It is hard to believe that it was almost ten years ago I witnessed a CNC router in action for the very first time. I was fascinated and simply had to have one! Although I had been in the creative end of the three dimensional sign business for most of my life I didn't really know what I would do with one of these machines - but I just knew it could do fantastic stuff.

Along with the CNC router I discovered the wonderful material called Precision Board and the glues, primers and other companion products they offer. Since then we have gone through many tons of the material using it in most signs and projects we tackle. This journal will chronicle our many adventures both past, present and future. I'll talk from the perspective of someone who pushes these products to the creative limit on a daily basis. I'll be adding to the stories two or three times each week. -dan

Friday, May 28, 2010

Second name plaque

The second name plaque I designed for the Sign Magic Workshop was for a fellow named Doug from Illinois. He is a self confessed 'signaholic' who claims to be a member of the 'Blind Magicians of the Orient'. I know he loves weathered metal and rivets. That's all the information I needed for his name plaque. It would be a salvaged piece of a ship, slightly twisted with rivets of course. The name of the ship? DOUG of course. I also decided to hind a message in the plaque for those few who were observant enough to notice. 'MAGIC' is spelled out in braille with the rivets. The missing rivets are merely holes in the metal. I did a quick sketch to bring the idea out of my mind and onto paper.
Then I created the simple vector file I would need. After creating simple raised reliefs in EnRoute I applied a blend bitmap to 'bend the file appropriately.
Then I selected a second bitmap from my collection called 'splotches 2'. I knew from experience this would create a bumpy surface that looked like pitted steel. The rivets and the name were simple reliefs.
I would route the name plaque from 30 lb Precision Board - as always. Working with a dense HDU would speed up the finishing time and also make the pieces plenty tough for the handling they would receive at the class and in transit back to wherever the folks were from. The panel would be largely created on our MultiCam CNC router.
There will be a little hand work as well when the machine is done. Watch for the next installment...

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Brain teaser...

The next Sign Magic Workshop to be held at the end of June is fast approaching. That means it's time to start in on the name panels which I create for each attendee. The panels are a way to demonstrate a host of techniques. We use them as part of the teaching process in the course. They are also a cool souvenir for the students. I do my best to come up with an original idea for each plaque and make it suit the person to which it goes. Sometimes this is easy for I know the person well. Other times they contact me by email and I don't get to meet or talk to them until they arrive. That makes it a lot harder to come up with an idea.
The first one I did was for Robin who has just earned her Master of Fine Arts degree from a university in Minnesota. I know from talking to her and from her website that she enjoys fun, thoughtful and clever projects. The image of a brain came to mind with her name wrapped over it. I did a quick sketch to prove the idea was viable, then set to work creating the simple vector file I would need to create the reliefs in EnRoute.
The vector file was a simple oval with the two haves of the brain in 3D. The lettering would be above that. I used a cartoon style of lettering and arranged the letters jauntily.
Using EnRoute I created a domed relieve then modified the file to raise the two halves of the brain. One of my bitmaps called 'worms' was used to create the 'brain'. It took seconds to pull off.

Then I created a relief of the outline of the lettering and modified it using an oval the same size and shape as the brain. Once everything was merged I added the fun, domed lettering to it.
We would route the files using 30 lb Precision Board making them durable for the handling they would be subjected to. The heavier density urethane would also make it faster to finish the pieces as I painted them.

The piece was routed in two passes, the rough cut with a 3/8" ball nose bit and the final finish pass with a 1/8" ball nose bit and a high overlap. The panel was on the MultiCam for about an hour in total.
While the router was busy I was at my desk creating the next idea for another student. Stay tuned...

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Bringing the sculpture to life!

The painting of our signs is as enjoyable and quick as the sculpting - if I plan it right. The key is to paint things in the right order to save myself work and effort. I started with the base color - a tan color. When this was dry I applied the first medium brown glaze, wiping it down immediately to reveal the highlights.
The next step was to lay in the colors on the bib jeans, followed by a dark blue glaze to bring out the jean textures. Then I painted all the other bits including the buttons, bow tie and the bear's eyes.
THen I mixed up a custom dark brown paint. Half was poured into an empty can and made into a matching glaze. This dark glaze was flooded over all the colors and wiped down quickly, tying everything together and toning down the bright colors. Things were progressing fairly rapidly. The lettering areas got two base coats of white paint in preparation for the next step. Each time I completed a color I would put the piece under the shop fans to speed up the drying time.
The only area left to paint was the lettering. I started with the black which was easy to cut with the raised layers I had created as I built the file in EnRoute. The blended lettering was next. The finishing touch was the two little white highlights in the bear's eyes to bring the piece to life.
The parade is still two weeks away but things are almost ready. It sure beats rushing around at the last minute!

