Big Sign Country

Replacing historic Yellowstone Park building signs – and a CNC router.
Beartooth Signs (Bozeman, MT) fabricated and installed this, two larger, and other dimensional signs for the Yellowstone Forever organization.

How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. That’s what came to mind while I was talking with Maria, art director at the newly rebranded non-profit, Yellowstone Forever. Some large signs on a historic building outside the entrance to Yellowstone National Park needed an updated look, including YF’s new logo. And when I say “large,” I mean one 30 x 4-ft. sign about 15 ft. off the ground and two more, each 50 x 4 ft. and mounted 40 ft. up! This could get interesting, I thought, especially since my shop is only 60 ft. long. Plus, they wanted all three signs installed in time for a big reveal at their rebranding events just over a month away.

Then again, at Beartooth, we love a challenge. With over 15 years of experience making HDU sandblasted signs, including multi-panel ones, I figured these signs would just be more panels per sign – a lot more. A visit to the installation site to take measurements confirmed the job was a fit. But the five-week timeframe was tough. 

I looked beyond what the client was asking for – three sandblasted signs totaling 560 sq. ft. – and thought instead about what they really wanted: durable, updated event signage. We showed them Beartooth could provide one “final version” sign and two heavy-duty, winter-season banners to cover the old signs in time for the events, then two more “final version” signs installed in the spring. And with that, the job was ours. 

SEAMING INVISIBLE

Beartooth Signs also fabricated numerous other signs, keeping the design elements consistent.
Beartooth Signs also fabricated numerous other signs, keeping the design elements consistent.

Keeping in mind the harsh Montana winters, I decided it would be better to integrate the letters, logo and border with the background, cutting them all from one piece of HDU and thereby leaving no spaces for snow and ice to get in. Several signmaker friends warned me that machine marks would show unless we sanded them out. Lucky for me, my trusty part-timer, Ethan, loves to sand. In fact, he jokes that we should be called Beartooth Signs & Sanding. 

The next step was importing the art designs into FlexiSIGN-PRO and laying out the seams between the panels. My plan was to make the seams invisible, but in the event they could be seen, I wanted them to look balanced by being relatively evenly spaced. I placed seams between letters where I could and bisected letters where I had to, ending up with six approximately 7-ft. panels in the middle, capped by two 4-ft. panels at each end for the 50-ft. signs and five panels total for the 30-footer. I also suggested to the client that we make the logo 3D by adding some extra layers, an idea they loved. Though it meant additional work, the suggestion added a bit of Beartooth’s signature dimensional style while keeping the overall design sleek and polished.

Before routing, we mounted all the HDU onto ¾-in. MDO plywood so the panels would be stiffer and allow more bite to lag through for installation. After sealing the edges with epoxy, I coded Aspire to cut down the back-ground. In the border areas that would later be covered by flashing, I also routed out countersunk holes for the lags and little boxes in the corners of each panel to allow for clamping. We used a big, 1.5-in. end-mill bit to hog out most of the panels, and then a 1/4–in. to clean up the edges and get tight enough kerfs for our viewing distance. 

After routing, Ethan smoothed out the large areas with a random orbit 6-in. sander, then a sanding block to knock down the tighter areas. (The sanding really wasn’t so bad!)

STARTING SMALL

Next, everything received three coats of primer and two coats of paint via a 2mm nozzle on our sprayer. Switching to a roller, we added color to the top surfaces of the letters, logo and borders, and went back with brushes to clean up edges for crisp lines.

To ensure that the panel surfaces lined up throughout the seam and to make hiding the seams easier, we used a biscuit joiner to make five biscuit cuts into each mating edge of every panel. We test-fitted each complete sign in our shop, then drove them to the installation site.

For the first – and smallest – sign, our 12-ft. ladders got us onto the roof where we spent our first day breaking the old sign out of its frame and disposing of it. On day two, we slid the panels up the ladders one at a time, and fit them into the groove of the old sign frame. With some five-minute epoxy, the edges were clamped together while the panels were bolted into place. Then we ran a light bead of caulk over each seam, wiped off the excess and touched up the paint as needed. We assembled the small cabinet frame just as the sun was setting behind the mountains.

GETTING ROUTED

Beartooth Signs installed the “larger” signs directly on top of the existing signs, then added new flashing back to make the cabinet look only 2 in. deeper.
Beartooth Signs installed the “larger” signs directly on top of the existing signs, then added new flashing back to make the cabinet look only 2 in. deeper.

Good thing we had all winter to produce the two larger signs! While working on the second sign, our not-yet-one-year-old CNC router exploded due to a technician’s oversight during setup. Bearings were all over the shop. A tech support guy flew in, realized he’d brought the wrong bearings, and took the whole machine apart. Then he ducked my calls and skipped town, leaving me to figure out how to reassemble the router, which took me a week! So much for the “customer support plan” included in the purchase. Lesson learned: When a deal sounds too good to be true, it probably is. (I sold that table for parts, then started over with a fantastic Shop Sabre.)

When installing the larger signs, we bolted the new signs right on top of the old ones, then added new angle flashing back to the building to make it look like the cabinet was just 2 in. deeper.

In the end, the client loved that “you can’t even see the seams!” And working on a roof overlooking beautiful Yellowstone National Park, watching buffalo and elk wander by, certainly beat sitting at a desk. They recently called us back to see if we would work on another rooftop sign on a historic building next to Old Faithful. The answer, of course, was yes!


Equipment and Supplies

SOFTWARE: SAi FlexiSIGN-PRO, thinksai.com; Aspire, vetric.com; Adobe Illustrator CC 2016, adobe.com
SUBSTRATE: Coastal Enterprises Precision Board HDU, 18 lb., precisionboard.com
ROUTER: ShopSabre IS480, shopsabre.com
PLOTTER: Roland DGA VP-540i printer/cutter, rolanddga.com
STENCIL: Hartco SandMask stencil 425-S (wood) and 930-S (HDU), hartcoservice.com
PAINT SPRAYER: 3M Accuspray sprayer with changeable tips, 3m.com
COATINGS: Jay Cooke’s All Purpose Sign Primer, haradhesive.com; Sherwin-Williams Premium Latex Paint, sherwin-williams.com

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Signs of the Times September 2018

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