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Built-Up Letters

It might come with some challenges, but built-up letters could be a viable option for sign-makers. Genevieve Lewis finds out how to get involved with this particular sector

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Built-up letters can be even more creative with the use of lights and LEDs – like this example from The Sign Group

The building blocks

Built-up letters have been increasingly in demand, and sign-makers could be able to capitalise on this type of work. It can be quite a specialist subject, so what are the necessary tools to be able to compete in this sector?

First, an introduction to Lemon Signs is necessary. The company is based in Derby and offers numerous services including work with built-up letters. It opened in 2015 and believes that combining traditional methods with innovative technologies is the way forward – something that is truly evident in the way it creates built-up signage. Lemon Signs creates its final products using XPS Foam.

Lemon Signs works with 3D signs, using XPS Foam to create the built-up letters

Martin Lemiesz, managing director of the company, explains: “Lemon Signs specialises in an alternative type of built-up letters to the traditional method. We use XPS Foam to create 3D letters which are lighter in weight, more cost effective and allow for a variety of finishes.

“The tools we generally use are CNC hot wire cutters to produce the initial shape and then various techniques of finishing which require power sanders and spray guns to achieve the desired appearance.”

An example of using XPS Foam to create 3D letters

This approach to built-up letters is obviously more off piste and different, but still as effective. It still requires skill in order to produce the finished product, with Lemiesz explaining: “It is definitely a skilled job with the use of CAD to prepare the initial artwork. Then, in order to finish the product, knowledge of techniques, precision and attention to detail are required. Some of the more intricate pieces that we’ve previously produced have taken up to 90 working hours to complete.”

In terms of advice for other sign-makers to get involved, Lemiesz says that while there is a need for new contenders, it can be a saturated market in terms of the trade supplier. He explains: “Built-up lettering will always be a visually attractive option for the end client however, the trade suppliers’ market has become saturated in recent times but there is still a need for new outlets providing high quality and quick turnaround products.”

Not only does Lemon Signs use XPS Foam to create 3D letters, but it can also be used to create other products like stage props

With this advice in mind, why should sign-makers be tempted by this field of play? Lemiesz says that there is still demand, explaining: “Built-up letters are more prominent to potential customers, making a business more visible and as they are durable option, we find that they stay looking pristine for longer.”

He also says that the fact Lemon Signs works with 3D print within its built-up letters section, means that there is higher versatility. “However, the type of built-up product that we offer is hugely versatile as we have also produced 3D stage props for corporate events using the same methods,” says Lemiesz.

Pass it on

Michael Crotch is the sales team manager for Applelec

Another player in the game of built-up letters is Applelec. Michael Crotch, sales team manager for Applelec, says that there are numerous opportunities if sign-makers want to make built-up letters a part of their offering. He explains: “There are a number of benefits of companies who are looking to move into manufacturing built-up letters, such as enabling organisations to have increased control over their workflow and workload as they will become less reliant on third parties. As well as the increased work flexibility, companies that manufacture their own built-up letters may possibly benefit from greater margins as a result of mark-up fees being removed with the
products no longer being outsourced.”

There are a number of benefits of companies who are looking to move into manufacturing built-up letters

Sounds great, right? However, Crotch says that there will be some challenges along the way if you want to realistically move into this sector. He explains: “Along with these benefits, manufacturing built-up letters is not without its difficulties. An important consideration to have when looking to move into this sector is to have well-considered staffing procedures in place. As built-up, metal letter making is such a skilled and labour-intensive discipline, the craftsmanship along with knowledge is typically passed down from individual to individual and as such, is a lengthy learning process that is not easily nor quickly taught.”

Applelec’s Crotch says that very little has changed with the techniques involved in built-up signage

Crotch adds: “Another factor to consider is the demand a company receives for built-up letters, unlike outsourcing these jobs on an ad-hoc basis, letter builders would need a constant stream of work to guarantee maximum return was achieved and ensure the department was commercially viable.”

Factoid: Applelec was founded in 1998 and began life as a small family business, but now boasts around 100 craftsmen among its ranks.O

So, you have the basis in terms of advice, types of built-up letters, and the potential for demand, but what do else do you need to move into this type of work? What type of equipment is necessary to invest in? Although you might already incorporate some options in your workflow already. Some tools are still the same as they were half a century ago. “In terms of kit and machinery required,” says Crotch, before continuing: “very little has changed in the manufacture of built-up letters and the same bench top tools that were used 50 to 60 years ago are still being utilised today.

