Melissa Jones is proprietor of Nice Carvings (Brainerd, MN).
I’m proud of the wide array of work that Jason and I have done in the eight years since I opened the shop. We began by routing cabin and lake-house signs for friends and neighbors. In 2008, I purchased a used ShopBot PRT 4 x 8-ft. router, and our business really took off.
Since then, I’ve been fortunate to fabricate set signage for Hollywood movies, building and monument signs for corporate facilities, parks and hotels, and almost any type of destination imaginable.
I’m still happy to make $50 cabin signs for people who live in our area, as well as serve large corporations and film-production companies, but small- to mid-sized companies represent the core of my business.
Paul Teutel Jr. owns a custom-motorcycle “chop shop”, Paul JR Design, in Rock Tavern, NY. In the custom-chopper world, Paul is a renowned artist, so it was exciting to get a call from a celebrity late last winter for a new sign. I’d never worked with him before, but I’d partnered with his wife, Rachale, in making a few signs for Oliver Anne, her fashion boutique. He wanted a building-mounted sign for his shop – an identity for bikers cruising in, looking to revitalize their wheels.
Teutel provided a nice line-art version of his logo, which he’d designed himself. To create compelling 3-D signage, we strive to transform a flat logo into something deep and dynamic by creating multiple layers. To create templates, we use Vectric’s Aspire 3-D-production software.
However, when developing 3-D signage, be careful not to overdo the dimension. If you get too deep, the end result can look whimsical instead of professional. Unless you’re fabricating a sign for a carnival ride, your client probably won’t be pleased. Make sure you clearly understand the nature of a client’s business, and the message they wish to convey, before you begin.
I made Paul a 3-D rendering for the logo, which he approved. Almost all of my clients love reviewing 3-D depictions; they provide a more concrete concept that makes the end result more tangible.
We immediately knew we wanted to make Paul’s sign with high-density urethane (HDU). For this job, we chose Duna’s CoraFoam® HDU 15-lb. HDU, which we like because it’s easy to finish, to develop a professional-looking sign. For the letters, we used 3A Composites’ brushed-aluminum-finish Dibond® material. Paul was very interested in the material choice and the substrate’s specs; rarely are customers that interested in technical details, so we were happy to discuss HDU’s particulars with him.
The sign spans 10 ft.; we had to bolster it to support its own considerable weight. We hired American Steel, a local welding company, to weld custom, aluminum hanging brackets, which provided necessary rigidity.
To assemble the pieces, we used MAS medium-viscosity epoxy resin, which is designed for assembling boat components and very resistant to moisture and temperature changes (during the course of a year, the temperature routinely varies by more than 100º F in Minnesota – much like at the customer’s shop in upstate New York).
So, durability is key. We used nearly two gallons of the resin to assemble Paul’s signs, which involved securing the hanging brackets and the several layers of the panel, shield and lettering.
To shape the pieces, we used our ShopBot router. Because the sign was larger than the router’s footprint, we had to meld two pieces together with an invisible center seam. Another benefit to working with HDU is its ability to be butt-joined when a job requires multiple panels.
I couldn’t have produced this sign without help from Amana Tools. Sharp, powerful CNC router bits are a vital part of quality 3-D sign production. A lot of experience – and a few mistakes – taught me this. I used to buy my bits from any cheap online supplier I could find, but I learned you get what you pay for. Now, I use Amana Tools exclusively as my router-bit source. It has an extensive product line, and it helps to be able to source all your tools from one place.
For Paul’s sign, I used Amana’s extra-long, foam-cutting bits, which enabled single-pass, profile cutting. For the deepest cutting, I used a ½-in.-diameter, ball-nose bit. The ball-nose bit is an expensive tool, but it substantially reduced my routing time for the shield and other deeper, 3-D components. I also use their razor-sharp V-bits to trace on the letters and create beveled edges. Once I used blade-changing hardware, I’ve never looked back.
Decorated and up
To decorate the sign, we applied two coats of industrial-grade primer. Again, with the volatile northern climate, your materials have to be tough. After the primer cures, we applied three layers of black Sherwin-Williams housepaint.
To accent the sign, we installed LED border tubing around the perimeter. This was the first time we’d ever used LEDs on a project. We bought modules and drivers from Sign Lighting World; Jeff Ignolia did a great job answering my beginner-level questions and providing the parts we needed.
To transport the sign hundreds of miles east, we built a custom crate from lumber and plywood, and filled in hollow spaces with Styrofoam® expanded polystyrene to create a protective buffer. As with many of our shipped signs, the customer handled its installation. They worked closely with us to verify measurements and accurate LED-lighting-equipment connections.
The project was definitely successful. Paul and his team were among the most engaged, accommodating customers that we’d encountered. This always makes the job so much easier.
Equipment and Materials
Adhesive: Medium-viscosity epoxy resin, from MAS Epoxies (South St. Paul, MN), (800) 755-8568 or www.masepoxies.com
Coatings: Industrial-grade latex primer, from building- and- industrial-supply store; black, exterior-grade housepaint, from Sherwin-Williams (Cleveland), (216) 566-2000 or www.sherwinwilliams.com
Lighting: Border-tube lighting, from Sign Lighting World (Boulder, CO), (720) 242-9000 or www.signlightingworld.com
Router: ShopBot PRT 4 x 8-ft. CNC router, from ShopBot Tools Inc. (Durham, NC), (888) 680-4466 or www.shopbottools.com; router bits, from Amana Tool (Farmingdale, NY), (800) 445-0077 or www.amanatool.com
Software: Aspire CNC software, from Vectric Ltd. (Redditch, England), www.vectric.com
Substrates: Corafoam® 15-lb. HDU, from Duna USA (Baytown, TX), (866) 383-3862 or www.dunagroup.com/usa/home; Dibond® aluminum-composite material, from 3A Composites (Statesville, NC), (704) 872-8974 or www.dibond.com
Welding: Welded, aluminum hanging brackets, from American Steel (Canby, OR), (800) 547-9032 or www.americansteel.com
More about Nice Carvings
In 2006, Melissa Jones and her husband, Jason, founded Nice Carvings in their garage (amidst -40º F conditions, she noted). In the shop’s early days, she fabricated 3-D wood pieces with only a handheld router. Two years later, she purchased a ShopBot CNC router, and business boomed. That year, she fabricated hundreds of signs for a Texas ranch, and wholesale, 3-D signs built for other sign companies became a major part of her business.
Since then, she’s produced backdrop signage for such Hollywood movies as The Green Hornet and The Heat, and produced numerous building and monument signs for museums, corporate facilities and countless other destinations.
For more information, visit www.nicecarvings.com
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