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Instant wildlife

Once the rough sculpt is done and the basic head shape was established I smoothed the head out by dipping my fingers in water. I took a towel and pressed it onto the 'skin' of the nose and lips of the bear head, instantly creating a soft texture, pores and even some wrinkles where there were folds in the cloth. It took seconds.
Then I put on shall bits of the sculpting medium and with a small stick rapidly drew in the hairs. I worked from the bottom up creating random layers, drawing in the lines before moving up.
Once the hair was done I fashioned his coveralls. The texture for the fabric was created by first whetting the sculpt and then pressing in some plastic lawn chair fabric. With the glaze this will be pretty convincing.
The final step was to add his eyes and bow tie. I would let it cure overnight before we got busy with the paint...

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

No end of uses for Precision Board

We use Precision Board in almost all of our projects. Sometimes it is just small bits, but the material is so versatile and durable. I've been working on a train for our yard for quite a while. We call it my 'grampa train'. I strongly feel every grampa should have an electric train. Mine is just bigger than most. We had used Precision Board for the 'wooden' number panels on the steam engine cab as well as the 'brass' name plates and the number plate on the front of the boiler. These pieces were holding up well.
Our local parade is to be held in about two weeks and we always try to have an entry to both support our local community and to also promote our second business - Giggle Ridge Adventure Golf. It was time to come up with a new idea and so we decided to load my 'grampa train' on the flat deck trailer and decorate it up. Flapjack - our bear mascot would ride in the car. Phoebe, our grand daughter would be the engineer. I'll pilot the tractor that tows the trailer.
I needed some signs for the rail car and of course nothing but a dimensional sign would do. I had designed a sign last year and in fact routed two of them - one for up at the golf, the other for a sample here in the studio. But only one sign was completed so it was the perfect excuse to finish the project. The routing file was done in four layers of 30 lb Precision Board. The bottom layer was the log background. This file was created by using one of my bitmap textures. The grey scale artwork instantly was transformed into dimensional artwork by using EnRoute. The next two layers of the sign were simple routing offsets of the letter shapes. The top layer of the sign lamination was the name Giggle Ridge. It features a custom font I call Spaz and more textures created using one of my bitmaps. I had done some priming and painting of the pieces back when they were routed but they were also marked with the dirt, dust and paint splashes from hanging around too long in the shop. No harm however for we would soon fix that.
To start the sculpture I cut some bear shaped blocks from scrap Precision Board that is always kept handy for just such a purpose. These would save a bunch of epoxy sculpting material and speed up the process.
I screwed the pieces to the base layers and then used the die grinder to quickly add some rough shape to the head and shoulders. In short order we were ready to begin the sculpting process. The epoxy is made from two components... a resin and an activator. They are mixed in equal proportions and the end result is a sticky, clay like medium. I compare it to plasticene - the stuff we all played with as kids. Only this gets rock hard in about 3-4 hours. I quickly shmooshed it on the blocks I had cut to shape.
Once the entire shape of the bear head was done it was time to start in on the detail work.
I'll be continuing the story the next time I post...

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Going back in time - just to check

This past week I revisited a job we had done more than half a decade ago. The project was called Riptide Lagoon Adventure Golf. Over a period of two years we had built the phased project. It was the first one we had done offsite in our new shop and then transported for installation. A year later (shortly after getting my MultiCam) we had built a highway sign for the project using Precision Board for parts of it. The sign had used a multitude of materials and techniques. Now almost five years later I could look at the project carefully and see how the materials had held up.
The materials were all on the same project - all had been exposed to the same sunshine, winds, rain and salt air. I was anxious to see how the 'new' materials and methods had held up compared to my old proven techniques. The sign had a welded steel frame. The rock work used man-made stone, sculpted concrete, and 30 lb Precision Board which had been routed and layered using Coastal Enterprises glue and primers. All had been painted with acrylic paints.
The concrete had leached minimally on some seams - a common occurrence in this coastal environment. There was minimal fading of the paints. The Precision Board portion of the sign looked like I had just installed it yesterday. It was in perfect shape.
Being able to revisit my old project made me feel much more confident in the routed signs we now make. The process is much less labor intensive than our hand sculpting we used to do. The detail is crisper, the signs easier to transport and they last even better than the sculpted concrete. While I won't put away the old ways completely I will certainly continue to embrace the new technology where we can. Our projects will continue to combine the best of all worlds.

