It is hard to believe that it was only seven years ago I witnessed a CNC router in action for the very first time. I was fascinated and simply had to have one! Although I had been in the creative end of the three dimensional sign business for most of my life I didn't really know what I would do with one - but I just knew it could do fantastic stuff.

Through extensive research I quickly found out that with the relative simplicity of EnRoute, CNC routers were capable of just about anything imaginable. This journal will chronicle that journey to date and continue each week with two or three entries as we continue to explore just what is possible with this wonderful software... -dan

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Dealing with those pesky glue seams and making my signs look hand carved.

Every sign maker I know struggles with glue seams when they use multiple layers. It means instant work to get everything smooth and even. We use Coastal Enterprises PB Bond-240 - a one part bonding adhesive. It doesn't bubble up as much as Gorilla glue but there is still a glue line when we are done. I'd much rather have a little glue squish out than be short and have the joint fail later. Using epoxies will result in a very hard glue line which finishes differently than the HDU when you paint.
The obvious answer would be to route our signs from a single layer of board but that is seldom practical. It can waste a whole lot more material and it would of course be impossible to laminate in structural steel or mounting hardware into the sign.
We take a different route. First off - I really dislike sanding. While Precision Board (or other HDUs) sand up in a hurry making things perfectly smooth I believe this makes our signs look like they came out of a mold or were machine made. I LOVE my MultiCam but I don't want my signs to look like a machine made them. I want them to look hand made. We do that by purposely introducing TEXTURE. My favorite hand tool is my die grinder. It makes the hand work effortless and FAST! I keep two grinders handy with a large bit and a smaller one. Having two means I don't have to slow down much when I need to switch tools. Changing bits takes time. I also keep a new spare one tucked away in case one of these packs it in which happens occasionally. I don't oil my die grinders - which obviously shortens their life substantially. I found that the oil sprays out landing on the work... which means a paint failure down the road. The die grinders are much less expensive than my signs or the labor to produce them. So I run them dry.
When I work on the edges of my signs I first whip off the glue lines and even up the layers if things aren't quite lined up. The next step is to do any shaping that didn't happen on the router. In this case this was the rounded ends of the scroll and the fold line underneath. I could have easily programmed these shapes in EnRoute but it was simply faster and easier to do it by hand (for me). Once the glue lines were gone and the shaping was done I then quickly went over all the edges and other areas which needed texture. This included the face of the scroll. The sign instantly looked like I had spent hours and hours hand carving it. MAGIC!
Next I'll add a little MORE subtle texture in key areas like the lettering with the primer...

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

A quickie

Last week we got a little sign that most likely was pretty typical for most shops. I should really have passed on the project as we were slammed getting ready for an upcoming trade show as well as our regular work already in progress. Our client needed a sign in only four days for a retirement present for a colleague. The budget was adequate for the size they needed. He was the go-to-guy but needed approval of everyone who was contributing. It could have been a committee nightmare but they were in a hurry and he promised to make my job easy. I stressed the need for instant approvals if we were to meet his deadline. I whipped up the artwork and emailed it to him within the hour. They approved it as is - with the exception of two punctuation corrections... no big deal.
Since I had created the vectors for the proposal my design work was almost done. I imported the vectors into EnRoute, created two more apostrophes and adjusted things as needed. Then I created the reliefs for the two background pieces and lettering as separate elements. I added textures using two examples from my bitmap collection, then 'floated' everything into place so it would fit onto a 1" thick Precision Board HDU. Then I merged everything together and tool pathed the file using a 3/8" bit to rough cut and a 1/8" ball nose bit for a final pass. The back side (second piece) was fully textured but without lettering.
The two center pieces were simple cutouts. While the MultiCam worked I welded up a simple steel framework with two eye bolts for hanging the sign.
I marked the pieces by tracing the welded steel and then cut a groove in the back of the center pieces to accept this steel frame.
Once the glue was dry it was time to work some magic.
I'll be posting the finishing steps the next time...

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

A little at a time...

