Channel Letter Divide

Made in-house or purchased wholesale, shops of all sizes should partake in this profitable segment.
Lola Red Design Group produced these channel letters for Taco Temple with an assist from Gemini.

According to our 2018 State of the Industry Report, 67.1% of sign companies sell electric signs, including wholesale. Among those companies, 90.8% ranked channel letter signs as the type of electric sign sold most often, ahead of cabinet signs, EMCs and other forms. And while nothing in the sign industry is ever easy, it’s surprising that nearly one-third of shops take a pass with this very common and profitable type of sign. They might want to reconsider.

CUSTOM OUTSOURCING IN CALIFORNIA

The channel letter entrance sign for restaurant Taco Temple was three months in the making. “We were designing signs for the entire restaurant and the freeway pole sign starting the end of December 2018,” said Elizabeth Howard, creative director of Lola Red Design Group (San Luis Obispo, CA). “The restaurant was also going through demo and renovations when we began designing.” The client was a dream to work with, Howard said. “They gave us ample room to stretch our design and sign knowledge. They had a logo with bold primary colors, and we feel we elevated it with a textured, wavy background on the signface and the incorporation of the illuminated channel letters.”

But Lola Red is a small shop without the capabilities to produce channel letters. So, their entrance sign for Taco Temple combined what they do well in-house – colorful dimensional signs – with channel letters outsourced from Gemini. “We depend on Gemini for this line of product from start to finish,” Howard said, citing the company’s reputation for accuracy and high quality, “not to mention they have policies in place to reduce waste and recycle materials when possible. We like that about them.”

Lola Red Design Group produced these channel letters for Taco Temple with an assist from Gemini.
Lola Red Design Group Creative Director Elizabeth Howard's retired-electrician father drilled the lag screws to secure the sign.

Lola Red’s fabrication team routed the sign backer from ½-in. MDO hardwood onto which 1.5-in. painted HDU dimensional letters were laminated. “We designed the background of the sign to have a slight ripple texture to give it interest and an added layer of design value,” Howard said. The shop ordered 3-in.-deep Stainless Steel Face Lit Metal Letters from Gemini, the tallest of which was 16 in. The letters feature black returns and yellow acrylic faces. Gemini also took care of the LED lighting placement. “The letters were a simple turnkey approach for us to create this unique sign assembly,” Howard said.

Lola Red worked closely with an electrical contractor and their general contractor to pull together all the details. And when necessary, they employ a structural engineer for large, complicated or heavy sign installs. “With each project – and the knowledge of other experts – we learn more of how to design and engineer for a successful end product,” Howard added. And this install had something even more special about it.

“My favorite detail of this project was having my 77-year-old father on-site at the install,” Howard said. A retired electrician, he lent the shop use of his lift. He was eager to participate and even did the honors of drilling in the lag screws through the signface to secure the sign to the beam behind it. After the install, Howard’s father told everyone how proud he was of them. “It doesn’t get better than that,” Howard said.

NEWFOUND FREEDOM IN TOMS RIVER

Of course, many sign companies do enough channel letter work to merit producing everything themselves. For years, Girtain Sign Co. (Toms River, NJ), a fourth-generation family business, used an Arete for their channel letter work, though this machine only marked the bends and did not make them. But when Arete went out of business, the company founded by Girtain’s grandfather in the 1920s went looking for a replacement. They settled on the new Accu-Bend FREEDOM channel letter bender from Computerized Cutters. One of the reasons for this choice was the bang – or bend – for the buck. “The Freedom was about $22,000,” said Andy Girtain, co-owner of the company, “compared to $60,000 [for other machines],” noting that the old Arete had cost about $35,000.

The Freedom bender is still relatively new, but Girtain made six sets of letters in the first month of ownership and has about six more sets lined up for the second. “I plan to do about 2-3 sets per month,” he said. That first job was a 48-in. set of letters with white faces, white trim and bronze returns for Value City Furniture in Lakewood, NJ. The Freedom’s standard coil depth is 5.3 in., which Andy Girtain said covers 90% of their jobs, and that Girtain Sign has made 12-in. to 48-in. letters with it so far. In addition, the machine has a small footprint, less than 4 x 8 ft. Girtain Sign put their Freedom bender on a bench with wheels; they cover and store it under shelving when not in use.

