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, December 31, 2010

Out of the box... Part III

The original goal was to have this piece finished before the end of the year as it was one of my CHALLENGE 2010 projects. But, ALAS, it is simply not going to happen. Oh well. The total ended up being 11.65 projects completed this year. Not bad I guess.

We did make pretty good progress however, considering we only put an hour or two at most into the project each week. The LED's look pretty cool and give the piece added dimension and bling. The smoke really stumped me for a while but balls of the sculpting epoxy over crumpled tinfoil (to save material) looked pretty good. In the end I decided that alien smoke didn't have to look like anything like the smoke we are used to seeing on earth after all. When I added the orange LED's in the rear jet engine they threw a fabulous glow on the smoke and all was well.

Well keep hacking away at the smoke trail which proved to be a much larger task than I imagined. The detail on the rear engine will be done today and I may even get the rivets glued onto the 'steel' bands on the box. I'll probably sneak a few more bubbles onto the smoke as well. In another week or two this piece will be done.  And you just know I have something really cool in mind after that. It will be a brand new year after all...

Happy New Year!


Out of the box... continued.

I sent the file to the router and then whipped up a plywood box that would serve as the base structure for the sign. The top and bottom 'metal' band was to be 30 lb Precision Board, like the 'wooden' boards. Everything was cut at a 45 degree angle but tapered - just to make it a little trickier. The hole in the top (and a matching hole in the bottom) was for the transformer and wiring for the LED lighting.

For the smoke trail and flying saucer support I decided to stick to what I knew best - welded steel. I bent up a piece of 1" x 1" square tubing and welded it to a steel plate which I bolted to the plywood. Then I whipped some pencil rod into graceful curves and welded this on to support the expanded mesh which in turn would support the sculpting epoxy.

When I was done it looked like this. The 'T' shaped steel rods at the top will be laminated inside the flying saucer halves.

I left one side of the box off. I would glue it on then as a demonstration piece at our Sign Magic Workshop which was held back in October.

At our Sign Magic Workshops we try our best to cover every aspect of our projects we possibly can. Some folks have never glued High Density Urethane before and so it is one more thing to learn.

Then as a class project I first demonstrate how to tie wire onto a frame and then everyone jumps in to try their hand at it. They quickly learn that everything we do is an acquired skill, best accomplished with lots of practice.

At this workshop the theme was 'A' for alien. My alien of course was the little fellow that would pilot the space craft. He measures about 8" tall. Here we are testing the effect LED's would have from the instruments on his flying saucer. 

The flying saucer file was built at the workshop and routed while we were doing other things. Here one of the students is giving me a hand assembling it on the structure.

And lastly I decided to check the height of my little creature in the space ship. The glass dome had been already ordered. Some minor adjustments were in order.  We got a rough coat of epoxy on the smoke trail at the workshop but little else. It was an eager bunch with lots of questions. I was kept pretty busy the entire weekend.  Right after that our shop got really busy too. The flying saucer project would simply have to wait it's turn.

Next time I'll post the progress we've made from this point...


Thursday, December 30, 2010

Out of the box

A number of months ago we started work on a fun piece for our own display. We all know how those projects go. The shop inevitably gets busy and the projects get shoved off into a corner and gather dust. Well, our shop is kind of like everyone else's in that regard. The good news is that is didn't stay in the corner for long - or at least not very long each time it got shoved there. We've been making some progress. The project proved to be a little more complex and take considerably more time than I first imagined when I designed it.

The first thing I did was design the vectors. I decided to make all four sides the same instead of adding our name. That made things easy. The trick task on this project would be to curve the sides inward while splaying out the top of the box. With EnRoute there were a number of ways this could have been accomplished. I could have used the Sweep Two Rails function or I could use my favorite technique of applying bitmaps. You don't need to guess which one I used. First up was the vectors - done full size of course.

Next I created a bitmap of a blend which faded from white to black to white again. It was  easy and was accomplished in seconds. I kept in mind that white would raise the relief, black would do nothing. Grays would do in between depending on their value. I applied this bitmap to the relief of the boards and the lettering in separate passed, keeping the numeric values the same so the curves matched.

Then I took a cartoon woodgrain bitmap from my collection and applied that to the boards. The end result looked something like this.

The letters were then positioned on the boards and merged together with a flat background. I was pretty happy with the result as it looked pretty much as I had imagined. I kept the boards slightly oversized as I would need to trim them on the table saw to get the corners cut at a forty five degree angle. I would measure the wooden box I would glue it all to get accurate measurements.

I grabbed an end view shot off my screen to show just how much curve I managed to achieve using the blend bitmap.