The last week has gone by in a blur as we struggled to meet our commitments and also prepared for a local trade show. Even so I did find time to squeeze in some time on the Vedder Mountain Grille sign. Once the clamps came off it was time to do the hand work. Grinding off the glue lines was the first order of business. While I was at it I added a mild texture to the edges with my die grinder. It went pretty quick - even for a sign of this size. Then I tackled the dimensional pictorial. THe background mountain was simple vertical strokes with the whirling tool. Precision Board disappears in a hurry with the right tool.
Then it was time for a little sculpting using an epoxy medium. I used this to create the foreground trees on the lower mountain and the rows of plants in the field. Those didn't take long. At this stage the pictorial is pretty bland but it will come alive as the paint goes on.
Stay tuned...

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

From design to assembly in one day

As always the project started in my sketch book and quickly went to EnRoute. The file was first built as a vector file. Some bits of the initial design was done in Illustrator - specifically the lettering. I then imported this work into EnRoute and brought everything up to scale. For this project I was to route the sign in 8 layers - four for each side of the sign. Building the sign in this fashion would give me the double sided 3D sign I wanted while minimizing the hand carving I would need to do. The top two drawings below are the center sections with the basic mountain cut out layers. EnRoute made things easy. I also scaled the motorcycle and bracket vectors to the right scale. I printed these out then used the prints as a pattern for my plasma cut steel shapes. The lettering on the scroll piece was created as a bevelled incise file. The oval was a full blown 3D file with textures.
Each file was routed twice. The Vedder Mountain portion and the scroll were routed fro 1.5" 30 lb Precision Board. The balance of the files were routed from 1" material.
After the files had been routed I pressure washed them to get rid of all the dust, then set about fabricating the bracket and internal framework for the sign. I laid everything out marked it and then cut a groove in the two center boards to accommodate the framework. This was glued and clamped before the next step.
While things set up I welded up the sign post and cut the bracket pieces. While it would have been nice to use a CNC plasma cutter I had no trouble making the pieces by hand.
The center two sections of the sign were lifted into place and welded up permanently before I started final assembly of the project.
Things were progressing quickly. I have less than a day invested in the project so far - including design and machine time. In the next installment I'll be adding the other layers and begin hand carving at last.
Stay tuned...

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

All the tricks

Every once in a while we get a project that uses our whole bag of tricks. While not a massive project, our latest sign uses a wide variety of tools, methods and skills.
The sign is for a restaurant just a half block from our place. It's a new restaurant that serves great food! They hired another sign maker to make their signs and... to say it nicely, the signs they got from him would do until some permanent ones were designed and fabricated. These new signs would reflect the great food and service offered in side.
The name of the restaurant is 'Vedder Mountain Grille.' The new sign is to feature the very same mountain I admire out my studio window each day. We decided on a dimensional sign of course. They liked the idea of a scroll on the bottom and that worked out cool. They also asked for the sign to feature a motorcycle as the owner liked to bike on Vedder Mountain... hence the name. This element gave me some pause for it didn't really fit. I struggled with it until I tried it on the bracket instead of inside the sign. The owner loved the idea too.
The sign would be routed from multiple layers of Precision Board to maximize the usage of our in stock Precision Board HDU. The mountain would be hand carved and then a layer of epoxy would be sculpted to form the foreground trees and the fields in the front. The motorcycle and shwoosh would be plasma cut steel with the balance of the bracket being formed, welded steel. The painting would all be hand done and the sign would also feature some gold leaf as a finishing touch. All of it would be done in house.
This was going to be a fun project!
Stay tuned...

Friday, April 16, 2010

Ready for take off!

Once the sign was done I could hardly wait to drag it out into the sunshine to photograph. The 23K gold leaf letters absolutely sparkled, jumping to prominence as was right. In spite of being small in relation to the sign they instantly became the focal point. The natural light played on the textured surfaces of the sign, the shadows adding even more dimension.
The little red plane, complete with pilot roared through the center in dramatic fashion. The sign will be a great centerpiece in our trade show display. The back of the sign is just as fun, detailed and interesting. In this view you can better see the sturdy steel rod that holds the plane firmly in place.
The sign another great example of how EnRoute helped us craft a sign that would have taken many times longer than by hand. Even though it was largely made by a state of the art, automated CNC router it still looks very much hand crafted. Once again the MultiCam did the grunt work, saving the fun parts for me.
I could now cross one more of my 'one-of-these days projects' off my list. No worry though, I have plenty more of these type imaginative and fun projects still waiting patiently on that list. There are also a few more fun projects underway in the shop...

Laying down the sparkle...

