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Dimensional Letter Signs: Should You Make Them In-House or Outsource Production?

The answer depends on your experience and whether you own a CNC machine.




DIMENSIONAL LETTERS CAN make your customer’s message stand out in a way most two-dimensional signs cannot achieve. If you need proof, check out a local mall. It no doubt has a marquee sign listing the anchor businesses. Do you have time to read them as you drive by? Pretty doubtful. However, it is easy to read the dimensional signs on the walls outside of specific stores even though they are farther away. Indoors, dimensional lettering imbues a sense of architectural permanence that a two-dimensional sign simply can’t.

But what does it take to get into the dimensional letter business? Of course there are a lot of questions to answer before you take the plunge. The first is what kind of letters do you want to offer? There are a wide variety produced with wood, sign foam, metal and plastics. Do you want to offer solid, non-lit letters for use indoors or daytime, or do you want to sell lighted channel letters like you see outside of numerous businesses?

The next question can really affect your bottom line depending on the volume: Do you want to outsource or produce in house? If you have absolutely no experience and a limited budget, then outsourcing is the way to go. A wholesaler will produce the letters to your specifications and then you install them. If you do not expect dimensional letters to become a major part of your business, then outsourcing is the better option.

If dimensional letters are or do become a major part of your business, then you may want to consider making the letters yourself. The first thing to do is take a look around your shop. A major tool that you will need — regardless of whether you produce solid or channel letters — is a CNC router or laser cutter with a table large enough to accommodate the largest letters you wish to produce. If you are crafting solid letters, then you likely have everything you need. Letter thickness may be limited by your router’s Z-axis, but that’s about the only catch.

Whether lighted channel letters or more simple, solid and non-lit, dimensional letters attract more eyeballs and convey more permanence than flat signs.

Whether lighted channel letters or more simple, solid and non-lit, dimensional letters attract more eyeballs and convey more permanence than flat signs.

You can also create plastic channel letters in house using fairly inexpensive heating and bending equipment. You still need a CNC to produce the face and backer, but the letter sides (known as the “can” portion) may be made with strips of plastic, such as acrylic, using manual heating and bending while gluing the piece in place.

Channel letters are a different kettle of fish. The depth of the letter is determined by the width of the metal used to create the letter outline. There are two methods of producing the can. It can be performed manually with a metal brake (bending machine), a forming roller (for rounded portions of a letter) and a notcher that aids in bending the metal. This can be a fairly time-consuming process, with a skilled bender taking 20 minutes or so per letter.

If you are producing a large quantity of channel letters, then it will be very advantageous to purchase an automated bending machine. Channel letter benders run off computer drivers and the same files used to route the backer and translucent face. Just feed in the metal strip from a coil and they take care of bending and notching the letter. Some models have the ability to produce the end cap used to hold the face in place. These machines also require shop air, so you will need a compressor as well, but a channel letter bender can make a letter in just a few minutes as opposed to 20, with no need for the expertise of an experienced letter bender. Some models produce letters not requiring end or trim cap.

So, you have a lot of options for getting into the dimensional letter market. If you don’t already have a CNC, then the best option is to outsource. If you do own one, then you can start with solid letters and work up to channel letters. That third dimension can really make a difference.





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