First class letters
Manufacturing quality letters for signage requires specialist equipment and experts in the trade. Pictured: Applelec has invested in state-of-the-art automated systems to streamline production
When talking about letter fabrication we often mean the creation of built-up letters in metal or acrylic rather than flat cut letters, which are simply cut from various sheet materials. These letters are individual, impressive, and very much still in demand. However, the machines designed to create them are often a closely guarded secret. Venturing into the market requires significant investment, both in products and skills, but can be hugely lucrative as demand continues to grow.
The built-up letter generally features a ‘face’ and a ‘return’. The face is the front of the letter, which is simply a flat cut letter. The return is a shaped metal strip that creates the side of the letter and runs all the way around the face. These two pieces of metal would traditionally be hand-soldered together to create the solid looking built-up letter. In the hand-made process, returns are shaped using folding tools and rollers. These would be used to slowly and painstakingly shape the return for each letter. Such processes are still used for metals not suitable for many of the automated return shapers, which are currently in use in companies such as Applelec.
A traditional tool for making 3D sign letters. Modern technology and consequent growing number of trade suppliers have now largely eclipsed the need for such systems, and the old skills are going the way of the dinosaur
Applelec’s letter fabrication takes place in its Leeds factory. The company has a team of fabricators and assemblers at the site, including letter-makers who have worked in the industry for over 30 years and have highly-specialised skills.
(Above and below) Applelec’s Chris Corkett demonstrating his letter building skills as he joins the front of the letter to the return using a laser welder. The letter bender is roll-fed and needs expert hands to create a quality finished product
Metal letter fabricator, Chris Corkett, comments: “I take great pride in the fact that letters I have made are displayed all over the world and I love to use my traditional skills. I’m capable of accuracy on a job to within the millimetre, using pipes and folding equipment.”
I take great pride in the fact that letters I have made are displayed all over the world and I love to use my traditional skills”
At the other end of the spectrum are those beginning their careers, including an apprentice letter assembler and another recent apprentice who has completed his training and is now employed with Applelec.
Applelec’s production director, Paul Stothers, describes the firm’s letter fabricating machines: “Our two main pieces of kit are an automated return shaper and a laser welder, with both machines used in the fabrication of built-up metal letters.
“We call our return shaper Delilah and our laser welder is named Samson. Delilah is fed with coiled metal including brushed and descaled stainless steel and aluminium, which is then shaped into a letter return, ready to be hand-soldered or laser welded onto a letter face. We use the machine with 20, 30, 50, and 80mm metal coils, which are shaped into returns in a matter of seconds. Delilah is suitable for the creation of returns in a variety of square and block fonts, whilst fonts with complex serifs are created by hand.”
He continues: “Our laser welder, Samson, can then be used for the next stage of the letter construction as it secures the shaped return to the letter face. Suitable for brushed and descaled stainless steel letters only, the laser welder is used to create a continuous or intermittent seam that is so robust it can withstand powder coating processes up to temperatures of 170° to 190°C. However, a high temperature solder, applied by hand, would still be required for the final joint in the return, as this cannot be done by Samson.”
These machines provide a considerable advantage in terms of both time and quality over hand-made letters. Delivering speed and accuracy, these machines are certainly time-saving devices that take seconds to complete the processes they are designed to do. However, they must be operated by experienced letter-makers and should be seen as complementary tools within a letter-making workshop, rather than an easy replacement for skilled workers.
Indeed, Stothers says the machines are only suitable for specific jobs with specific metals, continuing: “For example, the laser welder can only be used with certain types of stainless steel, so they by no means simply replace hand-making techniques. How-ever, in a sign workshop delivering a varied and high-volume supply of letters, the machines are undoubtedly fantastic tools.
He concludes: “Applelec is continuing to experience strong demand for traditionally constructed letters in metal and acrylic and of course our fabricated signage, such as totems, fascia, and projecting signs. In fact, the company is so busy that we are continually on the lookout for experienced letter fabricators to join the team in Leeds.”
