Less is More

Custom Sign Lab tested new products, techniques and themselves with their first Sign Invitational entry.
Custom Sign Lab tested new products, techniques and themselves with their first Sign Invitational entry.

In a commercial setting, plagued by business cuts and budgets, we don’t always get to be as creative as we want. And when we bring to our shops a fine arts background, creative limitations can be frustrating. Then along comes the Sign Invitational, where we’re simply given a theme – this year’s is “Less is More” – dimensions, and the requirement of including the word “signs.” This causes the artist’s mind to run wild.

We are Clayton and Katy Letourneau, the husband-and-wife team behind Custom Sign Lab (Beamsville, ON, Canada). We take pride in bringing creative, dimensional signs to businesses in our area, and have done so for almost a decade. We have never even been to the ISA Sign Expo (where the Sign Invitational will be judged, in Signs of the Times’ booth #235), so entering this year’s contest is a big step for us and our business.

THE CONCEPT

The theme “less is more” led us down a path of conceptual minimalism; minimalism brought up concepts of couture and timeless style. We knew we wanted our entry to be very different from what other competitors may come up with. We decided to take literal design cues from the leaders of fashion couture. Our business monogram, CSL, was given a high-fashion makeover for use on the cube panels. We also incorporated a “pillow-stitch” pattern into the build. Our goal was to give softness to the hard acrylic material. We don’t always get the opportunity to add fine details to a sign, so this was our chance to explore the juxtaposition of playful and polished.

The sign will also have an element of interactivity. In today’s noisy world, signage needs to give viewers a reason to engage. So our thought was to have a saying light up one word at a time, activated by a proximity sensor. The saying we chose is a personal lesson we’ve been learning as we continue to grow our business: “Trust the signs.”

THE DESIGN

In addition to being the first Sign Invitational and even the first ISA Sign Expo for the Letourneaus, their project also represents their first work with certain LED products and a motion sensor.
In addition to being the first Sign Invitational and even the first ISA Sign Expo for the Letourneaus, their project also represents their first work with certain LED products and a motion sensor.

If you’re going to use a machine (CNC) to create your art, you need to take as much care in the details of the art coming to life as you would if you were using your own hands. For us, that process begins with the file preparation. The design process started very organically. Inception was quick and it only took a couple of hours to go from sketch to digital concept. The refinement was much more time-consuming, including at least 25 hours of pattern making, tweaking and combining files. We took a mathematical approach to make sure the stitch pattern lined up corner to corner and was identical even when we added in jointed corners. For this project, the design process was equally as important as the build. All files were created in Adobe Illustrator before translating them to CNC files in Vectric Aspire V10.

THE BUILD

We chose to construct the cube from ½-in. clear acrylic to create added depth and make it optically interesting. The stitch pattern was engraved on our Basic HD CNC router. After half-dozen tests, we settled on a 1/16-in. tapered ball-nose bit which we typically use for fine details in 3D carving. In contrast to the industrial feeling of acrylic, we constructed the base of the cube from a rough-cut slab of local ash. The pieces were leveled and milled on the CNC, then the corners were mitered by hand. The warmth of the wood anchors the cube.

For the lighting components, we wanted to explore products we hadn’t used before. We partnered with GLOBAL LUX to try out some marquee-style modules and their LED strip, Neon Flex. These products delivered a nostalgic feeling, but with modern-day efficiency. Something new for us was to incorporate sequencing in the lighting that will be cued by motion sensors. A frosted lens mounted in front of the letters obscures the message at certain distances, but once the motion sensor activates the lights, there will be no missing our message to the attendees of the Sign Expo. The marquee modules are contained in lettering using two layers of ½-in. acrylic with a hollowed center able to accept the modules and wiring; the lettering is then capped with 3/16-in. sign white acrylic.

As attendees at the ISA Sign Expo approach it, the Letourneaus’ project will activate the faux neon and LED lights, spelling out an unmistakable message.
As attendees at the ISA Sign Expo approach it, the Letourneaus’ project will activate the faux neon and LED lights, spelling out an unmistakable message.

Overall, we wanted this to look clean and simple despite the complexities happening in the background. With that in mind, we invented a two-piece EPVC panel to hide all the wiring and support the channel letters. This allows the majority of the cube to remain open and clear – an empty cube ready to be filled with the viewers’ thoughts and ideas. 

THE LESSONS

One of the most innovative aspects of this project is that there are no mechanical fasteners. Everything is pressure-fit and supported by polished brass rod. This concept developed from a need to be able to more compactly ship this thing! The entry can now be flat-packed for efficient transportation.

Contributing to our learning curve was our new CNC machine, purchased in early 2019 from Canadian Woodworker. Over the last year we’ve only just begun to discover everything it’s capable of – and where its limitations lie. A big lesson came from getting the tolerances of the stitching exactly even. We now know the importance of leveling sheets on the CNC bed precisely; in this case, even 1/32 in. meant the difference between a clean cut and a poor cut. Throughout this entire build, we were reminded of the old adage “measure twice, cut once.” We spent a lot of time double-checking measurements, depths and tolerances so when the piece inevitably goes through multiple build-and-disassembly cycles, every-thing will line up perfectly every time.

The function of trial and error is not something we usually have the luxury to play with. It was interesting for us to push the limits of our materials and use them in different ways. When building for our clients, quality with efficiency is the name of the game. To allow ourselves this time is where the greatest lessons came from.


EQUIPMENT AND SUPPLIES

Software: Adobe Illustrator CC, adobe.com; Vectric Aspire V10, vectric.com 
Router: Canadian Woodworker 4 x 8-ft. Basic HD, canadianwoodworker.com; ToolsToday 3 mm, 6 mm and 10 mm Spektra Extreme Tool Life bits and 1.5 mm Tapered Ball Nose bit, toolstoday.com
Substrates: 12 mm clear cast acrylic, 6 mm anti-glare acrylic, 6 mm sign white acrylic, grimco.com; kiln-dried ash wood (sustainably sourced and milled in house)
Lighting: GLOBAL LUX 30 mm SP1-RGB Marquee Modules, 6 mm Neon Flex, NovaLuxx 6W module, global-lux.com

Tags