Built-up lettering - November 2015

SignFab (UK) Ltd

Gas fired heaters3D metal letter bendedSignwriter workingFilling 3d letterSignwriter creating builtup letter

SignFab (UK) Ltd has the largest lettermaking department in the UK. They employ the most number of skilled letter-makers, and as a result, work shift patterns to cover the demand from clients.

“Built up letters have never been so popular, and we are able to turn orders round faster and with a higher quality rate than ever before,” says Simon Berry, Marketing and Business Development, SignFab (UK) Ltd. “From an end user’s perspective, built up lettering offers an opportunity for a business to appear more prestigious and gives them a choice of materials and illumination. From a manufacturer’s point of view, built up letters are still a skilled craftsman trade and is one of the few surviving old school techniques.”

fired iron heaters for soldering, and have two AXYZ CNC routers with 4m length beds that are continually running from 7am until 5pm each day of the week. When it comes to precision cutting for the letters, the process is meticulous. “We receive artwork from our sign company clients and ensure that stroke widths are suitable for required levels of illumination, and then we maximise the layouts for the faces to minimise waste material,” he explains. “The letter faces are then cut on either our 4 kilowatt Amada laser machine which offers fast, precise cutting and gives sharp points on fonts where needed (and is very effective at small text height), or through one of the CNC routers. The letters are then built up and finished to a very high standard before being either painted or polished and then inspected before they are delivered.”

According to Simon, the most popular material is descaled stainless steel, which is then powder coated to a RAL paint reference colour. However, he notes that the team is seeing a marked increase in brushed and polished stainless steel options, which offer a more premium look. The overwhelming majority of the letters made by SignFab (UK) Ltd end up outdoors in external installations.

Some end up as standalone letters that fix to a wall, some attached to a fascia sign, while others are illuminated with their own reliable LUMAIRE brand of LEDs. Built up lettering and LEDs share what Simon calls a “very special relationship,” in that the depth will dictate the amount of LED modules required to achieve the desired amount of illumination whilst avoiding spotting. There are numerous things to consider when working with LEDs, such as the modules themselves, power output, lenses, whether the back tray is painted (and if so, what colour), the depth of return, thickness of acrylic face, translucent vinyl, digital print overlay, distance from fascia sign/wall, paint finish of reflected surface, and the level of diffusion required.

But although letters are primarily used outdoors, some can be installed in interior signage as well. “The size of most of the letters dictates that they are designed to be read from a reasonable distance away, but having said that, smaller sized letters with a shallow return can look very effective on an interior reception wall,” says Simon. “Even thick white foam letters on a white wall offering just the oblique shadow effect is also a great way of displaying built ups.”

Simon’s tips for upselling built-up lettering to end-users:

  • Obtain a sample letter or two, because until a potential customer gets to see and feel a quality built-up letter up close and personal, it will always be a difficult sell. Alternatively you can show them a next-door competitor, which might help with creating envy!
  • Small differences in heights and depths of return in built-up letters have huge cost implications, and this is amplified if you add LED modules. The thinner the letter, the more modules you need to avoid spotting so the cost ramps up. This is hard for an end- With effects like LED proving to be more popular than ever, sign makers are examining new technologies and techniques to create built-up lettering with a unique finish. Jemima Codrington spoke with three leading providers to learn more. user to grasp. If you can increase the depth by 20-50mm then you will see a huge difference in price. Make the customer decide if style or cost is the overriding factor. Letter heights can easily be reduced to save money - use kerning to increase wording span, but only so it’s unnoticeable.
  • Ask us! We have a huge amount of knowledge and know all of the options available to you without ruining the overall effect. If you are struggling to close a deal then speak to us, we can help.


Lemon Signs Ltd

Wilkinsons head office sign3d sign from lemon signsChelsea football club

Martin Lemiesz, Managing Director at Lemon Signs Ltd, has been pioneering a new way of building 3D letters.

The process starts with the insertion of a sheet of plastic extruded film, then the design file is sent through, and the printed layers are cut and glued together to build the letters. The materials are cut using a hot wire cutter as opposed to a CNC machine, and they are then filled using a special type of foam. “The foam used inside is similar to the foam used to insulate buildings, really light and really strong,” says Martin. “We then paint it either for external or internal use, and glue all parts of the sign together. We are still testing various glues to see which has the best results. We have a couple of test letters outside in the elements now to compare and see which works best.”

