Channel Your Energy

These versatile signs make businesses glow.
Black Tooth Brewing Co., Sheridan, WY

People get all kinds of ideas from signs. Not just customers looking for a particular business, but business owners contemplating signs for their own uses. Patrick and Matthew Brann, twin brothers and owners of Half Acre Nightclub in Bangor, ME, had this in mind on a recent trip to Las Vegas. Amid the myriad distractions Sin City had to offer, they managed some sign recon. “[Pat and Matt] were going for a classy look,” said Lee White, project manager for Bangor Neon, the company hired to carry out their vision. After seeing a halo-illuminated channel letter sign in Glitter Gulch, Pat and Matt got the idea “that was the look they wanted for their own business,” Lee said, “something upscale and interesting.”

And let’s face it; in many settings, according to Lee, “Channel letters and logos look better than a boring rectangular lighted box sign.” One verification of his statement is the fact that many landlords renting spaces to businesses, especially in a strip mall location, require their tenants to install channel letters. In the case of Half Acre, Pat and Matt added interest to their nightclub storefront by agreeing to use reverse-lit letters to achieve a subtle look.

Across the country, Ron Bachman, owner of PermaLetter Sign Co., Billings, MT, sees it the same way as Lee. “Individual letters are a great means of adding dimension, while allowing the building’s features and textures to contribute to the overall effect,” Ron said. “When illuminated, individual letters are great for bringing the necessary contrast – light to the absence of light – to evening readability.” Ron’s company also recently completed a reverse-lit channel letter project, this one for local craft beer “fave” Black Tooth Brewing Co. in Sheridan, WY.

DESIGNED TO BE SEEN

Unfortunately, it isn’t always easy to maximize the potential of channel letters when they’re designed by graphic artists without specific sign-design expertise. Black Tooth wanted to use its logo among the channel letters and, as Ron said, “Here’s one area I might have handled differently. While these displays are aesthetic and photograph well, the halo illumination is not conducive to the oblique angles of the actual traffic pattern.” Fortunately for Black Tooth, Ron reports the brewery is well known in its market. “In more competitive circumstances,” Ron said, “face-lit letters would have a superior advertising function.”

Where a display will be read from is Ron’s first consideration. If a display is primarily to be viewed straight-on, backlit letters are a possibility. Read from an angle, however, “there is a definite advantage to face lighting the letters,” he stated. “Even at a relatively shallow angle, the depth of halo-lit letters serves to distort the shape of letters to the point of illegibility when relying on the illumination.” After that, he said the personality of the client/business most determines how PermaLetter designs a display and which available options best serve them.

It’s equally important to bear in mind that, despite the client’s desires, backlit channel letters aren’t always the solution. “Often, it just makes sense to keep things simple and readable, so we would just do front lit letters,” Lee from Bangor Neon said. The mounting method contributes greatly to whether channel letters can be backlit or front lit. “Especially with backlit letters, exterior raceways are antithetical to the clean, even illumination of the letters in relationship to the background texture wall, which is integral to the overall display,” Ron of PermaLetter said.

MADE TO ORDER

Reverse-lit channel letters look best with a significant, uniformly colored wall behind them. The flat surface behind the letters allows for nice contrast with the LED halo lighting.
Reverse-lit channel letters look best with a significant, uniformly colored wall behind them. The flat surface behind the letters allows for nice contrast with the LED halo lighting.

Since most shops cannot justify the equipment necessary to manufacture channel letters, their fabrication is usually outsourced to a wholesaler. Both Bangor Neon and PermaLetter work with Direct Sign Wholesale in Denver. (See “When in Rome,” ST November, page 44, for an in-depth article on channel letter construction by John Baylis of Direct Sign.) Taking the client-supplied Half Acre logo, Bangor Neon created a scaled file and emailed it to Direct Sign. “Most often, we simply provide a scale vector drawing of what we need with the basic specs and reference dimensions and go from there,” Ron said of PermaLetter’s practice. “Having [Direct Sign] do what they do best frees us up to do what we do best,” also noting how this preserves PermaLetter’s capital for other equipment and uses.

Direct Sign built the letters for Black Tooth to withstand the extremes of Wyoming weather: In this case, letters featuring 0.125-in. aluminum faces with 0.063-in. returns and 3/16-in. clear polycarbonate backs. “Additionally, we cut and applied brushed finish aluminum composite on the face of the buffalo head logo to contrast with the satin black letters,” Ron said. PermaLetter carried this combination through with the 6-ft. diameter logo pog over the entryway. “That display features push-through acrylic graphics through black ACM,” Ron added, “ending with a backlit acrylic ring around the perimeter.” The words “Black” and “Tooth” are illuminated white and mounted to a yellow brick surface. US LED SVR short (referring to the length) modules light the center logo amber in color.

Bangor Neon’s channel letters for Half Acre measured 134 x 37 in. As with Black Tooth, Direct Sign used US LED SVR short modules to provide a blue halo. Despite “Neon” being part of his company’s name, Lee easily chose LED illumination over neon as LEDs are considerably less expensive to run. “There are no worries about the neon breaking,” Lee added. However, when maintenance is needed, easy access to the power supply behind the signage, usually located within the building, is vital. For Black Tooth, PermaLetter used a local electrician and friend of the client to perform the wiring. “LED lighting makes this so much more doable,” Ron said, noting the contrast to neon.

BUILT TO LAST

Once installed, LED-lit channel letters of durable, noncorrosive construction last a long time, validating a client’s investment. The current average life span for LEDs is about 10 years, at which point they can be replaced, according to Lee from Bangor Neon. While the lighting components should see out a decade of use, the power supplies that run the LEDs will sometimes fail, but these also are easily replaced. In fact, “Very little maintenance is required,” of channel letter signs, Lee said. “Just clean the surface with soap and water.”

Heat adversely affects the lifespan of LEDs, and moisture can be a problem, too. Ron and his fellow residents of Big Sky Country are lucky to live in a dry climate so mold- and other moisture-related issues are virtually non-existent with the channel letter signs they sell and maintain. “A good cleaning every couple of years to blow out the bugs is often enough.” Halo-lujah!

Signs of the Times December 2018

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