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

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Building the Summit routing file

The next sign to be built for the Cultus Lake Adventure Park is the Summit Trading post.  Since we elevated the ground by eight feet and the trading post in on top of the hill (and inside the mountain) SUMMIT was the perfect name. It will feature a small copy of the mountain peak. The sign will be double sided with a fully dimensional sculpt inside.

As always we start with the vectors, this time done in Illustrator as I am familiar with the way the type is edited along the curve. This vector file was imputed into EnRoute and then enlarged to be the correct size.

M first step was to put an outline which we would use to create a raised border a little further along.

Then I imported the driftwood bitmap from the ROUTER MAGIC collection. I sized the bitmap, centered it and then traced a vector outline.

Then I created a flat relief using this vector.

Next I applied the bitmap to the  relief using a value of 0.3" This means the blacks do nothing, the white raises by 0.3" and the grays do something in-between.

I then used the relief modeling tools to carve in some extra depth into the woodgrain. It took only a few seconds to get the effect I was after.

The oval was the next relief to be created. It was done as a flat relief.

The flat oval border relief was then modified by doming up the center with a raised base to give it a bit of an edge.

 I then copied the files, then flipped one (but not the lettering) This would allow me to glue the two signs back to back and have them match perfectly.

The bottom lettering border was then created as a separate flat relief. (in both copies of the sign. ) I then selected the oval and driftwood reliefs and combined them to form one relief.

I then positioned these new lettering border reliefs and merged them highest with the base reliefs.

Then I modified the base relief by adding the lettering. I used the bevel tool with a base height. This chamfered the corners of the letters perfectly.

Lastly I used the dome tool to modify the base relief using the SUMMIT letter and circle vectors.

As easy as that we had a routing file ready to tool path and send to the MultiCam.

My big compressor packed it in yesterday. It had been acting weird of late and I decided I would get a new one and then rebuild the old as a standby. Luckily I had already placed an order for a new one last week.  It will be a while before the new one arrives so I will have to wait to route these pieces. In the mean time I have plenty of other things to do Stay tuned...


Saturday, January 25, 2014

Site progress

Last week, with the arrival of unseasonably warm weather, we spent the bulk of our time up at the worksite. We are making great progress on the welding and meshing of the many armatures for the sculpted concrete. The front half of the park are largely complete. As soon as it gets a little warmer we will begin the concrete work in a big way. The bumper boat island only needs the edge timber frame welded to finish that task. Then we are on to the mesh and soon the sculpted concrete too. We begin welding the mountain frame to hide the building the coming week.

If you look close you can se how the detailed timbers will look overloaded, broken and ready to come tumbling down. This is going to be a fun sculpt!

The Wilderness Adventure area is taking shape nicely. We installed the first swinging bridge tower this week. For little kids this is going to be fabulous for it seems very high! The walk through log is now in place. It weighed in at a whopping 5,800 lbs!

We welded in more than a mile of pencil rod in a few days!

Behind us the wiring crew was busy attaching the galvanized lath. It won;t be long until we get to sculpting the concrete in a big way.

The water tower got its weather vane this week. One more small detail to help tell the story of the gold panning attraction.

On the western side of the park the crew is racing to put in the footings and foundations for the work we will begin there soon. 

This coming week most of our crew are back in the shop so things will get rolling once more - including firing up the MultiCam once more. Stay tuned...


Monday, January 20, 2014

Flip side

Generally most sign shops don't worry much about the back side of signs that they make. At most the back side might get a coat of primer and occasionally a matching color to the front. We take a different approach. We finish the backs of our signs with as much care as the front. In our shop frames and mounting brackets are laminated inside the sign between layers of Precision Board. This reduced clutter in a hurry. If the sign is single sided we will at least texture the back and paint it the border or face color as applicable. Many times we do even more than that. Signs almost always show from the back at some angle on the property. One of our current signs is a good example. Everyone will undoubtably notice the sign from the front as they approach the theme park attraction.

While we could have probably gotten way with doing a flat back side on the sign I knew it would look ten times better finished all the way around. There was no need to put the lettering on the rear of the sign and in fact lining up the two sides of the lettering wouldn't have worked out without a panel behind the lettering. But a little extra work on texturing and painting along with some fun details like the hollow hub and prairie dog tail add a whole lot of interest in a hurry.