Once the size has tacked up it's time to lay down some gold at last. It is amazingly easy. The gold is so thin and light it will blow around if there is a wind. Take a sheet of gold (still on the tissue paper) from the book and gently lay it into the size. Press it down, burnishing it by rubbing through the paper gently. Lift off the paper leaving the gold stuck to the sign. Move to a new section of the lettering and repeat.
The gold will be a little ragged and uneven but not to worry. We'll fix that in a hurry. Once you have finished a section take a large, very soft brush and go over the letters, gently knocking off the excess gold. The brush actually scratches the surface of the gold and these minute scratches make the gold catch the light and sparkle. The effect is dramatic and amazing. Tiny flakes of gold will fall like snow to the floor. I use a brush I picked up from a cosmetics counter as they are much less expensive than a real gilder's brush.
It didn't take long to go over all the letters. I put the gold on in the same order I had put the size on so the tack on the letters stayed the same all the way through.
Next installment I'll show the finished signs - sparking out in the sun...

Getting ready for the gold...

While gold leaf work is very rare these days and also add a lot of value to any project it really isn't very hard to do. It's actually a relatively simple and easy process. Gold is sold by the sheet in books of twenty five pieces. Each piece measures 3 3/8" square and is REAL 23K gold. It has been pounded very, very thin. I like to purchase 25 books (or one box) of gold at a time. It is much more economical that way and no matter how much I buy the freight is about the same. On this project I used thirty two sheets of gold... only about fifty dollars worth of gold. I would have spent more than that in labor adding a second coat of paint to the letters if I didn't gild them.
I use oil based size to fasten the gold to the signs surface. It comes in slow or fast determined by the time it takes to tack up or dry to the point you can lay the gold. I like fast size for surface gilding as our shop tends to be dusty. The size looks like varnish and is clear. A thimble full was more than enough to do this project. A little goes a long way! We recycle plastic pudding cups for this type of job. Once we are done they are tossed and in that fashion I don't have to worry about using any solvents - except to clean my brush.
I brush the size on with a small brush. Because we routed the bevelled letters with a slight shoulder, raising them off the surface, they are pretty easy and fast to paint. Skill helps but isn't critical. A good, quality brush is critical however for a good job. I took my time and covered each letter well so there would be no holidays (missed spots) later.
Now comes the hard part... waiting for the size to tack up. How long we wait depends on the temperature, the humidity and if there is air movement. When its ready a knuckle dragged over the size will squeak. (do this on a test piece - not your finished work)
Next installment we'll get to the flashy part...

Thursday, April 15, 2010

It happens every time

Paint always adds a big dose of magic in a big hurry. I had decided we would make the compass ring look like it was cast in solid copper and bronze. We use Modern Masters acrylic metallic paint to good effect in our shop. This metallic paint is brilliant and holds up well outside. I especially like that we can apply it with a brush by hand.
I applied two coat of the gold/bronze first. The metallic copper color was next. The piece was extremely bright and a bit surreal at this point but I'd tone it down shortly.
The first glaze I mixed up and applied was a rich caramel color. I put the acrylic glaze on thick with a small brush and then wiped off with a small soft towel. I had to work quick to keep a wet edge between areas as the piece was much to large to do in one go. After the first light colored glaze the textures already popped a little more already even though it was pretty subtle. Back it went under the fans to dry.
The last coat of glaze was a dark chocolate with a hint of metallic purple. I worked from top to bottom, while jumping quickly from back to front and side to side to minimize dry lines between segments. The work went quickly and the piece instantly came alive as I finished. The dark brown was the same color we had mixed for the plane over a year ago and visually united the plane with the frame through which it 'flew'. Everything suddenly made sense.
I'll let the piece dry in the warm studio overnight, then add the final finishing touch in the morning - 23K gold to the lettering. I'll take some pictures of the process and show just how easy this amazing process is.
Stay tuned...

Off the ground and flying!

The first two layers of Precision Board came off the MultiCam in a hurry because we had used a large diameter bit to route them. I glued these up over a simple welded steel frame and clamped them good. By the time the second set of pieces came off the MultiCam the previous pieces were dry enough to add the new ones to the assembly.
The next morning everything was good and dry. The clamps came off and the fun began! First I gave the entire piece the once over with my air powered die grinder. I trimmed up the glue joints, textured the edges and aded some extra character here and there making the sign look well used. It took less than 15 minutes and was well worth the effort.
Then I sawed the old stand off the model plane and drilled a new hole in the bottom. The 1/2" steel rod would come more out of the side of the plane instead of the bottom as it had previously. By lining it up with one of the balloon tires it became much less noticeable and not where one would expect it. The sign was coming along nicely already.
Next up was some paint!

