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 30, 2016

Sign Invitational Challenge 2017 - Part Eight

I spent an enjoyable hour and a half in the shop today beginning the hand sculpt of the detail on the steam engine. It is amazing really how fast the detail is built up with simple shapes of sculpting epoxy.  I' keeping it purposefully a little loose and sketchy as I believe it adds to the story. I am much more interested in creating a feeling than doing everything perfect. The looseness of the sculpt adds to the movement better than a tight sculpture which would look frozen and stiff. Little balls of sculpt form the rivets and they add so much character in a hurry.

Next up comes the jewelry - the little bits of detail like pipes and fittings which ass a whole lot of interest. Stay tuned...

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Sign invitational Challenge 2017 - Part seven

Normally I would fasten the tracks into place and then mount the engine above them. But in this case the engine chassis was purposely warped both vertically and horizontally in a gentle curve for dramatic effect. This meant I had to mount the engine and then position the track below it using the routed wheels as a guide. I welded two half inch steel rods to the trestle framework, then held the train chassis above them and marked for the holes to be drilled. Then once that was done I slid it into position. A little five minute cure epoxy glue made everything secure. Then, using the routed wheels as a guide I positioned the track and fastened it into place. The 30 lb Precision Board was routed with a vertical curve and easily bent horizontally as I desired. I then used a little sculpting epoxy to mold the rail plates and spike heads. The wheels were temporarily screwed into place but they will be removed for the detailing and painting process. Tomorrow, I'll begin sculpting the detail onto the engine. I can hardly wait!

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Sign Invitational Challenge 2017 - Part six

We spent the first part of the day attaching the expanded metal lath to the frame we welded up yesterday. The display piece was relatively shall compared to most of what we build but the detail was also smaller making the wiring job a bit tricky. Once the mesh was in place it was time to begin the sculpting process. The rock work and bill board face will get a thin first coat of sculpting epoxy and then a second coat which will have the details. But the wooden trestle bits will be sculpted in one go. I started with the trestle beams, pushing on a coat of epoxy over the 1" x 2" tube steel. I then used a sharpened popsicle stick to carve in the woodgrain.

The railroad ties were cut from 30 lb Precision Board using the bandsaw. I then pressed on a thin coat of sculpting epoxy over these and sculpted in the woodgrain using my trusty sharpened popsicle stick once more.

Tomorrow I'll glue on the track rails and mount the train engine. Stay tuned...

Sign Invitational Challenge 2017 - Part five

The next step was to assemble the metal pieces. The beauty of working with CNC cut pieces is that they are deadly accurate. I because I was building a box I didn't even have to use a square or level. It was a simple matter of making sure the edges and corners lined up and then tacking everything up. I welded the inside corners first for strength and then ran a bead up the outside edges. This was ground down nice and smooth for looks. 

The Pencil rod came next and then the square tubing. The key is to get the proportions and flow of the piece nailed at this stage for there's no changing things from here on in. The assembly needed to be strong enough to withstand shipping many thousands of miles plus lots of handling.

Tomorrow I'll attach the mesh over which we will sculpt the rocks and other details.

Monday, December 26, 2016

Sign Invitational Challenge 2017 - Part four

With a fun Christmas day behind us and all of our company gone I found a little time to sneak out to the shop for a little bit today to work on a project I've been itching to start. And that project is my entry into next year's Sign Invitational Challenge.

I had glued up the routed train pieces just before we broke for Christmas. They need a little sanding but they are pretty much ready for the sculpting process to begin. It is routed from 30 lb Precision Board so the pieces are nice and sturdy and easy to work with.

The next step was to design the plasma cutting files for the sheet metal base. I imported the quick sketch I had done and sized it up to 23.5" wide. I then used this as a reference to design the jagged lines for the cuts which would form the outline of the mountain rock work. I cut two holes in the panels. The larger one at the back will be an access door for the smoke machine. The smaller irregular hole on the side is for a mineshaft - just a bonus detail for those who look close at the piece. I also cut a number into the front of the piece. I will back this up with a sheet of steel.

I then used the jigsaw tool to create the vectors.

With all of the extras deleted the files were ready to send off to the plasma cutter.

It took longer to load the steel than to cut the pieces. I sure love this wonderful machine! Tomorrow I'll do a little grinding and then set to work beginning the assembly. Stay tuned...

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Sign Invitational Challenge 2017 - Part Three

Building the routing file for a steam train might seem daunting at first glance but it really is a sum of it's parts. In my case I want the router to do the hard parts, bulk it out and then I will hand model the rest. The reality is you could get as detailed as you want and go the whole way with the router. It would just be a matter of time, both for 3D modelling and machining.