Next time I'll pick up where we left off...


Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Back to work we go...

 I hope everyone had a great Christmas with those they love. Here we had a relatively quiet, small Christmas this year with only twelve family and friends around the table. It was a good time. 

Just before Christmas we finished the Nag's Head sign. Our customer was delighted with the result.

Yesterday we got back into the shop once more and began getting things rolling once more on projects which had lain idle for a few days. The Glass Hive Studio sign is the furthest along. I glued the front and back sides of the sign together yesterday with vinyl covered Lexan sandwiched in between.  Some steel rods were also laminated inside the frame which I would weld to the structure as we proceeded. This morning I used my trusty air powered die grinder to sculpt the edges of the sign.

Then I bent a piece of tubing to shape and welded it to the sign supports. This piece was then inserted into the sign support base, leveled and welded securely. Over the next couple of days we'll complete the sculpting with the epoxy and then jump into final paint. We had pre-painted the pieces which were to be next to the Lexan to make things easier.


Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Make two aspirin - send them in the morning

 One of the relatively simple, but still interesting projects we did this year was for a sign shop back east. They needed two giant aspirins for one of their clients. I raided the medicine cabinet to measure up one of the little white pills... then scaled it up to a giant three feet in diameter. The logo vectors were downloaded from the internet. The files were simple to create in EnRoute. It was a simple domed relief with the letters being a reverse bevel. They were cut using a 3/8" ball nose bit. While the faces were on the MultiCam I set about figuring out how to build the sturdy frame inside which wold hold the eye bolts  to hang the heavy pieces from the ceiling.

The pills were routed from 30 lb Precision Board. I decided to laminate styrofoam into the center to keep the weight down just a little. Even so, the pills weighed in at a hundred pounds each. The pieces glued together using Coastal Enterprises one part urethane glue. Being smoother than most of our work I did more sanding on this project than I probably did the rest of the year - not my favorite task.

The end result was two pills I'd really choke on if I had to swallow them. We boxed them up and sent them on their way. I bumped into my customer at the USSC show in Atlantic City a few weeks ago. The giant pills are still hanging proudly and doing their task.


Tuesday, December 21, 2010

New Website

This post serves as some unabashed self promotion without a doubt. Each year about this time I re-design, update and generally redo our website. With more Sign Magic Workshops scheduled next year, lots of new work and new ideas of course , redoing the website is simply necessary. Doing so brings new faces to our website which helps business too.

This time we changed things up in a substantial way. Some of the old is gone, with plenty of new taking its place. Instead of 80 short pages to click through there are only nine long ones instead that one has to scroll down to view.

It's my hope that the new website both promotes our work and also inspires others to do imaginative work of their own. 

For those inclined to take a look, please do so. I'd welcome your comments too.



Friday, December 17, 2010

Final pieces installed at MultiCam

Yesterday the last of the signs for the MultiCam project were installed. The fact is, in reality there will undoubtably be more signs to come. Like our studio here, we will continue to add more eye candy as time goes on and we discover more things. But for now this will officially bring the project to a close.

We considered lots of options for the way finding system for the rooms - fancy, plain and in between. In the end we opted for a consistent and somewhat conservative  look and feel. It's concise and professional with the familiar MultiCam 'M' present on every sign.We also decided to paint the backgrounds blue to match the window inserts. The letters, symbols and borders were painted silver to match the features in the entry.

The room signs were located over each door to minimize confusion as somme offices were adjacent with little space between. The signs are business like and blend in to the surroundings perfectly.

For the board room I simply had to give a visual clue to the dramatic theme room that lurks behind the doors. A starfish has somehow slithered outside and onto the sign.  

The MultiCam project has proved to be one of the most challenging and fun projects to date for our company in recent years. It was a wonderful opportunity to explore new methods and mediums and combine it all like never before. Sean Lawlor, the owner allowed us complete freedom as we worked. The builder, Jonathan Zerke and the team at Sonbuilt Homes, worked with us to make it all better than we could have done alone. Thank you for accommodating our needs through the project.

On this amazing project one of my personal challenges was to see how many times I could inject branding into the decor of the project. The 'M' and the brand MultiCam appear more than 100 times through the project. They are everywhere! The 'M' appears on corner blocks on trim, doors,windows, and stanchions around the machines. Medallions in the wainscot trim, beams and on smaller items like gauges in the board room. Our mission was to show the wonderful things the CNC machines and software were capable of. The end result is a project I proudly hang my hat on.

