Channel Letter Equipment

Why outsource when you can make channel letters in-house?
Tech Review: Channel Letter Equipment

The economic boom we have been experiencing has opened up a lot of opportunities for signmakers. Malls, multi-use developments and new restaurants are being revitalized and are popping up all over the place. These create a slew of opportunities for channel letters. To get into this business, you have to have a full-service shop with installers trained for outdoor installations. Your crew will have to be licensed for electrical work. And you must be willing to help your customers with the proper regulations and permits. While that may sound like a lot, just these few things can differentiate your company from the competing shops in your area.

So now the question becomes, how do I translate my customer’s wishes into a set of channel letters? The easiest way, of course, is to order them from a company specializing in the production of wholesale channel letters. If you only occasionally obtain this type of business, then that is clearly the way to go. (It’s also a good way to learn the market.) If, however, you are getting a ton of channel-letter jobs or you want to specialize in this area, then you will want to bring the letter construction in-house. Not too many years ago, this kind of capital investment was fairly stiff and only the big companies could even begin to think about bringing this business in-house. Now there are plenty of options, and investment size really translates to speed.

Of course, you could do it the old-fashioned way, using notchers and hand-operated brakes. The equipment investment is going to be around $3,000 or less, but this method is labor-intensive and you need people skilled in determining where to notch the metal as well as explicit instructions on how to make the bends. Still, this can work for low-volume shops.

PRODUCTION VALUES

So how about automating the job? A number of companies have you covered. You can pay as little as $5K or as much as $100K+ depending on your needs. Many of the lower-priced options will not be as fast or will limit you on the thickness and width of the material that can be bent. And if your clients want to use steel instead of aluminum, you may have to pay a premium, as well. In addition, some lower-cost models may not include the PC that is required to run the control software. Higher-end machines usually come with all of the above and can crank out 100 or more letters during a shift. Do your homework before jumping into a purchase.

Therefore, all you need is a bending machine and it will crank out finished letters, right? Not so fast. These machines will only bend and notch the sides (returns) of the letters. You still have to add backings and faces. The good news is that most of the computerized benders run industry-standard drawing files that can be reused in a CNC router to cut the faces and backs. (Add a router to your list if you don’t already have one.) You will also need to have some method to attach the sides of the return together. Welding and rivets are common ways of performing this task. Another option is to use a clincher that will, in essence, attach the two sides using pressure. 

In terms of shop space, you may require a large area for your “assembly line.” Benders can be quite large and, frankly, pretty loud. Recently we have seen some desktop-sized benders that are designed for low-volume, space-challenged shops. You also will definitely need shop air, so include a compressor on your shopping list if you don’t have one. Finally, most of the models will necessitate 220 VAC. But again, we have seen a tabletop model that runs on standard 110 VAC. 

Channel letters can be a differentiator and big money maker for a growing shop. Be sure to know what you want and also make sure you have the necessary ancillary equipment, power, air and space. Look for companies with good track records of support and customer satisfaction. Today, you can get into this profitable business without maxing out your budget.

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