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Sign Effectz Creates Glowing Atmosphere for Milwaukee Coffeehouse

Exposed neon proudly identifies Colectivo Coffee



Adam Brown is president of Sign Effectz (Milwaukee).

Coffeehouses are popular destinations throughout Milwaukee. Wisconsin is, to put it mildly, known for its cold weather, so a cup of joe provides an easy way to warm up. A couple of years ago, we helped Stone Creek Coffee’s business overflow, thanks to a fiberglass, vinyl-clad coffee cup installed on its rooftop.

Now, another client, Alterra Coffee, a popular local coffee roaster established in 1993, changed its name when it sold its brand to Mars Corp. We’d fabricated extensive signage for Alterra over the years, so we were a natural choice for its subsequent re-branding. Alterra’s founders, Paul Miller and Ward and Lincoln Fowler, committed to growing the organization and creating career opportunities for all of its employees. Here’s how they described it: “Making that happen takes resources. In 2010, we were presented with a great opportunity to strengthen our company’s bottom line and ensure we could grow and develop as we wanted, even during a period of economic uncertainty. We agreed to sell our name – not the company – to the Mars Corp., and retained full control of our business. After three years of this relationship, we decided it was time for us to move on.”

They wanted a company name that reflected their vision for the company’s future. “We were inspired by the artful and funky buses used for public transportation across Latin America, colectivos (co-lec-TEE-vo), and the iconic part of life they represent for everyday people. We think this symbol is a great match for our brand, and the collective experience we share, through the products we make, the places we build, the communities we support, and the customers we serve.”

Transforming the retail signage meant rebranding. Sign Effectz fabricated signs for four of its retail locations. Some featured exposed neon, and others, to comply with local codes, featured other forms of channel letters. We built the “Colectivo Coffee” open-faced channel letters with exposed neon in August, 2013. This article focuses on constructing the “Strong Coffee Served Here” sign we fabricated and installed there last year.

We handled the new sign’s permitting for the client. Once an occupancy permit was changed for the newly branded company, the process moved smoothly. Removing the previous wooden sign simply meant dislodging several mounting screws and lifting it out.


Colectivo’s owners worked with marketing director Scott Schwebel to design the sign concept. They liked the retro look, and wanted illumination to give it more visual impact while still looking sleek. Don Nummerdor, our project manager, thought the depth of “Strong” channel letters would create greater visual impact and strongly suggested a retro-type sign.

The design documents articulated a single-faced, wall-mounted, exposed-neon cabinet painted red and beige with a black-vinyl arrow. “Strong”’s letters are open-faced, 5-in.-deep, channel-letter tubs painted black outside and beige inside, with internally mounted, single-stroke, red neon. “Coffee” and “Served Here” and the perimeter border are exposed, single-stroke red neon. The signs may be serviced and mounted through removable panels in the cabinet’s sides.

The signs were painted using a wet-application technique and gravity-feed spray gun with Matthews PMS 186C red and PMS 468C beige acrylic-polyurethane coating. We first sprayed the entire sign red, applied mask and then sprayed on the beige color.  To create the sign’s arrow, we used a Graphtec Vinyl Express Q130 plotter to cut 3M Scotchcal 3630 translucent marking film. We applied the film to the cabinet’s face to help maintain branding while creating contrast.

We used our Gerber Sabre 408 CNC router table, which cuts material up to 4 x 10 ft., to rout the face and back shapes. We cut the face out of 0.125-in.-thick aluminum; for the back, we used 0.080-in.-thick aluminum. We also used the router to cut the backs of the letters for the word “Strong”. Then, we used our newly acquired Computerized Cutters Accu-Bend machine to bend the returns for the word “Strong”. In the past, we would have done this by hand-forming the letters, which can produce a great finished product but is much more time-consuming.

I estimate the Accu-Bend reduced production time for this component by 75%. The frame was built from 1 x 1-in., aluminum tube. We shaped the sign’s sides with 0.063-in.-thick sheets, cut them with a pneumatic shear, and formed the aluminum by hand. We joined the frames using a Cobramatic MIG-welding system.

