Big Cat Comin’ At You

Sandblasting and carving a dimensional high school football stadium sign.
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My father-in-law, wife and both of my children graduated from Plant High School in Tampa, FL, so I made the sign for their stadium back in 1998. Not long after that, the Plant football team racked up four state championships (2006, 2008, 2009 and 2011), but I can’t take all the credit! In addition to gridiron success, Plant is also a very fine academic institution with a ranking of 17th best high school in Florida and 263rd best in the nation.

STALKING A NEW DESIGN
When a recent storm destroyed the stadium sign, Assistant Principal Lauren Otero contacted me to make them a new one. The sign would include the school mascot, a panther. Problem was, though, that the school uses several different versions of the panther. At the main entrance, for example, there’s a lighted sign of a panther in a stalking stance. I wanted to do something more dramatic and attention grabbing, staring at (and scaring) visiting opponents as they entered Plant’s home field, Dad’s Stadium – a panther coming right at you with fangs showing. Sure enough, when I met Lauren at the office, I saw she had a sticker with a panther head like I envisioned. I told her that was the look I had in mind for the sign, so I sat down that night and designed the sign using CorelDRAW.

The high school administrators really liked the design, so I Googled “panther heads,” and found several with their mouths open showing their fangs. As an artist who has hand-carved signs for 30 years, I knew I could carve the head to look more realistic than the one on Lauren’s sticker.

ADJUSTMENTS ON THE PROWL
I ordered a 4 x 10-ft., 1.5-in.-thick sheet of Precision Board high-density ure-thane (HDU). Then, I cut an Anchor BlastLite™ Stencil #T226 sandblast stencil. After applying the stencil, I used an old, pull-behind Smith 100 Air Compressor and DuPont StarBlast™ abrasive to sandblast to a depth of approximately ½ in. As I was in the sandblasting stage, I went in to take the sign down off the rack so I could blast the top section. This being a 10-ft. piece of HDU covered in dust, it was both heavy and slippery. I was reminded that you should always wear steel-toed boots in the shop. It doesn’t feel real good when a sign slips out of your hands and drops three feet onto your toes. Need-less to say, I had to take a break, no pun intended!

I cut out two additional pieces of HDU and used exterior deck screws and Gorilla Glue to attach them to the sign, so that the panther’s head looked like it was busting through the frame and background. I then took regular hand chisels and sharpened them using a belt sander. I even sharpened a small flathead screwdriver to use in tight areas.

When carving off large pieces of HDU, I used a rounded wooden mallet with my chisels, then strictly used manpower as I got to removing the smaller ones. I carve both toward (carefully!) and away from myself, especially on larger signs like this because they’re too hard to turn around. I used a Dremel tool to carve the hair on the panther; it’s a lot quicker than using a chisel. Before I got the look right, I changed the details several times. It’s important to know you don’t necessarily have to lock in on your first idea all the way to completion; newer, better ideas can come along and still be carved in while you make adjustments. Finally, when you carve something this large while standing right in front of it, remember to stop and back up often to see what it looks like.

When I first designed the sign, I put gashes at the top so it would look like the panther was clawing at it, trying to get through. But when I was carving, I looked at the gashes and realized they, too, were missing something, so I added folds to make it look like the panther was bending the metal outward.

I reached a point where I knew something was off but couldn’t put my finger on it, so I asked a friend what she thought and she noticed it right off. I had the nose too wide, so I carved some off and sure enough it looked better, but something was still off. Finally, I noticed what it was – I had the top fangs too far apart. Now you might be thinking, “That’s a shame. He’s already carved the fangs where they are.” But this sign is made of HDU, not Italian marble, so I cut the fangs off, glued and screwed them back on, only closer together. I had the look I wanted.

COATING IN BLACK AND GOLD
Next came time to paint. Plant High School’s colors are black and gold, so it was a fairly easy job. I bought a couple gallons of Sherwin- Williams’ semi-gloss, a quart of flat black and a quart of yellow exterior latex. I sprayed the whole sign black three times, and for the gold parts I painted a base coat of yellow over the black. Then I used a 4-in. foam roller to apply a special brand of gold paint that I don’t share details about – it took me 15 years to find it, so I’m not telling! I grabbed some green I had on hand and painted the eyes. Finally, I dry brushed the panther with the flat to make the details of its hair stand out.

Installation required two men, each with his own ladder. We mounted the sign on two existing large wooden poles, leaving 10 ft. from the bottom of the sign to the ground. I used two pieces of ¼-in.-thick, 1.5-in. x 10-ft. angle iron, and drilled holes to mount them to the poles with 5-in.-long, 3/8-in. galvanized lag screws. Then I drilled five holes evenly spaced in each piece to screw ¼ x 5-in.-long lag screws into the sign, both down from the top and up into the bottom. For extra strength, I screwed three ¼ x 5-in. lag screws though the face of the sign, in the black area on each end into the poles, then painted over the screw heads.

You know we get hurricanes down here in Florida, but it’s gonna take a major category storm to knock this big cat down. Go Plant Panthers!


EQUIPMENT AND MATERIALS
SOFTWARE: CorelDraw, corel.com
HDU: Precision Board, Coastal Enterprises, precisionboard.com
SANDBLASTING: StarBlast blasting abrasive, DuPont, chemours.com; Anchor BlastLite Stencil #T226, Intertape Polymer Group (IPG), itape.com; Smith 100 Portable Air Compressor with Ford 301 motor
PAINTING: Central Pneumatic® HVLP Gravity Spray Gun, harborfreight.com; Sherwin-Williams semi-gloss, flat and exterior latex, sherwin-williams.com
TOOLS: Dremel tools, dremel.com; standard paint brushes and foam rollers

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