Built up lettering - November 2014

Built up lettering - November 2014 (6)


Built up letters offer businesses the chance to make serious visual impact and a brand really 'stand out'! With different materials, finishes and lighting to choose from in the right hands they can be considered works of art. Or what about in the right machine? Kathryn Johnson talks built up letters with a number of signmakers, as well as a few who are using automated bending machines. Is this the way forward, does it compromise quality or is it something that can work well alongside hand crafting?


Hot-spots in built-up letters

tower LED Module

The science behind the "hot spot"


Photometric: The shaded area represents the angle and "brightness strength".

Standard LED modules generally produce strong front firing light.

"0" represents the "Hot Spot". Tower LED modules are unique by firing light to the sides, which reflects off the side walls creating uniform bright illumination.

Lighting built up letters can make a significant difference to the overall effect, even make or break a project. One company has addressed one common problem with an innovative solution that makes sure there are no more 'hot spots'!

Khalid Bashir from 3D Sign Systems explains: "How many times have you seen a high quality sign installation but the only factor that makes the sign not so great is the 'hot spots' of light. The traditional method would be to use neon, but this 'art' has been in decline for a number of years for many reasons such as the rising cost of energy. And for many, the newcomer namely LED modules, have been struggling to fill this void satisfactorily. Illuminating small or shallow depth channel letters has been quite difficult and frustrating using standard LEDs. And for this reason many a good sign maker succumbs to compromise. In order to achieve adequate brightness, typically bright LEDs are used, which can create the dreaded hot spots. This is where the sign letter is not uniformly lit but suffers from dimly, and brightly, lit areas. To overcome this problem with hot spots, lesser powerful LEDs can be used, but the quantity of modules tends to increase proportionately, which increases production costs.

"So 3D Sign Systems can offer a product that offers 'hot spot' free illumination and superb levels of brightness with our very unique Tower LED modules. The Tower module uses a very specialised dome lens which reduces the amount of front firing light to the face of the letter, And instead the majority of the light emitted is fired sideways at a much shallower angle. This strong low angle light bounces of the channel sides to produce bright, uniform levels of front face or halo illumination. The end result is a quite impressive even on letters with 40mm depth. The Tower module is equally good on letters with up to 200mm deep channels.

"Unsurprisingly there are quite a high number of signs that deem a retrofit illumination upgrade and the potential to increase revenue in this market is quite high."



ICE Signs have just installed their automated metal shaping machine

Mirror polished stainless steel built up letters with Halo effect illumination using blue LEDs. Internally illuminated brushed stainless steel built up letters with red acrylic mimicking neon style. Lorry carrying 3m high Robin shapes, with digital print and internal illumination, for 2013 Carnaby Street Christmas Lights in London. Built up aluminium letters powder coated to clients specified RAL reference colourSign made from a Large high level fascia panel with mirror polished stainless steel elementsBuilt up letter in construction.

ICE Signs in Leeds are excited to have just installed their automated metal shaping machine to boost 'their production of built up letters'.

Rebecca Bairstow from ICE Signs said: “Bespoke, premium quality built up letters have been at the core of our signage business for many years, and we have built a reputation for producing them to the highest standard for both trade customers and end users alike.”

They supply their letters in a number of finishes, from powder coated to RAL colour references, wet sprayed to an individual specification, brushed or mirror polished stainless steel and acrylic faced. They provide a comprehensive service and can provide letters only or mount them on to trays or fascias manufactured in the their factory. They also do installations for 'complete signage solutions'.

“We fit LED lights with either Face or Halo illumination,” she said. “Great care is taken when we select the appropriate number and type of LED modules as this is an area where skimping or cutting corners can really detract from the finish and effect.” They tend to use the brightest modules with good light dispersion to avoid the pitfalls of 'spotting' and shadows. They also believe the correct depth of returns is critical and 'their extensive knowledge and experience of fitting LEDs is key to producing illuminated signs to the satisfaction of their clients'.

For some time ICE Signs had been looking to invest in an automated metal shaping facility to 'improve on lead times and price but without compromising the quality of the end product'. Rebecca explained: “The traditional method for making hand built letters has been to carefully and accurately fit returns to the faces or rims of a letter. But in order to end up with a product which has the necessary blemish free appearance it takes considerable skill and time.

“But cheap prices and fast lead times are not always all that a customer requires. For example, we recently tendered to supply sets of 3.5m high built up and powder coated aluminium shapes and letters for a warehouse. Unfortunately we initially lost out on price and delivery times but the customer then returned to us, as the cheaper, machine made product supplied to them was found to be inadequate. Both the aesthetic quality and the strength and rigidity were not suitable for such a large and high level external installation.”

