cut strips of quarter round (plastic is fine) and ring
the sign face.
The precise measurements will depend on the width of your sign
face as well as the space needed for the inside light fixtures.
The objective is to finish with the quarter round about even with
the edge of the outside box.
To make a unlit sign, the cheapest way is to use one face and
place plastic letter strips on that one side only. If you try to
use both sides of the sign, the shadow from the side facing the
sun will show through on the other side and make it unreadable.
To avoid this problem, and still have a two-way sign, use two-way
sign, use two sign faces with a 3 to 4 inch "dead" space between
Most changeable letter signs these days use plastic track, which
comes in 8 foot lengths of double and single slots (the single
slots are for the top and bottom rows.
The tracks are positioned with spacing boards for top or bottom)
and jigs (usually tin cut to letter size) for spacing between
lines), and fixed in place with 1/8" rivets. On ribbed plastic a
1/8" hole is drilled and riveted every third rib.
Although most commercial signs are metal, it is quite possible to
build good, long lasting changeable signs from wood. The wood
should be treated (especially the bottom), light weight and
strong, such as white pine or fir. The corners should be
re-enforced with metal brackets and galvanized screws are
recommended for long use.
These signs can be mounted on poles in the ground or on bases. Be
sure your stands are sturdy, treated and that they are large
enough to keep the sign from blowing over. In some areas stakes
are placed in the ground and cables run to the sign tops for
extra strength. And,if there is a problem with letter pilferage,
build a frame and cover it with 1" mesh chicken wire to position
(lock) on the sign.
AMERICAN ACRYLIC CORP., 400 Sheffeld Ave.,West Babylon, NY 11704.
Manufactures sign faces, imbedded sign graphics, skylights, etc.
ACME PLASTICS, 220 Bowerton Rd.,West Paterson, NJ 07424.
Alexandria, VA). Manufacturer of plastic sheets, etc.
PLEX LAB Corp.,P.O. Box 926, Warren, MI 48090. Manufactures
SIGNCRAFT PUBLISHING CO.,INC. Box 06031, Ft Meyers, FL 33906.
813/939-4644. Publishes SIGNCRAFT, trade magazine for sign shops.
KAUFMAN COMPANY, Centertown, MO 65023. Teaches sign painting,
cartooning and pin striping. Free cat.
SIGNMASTER, 202 Hooker Rd.,Greenville, SC 27834. Video sign
painting courses. details -sase
METALLIC SIGN CO.,1217-19 Newport, Chicago, IL 60657. Gold or
silver self-stick letters that look like gold leaf.
DIE CUTS, 183 St Paul Ave.,Rochester, NY 14604. Die cut vinyl
letters and symbols (order at same price from Johnson Plastics).
JOHNSON PLASTICS, 10809 Normandale Blvd.,Minneapolis, MN 55437.
800/328-3778. Molded and die cut letters, adhesive, plastic
paints. Old, reliable company.
WALTER HARTLAUER, 85907 Baily Hill Rd.,Eugene, OR 97406.
503/343-5971. Custom die-cut letters to 48" high; machinery and
POLY FORMS, INC., 49 Gaza Blvd.,Farmingdale, NY 11735.
516/249-5011. Formed plastic letters 4 ft tall.
ST PUBLICATIONS, 407 Gilbert Ave.,Cincinnati, OH 45202. Published
SIGNS OF THE TIMES, "the" trade magazine for the sign business.
Also offers sign courses.
THE ENGRAVERS JOURNAL, P.O. Box 318, Brighton, MI 48116.
313/229-5725. Trade journal for the engraving industry - has ads
for machines and die cut letters as well.
BUMPA-TEL, INC.,P.O. Drawer A, Cape Girardeau, MO 63701.
800/334-2211. Wholesale full magnetic sheeting (including white
that is used for magnetic signs. Good prices.
STOP LOOK SIGN CO., P.O. Box 20477, Los Angeles, CA 90....
800/4474467. Wholesale reader boards and sign letters; inside
flashing signs. Reliable.
DOVER PUBLICATIONS, 31 East 2nd St.,Mineola, Ny 11051. Discount
books, clip art, stencils, etc.
QUILL CORPORATION, 100 Schelter Rd.,Lincolnshire, IL 60917-4700,
312-634-4800. Office supplies.
NEBS, 500 Main St.,Groten, MA 04171, 800/225-6380. Office
IVEY PRINTING, Box 761, Meridan, TX 76665. Letterhead: 400 sheets
plus 200 envelopes - 418.
SWEDCO, Box 29, Mooresville, NC 28115. 3 line rubber stamps- $3;
business cards - $13 per thousand.
ZPS, Box 581, Libertyville, Il 60048-2556. Business cards (raised
print - 411.50 per K) and letterhead stationery. Will print your
copy ready logo or design, even whole card.
WALTER DRAKE & Sons, Inc.,4119 Drake Bldg.,Colorado Springs, CO
80940. Short run business cards (250 for $3), stationery, etc.
Good quality but little choice of style or color. Can be
difficult to deal with (they are a "short-run" mail order house).
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