Timed to Perfection

A Sign Invitational participant turns back the clock with insights into his entry for the signmaking competition.
Michael Goulet, The Sign Specialist, details his Sign Invitational entry.

Every customer who has come to me for a sign has wanted something unique that represents them. I have been given many a dinner napkin with scribbled designs. Clients come to us with the hope that we can see the vision they do. Thus, it becomes our responsibility to portray their dreams without crushing their budgets.

I have been in business since 2013 and built my entire company from scratch. I started out by building my own CNC machine and making signs for people in my area – small, family business signs and such. I enjoyed bringing those napkin designs to life and in turn securing lifetime customers. But what about a sign that isn’t for a customer, where I am the client and the “napkin design” is my own?


I threw my hat in the ring this year with the Sign Invitational to challenge myself to try to be truly original, to include elements to the sign that most would not think to add to their napkin designs. A dimensional sign has always been something to stop and look at, whether sculpted or carved. If it makes me look twice, it’s doing its job. 

Every year the Sign Invitational competition involves a theme; this year’s was “time.” That’s all the information I was provided, along with the dimensions for my sign. I cannot describe the flood of ideas that swarmed through my head for weeks. Honestly, it kept me up at night. I finally decided to go with a time machine concept. The sign would have moving gears, lights and a fog machine. But I also wanted to make it appear to be a time machine “door” that would swing open and expose a 3D carving of the Mandalay Bay Convention Center, where the Sign Invitational was stationed – specifically, in Signs of the Times’ booth – as part of the 2019 ISA Sign Expo.

After considerable thought, Goulet constructed his Sign Invitational entry by drawing upon his homebuilt router and an online community for Aspire, among other things.
After considerable thought, Goulet constructed his Sign Invitational entry by drawing upon his homebuilt router and an online community for Aspire, among other things.

The design took some time and many napkins. Thanks to my brother-in-law, Cody Weber, for giving me a great artist rendering from those napkins. That was essential because I was out of napkins. I had no 3D models. I had not previously made 3D parts – this was new to me. In fact, this sign called for a lot of firsts. I use Aspire software to drive the CNC-routed work I usually perform for my customers. But this sign pushed my abilities beyond my working knowledge. I had to plan for the 3D items without modeling them in Solidworks (a solid modeling computer-aided design and engineering computer program), yet account for it in Aspire. I accomplished this using tools called widgets built by the Aspire community to make things like gears, for example. This made the process go much more smoothly.


Manufacturing our sign was the shortest part of the whole process. Cutting everything out on our 6 x 10-ft. homebuilt CNC was easy. I contacted Coastal Enterprises down the street and got some Precision Board 60-lb. high-density urethane (HDU) for our sign. Normally we use 15-lb. density, but this project had special demands since it was going to be easel mounted. I wanted it to be able to withstand the high traffic in the expo hall, including the worst-case scenario of falling over.

We also used Coastal Enterprises’ gluing and finishing tools to bring a lot of elements to life, such as TSF-45 HDU Texture Surface Finish to add texture to the inside of our control panel, giving it a rusted finish. We also used FSC-88WB, a high-solid content, high-build primer to fill in any imperfections made during handling and machining, as well as PB Bond 240 HDU Adhesive for securing little details to our sign. 


A close-up of Goulet’s entry for the 2019 Sign Invitational.
A close-up of Goulet’s entry for the 2019 Sign Invitational.

The fun part of the manufacturing process was building in little hidden nuggets. My mentor, Joe Crumley, taught me many things about the sign industry, but one that I will never forget him saying is, “Nobody is going to smell your signs; they are for looking, not smelling.” That little bit of advice has helped with my perfectionism problems over the years, but for the Sign Invitational, I paid tribute to my mentor by adding a scent element to the sign I entered. My time machine smelled like a time machine. “What does a time machine smell like?” you may ask. It smells like a musty old boiler room. The smell of lubricating oil and musty, old water and steam. And if you have ever smelled that, you know it has that theme park attraction feel to it.

My intent was to catch the viewer’s eye, surprise them with motion, then, in a good way, tie all their senses together with scent. That was my nod to a master, and hopefully the ace that won the hand! (For a recap and results of the 2019 Sign Invitational, click here.) After all the pieces were in place, the sign was ready for a painted finish. I love using Sculpt Nouveau paints, waxes and patinas. I can add a metallic flair to any project without the price tag, and if the FSC-88WB was applied correctly, it looked like actual metal when finished. Small details received wax, while others got patina. 

Every detail was as important as the next, as are every sign and customer. Love what you do, love how it looks and remember, the unexpected details are what create standout work. Before this year, nobody would stop to smell signs. Hopefully that changed this year at the 2019 ISA Expo and every year in the future.


Router: made in house
Substrates: Coastal Enterprises Precision Board 60-lb. HDU, Coastal Enterprises FSC-88WB HDU filler, precisionboard.com
Coatings: Coastal Enterprises TSF-45 HDU Texture Surface Finish, precisionboard.com; Sculpt Nouveau metal based paint (iron, brass and copper), Sculpt Nouveau patina (tiffany green, brown rust), Sculpt Nouveau Detail Wax (clear, brown and black), sculptnouveau.com
Miscellaneous: Arduino Uno control board and stepper motors (for moving parts, lights, gears and fog), arduino.cc; liquid personal vaporizer and tank.