Meet Me in the Metal

Custom metal signs fit every occasion.
For The Avenue at White Marsh, Ashton Design was tasked with not only creating signage, but also with sprucing up all the blank spaces.

Before plastics and polymers, PVC and polystyrene, signs were crafted out of wood, clay, stone and, occasionally, metal. From those earliest signs – a projecting horseshoe or hammer signifying a blacksmith’s shop, for example – metallurgy has morphed along the ages due largely to new, more technological ways of working with metals. Nowadays, metal signage still stands the test of time, and in all the most familiar places.


As so happens with many retail outlets across America, an outdoor shopping center in Baltimore was due for a renovation. Though it had the same name on paper, it still needed new signage – lots of it. The Avenue at White Marsh required more than 80 signs, and Ashton Design (Baltimore) was tasked with carrying out the makeover. 

Because Ashton had worked with property owners Federal Realty Investment Trust in the past, they jumped at the chance to work together again. “We were interested in the project because of the unique challenges and design opportunities,” Creative Director Alexey Ikonomou said. “The existing retail center needed a lot of love and attention.” 

Unfortunately, excitement doesn’t always equal smooth sailing where signage is concerned. The client had asked for “something non-traditional, fun and a bit unexpected,” Ikonomou said. That left the design team trying to figure out how to creatively incorporate the many blank walls, solid, split-face CMU blocks and zero windows that comprised the space’s 12 total buildings.

Ashton went to work to create a fun, exciting and unexpected environment for visitors (including adding metal mounted sculptural elements with a “Maryland Nature”-inspired conceptual theme). That meant crafting a 50-ft. pylon sign; six entrance identification signs (6 x 18-ft., composed of four 4 x 6-ft. panels); two 80-ft.-long building-mounted project identification signs that wrap a building’s corner; six freestanding directional signs and 19 light-pole-mounted directional blade locations (with up to four double-sided panels per location); 36 unique tenant blade signs; 12 custom wall murals and various smaller wall plaques and signs.

While Ashton took responsibility for the conceptual design, documentation, fabrication and installation oversight of the retail project, Concept Unlimited Inc. (Columbia, SC) fabricated and installed all the signage and graphics except the 50-ft. pylon, which was made and installed by Triangle Sign Services (Baltimore).

The design and construction process lasted several years and multiple phases as the retail center had to remain open to accommodate existing tenants, but is finally complete. 


Woodland Manufacturing helped the Vara Ranch in Meridian, ID, attract customers to the property’s hunting grounds. Photo by Cody Brune.
Woodland Manufacturing helped the Vara Ranch in Meridian, ID, attract customers to the property’s hunting grounds. Photo by Cody Brune.

Many projects are met with their share of snags, so it’s always welcome when one goes off without a hitch. Such was the case for a recent reclaimed-wood project for Woodland Manufacturing (Meridian, ID). When a website request came in for a reclaimed wood sign from a client who wanted to open up their ranch to deer and exotic hunting, Director of Marketing Casey Space knew it would make a great turnkey project. “We [already] streamline the sourcing and fabrication of reclaimed wood sign backers through a good amount of product development [so we know] these types of signs look great with a variety of materials and we like making them,” she said.

The client’s vision was “an indoor sign that fit in with their rustic and modern-style home,” Space said. Woodland representatives requested quotes for black acrylic and powder-coated metal for the logo design on the reclaimed wood, eventually choosing the metal option. The rest of the project was a cinch, as “we went from quote request to order in the shop in just a few emails,” quote and design specialist Julie Verkerk said. 

Woodland mocked up the Vara Ranch logo on a reclaimed wood backer for client approval, and then, after using CorelDRAW for the design, the team assembled the sign using ⅜-in. Baltic birch plywood, reclaimed wood from Reclaimed Lumber (Nampa, ID) and ¼-in. aluminum finished with TIGER Drylac powder coating. “We like using reclaimed wood from Reclaimed Lumber Products because they are local and their planks are high quality and relatively uniform,” Space said. “The Baltic birch backer is rigid and sturdy. The powder-coated aluminum design on the wood backer gave the sign the modern and rustic look the client was requesting.”

The backer was cut with a Coherent META 10C 1000W CO2 Laser, while the reclaimed wood was brought to length with a chop saw. The aluminum design was cut on an OMAX Waterjet. They then brad-nailed the reclaimed wood panels on the Baltic birch, while the dimensional design was adhered to the wood with liquid silicone. Finally, they attached a French cleat on the back with screws for mounting.

This project showed that anyone can benefit from a sharp-looking, well-made sign – and that the process doesn’t have to be complicated. “I think one of the interesting things is that professional signs are not just for established businesses,” Space said. “It is easy to get a metal sign custom made in a professional shop for a home business venture. Simple materials like metal and wood can make a great-looking sign that fits in with your home’s style and yet looks professional and is welcoming and homey.”


SMI Sign Systems was able to create a multi-tenant pylon sign and more while dealing with strict deadlines and compliance.
SMI Sign Systems was able to create a multi-tenant pylon sign and more while dealing with strict deadlines and compliance.

While some projects encourage coloring outside the lines, others require strict adherence to the boundaries. Such was the case for Max Aronow, CEO of SMI Sign Systems Inc. (Frederick, MD), who recently completed a comprehensive sign plan for a new shopping center. Not only did SMI have to create and submit a plan, but they also worked under a tight deadline with the owner and a land-use attorney to get the sign package approved. Only upon final permission from the owner were they able to fabricate and install the multi-tenant sign. 

Despite all of this, Aronow enjoyed the work and trying to stay within compliance while thinking outside of the box. The appeal of the project was to meet the challenges in many areas both creatively and practically, as well as [meet] code compliance and/or to seek approval to allow the signage to exceed code with certain sign types, he said. 

SMI designed all of the sign types for The Field at Commonwealth shopping center (Chantilly, VA) within the comprehensive sign package to include building-mounted identification signs, under-canopy signs, monument signs, directional signs and pylon signs. But their first priority was the fabrication of the initial pylon sign. 

The client had their architect provide the final concept design to SMI, who used it as a basis for fabrication. SMI had a short window in which to permit, fabricate and install the sign, but they were able to finish just in the nick of time – the day before the grand opening. 

SMI used the owner’s vector-based EPS logo files for the logos. But because the architect was unable to provide a useable art file to accompany the design, SMI’s team had to recreate the intricate background design themselves. The designers took the architect’s concept drawing and created technical drawings for permitting and fabrication, ensuring that all sizing met code requirements, Aronow said. 

Building the sign from the ground up, SMI used a brick/CMU base and then finished the surfaces with Matthews paint. Additional materials used include a France 60W LED power supply, G2G Trident SF180 LEDs, 3M 8405 adhesive, 3M 4905 tape, 3M vinyl, aluminum from Eastern Metals (Washington) and Plaskolite OPTIX LD acrylic sheeting. 

When it came time for fabrication, they made use of a Roper Whitney Autobrake, an AccurShear 625010, a Gerber Sabre 408 CNC router for the push-through acrylic, an AXYZ 5016 CNC router for aluminum parts and Miller Millermatic 252 MIG welders with 30A spool guns.

Whether your metalwork will be seen by thousands or dozens, it’s always important to forge your best effort. Aronow’s advice? “Fabricate and install the highest-quality signage possible. Do what you say you are going to do.”