Girtain Sign Co. used its Accu-Bend FREEDOM channel letter bender from Computerized Cutters to make letters for a Value City Furniture.
Girtain Sign Co. used its Accu-Bend FREEDOM channel letter bender from Computerized Cutters to make letters for a Value City Furniture.

As for the lighting for the channel letters they sell, Girtain Sign uses G2G Lighting AnPro 180 - 6300K for everything. “This produces an even, white lighting,” Girtain said. His company has used LED lighting exclusively for channel letters for about the last 10 years, because it’s more cost-effective and easy to use. “Neon will always be around on a smaller scale,” he added.

Girtain Sign Co. looks well-positioned for their channel letter projects, rolling out their Freedom – which Girtain already refers to as a “workhorse” – whenever it’s needed. Girtain advises other sign companies that sell and install channel letters to acknowledge that they’re a custom sign product and should be priced accordingly. “[Channel letters] are a time-consuming process even with an automated machine,” Girtain said, before concluding, “Try not to sell letters smaller than 10 in. in height with a minimum 1.5-in. stroke.”

TAMPA’S HALO-LIT HOME RUN 

Another shop that bends its own channel letters is Creative Sign Designs (CSD; Tampa, FL) which uses an SDS Automation Super ChannelBender for the task. The company put their machine to work for their project that was featured among the winners of our recent Signshop Competition and also for a multi-sign job for the Volaris Starkey Ranch, an apartment complex in Odessa, FL whose tagline is “Life at first sight.”

CSD included materials inspired by the Starkey Ranch natural setting to bring designer Robinson Creative Inc.’s (Southlake, TX) vision to fruition, according to Bryan Vaughn, CSD’s VP/general manager. These included softer indirect lighting for the halo-lit letters, Cali Bamboo composite decking (a 100% recycled material giving the look of the wood finish) and a custom faux COR-TEN steel painted finish – all of which tie into Starkey Ranch’s green initiatives.

The Cali Bamboo composite material applied as the background behind the channel letters had to be cut to size per design requirements, and then adhered to the face of the aluminum cabinet. “This was the first time for our architectural fab and final assembly departments working with that substrate,” Vaughn said. “It was easy to cut and drill and adhered without issue to the cabinet to give the sign a great long-life, faux-wood look.” 

Creative Sign Designs put its SDS Automation Super ChannelBender to work for a project for the Volaris Starkey Ranch.
Creative Sign Designs put its SDS Automation Super ChannelBender to work for a project for the Volaris Starkey Ranch.

The largest of the half-dozen signs CSD fabricated was a 3.5 x 24-ft. double-faced blade. The V logo area on top encompassed a .125-in. aluminum face with a ¾-in. white acrylic push through logo – a ½-in. protrusion – with a 1/8-in. routed shoulder flange for the stud-welded rod and nut security attachment on the back. In addition to the company’s Super ChannelBender, CSD’s fab department also fired up their MultiCam Series 3000 router, RAS TURBObend+ brake/folding machine, OMAX 1530 Maxiem waterjet and AkzoNobel paint system. CSD’s painting team also faced a challenge with creating the faux-painted, Cor-ten steel look, Vaughn said. They ultimately used multiple colors and a hand-finish on all the cabinet areas prior to clear-coating with the AkzoNobel paint system. CSD specified Hanley LED Phoenix series HLED-PF2080 LEDs for both the push through copy and reverse channel letter illumination.

The contractor left CSD with the steel tubing protruding out from the building as directed during the construction, Vaughn said. “This ensured proper engineering and a perfect fit for a smooth installation.” The CSD install team powered up its Altec LS63 to lift, weld and bolt the cabinet to the tubing. All told, this was an eight-week project from production through completion.

Whether your shop is small or large, furnished with a dedicated channel letter bender or not, every sign company is capable of selling and installing custom-designed, beautiful and safe channel letter signs.

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