This extra effort instantly takes the sign over the top and in fact is the type of thing that separates our work from what most other shops might make. This extra attention to detail also allows us to charge premium prices for our work. That is simply good business.


Sunday, January 19, 2014


Quite some time ago I started a sample sign project. Here's the link. But then we got busy. It has sat in the corner gathering dust ever since. But good ideas can't stay dormant forever.

As I thought about a needed weather vane I knew just what I would make. I removed the tracks as they were too short and instead welded up some steel pieces that would be a little stronger too. Then I did a little sculpting using some Abracadabra Sculpting epoxy. It didn't take long to have the piece done.

I'll let it cure a couple of days and then we'll give it a few coats of paint. It won't be long until it gets installed on the water tower - a perfect fit for the mining theme.

Every detail we add tells just a little more of the magical story.


Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Painting techniques and tricks

When I design and route our projects I always have our painting process in mind from the very start. By far the single most labor intensive part of our projects is the paint. For starters we brush paint our pieces rather than spraying. The reason is simple...  they last longer. We brush on at least three coats of paint for the same reason. Two coats look good but there last longer.

We design texture into our signs so they capture light better and also accept glazes better. This makes the sign look better and cuts down our painting time. In our glazes we almost never use less than there shades and most often use three. These are applied from lightest to darkest. The first glaze is only rubbed off slightly revealing only a little of the base color at it's full bright hue. The next darkest glaze is rubbed off a little more showing through the lighter glaze and bits of the base color as highlights. The final, darkest glaze is rubbed harder except on the edges and around the lettering. This gives the piece a richness and depth and makes the letters jump when we are done.

The border around the letters is painted with a dark paint, the same hue as our darkest glaze. I designed the routing files so the border and the lettering is raised making the cutting of these areas pretty simple. The lower areas are painted up onto the upper areas so we only have to cut once. This provides a dark border around our light colored lettering.

Since I didn't get examples of the current signs I had to dig back through some old projects to illustrate my procedure. This was a farm sign we painted similar colors. The background got it's three coats of light base color and then I started in on the glazes with the lightest color being first. This was wiped enough to reveal the base colored highlights on the high areas, leaving the glaze in the lower areas. The dark paint on the edges is the last glaze color which is painted as a solid color (three coats) on the back.

Here's the same project with the second (and last glaze). Notice how it is not wiped as hard at the edges and around the lettering leaving these areas a touch darker. Once the glaze is dry I then go back in with a paint that is the same hue as the darkest glaze and paint around the border of the letters making sure I paint up onto the top of the letter. Most times I will cover the letters. Notice the dimensional pictorial is not yet painted. Glazing is MESSY and so we leave our fancy paint work until the end so it does't get messed up.

In this shot we've painted the pictorial, and added one glaze to it. Then we paint (or in this case gild the top surface of the letters The raised edge makes this pretty easy and fast and does not require nearly as much skill as you would imagine.

 Back to our current examples...  In this case the sign background had a blended surface with only a little texture. we did not apply any glazes to these areas. But we did paint the raised letter border a dark color to make the yellow letters pop against the blended blue background. Like the first example the dark blue was painted up onto the letter tops. Then as a last step the yellow was painted on. It took four coats to cover well.

Bucky was painted his light base colors in a single coat. Then we applied the second and third coats to the areas which would receive the first glazes. This included his body with the fur parts and the swing plank. The plank got it's first reddish glaze  while Bucky's tail and fur got a light tan glaze.  If you look close you can see the glaze was slopped onto his blue jeans but it's OK because they still need two more coats of light blue. Painting the jeans after the glazes means they only need to be cut once.

The tail, body and swing plank then got a deeper brown glaze. The rope was then painted and it got one middle brown glaze. A little cutting had to be done but since the glazes are transparent it wash;t very hard.

For areas like his hands and the smooth rope the glazing is a little trickier. We use old towels to wipe our glazes. They soak the excess up real well and for smooth areas like this and if we pat instead of rub we can fake a texture. The key is to work quick while the glaze is fresh and wet. If you don't you will end up having to repaint - including the base colors.