The word “Strong” comprises 5-in.-deep, open-faced channel letters with exposed neon. To minimize glare, we back-dipped the neon components with black, acrylic-polyurethane paint, which provided a matte finish for the cabinet surface. An electrical contractor provided the 120V primary electrical connection and final hook-up necessary to illuminate the sign. To power the neon, we installed four Allanson 15,000V/30mA Uni-Serve UL-listed transformers.


We outsourced the neon to Matt Fehr, the owner of Fehr Neon (Milwaukee). He bent 91 linear ft. of 13mm-wide, clear tubing pumped with neon gas. The painted letters can be seen during daylight hours without obstructing from illuminated ones. At night, the gas gives it a red glow. We asked Fehr to set up the neon using glass housings, which extend the life of the neon glass by protecting the electrodes. Electrodes are welded to the clear glass on each end, and pass the electrical current into the tube to charge the gas and create the illumination. Protecting electrical connections from Wisconsin winters is a high priority, and glass housings and quality seals do the job well.

Many people don’t often encounter custom-built neon signs; demand for them just isn’t very big in our neck of the woods. So, we get pumped up when the opportunity arises. Our guys enjoy working with neon because it creates illumination you can’t always achieve with LED lighting. Manufacturers of LED sign-lighting products simply haven’t perfected replicating exposed neon’s illumination, but I believe it’s only a matter of time.
We appreciate working with customers who share our passion for neon. Neon delivers that simple retro look, without all the bells and whistles. It really gets the message across clearly. Nick Dekker, the Sign Effectz shop supervisor, observed, “When I fired up the neon in the shop for a QC test, I was suddenly surrounded by everybody. It’s that good at drawing attention!”

This was a great project to do some cross training with several new employees. They’re so used to seeing LED- or fluorescent-lit signs; when we build a neon sign, it’s a good opportunity to teach them something new.The installation proceeded very smoothly. Properly securing the new sign and removing the old one required two trucks (a 113-ft.-reach, 15-ton T-Rex crane, and an Altec 35-ft. bucket truck to mount the sign) and two crew members, Steve Bruder and Allen Cieselski.

All told, the job required 57 hours. The curb appeal the job created for the newly named Colectivo Coffee made the job more than worth it.

Fabrication: Accu-Bend metal-forming equipment, from Computerized Cutters (Plano, TX), (800) 310-2887 or; Sabre 4 x 10-ft. CNC router, from Gerber Scientific Products (Tolland, CT), (800) 222-7446 or; Cobramatic® MIG welder, from MK Products (Irvine, CA), (800) 787-9707 or; Air-brake press and pneumatic shear, from home-improvement or industrial-equipment stores; Aluminum tube and sheet, available from metal-supply shops
Installation: Fifteen-ton, 113-ft.-reach crane, from Terex (Waverly, IA), (319) 352-3920 or; Bucket truck, from Altec (Birmingham, AL), (205) 991-7733 or
Neon: Clear, 13mm tubing, from such suppliers as Tecnolux (Bronx, NY), (718) 369-3900 or; Uni-Serve 15,000V/30mA UL-listed transformers, from Allanson (Toronto), (800) 668-9162 or
Plotter: Vinyl Express Q130 cutting plotter, from Graphtec America (Irvine, CA), (800) 854-8385 or
Vinyl: Scotchcal 3630 translucent film, from 3M Corp. (St. Paul, MN), (800) 328-3908 or

More About Sign Effectz
Founded in 1996 and co-owned by Adam Brown and Rick Rossetti, Sign Effectz (Milwaukee) is a full-service, custom-sign fabricator that also handles sign repair, installation and permitting, among other services. Its architectural-sign division, which it calls AFX, focuses on outside-the-box signage, such as an illuminated sculpture for a Greenhaven, CA public library and an interactive, electronic display for Amazon’s Seattle-area headquarters, among many others. The company has been profiled in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel and the Milwaukee Business Journal, among other regional publications.





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