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Pumped Up

A vintage-inspired labor of love fueled the first sign invitational competition



"One theme. Endless possibilities.” The tagline for the first-ever Sign Invitational that accompanied an offer to our shop to compete, sparked our imagination at House of Signs (Frisco, CO) back in October 2015. We were to be one of only 20 shops to participate in the inaugural event of a friendly competition to both celebrate and show off the myriad, creative commercial sign designs made possible using modern materials, tools and techniques. The projects would be unveiled and judged during the ISA Expo in Orlando in April 2016.

The specific theme of the competition was the brilliant Rube Goldberg (1883-1970), the American cartoonist, sculptor, author, engineer and inventor best known for a series of popular cartoons depicting complicated gadgets performing simple tasks. The build envelope had to be 2 x 2 x 6 ft., with the display to be placed on a pedestal. Likewise, the top of the display had to fit inside the bottom, so a 2 x 2 x 3-ft. top had to fit inside the same-sized base. Entries could not move mechanically, but lights and sound were allowed. Most importantly, the word “sign” had to be incorporated into the design. Fourteen esteemed competitors, all of whose presence were required at the expo, answered the call to compete. Periandros Damoulis, Steve Huyler, Bonnie Norling-Wakeman and I proudly represented House of Signs.

At our shop, we thought up tons of concepts across months of creative design sessions, but our affinity for the retro era determined our ultimate direction. We set out to create the most complicated-to-build and embellished vintage fuel pump on the planet, and to fabricate nearly the entire piece from various thicknesses and densities of HDU. We not only wanted to challenge ourselves with this goal, but also show others what can be created with, predominantly, 3D layers of urethane.

Researching reference material for our retro gas tank project was an extremely enjoyable throw-back to life in the 1940’s and ’50s. Astounding design aesthetic came out of this era, along with fabulous color palettes and unparalleled attention to detail. Our reference folder soon became a smorgasbord of retro eye-candy, and we couldn’t wait to begin designing our five-sided invention/sculpture/sign/art piece.

Engineering our creation to be modular with the top half fitted into the bottom half (which, itself, acted as the shipping container), required many hours of designerly brain surgery. Many parts would be stored inside the hollow core for transport and reassembled during setup. We wanted to maximize our build-footprint, so very tight tolerances were required, and as the project became more and more involved with add-ons, those tolerances got tighter and tighter.

Our brainstorming sessions yielded a host of design elements we felt were crucial to the theme. We imagined a dynamic feature for the top, with a clever tagline and the required text, “signs.” The shape we chose was in-spired by the iconic Route 66 logo, and because this piece would become the centerpiece of our remodeled showroom, the fuel-themed tagline reinforced House of Signs’ mission to create the world’s most dynamic 3D signs, along with cutting-edge LED lighting effects. Gas stations of yesteryear were full-service, so our piece needed a retro American beauty reminiscent of the 1950’s “pump girls.” Using reference photos of vintage service station pin-up girls, we created the perfect “Betty” to adorn our pump. We spent many hours building her 3D model using ZBrush software before routing it on our MultiCam 3000 Series CNC Router. Two sheets of 2 in. x 28 lb. CORAFOAM were epoxied together to create a 4-in. block. About eight hours of hand-carving additional details were required before we deemed her perfect. Bonnie, our skilled pictorial artist, gave her the final touches with vibrant acrylic paints and wonderful blends.


Rather than incorporate a Rube Goldberg-style contraption into our pump, we decided to pay homage to this man of many talents in the form of a dedication plaque with a relief-carved bust. Using reference photos of Rube, we created another 3D model. Then, with Ronan Aqua-Leaf paints and glazes, we gave Rube the perfect patina that also harmonized with the gas pump’s color palette.

For entertainment and intrigue, we integrated a gas-hose into the design, turning it into a lava lamp to simulate gasoline being pumped. We had many good laughs as we researched hilarious YouTube videos on building a lava lamp and experimented with our own. Using a clear acrylic tube filled with oil, water and red food coloring, custom-routed HDU couplings and a red LED imbedded into the base, this feature created animation to the project that later turned heads at the show. Red and orange bubbles raged up the tube as Alka-Seltzer tablets dropped into a slot at the top of the tube activated the solution.

Our sponsor panels were also an important design feature, as MultiCam and DUNA-USA deserved recognition for their generous support and donations. The MultiCam logo featured custom-routed acrylic push-through letters with blue LEDs. We also created a scaled replica of the CNC collet and router bit which appear to be routing the top portion of the Rube plaque.

One of the most labor-intensive aspects came from the tricky inter-faces of joining the side panels to one another with the multiple radius corners. In addition, the corrugated details, which were heat-molded by hand, had to match all the radius corners to a tee. The top portion of the pump, also a radius, was built as a removable lid, and its interface was carefully fabricated to appear seamless. The remaining details were equally challenging, such as the illuminated acrylic rods with hidden blue LEDs, custom HDU couplings, and the four retro badges with ultra-fine detail mounted to each of the four sides of the base.

The end result was nothing shy of spectacular, and we were delighted that our entry was a clear visual highlight and focal point for expo attendees. The fascination of passersby – with our embellished vintage gas pump, as well as the other uber-creative entries – was fun to watch. The most common question was, “Wow, what is it made of?” as viewers rubbed their hands over the layered elements, and said, “You made this from scratch? No way!” The entries electrified the expo hall and quickly became the talk of the show. Attendees them-selves judged the entries, with the votes for each project tallied at the Sign Invitational booth. My partner in creative crime, Periandros, and I were thrilled to be honored with a second-place finish, although every-one involved was truly a winner.

The Sign Invitational’s goal is “to foster involvement and creativity in the sign industry and beyond. The industry as a whole wins when it comes together for a common goal and partakes in a friendly, robust competition. Gathering some of the most creative, outspoken and talented individuals in this trade opens doors to further collaboration in the industry and sharpens every-one’s skills,” according to the competition website. And we certainly agree.


All told, our creation required 400 intense yet enjoyable man-hours of design/build to complete, and ended up weighing roughly 350 lbs. But the sizable time commitment was worth it, especially when we saw that our competitors pushed the creative envelope, too. And the friendships and connections we made during the show are priceless.

As you review the selected photos here, dust off your record collection – if you’re old enough – spin a few tunes from Buddy Holly and Elvis, and transport yourself back to one of the greatest eras of our time.


SOFTWARE: ZBrush,; Vectric Aspire,; Gerber OMEGA,; CorelDRAW,; Adobe Photo-shop,
ROUTER: MultiCam 3000 Series CNC Router,
PAINTING: Aqua Leaf, Ronan,; 1 Shot,; Sherwin Williams acrylic paints and glazes,
TOOLS: Routermatic Welder,
LIGHTING: SLW LED modules (red, white and blue),
MISC.: Lord & West Systems epoxy,



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