Gelberg Brands Hip Washington, DC Restaurant With Striking Blade Sign

Noted restaurateur Aaron McGovern helps develop Alphonse sign concept

Guy Brami co-owns Gelberg Signs (Washington, DC) with his brothers, Luc and Neil. For more information, visit
Even non-foodies know about Aaron McGovern’s first restaurant, the world-renowned Russia House, located in Washington, DC’s historic Dupont Circle, or his second venture, the Biergarten Haus, a German-style, beer-garden bar and restaurant located in DC’s trendy H St. district.
When McGovern approached us about designing and fabricating a sign for his third restaurant, we jumped at the chance. Alphonse, an Italian market and osteria (a wine bar that serves small plates of food), resides on Washington’s hip, historic U St. We love this kind of project; this sign will become part of this city’s iconography. Built for a prominent restaurateur, this sign will be seen by residents and tourists nationwide.
The plan
The Alphonse sign project posed many challenges. The new restaurant sits below the iconic Duke Ellington mural in the heart of the neighborhood. Across the street sits the historic Lincoln Theater and another D.C. dining fixture, Ben’s Chili Bowl. Thus, the project had to stand out amidst other prominent signs. We felt uniquely positioned to handle this project. Gelberg also built the signage for the Lincoln Theater and Ben’s Chili Bowl, so we have an appreciation for, and strong connection to, the community.
Gelberg’s initial design was inspired by a hand-drawn sketch McGovern provided. The rendering depicted a double-faced blade sign with marquee-style lighting. He wanted something that would fit the character of the neighborhood while utilizing classic Italian design and the red, white and green of an Italian flag.
We pursued McGovern’s blade-sign shape, but abandoned the marquee-bulb concept.
Instead, we developed the sign’s composition to feature exposed-neon border tubing and channel letters. We complemented this with an LED-backlit section. After a few minor tweaks, Gelberg settled on its final design and obtained a permit from the city building and D.C.’s historic-preservation office. Given the Capital City’s dedication to preserving its history, it has exacting standards for maintaining the city’s architectural integrity.
Fabrication and installation challenges were initially addressed while designing the sign. Internal engineering reviews primarily assessed the project’s electrical issues. Planning how to anchor the sign to a 120-year-old building also required careful consideration.
Using CorelDRAW® X6 software, lead designer Bart Michorzewski created an eye-catching design that met the client’s requests for colors and lighting. Numerous software programs can capably fill a designer’s graphic needs. Often, it’s a matter of familiarity and comfort; Bart is simply most experienced with Corel products.
The sign features neon on the lower two-thirds of the cabinet; it comprises exposed, clear neon lettering built with Tecnolux 15mm neon tubing. We produced the cabinet’s graphics with applied digital prints on 3M translucent vinyl.
Construction time again
The backlit, upper third of the cabinet contains a translucent Plexiglas® 2447 white, 3/16-in.-thick acrylic face with applied, digitally printed vinyl graphics. Powered by two 12V, 60W power supplies, Bitro’s White Eco Prime 3 LEDs illuminate the face.
We built the sign entirely in our shop; we prefer maintaining complete quality control throughout production. We proudly employ some of the industry’s best sign fabricators. We welded the cabinet’s square-tube, aluminum frame with a Daihen 135 MIG welder. Fabricators then skinned the cabinet with a combination of 0.080- and 0.125-in.-thick aluminum sheetmetal that’s sanded and prepped for our paint booth. We then primed and painted the cabinet green using the Matthews’ MAP satin finish.
The fabrication team used multiple pieces of fabrication equipment to form the cabinet, such as our RAS TurboBend fully automated bending brake, an automated shear and a Gerber Sabre 408 CNC router. Graphic elements were printed on aRoland SolJet SC-740 wide-format printer, and then we laminated the print using our newly acquired RollsRoller laminator/applicator.
Taking charge
The project’s electrical engineering emerged as our greatest challenge. We attempted to run both high- and low-voltage wiring through the sign in an extremely tight space. Wires couldn’t cross, and we had to find enough space in the cabinet to fit four, 9,000V/30mA transformers. Also, the energy-efficient design eliminated potential shorts.
An exceptionally detailed wiring program solved the problem. Gelberg’s production manager, Mark McCluney, is also a master electrician. He meticulously laid out every wire, transformer and power supply using numerous wiring tactics, such as implementing a mid-point, ground wiring and alternating wiring between letters. This created the shortest possible leads to the transformers and reduced the potential for shorts.
