Connect with us

Business Management

Everything Zenzakan



In late 2008, a very good customer, Christian Mook, called us to order signage for his latest restaurant project. He already owns three upscale, well-known restaurants in Frankfurt, Germany’s financial capital. The last sign project we produced for him decorated The Ivory Club, a spectacular restaurant that serves “contemporary colonial cuisine.” But, he assured us this new project would surpass the wow factor of even that.

He’d already decided on “Zenzakan” for the name, and the subhead, “Pan Asian Supperclub.” Because this client always knows exactly what he wants, he emailed us an initial sketch of the logo design. We touched it up slightly to size it properly and selected a new font for the subhead using Gerber’s Omega 3.0 After this step, the artwork was ready to go.


Getting to the point

The program integrates four major parts. The unique circle design, known in Japanese as ensö, a symbol that means “true reality,” provides the background. The name, Zenzakan, provides the next layer, followed by the subhead. A full-size replica of a Japanese sword crowns the production. In essence, we were hired to create a new sign that looks very old. It was challenging to create a spectacular, distinctive sign that would fit within a sophisticated, Asian-style interior.

Our contract stipulated fabricating two large signs that enveloped the 7-ft.-diameter circle. One sign features an 8-ft.-long sword; the other sports a 7-ft.-long version that accommodates a lower ceiling. Because both signs were installed indoors, we enjoyed numerous material choices – we had no heat or weather worries. We were excited about possibilities to make our multi-layered sign outstanding.


Next, we created a 3-D photo rendering to show the customer our ideas. He liked it, but I couldn´t simulate every detail. Mook had invested much money in this project, so we decided to start with a 1:4 scale model. He paid for this sample, which he planned to place somewhere behind the front counter. We also produced an identical model for our own use. An effective model is a powerful sales tool in a showroom or tradeshow booth.

Early in the process, we created vector art of the sword to prepare a file for our Gerber Sabre 408 CNC router. We incorporated digital photos of an actual sword and took numerous measurements; we used Adobe® Photoshop® to render the file. I attended a seminar at David Butler’s shop about vector-art creation; there, I learned how to use Photoshop to create vector art within a photograph.

Several hours later, we finished preparations for a vector-art file compatible with Gerber Composer and Delcam’s ArtCam software. With ArtCam, I made a perfect, bold relief carving of all sword components – even the intricate Japanese letters. The 3-D model was done quickly with ArtCam, so we fired up the CNC router.


Sum exceeds parts

The sign bodies comprise 15-lb. Sign•Foam® HDU. Because the sword should resemble the original and would protrude off the wall, we fabricated a complete replica instead of a partial-relief sculpture. We routed every piece twice. We mirrored one piece, which means we flipped it horizontally, so the back looks exactly the same, and the sword’s arch moves in the same direction. After a minor, post-routing touchup, we glued the pieces together.


We created several aging effects on the sword, which included spraypainting and airbrushing the scabbard and created a leathery finish using a sponge. We spraypainted the cuffs with cold, sprayable brass and aged them with calcium polysulfide. The handle was also stained. After three days of drying, we assembled all parts together with epoxy and some wooden plugs.

After routing the ensö, we used Magic Smooth formable epoxy to add texture. Marcus Goebels, my partner, applied one thick layer, and I made the texture with a dough scraper. Magic Smooth creates a nice texture very smoothly, and it dries to form a tough surface. After a day’s drying time, we primed and spraypainted the whole surface with two coats. As the last coat dried, he applied such details as shadows with dark colors and vivid highlights with an airbrush and House of Kolor pearlescent paint.

We fashioned the letter outlines on our CNC router and added some details with a Dremel bit. We painted the outlines with Modern Options antique-iron finish, which quickly creates a rust-like patina. To create further detail, we applied black smalt around the big “Z” in the circle’s center. After having pre-cut the letters with our CNC router, we handcarved them, which created a “chiseled” look, before priming and spraypainting them.

Finally, we covered the Zenzakan text with 23.75k goldleaf. The customer wanted the subhead letters decorated with goldleaf, but we recommended a different style. So, after routing the prismatic letters, we primed and coated “Pan Asian Supperclub” and then applied variegated leaf.


Wall preparations


At this point, we’d prepared all pieces for installation. Because the client would install the two behemoth signs on drywall with black, textured plaster, we assembled the samples on black MDF. For easy alignment of all pieces and layers, we assigned the holes for the screws and stud mounts on all files, and drilled or marked them with the CNC router. So, afterwards, all screws would be invisible because they’re hidden by another layer.

The circle provided the first layer. We screwed it with some distance washers onto the MDF board. Then, we applied the rust-patina outlines of the Zenzakan letters, which we secured to the MDF board and circle with black, painted-aluminum tubes. We glued the Zenzakan text into the routed pockets of their outlines and followed a similar process with the subhead, which stood further away from the background. Finally, we crowned the entire piece with the sword.

We packed the sample into a wooden box and shipped it to Mook. He was thrilled, so no changes were required for the full-scale signs. We had three weeks to make signs four-fold larger than the original samples.

We finished all parts, which arrived at the restaurant just in time for installation. Because the signs were too big to ship in one piece, we assembled and staged all parts and layers. Two days later, everything was ready. This project provided an ideal opportunity to stretch our creativity, and we’re very proud of the results.

Equipment and Materials

Coatings: Cold, sprayable brass, from VeroMetal (Übach-Palenburg, Germany), (49) 221-716-7361 or; pearlescent-finish paint, from House of Kolor (Picayune, MS), (601) 798-4229 or; Modern Options antique-iron coating finish, from Triangle Coatings (Livermore, CA), (800) 895-8000 or; variegated leaf and 23.75k goldleaf, available from Sepp Leaf (NYC), (800) 971-7377 or

Installation: MDF board, silicone adhesives, distance washers and painted-aluminum tubing, available at home-improvement and building-supply stores

Software: Omega 3.0, from Gerber Scientific Products (South Windsor, CT), (800) 222-7446 or; Photoshop®, from Adobe Inc. (San Jose, CA), (800) 833-6687 or; Composer, from Gerber Scientific Products; ArtCam™, from Delcam Inc. (Windsor, ON, Canada), (519) 974-8088 or

Substrates: Fifteen-lb. Sign•Foam® HDU, from Sign Arts Products Inc. (Laguna Hills, CA), (800) 338-4030 or; Magic Smooth two-part, hardening epoxy, available form Abracadabra Signs (Ayr, ON, Canada), (877) 342-0847 or

Tools: Sabre 408 CNC router, from Gerber Scientific Products; Eclipse HP-CS gravity-feed airbrush, from Iwata-Media (Portland, OR), (503) 253-7308 or; Dremel multi-purpose finishing tool, from Bosch Tool Co. (800) 437-3635 or; carving gouges and chisels, available from such art-supply houses as Dick Blick Art Materials (Galesburg, IL), (800) 723-2787 or


More About Timber Signs

Manfred Didier and Marcus Goebels, who were, respectively, formerly a furniture carpenter and electrician, founded Timber Signs in 1998. Initially, they fabricated sandblasted, redwood signs, but eventually found quality redwood too difficult to obtain. In 2001, they purchased a Gerber CNC router and adapted to HDU-sign fabrication. In 2004, booming business inspired them to move from Cologne to Ofterschwang, a small village in Bavaria.

The company has won several awards, most recently First Place in the Commercial Building Signs category of ST’s 2010 International Sign Contest for the Zenzakan sign featured here. Didier and Goebels are avid Letterhead devotees and frequently attend meets throughout North America. For more information about their shop, visit




Most Popular