Signs of the Times - Taking Signage to a New Dimension

By Nancy Beaudette & Noella Cotnam owners of Sign It, Cornwall, Ontario, Canada

Over the past few years, there has been a lot said about dimensional signs. Thanks to the pioneering efforts of sign crafters like Mike Jackson, Gary Anderson, Noel Weber and many other letterheads, the sign industry has grown in leaps and bounds. Just take a look at sign publications from ten or fifteen years ago and compare them with current issues and you’ll see what I mean. Of course computer technology has had a tremendous influence on the craft, with the evolution of cutters, routers and printers, but beyond that, there has been a change in our mentality. We are beginning to understand the inherent value of the products we make; it’s not just about time plus material. It is about finding the best possible solution for our clients, and creating a sign that will represent them appropriately.

Let’s face it; the world is not flat…it’s imaginary, at least that’s the lesson I learned from Walt Disney. I ventured into his world of make believe in the early 90’s and got pulled into the fairytale just like everyone else. One minute I was in outer space, the next I was rubbing elbows with the Swiss Family Robinson. Disney’s attention to the smallest detail enabled me to buy into the story, and if only for a moment, those stories were real. All this to say that our job as signmakers is no less important. We are part of a collaborative effort to create an environment that is inviting and believable to shoppers, tourists and bureaucrats alike. The flip side of the coin is that we deal with limited budgets, tight deadlines and by-law restrictions…that’s the ‘real world’ challenge. The fact that we’ve been able to accomplish as much as we have is a credit to the industry.

When we have an opportunity to make a statement with our work we jump on it. That’s where dimension comes in. It is one more design element that we can manipulate, like shape, colour, positive and negative space, and line-value, that will increase the intrinsic worth of our products. The advent of high density urethane has revolutionized the way we approach dimensional signs in our shop. Almost a decade ago, we began attaching carved dingbats or raised letters to sign panels. Today the choices are endless. Acrylic, HDU, fiberboard, foamed PVC, MDO, redwood and many other materials are used to create multiple layers and interesting textures. Selecting the right materials for a particular job will depend on a signs final application. We use medium density fiberboard for interior signs because it carves beautifully on the router and sands so nicely. High Density Urethane is our first choice when doing any kind of sculpture because of its consistency when carving with hand tools. It’s important to experiment and have fun, and at the same time understand the manufacturer’s performance guidelines.

We’ve been in business since 1982, and I have to admit the concept of 3-D signs was a bit intimidating back then. Most of what we attempted to do was all trial and error, but to our delight, many of these signs are still up doing their owners proud. Really, our whole business revolved around our hidden abilities…that which we had yet to discover…and enough gumption to say, “We can do that” even if we didn’t have a clue. Sound familiar to anyone? We sold our first carved, gold leaf sign to an insurance agent in our city before knowing how to carve or lay gold. In fact, we didn’t even know what gold leaf looked like. Fortunately there were willing teachers waiting in the wings, like Jay Cook who still offers carving courses to the industry…

( thanks Jay ). We have applied the skills learned on that weekend to countless jobs through the years. Many other silent heros exist within the sign industry…we meet more of them at every letterhead gathering we attend. If you want to add dimension to your signs, just do it. Pick up a chisel, file, jigsaw, router or whatever, and go for it. At the risk of sounding like the old cliché, “you’ll never know ‘til you try”, well, you’ll never know ‘til you try.