Letters are finished using an epoxy resin or durable outdoor lacquer to prolong the lifespan, which is on average about seven years, at which point the letter’s exterior should be recoated. “In terms of the internal foam, that should last virtually forever,” says Martin, adding that they are still playing around with ideas for halo illumination and other types of lighting.

A new era for built-up lettering

This method is popular in United States as well as Poland, the latter being the origin of the machine used to create the letters. “The climate there is much harsher than that of Britain, but they use that method because it’s cost-effective. The fact that letters have been tried and tested in harsh winters and hot summers proves that they can withstand the elements, so all we need to do now is convince people here that it’s a very good alternative to the traditional methods.”

The foam letters can cost up to 50% less than these traditional methods, and the turnaround time is much quicker than producing something in steel for example. In fact, Lemon Signs completed one project within five days of the initial idea being discussed. In addition to the lower cost, there is also the lower weight of the letters as an added benefit. “In terms of health and safety, I imagine the weight is about one tenth of a traditional built-up letter,” he says.

Lemon Signs have completed a number of high-profile projects using this new method, including signage for the high street brand Wilkinsons. This project involved supplying numerous 3D logos for their exhibitions and conferences, with one now on display in their headquarters.

While the team continues to hone the new technique, they are convinced that it boasts numerous advantages and options for the future. But first, clients need to be won over. “People can be hesitant about the method as they’ve never seen it before,” says Martin, “so it takes a bit of effort to drop some samples off and explain the process. However, once people see it’s a really lightweight product, lighter than say a traditional stainless steel or extruded plastic letter and yet still the same quality, they’re convinced.”


Trade Signs

LED faiground style 3D signLED built up letterClose look at LED lights

According to Matt Driver, Director of Trade Signs, the art to perfecting built-up letters lies with finding the right combination of skill and technology.

“Technology has moved on dramatically, but is only just starting to appear in the UK over the past year or so,” he says. “However, automation isn’t a replacement. For us, we use a combination of laser technology, letter bending technology, experience and skill.”

There are a number of letter bending machines coming across the channel from Europe, but according to Matt, the machines are not a total substitution for hand-craftsmanship. Trade Signs have two laser blades, one being a 2 ½ Kilowatt, and the other being a 1 ½ Kilowatt. With these, the team can cut thick material required for built up lettering, such as 5mm thick stainless steel. “We can cut just about any material with the right acrylic head and right filtration system,” he adds.

Trade Signs stock and produce signage with one such material, LPFLEX. A material chiefly used for outdoor installations, it can be halo-lit or front-lit, and is available in a number of effects to provide complete versatility when dealing with numerous customer requests.

GE and Trade Signs announce new partnership

Matt notes that as the built-up lettering market has been in transition for over the past three to four years, with fairground-inspired lit signs (pictured) emerging as a recent trend.

LED built-up lettering is becoming increasingly popular, but when end-users compromise on price and end up with lower-end lighting, it can be detrimental to the signage. For example, the shelf-life of the bulbs is often less, meaning more call-outs and money spent on repairs, and the lights can lose their colour and degrade into an almost bluish hue. Trade Signs deal with lit signage on a daily basis, spending over £10,000 a month on LEDs alone. Recently, Trade Signs have agreed a partnership with GE through which they will now only offer exclusively GE LED lighting for all signage. “We’re incredibly happy about this new partnership,” says Matt. “We know that we’re dealing with the highest quality bulbs, all of which are supported with a five-year on-site parts warrantee. The expected limit of degradation is somewhere between 25-30% maximum, so the signs retain their luminescence.”

When it comes to selecting the lights for signage then, GE will be the exclusive choice going forward. When it comes to recommending materials for built-up letters however, Matt and the team are always quick to advise clients about the right quality substrate for the installation at hand. “For example, if we receive a request for 5 metre high stainless steel letters, we know they’re going to be too heavy and collapse under their own weight,” he says. “Once a sign goes to a certain size it has to be aluminium.”

Trade Signs are no stranger to large signs, having recently completely a large 3D arrow in Exchange Quay in Manchester. The sign, the biggest they have ever made, weighs around 15 tonnes, measures 9m x 9m, and has resulted in the team being shortlisted for four British Sign Awards.


Design by Hinchliffeart.co.uk