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Making the sign 3D

I selected the diamond shaped vectors first and then used the bevel tool at about 11 degrees with a .3" vertical edge to create the reliefs. I knew they couldn't be taller than 0.8" I added a subtle texture using a bitmap from my Texture Magic collection called 'SPLOTCHES 1' this was created to a depth of 0.1"
The next step was the ring with the degree notches around the perimeter. Its a simple flat 1" thick relief. Then I selected this and the little box vectors and subtracted the notches by creating a negative relief. O then created an offset vector around all the pieces and merged them. This was made into a o.0" thickness relief. Then I selected all of the reliefs and merged highest. I tool-pathed the file using a 3/8" ball nose bit with a 90% overlap. It was machined in a single pass.
Since this sign would be two sided I needed to build each side and then flip it to make the other side. Because I built the files somewhat in a freehand way I couldn't simply route two copies and then expect them to fit together.
Next up was the ring with the name of the business. This was done by creating a simple domed file, then adding the same splotches bitmap for the textures. The writing and stars were beveled at 21 degrees with a 1.5" shoulder. Since this was perfectly round I could route two identical copies - one for each side. The tool-pathing was done in two passes. A rough pass was done with a 0.1" offset with a 3/8" ball nose bit at a 50% overlap. Then a single final pass was done with a 1/8" ball nose with a 80% overlap.
All four pieces were to be routed from 1" thick 30 lb Precision Board. Next entry I'll be showing how we assembled the pieces...

Da Plane boss - da plane!

Like just about everyone I know my wish list of projects far outstrips my time. But I do get to some of them on occasion. I built this little plane using EnRoute software about a year ago. Actually I built two of them. One went to a friend of mine from Texas who attended one of my Sign Magic Workshops. The other has graced a shelf in my studio. The intent was to feature the piece in a larger sign when I got a suitable idea and some time. A few days ago I finally got the inspiration and began the project.
I took my laptop computer into the house and in the commercials of our favorite show I built the vector file for the sign. It would feature a compass rose and would be for a fictitious business called 'DUSTY'S FLYING SERVICES - SINCE 1954' (I was born in '54) :) The file took a little head scratching but really wasn't that hard. As always I had to plan just how I would build the 3D file and how EnRoute would handle the reliefs as I created them.
I'll go through that process on the next installment...


Sunday, April 11, 2010


For the first while after we installed our MultiCam router I was still very much in discovery mode. I was learning the ins and outs of EnRoute trying to figure out just what was possible with this amazing software. I remember one day I was flipping through an old issue of National Geographic and came across a picture of a fish fossil. The photo was pretty cool and it inspired a great idea that simply couldn't wait to be done. I scanned the picture from the magazine into my computer and opened it in Photoshop. I then made it into a black and white image and then set about tweaking and adjusting things to what I knew would work on the router. I bumped up the contrast a bunch, eliminated much of the conflicting background and added in some missing bones. It didn't take long - about ten minutes in total. I then saved it as a bitmap.
I then created a second bitmap using a large speckled brush. It took literally seconds. I called this one spilled Coke. Then in Illustrator I created the vectors I needed to create the medallion panel shape and raised lettering. These were all imported into EnRoute and a relief was created with a slight dome. I then sized and applied the bitmaps one at a time. It only took seconds and involved a few clicks of the mouse. I tool-pathed the shapes, with a rough pass using a 3'8" ball nose bit and a final pass using a 1/8" ball nose but and a 80% overlap. I threw a 1" piece of Precision Board on the MultiCam and set the machine in motion.
In less than an hour the file was done. I had been busy doing other things, except when I simply couldn't resist sneaking into the router room to check on the MAGIC that was happening there. I whipped on a coat of grey acrylic paint and set the piece under our shop fan while I mixed up a dark glaze. The panel was dry enough to then cover it with the glaze and wipe it off with a shop towel. Just like that the panel was done.
In about an hour and a half we had gone from idea to finished product. Previously it would have taken days to accomplish anything similar.
I was suddenly stoked about the wonderful things that were now possible. There were no limits. The MAGIC had begun...