I felt from the very start that this opportunity was a game changer for our company. Amazingly, with the final pictures yet to be taken, the project is already garnering world wide attention. Undoubtably it will win some awards and be featured in many publications. It has already brought us projects that will be even more spectacular and imaginative. In short, it is working as designed (beyond expectations) for both us and our client. Thank you Sean for trusting us!


Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Why 30 LB HDU?

Another question I am often asked when we talk routing is "Why do I recommend and always use 30 pound Precision Board brand HDU as a minimum standard?"

The answer is simple.  Back when I first looked at High Density Urethane my concern was that it was fragile. The 15, 18 and 20 pound boards were easy to work. The material just evaporated under my tools, there was no grain to contend with, it held paint well and the material was stable. But there was a downside too. It was FRAGILE! Handled incorrectly a sign that I had labored over was easily and instantly damaged.

About eight years ago (before I discovered CNC routers) at a Letterhead meet in Minnesota I met Kellie Miller from Coastal Enterprises. I expressed my concerns to her about the fragility of HDU to her. She just smiled at me and dug under the display table and pulled out a sample of 30 lb Precision Board. As soon as it hit my hands I was SOLD. Coastal Enterprises was the only company to offer it and it is the lightest weight HDU in our inventory.

Later Kellie sent me some small samples of the various weights of the HDU's they make and sell. Precision Board is rated by the weight per cubic foot and ranges from 4 pound up to an amazing 90 pounds. I keep those samples handy and they are a great selling tool. When we are discussing signs and materials with a customer I pull out my sample of 18 or 20 pound Precision Board. I run my fingernail into it, breaking off a sizable hunk. I explain that is is the material most sign shops would use for their sign. I then whip out my sample of 30 pound board and hand it to my customer. They can't leave a mark. I ask them if they would be willing to pay a little more for that kind of quality. I always get a yes. The 18 pound board in the picture below bears witness to my abusing it for the sake of a sale. The 30 pound under it is still perfect.

The 30 pound (and forty pound too) still route at the same speeds as lighter weights. Gluing the pieces, and working them changes little. If I'm carving by hand I like to use a die grinder as it is easier and quicker than doing things with manual tools. 

We are planning a new house, hopefully to be started soon. We plan on going crazy with our CNC  router on that project. We'll be doing some projects that will call on even heavier weights of Precision Board. High wear locations like dimensional doors and such will get even higher densities. Will the raw material be more expensive? Undoubtably. But factor in the wear and tear they will be subjected to. I only want to do them once.

In our work, the last thing I want to do is skimp on materials. Quality materials and tools are critical to do a job right. In the end my labor and expertise are (or should be) worth far more than any other component of a project. Skimping on materials would only damage my long term reputation. 

I simply can't afford anything less than the very best.


More questions and more answers

Other questions I received this week concerned the sculpting medium we use for our projects. There are many on the market. We use Abracadabra Sculpt. It is a two part epoxy putty (much the same consistency as plasticene I used as a kid).  www.abracadabrasigns.com/smooth_and_sculpt/home It is mixed in equal quantities and then sculpted. Once it cures it is rock hard and durable! The sculpt is sold in kits in various sizes from two pounds to a hundred pounds (two five gallon buckets).  The more you buy the less expensive it is per pound. We use a fair amount of it in our shop, so we buy it in one or two thousand pound lots (ten - twenty 100 lb kits) at a time. Is it expensive... I don't think so. A few dollars of sculpt will do many times that in sign work, making it a worthwhile expense!

I put a thin coat over the mesh, and then allow it to cure. The next day the sculpting layer is done. For the tree bark I pressed on a layer of sculpt, then using crumpled tinfoil I pressed in the bark texture. Lastly I used a sharpened stick to draw in the lines. A helpful hint here would be to wet the tpools or sculpt with water to prevent the tools from sticking.

The last question we fielded this week concerned our paints. We use100 percent acrylic paints in our shop - all hand brushed. We tend to put the colors on nice and bright, then tone them down with glazes. We mix our own glazes using a clear base (without tint). We mix this clear base with the acrylic paints we have on hand at a ratio of 50% clear to 50% paint and then add a teen bit of water to make it flow. We slop this on and then wipe it down with a soft shop rage to remove the glaze from the higher areas, leaving it in the crevices and dips. We like to work from dark to light adding as many layers of transparent glaze as we need - generally two - five coats of color. The brighter the base coats the more vibrant the piece will be when it is done. Below is a picture of the horse sign with the base coats on. It's just too much as it is now. In a day or two it will look great as the other colors are layered on. 

Stay tuned...


Questions and answers

I always appreciate it when someone takes the time to post a comment or question or sends me an email. Feedback allows me to do a better job in the future at providing information about the things we do with our routing machine and the things we do to finish our projects in subsequent steps. This week everyone seems to want to know the steps we take after the routing is done. So here goes...