In this case it was found that to get sufficient thickness and a smooth finish with no visible marks from welding, only hand crafting would work.

One of their recent projects that needed some 'lateral thinking and innovation' to meet the brief, was supplying a client with a series of huge steel 'cogs' interlocked to represent a magnified version of the inner workings of a watch. The project was installed in the Tag Heuer Pavilion at the Goodwood Festival of speed.

About this and other high profile jobs, Rebecca said: “The only downside to consistently producing top quality signage, is that production times can sometimes be lengthy owing to the nature of hand made signs and our dedication to supplying products that meet our exacting standards.” This is where automation comes in for them for them as it means quicker turnaround and less costs. Although they are keen to stress that the machine will not compromise the quality of their work.

Rebecca said: “Our customer ought not to be able to distinguish between the hand machine made product without internal inspection. Research has taken several years for us to find a machine we are confident will produce built up letters to the same standard as our hand made products. With a significant increase in production capability we plan to offer our trade customers much faster quotations and shorter order to delivery times.

“Interestingly we do not see the addition of automation to our existing built up letter production as a means of reducing our workforce in order to save costs. Conversely as production of built up letter increases, it's likely that the requirements for complete signage packages will also increase, leading to needing more staff for general signage manufacture.”

Part of the cost of the new shaper and laser cutter was paid for with grant funding from the Leeds City Regional Local Enterprise Partnership Business Growth Programme (BGP). They give funding of 20 per cent of capital costs between £10,000 and £100,000 provided at least one new job is created. They envisage at least two will be created in the short term and continued growth should lead to another vacancy.

“There will always be some projects that are too large or complex for the new machines that will demand traditionally made hand shaped letters, and the skills required to build them,” says Rebecca.

“So at ICE we intend to continue to train and develop staff in the necessary skills for making beautiful, high quality signs.”



Benson Signs talks about letter bending machines

Chris Benson from Benson Signs did their research in 2004 and imported their machine from America in April 2005. As far as he knows they were the second company in the UK to buy a letter bending machine.

He said: "This particular machine was designed primarily to produce larger 'Trough Letters' and 'Logos' in aluminium. And in 2011 we belatedly recognised we needed a similar piece of kit to help manufacture smaller letters and logos.

So in May 2012 we invested in a smaller letter bender; this machine was made in South Korea. We continue to produce built up lettering by hand alongside the two machines. Over the years we've found that the equipment, if set up properly, greatly improves our production capacity. However on a cautionary note we would emphasise, as with most automated mechanical pieces of equipment, servicing is a key issue. Bearing this in mind it has been vitally important for us over the years that for the most part we been able to provide our own in-house maintenance. We use both pieces of equipment continually, on many projects."



The Channel Letter Bender

The Accu Clinch

The Channel Letter Bender's Accu-Clinch machine
  • Assemble: Built to quickly and easily fasten aluminum or light steel parts together, the Accu-Clinch is the fastest way to assemble metal components to create a completed channel letter. With the Accu-Clinch, your operators can attach a back to your channel letters in a matter of minutes.
  • Pressing: The Accu-Clinch uses a bottom punch and top die to press-form two pieces of material together without rivets, staples or stitches, cutting the cost of consumables
  • Job right: Cut the high cost of labor and consumables, and get the job done right with an Accu-Clinch.
The Channel Letter Bender diagram

More and more businesses are choosing to invest in a channel letter bender, which are still relatively new and being judged on its productivity versus the high costs. From talking to various sign makers, there are models available from America, South Korea, China and Poland. Selling American made machines in Europe is The Channel Letter Bender who say they first launched the Accu-bend 20 years ago.

Remko van Gellecum, from the company, said: "Our clients' return on investment speaks for itself. Accu-Bend reduces labour intensive hand fabrication, resulting in increased capacity and more revenue. With hundreds of Accu-Bend machines around the world, The Channel Letter Bender is recognised by the largest sign makers as the right choice for reliable, quality machines that save time and money. Made with a heavy steel-welded frame, these U.S.-manufactured machines are built to last. Made with top-quality components, high-grade materials and the latest technology, Accu-Bend continues to set the industry standard."

