Our Biggest Sign Ever
Ironworkers completing the new foundry for EJ Americas in Elmira, MI were supposed to install the 36-piece channel letter sign that my company, Pro Image Design (Traverse City, MI), had brought to the site. The 24 x 41-ft. sign was to be bolted in 110 ft. off the ground. One ironworker took us up in a lift to the install area, the ride lasting almost 10 minutes. The gusty, still-winter March winds made the lift basket sway in the cold. We told the ironworker who was with us that we had nine 4 x 24-ft. patterns for them to attach to the building, to drill close to 300 ¾-in. holes and then secure the 36 pieces of the sign, one at a time. He said something like, “You want us to line all that stuff up? No way.”
That’s how my shop was selected to install the largest sign we had ever made, and much higher up than we had ever installed any sign before. But first, a bit of background. The client, EJ Americas (formerly East Jordan Iron Works), is a local, family-owned company in East Jordan, MI. They have 50 locations in 26 countries worldwide. EJ produces manhole covers, among other things, and they were on the verge of completing a brand-new, state-of-the-art foundry in Elmira. Pro Image Design had started working with them several years ago with a vinyl lettering job for their history center. That got our foot in the door and since then, we have built many signs for their locations, including one in Australia.
The client asked if we had ever built a sign this large. We said we hadn’t, but that we knew we could do it. The sign for the new foundry was to feature EJ’s logo, so the design was already taken care of. In fact, we got specs from their rebrand of eight years before that quoted the exact proportions. We also met with the engineers who were building the foundry to make sure the sign would be safely secured. Though each of the 36 pieces could have been attached to the heavy-gauge siding, the engineers insisted that everything be through-bolted into the structure. We thought that would be a bit of overkill, but agreed to do as instructed.
We fabricated the channel letters with 1/8-in. aluminum backs and .063 in. aluminum returns. The faces comprise 3/16-in. acrylic. Inside each letter, we installed twice as many Principal LED Streetfighter modules as intended to be lit at one time in order to avoid costly maintenance should the primary lighting in a letter fail. We made everything to be serviceable from the backside, with each section having two leads coming out, one the primary and the other tied up in a junction box as a backup. In total we used two sets of 1,420 LED modules – so 2,840 in all, with only half to be lit – powered by a dozen 120W Principal LED power supplies. And when we put the trim on the letters, we first used regular channel letter adhesive, then went over it again with LORD urethane adhesive for added hold, and to continue “overdoing it” at every turn.
Now, back to where I left you at the beginning. Once we took over the install, the first thing we had to do was to attach paper patterns to the corrugated side of the building to mark the spots where we would hole-saw 280 holes in order to through-bolt onto the C-channels as the engineers had required. We used paper and not banner material because paper doesn’t stretch, and if you’re off even a little bit, well, you know.
After the cold work of preparing the building was completed, we began the install. We had to rent two U-Haul trucks in order to bring the 36 pieces of the sign from the shop to the site. All sections had ½-in.-diameter aluminum studs welded into them. As we installed each letter, we had two guys inside the building and two guys outside in a lift. The two outside found the holes, fed the wires through the power holes, then aligned the studs through the building and held the letter in place until the guys on the inside were able to put the washers and self-locking nuts on. We did that for 35 of the sections, but the “J” letter was so large, it required two lifts: two guys on the top lift, two on the bottom, and one inside. At 15 ft. tall, there was no other way we could line up all the studs in one shot – so we did that letter last.
However, that wasn’t our last part of installation. After the “J” was up, we found out the hard way that the heat of the sun caused the plastic to expand too much, and to warp. This required us to produce and install a new “J,” this one with expansion- joint slots.
A HUGE BOOST
With everything installed, we went inside and tied all the wires together into junction boxes. There was a lot of color coding and labeling to make sure we weren’t overloading the transformers. This required forethought; we had to make sure everything would be powered evenly, as well as accounting for the voltage drop from the transformers to the sign sections. For that we had to beef up the gauge of the wire going into the junction boxes.
We test-lit everything, then disconnected power so the client could do a lighting ceremony when the foundry was completed. It was unusual to have the sign ready so long before the building – it’s never like that in the sign industry. Usually the paint on the sign is still drying as the establishment opens for business! We did the install in late March, but the sign was not debuted until the night before Halloween.
This project was a big achievement for our shop, a major milestone. Since we’ve done it, we’ve had other inquiries about large-scale jobs. “If you did the sign for the new foundry, you’ll have no trouble doing our sign,” clients say. We look forward to doing something even bigger and higher up – but next time in nicer weather, we hope.
EQUIPMENT AND SUPPLIES
Routers: Gerber Sabre 408, gerbertechnology.com; MultiCam 1000, multicam.com
Software: Gerber OMEGA, gerbertechnology.com
Substrates: Chemcast acrylic sheeting, tapplastics.com; 3M Scotchcal Translucent Graphic Film Series 3630, 3m.com
Coatings: LORD 7542 and 7550 urethane adhesives, lord.com
Lighting: Principal Street Fighter standard LED modules, Principal 120W power supplies, p-led.com
Cranes: Genie 125- and 135-ft. lifts, genielift.com