Birth of a sign

Artistic Hand Carved Wood Signs

There are several ways to create lettering on wood. The letters can simply be carved into the surface with routers, or raised from the surface by carving the surrounding  background down.  The majority of the wood signs today are made by sandblasting.  Computers are used to cut out thick peel and stick sheets of rubber, and then the wood is prepped and the backing peeled and the lettering applied to the wood surface.  The wood is then sand blasted under high pressure and everything but the wood behind the rubber lettering is eaten away by the sand, leaving the lettering raised.   This technique usually leaves little difference in elevation between the surfaces of the lettering and the background.  Hand painted signs are a dying if not dead art and today most flat signs are computer cut out vinyl.   Although I have worked extensively with vinyl materials in the past, as my awareness grew as to the environmental ramifications of both producing and disposing of these man made materials, I'm back to good old natural wood and I will never go back.

As hand crafting wood signs is all but a lost art, I had to develop my own techniques.  The simplest way is to simply route the lettering into the surface of the wood.   I prefer the technique of routing the background down leaving the lettering projecting from the background, and then texturing the background to imitate the sand blasted look, but with depth and square edges on the lettering and a more constant projection to the letters.  I can also then cut out the letters from more wood and round the edges and shape them, then glue and nail them to the lettering, giving a dramatic 3-D look and shadow effect to the sign, and I also do this with birds, fish, flowers and other elements of the signs, giving a truly unique product.  I have developed a way to take common cedar fence boards, and join them together to create a board any size I need.   Most sand blast wood sign makers use pine but these have mixed grain variations that can be unsightly, or red wood which can have similar grain variations and also get to be very expensive, and neither have the longevity of cedar.  Today the most common material used is high density foam board, which is fragile and  brittle, and unfriendly to the environment in both its manufacture and disposal.  Cedar is one of the longest lasting and insect resistant woods available, and fence boards are the most cost effective use of this product.  Cedar fences last 20 years or more unfinished, but giving them a good finish will enable them to last indefinitely.   I have developed a technique where I can thickness plane the boards, select grain patterning that hides the seams, edge join them, and then glue them together using a multitude of clamps and copious quantities of glue.  Signs are made 3 layers thick with the outer layers horizontal and the center layer vertical., giving a very strong, stable 1 3/4" thick  engineered board that is very warp resistant and almost impossible to see the joints, giving the impression of one very large board.  I have done signs as large as 4' x 12' in this manner.  After I route the background down, I use a technique that I created to texture the background and highlight the grain, imitating the sand blasted look but with deep square edges on the lettering, giving me more control for a better looking product.

Although computers and computer guided machines are great for mass production, I prefer the artistry of creating custom designed signs that are hand crafted every step of the way.  I do use computers to print the lettering, but then I lay out the sign by hand and transfer the design to the wood by tracing and using good old fashioned carbon paper.  From there it is all hand to eye coordination and nerve.  For company logos I go to the local copy center and enlarge the logo as needed, then use the same techniques.  CNC routers can mimic my technique to a certain point, but the background texture is not possible and there is no substitute for the care given in the creation and gluing of the board, or the love and attention that is poured into the work of the lettering and execution of the project to its completion.  Computers know nothing of pride of their work, but I take it in mine.