Laser engraving isn’t only precise; it’s fast. In fact, the whole industry is making improvements along its supply chain at rapid speeds. Because of this, designers, fabricators and artists can all now suggest signage concepts that just a few years ago would have been nearly impossible to produce.
Some shops have been able to keep up, while others have moved on. For these three shops, being on the cutting-edge of laser-engraving technology has been a carnival of creative projects.
MAIDS OF MARDI GRAS
Year over year, the Mardi Gras celebration tries to one-up itself. From the huge, decorated floats and the grand costumes of participants and parade-goers to the smaller elements like the quantity and quality of beads thrown to the hundreds of side parties taking place along the way, the only constant is the need to be bigger and better than last year.
This notion is something with which All Signs Inc. (Gulfport, MS) is familiar. Located in the heart of Mardi Gras country, they are often tasked by the Gulf Coast Carnival Association (GCCA) with creating signs for the maids and dukes of Mardi Gras. “Every year we do different types of signage for the participants,” All Signs Owner/President Michael G. Hage said. “The signs are used mainly for decorations in hotel rooms. They have a ‘party floor’ and every maid and duke has their own room and they transform these ordinary hotel rooms into elaborate party rooms for five days. Every year it seems like the decorations get more and more elaborate...this year’s krewe will have to outdo last year’s krewe.”
Even though the customer didn’t know what kind of sign they wanted when they approached All Signs, Hage said they usually go with laser engraved for the unique, dimensional look and ability to work in tons of details. The process of making the perfect sign for a maid or duke is pretty straightforward: The customer receives a conceptual bitmap rendering from GCCA that informs them of the theme for the year. All Signs then takes the rendering from conception to something usable that can create artwork using SAi Flexi Sign Pro design software. After proofing, the editing process and client approval, the final design heads into production.
All Signs depends on their Trotec Speedy 300 45W laser for their engraving. Hage says they use vector-format art whenever possible, unless they have photographs, when they employ a bitmap format. The shop engraves using JobControl software.
For this year’s maid and duke signs, All Signs used 3/16-in. Elmer’s foamboard because Hage likes the way it cuts (nice and clean) in the laser, and he also feels it accepts flatbed digital prints well. They also specified ORAFOL ORABOND double-sided banner hem tape to finish off the sides of the foamboard. The taped, double-sided elements were then aligned and adhered to each sign’s backgrounds. Finally, All Signs installed lights as needed, hot gluing them into place around the perimeter.
When Nancy Stokes Hearn, owner of Stokes Sign Co. (Austin, TX), sells clients on her shop’s laser-engraving capabilities, she focuses on their production value first and foremost. “The engravings have clean, precisely cut edges, allowing for more crisp and detailed lettering than other production methods,” she said. “We can help clients needing smaller sign applications with more elaborate logos and designs [and], because we laser engrave on-site, we offer faster turnaround time without sacrificing quality.”
It was this known dedication to precision that led Erik Henson, head golf coach for nearby and long-time client Lake Travis High School, to approach Stokes with a general idea of the look and style he desired for the school’s golf wall of honor. “Once we were fully able to understand the client’s vision and the display parameters, we realized that this project was a perfect application for the laser engraver,” Marketing Manager and Graphic Artist Jenna Albright said. “The spatial considerations and the requirement to view the sign up close demanded a high-level production fidelity. This made using the laser engraver a natural choice.”
Because Henson wanted to honor both team and individual efforts of players from the past, present and future, Stokes’ proposal included a series of laser-engraved name plaques adhered to acrylic photo displays with laser-cut, two-layered acrylic lettering above them. Although the Stokes design team was given creative freedom over the sign wall, there were other constraints. For example, the team had to determine how to incorporate traditional, digitally printed material (such as athlete photographs) into the final design. They also needed to take into account the sign’s overall weight by making the plaques as light as possible, since more would be added in the future.
Ultimately, the Stokes team delivered a sign package that would scale with the golf program over time without sacrificing compositional balance, while incorporating design elements of the school’s brand for a cohesive look to fit other pre-existing signage. Albright said they used Photoshop to treat and edit the sign’s photos and SAi Flexi to marry the photos and vector elements together.
To add dimension, the team used 1/16-in. Rowmark UltraGrave matte red/black engraving plastic and 1/16-in. Rowmark UltraGrave plus antique gold/black for the name plaques. The Stokes team mounted the plaques onto acrylic photo displays using 3M double-sided tape. The shop then reverse-printed the graphic onto the second surface of acrylic with their HP Scitex FB700 flatbed printer. They then flooded the printed side with white paint to both enhance the images’ colors and make them opaque.
The two-tiered, laser-cut, layered acrylic lettering above the award plaques was made from a solid sheet of 3/16-in. black acrylic overlaid with Avery Dennison brushed silver vinyl and attached to laser-cut, 3/16-in. red acrylic letters with 3M double-sided adhesive. All the pieces were mounted onto ¼-in. P95 frosted acrylic with silver, ½.-in. Pizazz Monomounts.
Finally, Stokes used a 36 x 24-in. Full Spectrum Pro-Series to laser-cut the double-layer acrylic lettering and engraved name plaques. Then, they employed RetinaEngrave and CorelDRAW to finalize the setup for cutting and engraving on the laser.
IN PLANE SIGHT
When the Burke Museum in Seattle needed a new donor wall, they called upon two companies to share in the project: Gibbs Graphics (Leavenworth, WA) and the Tube Art Group (Bellevue, WA). While Tube Art handled the design and project management, Gibbs Graphics tackled the manufacturing and installation, according to co-owner Rusty Gibbs.
Initially, Gibbs said, they thought about creating the sign using a CNC router and fine-engraving v-bit, but soon realized a laser would be better suited for the job. “With a laser we would be able to have precision, speed and clean marks,” he said. “Also, the burn from the laser would make the letters darken and therefore eliminate the step of needing to stain or paint.”
Although Gibbs said his customers appreciate the appearance of a laser-engraved wood sign, there were some difficult moments to conquer on the custom job before they reached the appreciation part. First off, several of the wood pieces were longer and larger than most lasers could fit. However, Gibbs’ Boss LS-1630 laser engraver had side doors that were opened to accommodate the long boards.
While they were able to work the planks into the engraver, fitting them into the shop itself was another matter. “We needed to rearrange a bit to fit the 10-ft.-long boards,” Gibbs said. “Also, it was a bit of a puzzle to track each plaque through our production steps and prepare for a smooth installation because there were over 200 plaques and 35 different shapes and sizes.” Luckily, a smooth installation made up for the puzzle-like maneuvering of the pieces. After first putting up a 12 x 12-ft. wall, the team then covered that wall in ¾-in., planed cherry plywood. The individual, solid-cherry donor plaques were routed with an AXYZ CNC router to their own specific shape.
Vectric Aspire software was used to model the pieces for the router. Then, after the routing process, the team completed several levels of sanding before their Boss laser worked its magic. They also used the LaserWORKS software that came with their laser, Gibbs co-owner Amanda Gibbs said.
The plywood sheets were hung with cleats and butted together dry with biscuit joints to keep them aligned. Gibbs Graphics used 3M VHB tape to attach the plaques to the plywood. “We all know that walls and floors are never plumb, vertical and square, but armed with detailed site visit notes this large puzzle went together like planned,” Rusty Gibbs said.