Activity Feed Forums Sign Making Discussions General Sign Topics Large foam Letters – first job

  • Large foam Letters – first job

    Posted by Lee Attewell on October 10, 2002 at 2:25 am

    Hi guys, here’s a copy of a post I just made at Letterville, any Ideas?

    Since I’ve been making signs ( about two years now), I’ve been inspired to try other ways of making signs. First I just used the computer and plotter. Then using masks and painting ( really basic designs)and now I finally have something that will take some “manufacturing”. I’ve got a job accepted to manufacture text only 50mm (2″) foam letters, of a size of about 1200mm x 1000mm each letter.
    I plan on using body filler to give a smooth face to the sign.

    I know I can get these manufactured for me locally, but I’m really keen to have a go at them myself. (hot)

    I’ve sourced the product from my local supplier (outdoor rated hi-density), and I’m planning to project onto the foam ith my never used overhead projector.

    Now finally my questions…

    1. When projecting large images there seems to be some lens distortion on the image. Is there any advice on how to minimize this?

    2. I’m planning on using a jig saw to cut the foam, but I’ve been told that a hot wire is best. I’ve been told they’re about $700.00 to buy. Is there a way to make one? I remember doing it when I was about 8 at school, but can’t remember how.

    3. Perth is a REALLY windy place. I was going to install them using sharpened “plugs” in the wall. I’ll explain…Drill a hole into the wall inside the letter boundries. Put in a Rawl plug and screw in a long screw so it sticks out about 20mm. I’ll then grind off the screw head leaving a sharp post to put into the foam. I’ll also use some strong builders glue to adhere the foam to the building.

    Before you good people tell me to use my brain and get them made and installed for me ( by the way , I’ll still make a good profit). I’d really, really like to do this myself.

    Can you see any problems that I might have made for myself, or can you offer any other advice?

    I’ll thank you all in advance & i’ll try to post some pictures when the job is installed.



    Martin Pearson replied 21 years, 9 months ago 6 Members · 22 Replies
  • 22 Replies
  • Mike Brown

    October 10, 2002 at 8:35 am

    …sounds wacky to me – but in a nice way 😉 and I can totally understand wanting to ‘make’ something rather than just ‘do’ it…

    I don’t make (or even do) many dimensional letters but from a purely logic point of view there are a coupls for things that shout at me:

    1) Filler is very very heavy, comparatively, and you’d probably be better off using a ‘filler primer’ that they use at the auto body shops – it’s a bit like grey soup, settles and fills surface texturing, dries real fast and can be flattened off with a hand sanding block real fast too!

    2) The fixing method seems overly complicated? – There are a number of other ways to fix something to a wall without seeing it from the front. Nipples and Cups (often known as snapfix), pillars with adjustable collars, fix one aluminium block/rail to the wall and another to the item and then screw together from the side/top…and so on and so on…I think you should rethink this part…it’s fine making something by hand but you don’t want it falling on a child?

    3) As regards the overhead projector – I dunno, sorry – but you did mention you have a cmputer and plotter, so why not plot the letters out on paper and then lay them on the foam and cut around them?…if your pplotters too small then just ’tile’ the letters from two or more passes of paper…

    hope the above helps

    more soon

  • Martin Pearson

    October 10, 2002 at 10:25 am

    Hi Lee, first I’m surprised you have quoted for a large job like this without really knowing how you are going to do it, watch it doesn’t end up costing you money. The reason I mention this is because I once quoted for a job without fully thinking it through. I knew in theory what I needed to do but had never actually attempted a job like this before and I was lucky because my idea worked, if it hadent this job would have cost me a lot of money, I have been a lot more careful ever since.

    As mike says you could plot the letters in paper and cut round them, this is something we do when we have shapes to cut with the jigsaw, but we usually use a cheap vinyl instead of paper. I dont know how Mike would recommend attaching the paper ?

    I have seen the hot wires but have never used one so I cant comment to much on this method, hot wires do leave a very good edge on the poly where as I would have thought a jigsaw would leave a very raggy edge, it will probably tear the poly rather than cut it.

    As for installation I would not use screws at all, use either straight rods or threaded bar, these should be available to you if you phone around. The threaded bar can be either inserted into a rawplug or drill a hole slightly larger than the bar size and attach the bar using silicone injected into the hole. Attach the rods the same way. I would leave enough sticking out to go almost all the way through the letter.

    I would probably attach the rods to the letters in your studio, then plot a template as you would with moulded letters, then when on site fix as you would moulded letters.

  • Henry Barker

    October 10, 2002 at 1:41 pm

    You mention “foam” when I think of of foam I think HDU, which you wouldn’t cut with a hotwire. If you mean polystyrene/Styrofoam, then you can use a hotwire.