In the next few posts I'll try and answer those questions.  Since the projects are still underway the answers may come out in dribbles as I can take the pictures to show what I'm taking about.

One of the questions I fielded this week concerned how we attached the lath to the welded pencil rod frame. The answer is simple. We use rebar tie wire and end nippers. 

A loop is formed and it is pushed through the mesh, then the short end is pulled back through again around the pencil rod.

Using end nippers, it is grabbed, tightened, twisted and cut off in one smooth motion. It takes practice to get good and fast.  The key is to pull the wire tight with your left hand and grip it close to the steel bar.

When you twist it everything should snug up fast and after only a bit more than a 90 degree twist you can cut it off. As I said it is easier said than done. Keep the Bandaids handy as the metal ends are all sharp... real sharp. Ask me how I know.  :)

If you look close you can see the neat rebar wire tie in the center of the picture. You want to put enough ties on your piece to keep things nice and secure... but no more than that or you will just waste time, and bandaids if you aren't careful.

I hope this helps explain the first bunch of questions I received this week...


Saturday, December 11, 2010

One more time.

The horse's head turned out pretty fine. I filled in the missing pieces with sculpting epoxy and called my client as she had asked for a look before we got into paint. She loved what we had done but asked for some tweaks which would appeal to her husband as he would be the recipient of the piece at Christmas. On further discussion we decided that what was really needed was a change to a much more cartoon looking horse. The change was fine with me as the routed head could be removed and used on another piece for our display board. The scroll could be salvaged without difficulty.

After she left I broke out the tools and did just that. It came off cleanly with no damage to either piece. I used my jig saw to whip up a rough shape our of Precision Board and then mixed up some epoxy. My plan was to only rough out the new horse's head and finish the details the next day. But as always once I started I really got into it and was having way too much fun to stop. In only a couple of hours I had worked up a fun old nag. I snapped a couple of pictures and blasted them off to my client.

My client was delighted with the new horse as was I. It will now get it's solid base coats of paint and then the glazes will be layered on to finish the project. I'll post some pics when it is done.


Wednesday, December 8, 2010

A honey of a sign

A number of weeks ago a client approached me about creating a new sign for their home businesses. He was a bee keeper and she a glass artist. Their business was called the Glass Hive Studio. They had a logo but it needed a rework to make it into a head turner sign. The client loved my first design and didn't change a thing. Then it was on to getting the necessary permissions which didn't prove to be too onerous.
Once approvals and the deposit were in hand we set to work. The vector file was largely done in Illustrator with the outlines and borders done in EnRoute Pro.  

The reliefs were generated separately and tweaked to suit then merged together. The lettering was built as a separate layer. The file will be routed separately, painted and then glued together.  A second set will be routed for the back side of the sign.

The lettering was built in a bevelled style on a slight arc. 

Then it was on to the router.  The file was to be routed from 30 lb Precision Board as is our custom. The entire sign fit within a full 4' x 8' sheet of material.

While the MultiCam worked I set about fabricating the lower steel structure for the frame. The cutting and welding of the frame only took a few minutes. Once the sign is routed I will bend a piece of 1.5" x 1.5" square tubing and weld it onto the top, wrapping around the sign at the appropriate radius. It is easier to do it with the sign present than to construct scale drawings and do the math.

Then as Sarah mixed the sculpting epoxy I wrapped and tied the expanded lath around the welded steel pencil rod, forming the outer layer of the trunk. A rough coat of sculpting epoxy was quickly put in place. In the next days I'll sculpt a detailed coat to form the bark on the tree.

In about half a day we made good progress on the dimensional sign. The router continues to run, but it's time to head in for supper.

Stay tuned...


Monday, December 6, 2010

Back to the future

The USSC sign show in Atlantic city was great fun.  I met lots of great folks during the two days I was at the show making my presentations.  There seems to be a lot of sign shops interested in making three dimensional signs and that is a very good thing.

Today it was back to the work at hand. The thick glass for the raptor desk had been delivered in my absence and I was eager to see that room finished up. The metal part of the desk weighed in at a hefty 312 pounds and the top weighed 50 lbs more than that! We rounded up everyone in the office to carefully lift the glass into place, line up the pieces and then fastened it in place. With the glass wiped clean of finger prints and the iMac set in place it looked AWESOME - just like I imagined it would. The rusty red hues looked great with the similarly colored leather furniture and the rich cork flooring. 

The completed room made me grin a big old grin. Mt client came in just as I finished taking the last of the pictures. His grin was about the same size as mine.