He said: "The Accu-Bend machine is the only machine in the world to notch, flange and bend the complete channel letter. Also if you manufacture welded letters, our machine will also bend those letters for you. The Accu-Bend can also bend every vector line of the most complicated letters identically. By hand you could not even bend two the same. The slight differences would cause you to create different letter faces matched to only fit one letter. In the future letters that need to be fixed can be done from the same computer file, you do not have to trace the letter and match it by hand."

Other machines in their range are the Accu-Bend Lite, the Accu-Clinch, the Accu-Cut and the Channelletter Former. The Channelletter Former produces channel letter faces, push through letters, moulded letters, and thermal-form signs and parts. The Accu-Clinch uses air-over-hydraulic power to attach aluminium backs to the side wall return. It does a quick 40 clinches per minute. The company claims it is the fastest way to assemble metal components to create a completed channel letter.

Features of the Accu-Bend

A complete computer system and swivel monitor comprise the control centre of the system. Simply import .DXF files, and your channel letters are created.

After installation and a short training session, most companies are able to run the full production the first day.

A dedicated hydraulic power system and dual-motor drive unit have extensive power and can feed up to 30 cm per second.

The Accu-Bend is easy to modify for any project. Operators can change coil heights in less than two minutes. The system can also accommodate a width or depth of channel letter coil between 2,5 cm and 24 cm.

Can handle aluminium up to 1,5mm thick and stainless steel up to 1 mm thick.

The optional Robotic Auto Pilot allows the machine to run multiple letters, unmanned, so you save on labour costs. The system completes letters, pulls them from the machine and starts again.

Should you need help operating or maintaining the support is available for as long as you own the machine.



Impact 3D Signs

A single built up letter created by Impact 3D Signs

Impact 3D Signs in Tyne and Wear, also specialise in supplying the sign trade with built up 3D lettering in acrylic; 316 marine grade stainless steel and brass and powder coated aluminium.

A notable job they are working on is making signs for a company who supply the oil industries. Some of the lettering is 2m tall and 250mm deep with removable rim faces and internal LEDs. A different kind of job is supplying mild steel built up letters with a recessed face and holes in for the client to add his own cabochon bulbs, which give it a fairground look.

Again service is vital to their business and they attribute their success to the core group of dedicated metal letter makers, some who have been with the company from the outset, 20 years ago. Kevin Washbourne from Impact 3D Signs says this enables them to fit rush jobs in as well as process their regular work. A sign of their craftsmen's skill is 'kiss cutting' the corners on a small serif typefaces to achieve a crisp corner.

Speaking about channel letter bending machines, Kevin said: "We have and are still considering a channel letter bending machine. We looked at importing one from China but feel these are still in their infancy and are not really suited to small one off letter work.

"We feel that the production of built up metal letters will lend itself to the automated system but we will still have our craftsmen to hand to do small runs that would be quicker than having to programme the machine."



Sign Here - Adidas exhibition stand

Sign Here in Leicester, a trade service for built up acrylic and metal letters rely on their machines to cope with short lead times. Their CNC and laser cutters are able to have jobs cut and ready to build in an hour, providing a valuable service to their customers who are often in a rush. Thanks to their skilled and experienced staff they feel they 'provide the trade with a quality hand made product at a competitive price'. Of course price is a big factor in their business as it's important their customers have a margin for profit and get their products at the right 'trade rate'.

Rob Gardner, a director at Sign Here, says they are often an 'afterthought' in the project plan, which means their main challenges on a day to day basis are short lead times, schedules, and the logistics of getting the finished product where it needs to be, all at a reasonable rate. Something that also adds to the duration of a job is making sure their products are packed carefully to avoid damage in transit.

One recent job they are particularly proud of was for an Adidas exhibition stand. Rob tells us about it:
"Client confidentiality has played a big part in our continued growth over the years, building an extensive client base who know they can rely on us it's difficult to 'blow our own trumpet' at times. I think people would be amazed at what we have helped produce for top brands and high street chains! if we receive an enquiry that conflicts with another client we will always discuss with them the way forward in their best interests.

We also work closely with several design companies' signage projects so we were delighted when local company Mynt design agreed that we could talk about their Adidas project.

Mynt design and branding agency approached us to help produce a fully illuminated built up acrylic Adidas logo for an exhibition backdrop in Germany. We used CNC cut acrylic faces and returns, hand built returns, translucent blue vinyl applied to the faces, and back trays with mounted LEDS to give full illumination to face and returns. We also produced a full size fixing template to enable the fitters on site to easily line up with pre-drilled fixing bars. We tested the installation of the sign after we finished making it then carefully packaged it to be shipped to Germany."

Adidas Logo installed on the exhibition stand


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