    I make quite alot of dimensional signage both sandblasted, freestanding, HDU, and lots of Styrofoam for exhibitions and TV shows etc.

    We have a giant old bandsaw, and I mean giant, you get nice fine edges with that with the right blade. My experience of cutting using a jigsaw is that the sides are not 90degrees with the top.

    I pounce patterns in paper and use a pounce pad to transfer them, or as has been said, use a cheap old vinyl as pattern.

    This is made using my bandsaw, as for fixing I wouldn’y use styrofoam outside for a permanent sign if its HDU there are lots of ways to fix, let us know what you are using.

    Why do I have the “scarlet letter” next to my name??

    maybe the pics clog up the loading here of this topic, if thats the case you could move them.

    Here is a signjob using handcut HDU (signfoam type material) letters on a sandblasted background.

    and then the finished product, incidentally what would something like this go for in the UK, its 1600mm in length and sold here for the equivalent of £1500+vat

  • Robert Lambie

    October 10, 2002 at 3:10 pm

    hi henry love the work mate…
    i have seen giant letters done like this with a hotwire but guided by computer… cant remember the name of it but has tons of potential for the right customer.

    if you have anymore work like this dont be shy! lets see some in the “shows your stuff” 😉 😀

    thanks for sharing henry…

    p.s. ill have your pic loaded tonight mate

  • Mike Brown

    October 10, 2002 at 7:23 pm

    [wolf whistle]…

    no not you Henry – the sand-blasted sign… 😕

    fabulous and a bloomin good pay-packet too.

    I don’t do such work, but it looks a very professional sign…

    more soon

  • Robert Lambie

    October 10, 2002 at 7:30 pm

    all i can say is excellent henry…
    i love those extra pics you put in… it lets you see exactly went on in making them.. well almost! 😉

    im for ever saying id elove to get into the hdu foam carvings and the like…
    just cant find the time,…

    brilliant job. just goes to show everyone that there is now great need for cnc routers and the like to do dimentional work..
    (hot) (hot) (hot) (hot)

  • Henry Barker

    October 10, 2002 at 8:29 pm

    Thanks for the positive comments!

    A router has been on my shopping list for awhile now just find them a little expensive, I would like a Gerber Sabre 408 or MultiCamm.

    I was worried that by buying a router I would end up doing loads “normal” acrylic work and such for other companies, rather than the custom signwork I enjoy today.

    All my stuff is handsawn, and blasted….I can post some pics of my blaster setup sometime if anybody is interested, I bought quite an expensive set up and drive with with a diesel trailer mounted compressor.

  • Robert Lambie

    October 10, 2002 at 10:41 pm

    yeh sure henry whatever you have mate lets see it when you have a sec…
    i enjoy seeing all the methods of making signs. modern and traditional..
    we actualy have a router.. its an AXYZ 1metre x 1metre bed. we were hoping to up it to 3m x2m but missed the last sign show and decided to hold tiill we had time to go down england and see it work first hand… too expensive just to jump into and buy..
    your right though the flat cut stuff gets very boring after a while.. just like watching the vinyl cutter cut vinyl. we also get lots of repeat engraving work… all pays for the machine of course but takes the fun and creativity out of it.. 😕

  • Martin Pearson

    October 10, 2002 at 10:54 pm

    Fun and creativity dont pay the bills Robert, the flatcut stuff pays the bills giving you the chance at least to be a little experimental when it isnt paying the bills.

  • Robert Lambie

    October 10, 2002 at 11:29 pm

    yep very true martin!
    but i can still long for the day the customer walks in asking for the best sign i can come up with with no budget! 😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

    (sleep) (sleep) (sleep) yeh yeh i hear you say..only in my dreams 😉

  • Lee Attewell

    October 11, 2002 at 12:12 am

    Hey Guys, thanks for the posts.

    Martin, Yeah it’s a bit silly to jump in like this but what the hey! I’m totally self taught, and yeah I could loose money on this, I’ve got enough meat in this job to allow me to stuff it up a couple of times and still make a profit. I don’t think I will though.

    This job is text only fitted to the face of a factory, the text is quite square and not too complicated. I just get such a kick out of doing it myself, that’s why I started making signs.

    Henry…man what great work, I’ll go to my suppliers this afternoon and have a look at what they’ve got. The product they have recommended is what I’ve priced on and it’s supposed to be a good product to use.

    I’ve got access to a band saw, & I’ll have a look at some thin blades today. Half of the fun is the research, and talking to you good folks.

    Thanks for the help.

    I’ll post piccies when I finish.