The jean base colors were then carefully cut as needed and the dark blue glaze brushed on and then patted off. The red shoe tops, the shoe laces and his eyes were the last areas to get paint.

Hailey did the painting of the Wave Swing sign. She has worked for us about a year. Prior to that she would have insisted she wasn't particularly artistic and would never be able to pull off something like this. Obviously she was wrong about that. But she has also worked hard to build up her experience and skill. It sure shows here. Nice job Hailey!


Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Painting process

The painting of our signs and features almost always follows the same steps and order. If we decide to prime the 30 lb Precision Board it is because the want to add a little more texture. The 30 lb board doesn't need primer to fill the pinholes or roughness normally found in lighter densities. We use the FSC-88WB primer made by Coastal Enterprises, the same folks that make the board. While most shops use primer to smooth out the work and sand it to make sure we use the heavy bodied primer to ADD texture. It dries without shrinking of cracking and the purposeful brush marks add texture.
Once the water based primer is on and dried thoroughly we proceed to our base coats. In our shop we hand brush pretty much all of our work. We use a top quality house paint for the bulk of it and have had great results for many years. We use a brand called General Paint. It is only available in Canada I'm told.

We always apply a minimum of three base coats of color, more if it is a low hide color. Typically with the use of fans to speed drying we can get two coats of paint on each day. When we paint we always start with a very light version of the final color. The various areas of the sign, in this case the wagon wheel (yellow tan) and the prairie dog (off white)are painted one after the other building up the coats until they are covered well. In this shot Kendra is applying the first base coat.

Once the three base coats of color are on and dried well we then begin with a series of glazes. We mix our own using a clear base (with no color) mixed with regular paint at a 50/50 ratio. We start with the lightest glaze and work towards our darkest. We brush the glaze on liberally and the wipe off the excess with a soft towel/rag. The deep areas retain the glaze.  It is allowed to dry thoroughly in between colors.

Here's a second sign using the same techniques but wet bleeding the base coats to get a beautiful fade on the blue background of the ring.

In the next shot Hailey is applying the first glaze to the beaver's tail.

Experience teaches which areas need to be painted first and in which order. The idea is to minimize the tedious and time taking cutting of the different edges.

When I designed the files I thought about how we would paint the different areas of the sign. By raising the lettering I make it a whole lot easier to paint.

In my next post I'll show some closeup shots of the finished signs which will make the process even clearer I'm sure. Stay tuned...


Thursday, January 9, 2014

Ready to roll

With a large crew both in the shop and up at the worksite much of my days are spent organizing and helping crew. In between I spend a few minutes at a time doing the projects I need to do. It took me two days to complete the hand carving of the woodgrain on the wagon wheel sign. I used an air powered die grinder to remove the excess glue, get rid of the uneven edges and carve in the heavy woodgrain. The work was all done freehand of course, an ideal method to create the weathered and worn look I was going for.  The router is great for the precision needed to carve the shape and lettering. The totally random woodgrain carving is quick to carve by hand, much faster than to design and program each wheel piece on the computer.

The rim of the wheel was given some quick random texture with the die grinder as well, and now looks like it has travelled many bumpy miles on some pretty rough trails.

The 30 lb Precison Board carves easily and holds the details extremely well. The screw holes will get filled with a little Abracadabra sculpting epoxy and then we go on to the paint stage.

In my next post I'll document the various stages of the painting process. Stay tuned...


Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Big sculpting day

This week has been a busy one. Today I finally got a little time to put the finishing touches to the beaver sculpt. He looks pretty cool swinging in the center of the circle. Tomorrow we'll begin the painting process.

While I was in the sculpting mood I whipped out the prairie dog sculpt on the wagon wheel sign. He was a great deal of fun!

I've also started the hand carving if the woodgrain on the wagon wheel. It goes pretty quick with the air powered die grinder.

These two small projects are being done in between much larger pieces. Today our primary job was to sculpt the outside of a giant hollow log. It took nine of us the biggest part of the day to accomplish.

Stay tuned for more...