A key developer of letter fabrication technology itself is Automatic Letter Bender. Based in Poland, the company has sales channels throughout the world and can be seen at major exhibitions, including Sign and Digital UK, FESPA’s recently established European Sign Expo, and Viscom.
Hedi Sellami is in charge of international sales and explains the drive behind the company’s research and development drive: “Our mission is to provide the best solutions for letter bending and we say with full confidence that our equipment is the best choice for quality and price. Each of our automatic bending machines for channel letters is a device with unique properties, specialising in bending strips of various kinds.”
O Factoid: You can find a world of old shop signs at The Letters Museum (Buchstaben Museum), innocuously hidden away amid a building site on Leipziger Strasse in Berlin O
Indeed, Automatic Letter Bender offers a broad range of machines to suit budget and requirements, as Sellami explains: “We really want to improve the operations of enterprises producing channel letters and custom logos. We provide channel letter bending machines using the latest and best technology to ensure they are reliable, easy to use, and meet our customers’ needs within their budget.
Having established itself in the UK through a number of key sales channels and having been a colorful presence at Sign and Digital UK, Polish-based Automatic Letter Bender has a range of solutions to suit different size of businesses and specific applications
“In addition to selling letter bending machines we deliver all the support and other post-sale services that are essential to a positive long-term relationship. Our company is a team of specialist technicians and sales representatives who are there for customers at all times, from the sales process, through training, daily routine, and technical support.”
The product range starts with the ALB-01 ECO 130. This is the smallest unit and it is a precise and fast automatic bender for working with flat and flanged aluminium tapes. It offers high levels of precision for feeding, bending, and notching.
The ALB-03 SSA 110 is designed for stainless steel bending. The maximum dimensions of the tape are 110/1.0mm and the minimal bending radius is 7mm. Precise pneumatic feeding enables excellent control of the material and the machine works well with the ALB laser welder. This system is also ideal for flat aluminium coils amongst others. Overall the ALB-03 SSA 110 is suitable for building small angles and arcs letters with complex fonts.
Tring-based Trade Signs is one of the best in the business when it comes to creating sign letters, and is the manufacturing force behind many successful sign-makers having invested extensively in its letter-bending machinery and workflow automation
Also in the portfolio is the ALB-03 ALUPROFI 110, designed for fabricating letters with no glue. Instead it uses air guns and nails to fix together polycarbonate faces and alupanel (dibond) backs. The size of the profile is 80mm base profile and 26mm lid profile. Next is the ALB-04 UNI 180, a new model released this year. It is a versatile bender combining SSA, ECO, and ALUPROFI features using flat coils or special aluminium profile with no glue. ALB says this is the only bending machine in the world that has two systems to engrave the tape and to chisel or carve steel bands and cutters for aluminium profiles. Finally, the ALB-LW SPEED MASTER is an innovative laser welder for steel. This is a good way to accurately fix and join steel letter elements.
Sellami concludes: “Our products are designed to be able to offer customers a choice to suit budget and requirements. The entry-level machine is around £13,000 (€16,000) right through the high-end machine, which is around £34,000 (€42,000). All machines include delivery, installation, and training and come with twelve months full guarantee and a post guarantee service. We also provide support on every stage of machine usage for our customers.”
Adding letter fabrication to your sign-making service is certainly possible with wise investment in reliable, well-supported machines. However, companies already delivering this service keep their processes very much to themselves and this is understandable.
Companies like Automatic Letter Bender can provide good quality and good value machines, but you will still be in the position of requiring the technical expertise to deliver 3D letter solutions. You may have the traditional letter making skills in abundance, but you will need considerable support and guidance to make the step up into a more automated process.
Ultimately, if investing in technology means you can deliver a broader range of products at a better price and with a greater level of quality, this could be an essential requirement for the future of your business. As always, let your market and how well you can meet its demands drive your decision.
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