Let's All Scream!

Great Big Signs gives us the scoop on their winning ice-cream truck.
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Austin-based Lyon Advertising first contacted us last spring regarding the decoration of an ice-cream truck that would serve as the icon for the Annual Austin Ice Cream Festival. They were familiar with our work – Lyon had co-created the Freebird World Burrito van concept with us. College Station, TX-based Freebirds World Burrito is a Mexican-food, quick-service chain for which we fabricate signage and in-store graphics that revolve around “Libby,” a Statue of Liberty-inspired biker chick.

I’ve produced vehicle graphics throughout most of my signmaking career. I cut my teeth decorating contractors’ trucks and oilfield service fleets. Through the early ’80s, these represented my bread and butter. However, the eventual oil bust prompted my move to Austin to open a new shop.

In my early days, I airbrushed and pinstriped numerous Harley-Davidsons and racing vehicles. I won my first award when one of my projects was named an ST Truck of the Month in 1983. I was as excited as if I’d been awarded a cover shot!

As my business grew, I became more inclined to pursue fleet graphics, instead of racing cars or show vehicles. After vinyl’s introduction to the sign market, I continued to produce custom airbrushed and gilded graphics, among other mediums. At this juncture of my career, I’ve switched gears again and fabricated several unique, 3-D vehicle graphics.

Starting to churn
Doug Lyons wanted a brightly colored ice-cream truck that will be annually revised with vinyl copy changes to publicize added sponsors. We played with several designs before finally settling on one that met budget and timeframe needs.

We received the naked truck the same day we finished the punch list for the Dell Children’s Hospital giftshop project (see ST, September 2007, page 34). Also, I had a doctor appointment that day to learn why I was losing feeling in my legs. Our schedule changed, because I was scheduled for emergency back surgery the next morning. I could have postponed it, but only with the definite risk of dragging my legs for the rest of my life. I thought climbing ladders and scaffolding would be close to impossible if my legs were asleep in a wheelchair.

Thankfully, my shop “family” came to my aid. My partner, Mario Munoz, his wife Josephina, my son Jeremiah, and Richard Kerkstan, owner of Voodoo Customs (Austin), wound up doing the work under my post-operation, drug-addled “supervision.”

I attempted to go back to work the day after I was released from the hospital. I thought I wouldn’t be lifting or straining. Needless to say, I immediately ended up back in bed.

Cream-ation
To start, we removed the cankers, dents and scratches from the truck, which involved sandblasting and several grits of heavy-duty sandpaper. Next, we primed the surface with automotive-grade primer.

We painted the basic graphics package with a Binks spraygun and Dupont® automotive enamels. We fabricated a metal awning and installed a service window purchased from www.icecreamtruck.com. We welded 2-in.-diameter, square-tube framework and an armature to mount the sculpture atop the truck.

We produced full-size, front- and side-view templates using an overhead projector and pattern paper. We began crafting the sculptures by laminating EPS foam blocks into the required shapes and sizes. For this project we chose material on hand. If you’ve ever worked with EPS foam, you know that scraps can quickly outgrow any production or storage area. We placed foam over the steel armature and framework, which resulted in one piece. We used Great Stuff spray foam to bond the foam to the truck and fill gaps.

For some elaborate pieces (though not on this project), we email artwork to a supplier who cuts shapes with lasers or hot wires, and delivers the finished pieces encased within the original blocks from which they’re cut. This makes it much easier to transport and handle without damaging the cut foam. And, we use surplus where feasible.

Sprinkles on top
We finished the sculpting process with various hand tools, such as hand saws, rasps, hot knives and wire tools. The basic process is best described by an old man I watched whittling on a wooden horse when I was a kid. I asked how he did it, and he said, “Well, I just picked up a piece of wood and started whittling off anything that didn’t look like a horse.”