The secret from this point is to look at what you want to model and then break it down into simply modelled components. Each 3D piece is then built using the best tools and then combined in the end.

The vector files for my locomotive looked like this when I was done building them.

The smoke stack and boiler were built using the revolve tools. These were first built as meshes and then combined with the zero height relief to create these shapes. I then deleted the meshes. The smoke stack was first.

Meshes appear as black when unselected, green when selected. When they are rendered they appear red.

The boiler was next to be created as a mesh.

I then selected both meshes and the zero height relief. I then opened the combine meshes with relief menu and using the MERGE HIGHEST option made the meshes into a relief. When I hit render it looks like this when you are successful. I could then delete the meshes.

The steam and sand domes were next. I built them as separate reliefs using the dome tool.

When I rendered the pieces as a test I noticed the bigger dome encroached into the sloped area so I moved it back a little. When I was happy I merged highest with the zero height background.

The frame of the train was the next to get my attention. I first combined some of the components that would be the same height. Then I made them into a flat relief.

The front support for the boiler next was made into a relief. The axles were also made into a relief.

The beam which would support the train was also created at this time as was the running board and bottom of the engine cab.

I then MERGED HIGHEST all of the separate reliefs onto the zero height base relief.

I then used the SWEEP TWO RAILS function to create one half of the train rails as an I-beam. Two of these will be glued up to form each rail. This too was combined with the base relief.

I then selected my completed relief with all of the components on it and used the warp function to distort the entire relief. This would effectively bend the engine and all related components to match my concept.

After I built the wheels I sliced the relief to fit onto a sheet of 1.5" Precision Board. I merged everything to the bottom plane and merged highest with the base relief.  I then duplicated the file and flipped it for the other half of the train. The file was then ready to tool path and send off to the router.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Sign invitational Challenge 2017 - Part Two

I started by clipping the train section from the sketch I posted last time. I saved this as a JGP file and imported this into EnRoute. I then sized it up to how it would be in the final piece. This drawing was then used as a reference to get the sizes right on the routing files.

I then recreated the various parts in scale, inside EnRoute. One of each size wheel was created and then duplicated to make things fast.

The train will be busting out of the sign face and so needed to have that feel of movement. To do this I used the distort/warp function to do all of the pieces at once, and keeping them in proportion.

In the next session I'll begin creating meshes and building the reliefs needed to build the bulk of this piece on the MultiCam CNC machine. Stay tuned...

Sign Invitational Challenge 2017 - Part one

With Christmas fast approaching and some quiet days scheduled between Christmas and New Years it was time to work up my ideas for the next Sign Invitational challenge. It is my usual habit to work on personal creative projects in this period.

The design parameters for the competition are similar to last year although there are a few changes. The build envelope is still 24" x 24" x 72" tall. Movement and special effects are allowed but must be triggered by the viewers. The theme is 'Sign Magic'.

That left a lot of opportunity to be creative. As I thought about my piece this year many inspirations came to mind.

I love trains and have wanted to build a dimensional piece for some time. I decided to have a sign painter working on a bill board with the train (and trestle) bursting off the canvas beside him, showing the magic of a good illustration. The base of the display will be chiseled out as defined by the shape of the landscape. We will also cut some mineshaft into the rock work to add some interest on the plain cut step bottom portion.

As always I have a few surprises in store and they will be revealed as I get into the build.  Here's the concept art which will serve as a basis for the construct...

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Final work on Trinidad train

We moved the Trinidad pirate train back into the shop one last time today. I finally had the measurements for the cab bulkhead. I did the layout in EnRoute and then sent the files off to the MultiCam plasma cutter to do the cutting.

While the machine was doing it's work we built new pallets for the train pieces and bolted the components to these frames. This will ensure secure shipping on their way to California so they can then be mated to the operational chassis.

We then fit and welded the 10 gauge sheet metal into place for the engine bulkhead. Gauge panels will be fastened to this sturdy framework. We only have a little sculpting to finish off this project.

We can hardly wait to see all of this detail driving down the tracks!

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Back in the shop

After two hectic weeks on job sites far from home it is good to be back in the shop! While I was gone Peter and the crew have been very busy. The first 53 foot semi load of arches, beams and posts are ready to send on their way right after New Years. The shop is plugged full with more pieces in progress.

We are also keeping the plasma cutter and router busy churning out components for new pieces.

It isn't often we do production cutting on our MultiCam but when it needs to be done the machine sure takes the hard work out of the process. The machine will cut all night to produce twelve shields from 1.5" thick 30 lb Precision Board for the bowling archways. Two more batches will follow in coming days. Peter made three different woodgrain patterns on the arches and then nested the files before setting the machine in motion.

We cut one shield as a test before we began in earnest. That is already in the painting process.