Thursday, April 8, 2010

Finish line!

With the paint on the little hot rod came alive in a hurry. We decided on lime green to stand out from all the other sample signs in our display. While it looks pretty cool in the pictures this little car looks even better in real life. With the big & little tire combination and that attitude in it's stance this little street rod is ready to grab lots of attention.
The sign isn't large. It measures 26" wide x 24" tall x 10 " deep.


Car with final sculpt applied

Over the basic form we created in EnRoute it is a simple matter of adding a layer of epoxy and then sculpting the cartoon of the car. The 'cartooness' is much easier to achieve by hand than it ever could be inside a computer program but having an accurate shape as the foundation saves a great deal of time and effort. The wheels are left as they came off the machine and look great!
Next installment I'll show how it looks all painted up and parked on the rest of the sign.


Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Hot rod!

As always it began in my head and then as a quick scribble in my sketchbook. I worked out the basic ideas on paper then set about building the vector files in EnRoute.
While some amazing 3D files of very complex shapes can be built using EnRoute Software, sometimes I like doing things in a simpler way. This sign was of a little cartoon convertible car sitting on a sign with a waving flag as a background. The sign face and flag were built in EnRoute using texture bitmaps I had created. The 3D waving motion of the flag was created by using a fade.
Then a second bitmap was applied to create the the raised areas of the flag using a checkered pattern which was distorted to the shape of the background in Photoshop. The lettering is prismatic shapes built up as reliefs using create relief tools - all pretty simple stuff.
I had thought of creating a complex 3D file for the car but I decided it would be faster and a little more fun to create simple cut shapes, laminate the car up and then hand carve it afterwards to a basic form. I would then add a layer of epoxy sculpting medium to form the final skin of the car. The wheels and tires were created in EnRoute as part of the cutting file for there was no doubt the CNC machine could do them fast faster and better than I ever could. This car would be a happy blend of machine and hand work. Here's a screen capture of the files just before I tool-pathed the reliefs.
The files routed pretty quick for the piece was fairly small. I used a 3/8" ball nose bit to rough things out and then a 1/8" ball nose to make a finish pass. The yellow portion of the car outline was a simple cutout to form the interior of the car. It left a 1/4" thick piece in the relief to form the doors. I cut the pieces from 30 lb Precision Board.
Once the MultiCam was finished I glued the pieces together and left the clamps on overnight. In the morning I removed the clamps and then spent about 15 minutes with my air powered die grinder to quickly form the fenders and rough shape of the car body. I also used the same tool to add texture to the big block of glued up Precision Board that made the body of the sign.
Stay tuned for more progress next time...


Friday, April 2, 2010


Once the wrench was out of the clamps I gave it the once over with my air powered die grinder. I purposely added in a few dings and dents. We all use our wrenches for a hammer if we are stuck under a car and need a little force in a hurry. It's much quicker than climbing out and getting the proper tool. Then I used Coastal Enterprises heavy bodied primer and a small brush to add a little more texture to the piece.
The two coats of silver paint made it look pretty good... but I wasn't quite done yet. The wrench needed a little grime and dirt in the cracks and crevices to make it look like the rest of the tools in my toolbox.
The end result is a quick dimensional sign done in less than four hours from start to finish including machine time. I think it's a sign every gear head would love to hang in their shop and be the envy of all their friends. At least that's my hope...



Not every project we do is complex nor hard. EnRoute is the perfect software for even the simpler projects too. We are entering a large hot rod show in a few weeks and I needed a few signs to appeal to this specialized crowd. I didn't have to go far for inspiration. Just to my tool box. I grabbed an open end wrench and used it as a model. The vector file only took minutes to produce using the drawing tools.
Once I had the vectors I created the reliefs - all separate until I was satisfied. I first flipped a copy of the files but not the lettering so I could route two back to back files. Here's the screen capture of the piece just before I tool-pathed it. The finished piece would be four feet long so I decided to only use a 3/8" ball nose bit and cut it in one pass using a 90% overlap.
I sent it to our MultiCam cutting at 300" per minute from a 1.5" thick piece of 30 lb Precision Board. It took a little more than an hour on the router - while I was busy with other things. Once it was done I glued up the two halves and left it in the clamps overnight.

Stay tuned...