Equally creative was our placement of the neon’s glass electrodes. Because the sign is double-faced, fabricators reversed the electrodes on one side to allow the high-voltage wiring to remain inside the internal frame on both sides of the cabinet. Tight space presented another hurdle; we just didn’t have enough room within the cabinet to have four, service-accessible transformers. Our solution? Reduce to two transformers, and power up from 9,000V to 15,000V. Finally, we separated low- and high-voltage wiring by keeping the low voltage outside the frame, and running the high voltage through the interior.
Proper transformer and LED power-supply placement would again reduce the potential for shorts, but, in such a tight cabinet, achieving this without sacrificing service access created an additional challenge. During the fabrication process, the answer came. Lead fabricator Javier Alvarado made a terrific suggestion that led to a service-friendly sign.
As I mentioned, the top portion of the sign is LED-backlit. The LEDs face out, and are mounted to a sheetmetal backer. Javier suggested we replace the screw fasteners on the backer panel with a hinge. To service the sign, the backer could be hinged open for easy access, which therefore eliminated the need for a second technician or a trip down from the service bucket.
Once we’d completed the sign fabrication and decoration, our installation department received and transported the sign to the site. We created a detailed, traffic-control plan to manage the site’s road congestion and pedestrian walkway. We installed the sign in a single day using Elliott HiReach L60 and L55 crane trucks. The sign is now seen by thousands daily. McGovern said the finished product was even better than what he’d imagined. Business at Alphonse is booming, and he believes the sign is a key branding piece.
Equipment and Materials
Coating: Satin-finish, acrylic-polyurethane paint, from Matthews (Delaware, OH), (800) 323-6593 or
Cranes: HiReach L60 and L55 crane trucks, from Elliott Equipment Co. (Omaha, NE), (402) 592-4500 or  
Fabrication: TurboBend metal-forming system, from RAS Systems (Sindelfingen, Germany),; Sabre 408 CNC router, from Gerber Scientific Products (Tolland, CT), (800) 222-7446 or; automated shear, available from industrial-equipment vendors; MIG-welding system, from Daihen USA (Tipp City, OH), (937) 667-0800 or
Laminator: Flatbed overlaminate applicator, from RollsRoller AB (Karlstad, Sweden),  
Lighting: Exposed neon tubing, from such vendors as Tecnolux (The Bronx, NY), (718) 369-3900 or; 15,000V/30mA, electronic transformers, from such vendors as France (Fairview, TN), (615) 799-0551 or; Eco Prime 3 white LED modules, from Bitro Group (Hackensack, NJ), (201) 641-1004 or
Plastic: Plexiglas® 2447 translucent acrylic, from Arkema (Pasadena, TX), (713) 751-7266 or
Printer: Roland SolJet SC-740 wide-format, solvent-ink printer, from Roland DGA Corp. (Irvine, CA), (949) 727-2100 or
Software: CorelDRAW X6, from Corel Corp. (Ottawa, ON, Canada),
Vinyl: Translucent vinyl, from 3M (St. Paul, MN), (888) 364-3577 or
More About Gelberg Signs
William P. Gelberg founded Gelberg Signs in Washington, DC in 1941. George Brami worked at the shop for his entire professional life, and his three sons – Guy, Luc and Neil – purchased the shop in 1988. Within the 50,000-sq.-ft. plant, the shop’s nearly 100 employees provide full-service sign design, fabrication, installation and service.
The company produces signage for nationwide clients, but approximately 75% of its production is for installations within the Mid-Atlantic region, and the majority in Washington, DC.
Its portfolio includes a $5 million sign package for the Silver Line of Washington, DC’s mass-transit system; the fabrication and installation of more than 2,000 signs (in a mere four months) at Nationals Park, home of Washington’s MLB team; and an updated marquee for Washington’s historic Howard Theater.
Brami noted that Washington, DC’s limited manufacturing base (save for the hot air produced in overabundance in the Capital City’s corridors of political power) has inspired the company to develop its staff. The company maintains a partnership with Washington, DC’s Department of Employment Service (DOES).
DOES’ workforce-development program involves job-readiness training and subsidized employment; participants attend a three-week training course, and are then placed in a subsidized job for six months. Through this program, Gelberg has hired more than a dozen employees who’ve successfully transitioned to full-time, unsubsidized employment.
Civic engagement is important to the Brami family. Guy sits on the board of Washington’s Covenant House, which provides housing and services for the city’s at-risk youth and young adults. Luc serves on the DC Economic Partnership, and is a member of the city’s Certified Business Enterprise legislative task force.

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