Monday, May 10, 2010


Late last week I put the finishing touche to the sign for the Vedder Mountain Grille. Then it was time for the delivery. Any installation of our pieces is fun. The unusual loads on our trailer when we make our deliveries always garner lots of waves and smiles as we travel down the road. Only this time my project was only going about half a block. The excitement was just as enthusiastic as always - if not more so. This was a BIG event for our tiny town. There are only a dozen businesses in the two block 'downtown'.
The minute I started to open the big MAGIC shop doors my neighbor took notice. He came to see what was coming out this time. We pressed him into service to help us load the sign onto the flat deck trailer. I didn't let the owner of the restaurant know I was coming. I knew she was there for I had seen her when I walked to get my mail. despite the sign being heavy I wasn't worried about getting it into position. In this small town I knew lots of folks would happily help out if needed.
As I pulled up in front of the business I could see a flurry of activity inside. THE NEW SIGN HAD ARRIVED. Customers left their tables and crowded to the window. One of them ran to the back parking lot to get his truck. He backed it onto the sidewalk and tipped the old sign into the box and it was gone in an instant. A pedestrian passerby put down his packages and hopped up on the trailer to help tip the new sign upright. Many other willing hands helped guide the sign to its final place. The owner danced a happy dance on the sidewalk and gave me a BIG hug. The sign was a big deal and would undoubtably be the talk of the small town - until something else exciting happened.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Next workshop in planning stage

We've decided to do a summer Sign Magic Workshop. The dates are June 25-27, 2010. It promises to be a small group but this means that it will be better tailored to what each participant wants to learn. The workshop will be the eighth workshop we have held in our studio. For more information follow the links starting here... www.imaginationcorporation.ca/workshops/index
Over the last three years we have hosted more than 100 artists from literally around the world at our studio. Together we have explored the three dimensional sign world. I do my best to cram in forty years of experience into three short days of teaching. Enroute, of course figures into the experience. I'll demonstrate my way of working inside this wonderful program, hopefully taking out the mystery and showing how even the most complicated piece is merely a series of small steps that aren't really that difficult.
Mostly, what I am eager to pass on is the passion I feel for this craft. I'll take each participant back to where I started, showing them how I built my skills and abilities. I'll show how every ideas starts small and grows, first as a rough sketch, through to a rendering, then on as a 3D file, onto to construction and then on to a finished piece.
We'll get our hands dirty as we practice the techniques in the shop too.The days will be long but will pass incredibly fast as every moment is crammed full of learning all we possibly can fit in.
I'm looking forward to another great weekend sharing my passion with like minded folks!!

Friday, May 7, 2010

A wonderful world of color

First came the blue base coats. We use acrylic paints in our shop exclusively. I like a brand we can only get in Canada but any premium grade house paint will do. This is not a place to try and save some money. We use General Paint premium exterior, semi gloss house paint. It is rated for 25 years and we have been using it for almost twenty years with proven results.
For the glazes I want translucent paint that will also stand the test of time. I didn't want to mix other brands of paint into the equation so I came up with the idea of using General Paints deep tint (clear) base as our glazing agent. We buy it without any tint in it, then mix in our own custom mixes (of the same brand paint) about 50/50 with the clear base. It looks milky in the can but dries clear. This is brushed on and then ragged off as a glaze to bring out our textures.
The blues are always tricky - especially with only a slight texture. To ensure success and an even pattern I did two light coats of glaze, leaving a little more on around the letters and towards the bottom of the oval to give it some weight. The lower lettering on the scroll got the same treatment.
Once the glaze was good and dry it was time to start cutting in the other colors. Because I had routed various layers of all the colored areas it was easy and fast to do the cutting between the different colors. The next color was always above the one below or at right angles to it. While experience with a brush makes things go faster, almost anybody can do it with relative ease.
I worked around the sign, leaving the freshly painted areas to dry well. Everything received at least two coats of each color, sometimes three, plus the blends. While it takes a while, we charge a premium dollar for our projects allowing us to spend the time we need to get it right. The pictorial was next on the list, first a double coated green base coat followed by blends and then a glaze to tie it all together.
I changed my mind on the outside ring color as I started to paint... and thought a metallic copper paint would look better than the dark chocolate I had originally planned. After the first couple of brush strokes I knew I had made the right decision.
The sign only needed its final coats of paint, a little blending on the scroll and then the gold leaf on the letters to be done. The end was in sight at last.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Primed for success

Coastal Enterprises FSC-88 WB primer is the coolest stuff! It's not like the paint you can buy in stores. This is thick like cream. It goes on smooth and stays right where you put it. It doesn't flow out like normal paint. For those who want smooth it is a sand-able finish. We like to go in the opposite direction and this paint is perfect for that purpose! I first put a coat of rimer over the whole sign. This is allowed to dry well. I even read the directions on the can. the info sheet and on their website. They insist you use a shop fan to dry the work... for at least an hour no matter how long it has been applied.
It has worked so well we use our big shop fans to dry all our paint. With acrylic paints it speeds up the process a lot. Best of all the paints don't merely skin over. It seems to help them dry all the way through in a hurry. Our fans are three speed models with 18" blades. They move air in a hurry!
Onc the base coat of primer was done I went over the letters one more time with primer. Only this time I used a small brush and loaded the primer on leaving random brush strokes in my wake. Because I had designed the router files with raised layers on each level it makes cutting in a snap. While I've been practicing painting for better than four decades it doesn't take a whole lot of skill to cut a clean line when you are painting up to an edge. It's fast too!
I left the fan on over night so I could start in on the paint first thing in the morning. Next post we start in on the paint and glazes...