“Automated return bending machines are available and ideal for producing multiple quantities of simple letters; however, the machines are unable to produce letters that are 100% accurate to artwork and as a result require further manual adjustments by hand. With automated machinery, again staffing procedure plays an important part, whereby the operative must have a good understanding of the built-up letter making process to overlook the procedure and foresee any potential issues that may occur during the machining stage.”

Crotch also highlights the 3D printing techniques that Lemon Signs utilise, adding: “With the progression of 3D printing, sign manufacturing is entering a new era, and this is one other kit type that could be used to create built-up letters. As this technology is still in its infancy, this option is restrictive in finishes and an expensive solution when compared to letters created by hand, but it will be exciting to see how this process of letter making develops in the future.”

Very handy

Joining the ring is The Sign Group, which offers built-up letters among numerous other services. Graeme Hoole, director of the group, is also a strong advocate of using the best tools for creating built-up signage – your good old bare hands. However, Hoole says that machinery today is of higher quality and is almost comparable to what a human’s most handy tools can make. “[Built-up letters] definitely take a lot of practice,” says Hoole. “There are a couple of important pieces of equipment that you can’t live without, but it’s different depending on what you’re making your built-ups out of.”

The Sign Group’s Graeme Hoole says that sometimes, a sign-makers hands are the best tools when it comes to built-up letters

Hoole begins to explain that for metal letters, a small metal folder, a hand grinder – oh and lots of pencils – are extremely useful for this type of work. For stainless steel letters, you’ll need various flux, cleaning solutions, solder, solder irons etc if you are working with ali letters. Specifically for ali letters, a good quality pulse welder is required. And finally, for acrylic built-up letters, you’ll need a desktop linisher, masking tape, some glue and Hoole mentions that even a peg board can be useful sometimes.

Hoole continues: “There are additional pieces of equipment that are more commonly used nowadays which makes it easier for novices to start producing built-ups such as letter bending machines and laser welders. These machines used to be known for being poor quality alternatives to hand making, but the equipment available now is excellent and comparable to handmade letters.

Machinery has improved to create finishes that almost replicate hand-made techniques

“Just like with other signage, there are hundreds of options of materials and manufacture methods to choose from for built-ups, meaning no two signs ever need to be the same. Because of the depth of the letters, even when only small, it really gives a ‘next level’ feel to a job that would otherwise be run of the mill.”

So, with such skill required for creating high-quality letters, is there any specialist training required to be able to work in this sector? “Training is needed if you’re wanting to use welders, letter benders and laser welders alongside other tools,” says Hoole. “But really, it’s down to practicing. Everybody has a slightly different technique which comes with time.”

Hoole says that built-up letters can take a sign to the “next level”

However, despite machinery now meaning that venturing into built-up letters could potentially be a little easier, Hoole says it could be a little tricky. But this does not mean that you cannot offer this service to your own customers, because trade suppliers like The Sign Group can help. Hoole explains: “It takes a long time to become skilled enough at making built-ups to be any good at it. Also, the built-ups can be bought from trade suppliers like us for very little money and it will save time for other sign-makers to stick to their specialty. It is satisfying to make built-ups yourself, but no one wants to be making things over and over again.”

We’re lucky enough to have a mixture of skilled team members who hand-make stainless, ali and acrylic letters

At The Sign Group – if going down the trade supplier route is a good and viable option for you – the team are willing and talented, with Hoole continuing: “We’re lucky enough to have a mixture of skilled team members who hand-make stainless, ali and acrylic letters, along with having letter benders, a laser welder, laser cutters and CNC machines, so there isn’t one type of built-up we can’t cope with.”

As we have witnessed, offer built-up signage as a part of your services can be tricky – but if you’re willing to put in the work and practice, then it can be a great new revenue stream. Built-ups can be created in a number of ways, using hands, letter benders and even 3D printing.  Offering built-up letters also doesn’t necessarily mean that a sign-maker has to create the product themselves, but they can also head over to a trade supplier to help out. Whatever the route, built-up letters can take both a sign and your business to the next level.

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