Once the sculpture process was complete, we began the finish-coating process. We used Coastal Enterprises’ FSC-88 primer/filler as our basecoat to duplicate the texture of melting ice cream. FSC-88, a waterbased product with a high-build composition, can be rolled, brushed or sprayed. We use it often on sandblasted HDU, but it works on EPS foam as well. We prefer to allow it to thicken and then apply it with a squeegee or putty knife.

For the topcoat, we chose Demand Products’ UreShell two-part urethane. It leaves an extremely durable, hard, glossy finish, and it dries rapidly. We applied Urea Shell with chip brushes in three or four coats. To finish this step, we applied fiberglass mesh on the areas that would encounter wind resistance or tree limbs. We also applied fiberglass to the draining areas we built into the sculpture to prevent standing water.

We painted the entire sculpture with 1Shot® lettering enamels and pearlescent coatings using Iwata-Medea siphon-feed, double-action airbrushes. Pearlescent 1Shot performs very well, but, for best results, we apply our first airbrush coat with lettering enamels and then apply a pearlescent topcoat. Pearlescent coatings are too transparent for dramatic effects on their own. We also used 1Shot products to apply airbrushed graphics to the truck. We used TJ Ronan’s UV clearcoat to protect the sculpture – glossy finish for the ice cream, matte for the cone.

To produce the cone art, we created the design using CorelDraw and Smart Designer. Next, we cut stencils from Oracal’s 810 stenciling mask using a Gerber Embosstrack plotter. We added sponsors’ names and accenting stars with plotter-cut, high-performance Oracal 851 vinyl.

Dishing it out
We installed the sculpture on the truck roof with predrilled holes that followed our original paper patterns. We carefully matched welded bolts in our framework to existing ribs in the truck’s body. They fit like a glove. The project required approximately a month from start to finish without much crew downtime – or help from me as I coped with life after surgery.

The truck proved quite popular. Its sound-system speakers play ice cream-themed music performed by various Austin guitarists; it’s quite a hit with kids at the park and the adults enjoying the city’s 6th St. entertainment district. The drivers distributed free Blue Bell Ice Cream and encouraged people to attend the Ice Cream Festival, which turned out to be a huge success for those involved. The truck offers a powerful advertising impact.

Excited, the Lyons Agency sent a video camera almost daily to record our progress. At the project’s end, it produced a video and put it on YouTube with the title, “Austin Ice Cream Truck – The Making of.”

One of my favorite quotes about making signs comes from the late Mike Stevens: “Signpainting is a skill; when developed, it becomes a craft and an art.” An old signpainter, who taught me to paint, once said I would need 10 years to learn everything necessary to do whatever you want. This was before computers – he was wrong. After three decades of experience, I’m still learning new things everyday to perfect my skills.

We had a good year and have begun some interesting projects. I’m grateful my back is now in shape to handle them. Our business requires 2% inspiration and 98% perspiration. Challenge yourselves beyond your ability on a regular basis. It will be rewarding, personally and financially.

More About Lynn
First inspired to design environmental graphics by “Big Tex,” the 52-ft.-tall cowpoke who greets visitors to the Dallas-based Texas State Fair, Lynn Wilkerson studied graphic design at the Western State College’s school of art. He worked at Oklahoma City signshops

before returning to Texas to open his own shop, the Signtist, in Snyder in 1979. When hard economic times forced him to close his shop in the late ’80s, he went to work at Austin Outdoor Advertising. In 1993, he founded Great Big Signs with his partner, Mario Munoz. The shop focuses on sandblasted and sculpted signage and environmental graphics.

The shop earned fame in ST’s sign contests, among other places, for its work with Freebirds World Burrito, a Texas-based restaurant chain. Though each store’s graphics provide a unique sense of place, each store features a common element – Libby, a life-sized, EPS sculpture clearly inspired by the Statue of Liberty, yet with a kick as she sits astride a custom-chopper bike. He also created props for Idiocracy, a Mike Judge-directed film.