  • Robert Lambie

    October 11, 2002 at 8:55 pm

    leeroy… if you are using HDU sign foam.. then a spray prime/filler will be enough… just spary it evenly nothing hard about it just coat it…
    then sand paper it by hand… doesnt take long and dries very fast…
    then just spray the colour you wish…
    as for fixing i dont think the spike type idea is the one to use…
    some sort of two part compound glue would work with male and female locators. you just make a template drill where you should and fix female locators to wall… then the letters will snap into place in a few secs…

    cutting it… well .. i reckon a jigsay like henry said.. if you dont have one you can pick one up cheap. £25 or so….
    like mike said a paper template is best & easy to do… you could just spray mount it to the foam cut round it and sandpaper…. no hassle or exspence.

    another way you could do it is 1″ foamulax. gloss coloured foamex doesnt need prime etc just jigsaw it.. but first screw two sheets together from the rear to make it 2 inches…. most colours available i think!
    then just glue locators to the rear using tensol glue.. most suppliers will have it or equivelant… 😀

  • Paul Davenport

    October 11, 2002 at 9:22 pm

    quick comment here for now

    for a beginner using polystyrene, i would reccomend using a thin template say from thickish card in the shape of the letter you intend to cut, its easy to make a hot wire cutter from car battery, a platform, some tube and some resistance wire, as found on those old electric heaters
    (if you are good with the jig saw use that with a bosch t101a blade in and you will get a good cut)

    spray the polystyrene with watered down pva glue then sand flat when dry you can then use a variety of (solvent free) paints to finish off OR make your template from foamalux and then use the template as a face and stick onto the polystyrene

    there was a how to on a good while back

    I will post more on how to make a hot wire cutter if anyone needs the info

  • Henry Barker

    October 12, 2002 at 7:58 pm

    I built a hotwire cutter using 5mm steel wire from the RSJ’s in the roof of my workshop down to an electric fence isolator. I then attached the plastic handle you get here for electric fences, (Alfa-laval) which has a spring in it we then drilled a hole in the wooden bench and fitted the much thinner wire between the handle and the underside of the bench. I tend to cut stuff that is 20cm thick, and found it hard to control the temperature in the wire, using different ampage thru different battery chargers, I found it harder on much larger letters like you want to do.

    I have a large Jonsereds bandsaw and when I do large letters like these below we tend to make them in too parts and glue them together. I have tried jigsawa but did not like the results. As the blade gets warm the angle changes, aqnd then does not gives you nice straight edges. I converted a tigersaw blade to fit a jigsaw but with limited success. I can cut blocks up to 30cm thick and we buy them at 2m x 1m, in different densities depending o the job

    I finish letters with waterbased acrylic latex paint, and One Shot also works well and covers alot better.

    Paul mentions card templates, that’s a good idea, I pounce paper patterns but you may not be set up for pouncing.

    This is a job for Cosmopolitan when it was released here in Sweden, I made the letters 2m high and they were about 12m in length, and were set up outside Stockholms version of “Stringfellows” for a day or so

    The smaller Empower was another job for Manpower,its HDU. handsawn on my Hegner scrollsaw. It was later painted with autopaint, basecoat and cleared

  • Lee Attewell

    October 16, 2002 at 7:08 am

    Ok a quick update…I got my hot wire made, works well but I had trouble controlling it over such a large area.

    So I bought a small hand saw with a blade that is a bit like a reciprocating saw blade that cuts really well. I hand cut and sanded the letters, They look fine to me.

    I’ve just finishen applying the second coat of latex undercoat to the letters and am going to putty up any imperfections.

    Tomorrow I’m going to paint and Monday, install. I’ll post some piccies.


  • Robert Lambie

    October 16, 2002 at 9:51 am

    looking forward to it leeroy 😉

  • Lee Attewell

    October 21, 2002 at 1:59 am

    Alright another update…

    Following my last post, I finished undercoating. I filled in the little imperfections with filler…


    I used a car body filler which proceeded to eat into the nicely finished and undercoated foam.

    Solution : I spoke to one of my suppliers reps ( about 15 years experience on the job), and he pointed me in the right direction. Outdoor grade Sellys filler. Water based and flexible. So I spent another day re cutting one letter that couldn’t be saved. Salvaged what I could bu filling in the holes the filler ate, and re undercoating new letter.

    OK all is now well. They are Now painted 3 coats water based low sheen acrylic. Double undercoated ( front back top bottom and insides).

    I’ve been bitten once. I’ve run a test of the glue I’ll be using on a scrap piece. The rep recommended the glue but I had to test for myself.

    All looks ok to me now.

    I am waiting for the last coat to fully dry, won’t take long today 24C and sunny…A great day to fit.

    I hope I haven’t bored anyone with my trials and tribulations over this job. I feel good about what I’ve done, come in at budget, and when installed today will be picking aup a cheque for over $2000.00 for my troubles.

    Not bad for someone two and a bit years in.

    Piccies to follow later today.



  • Mike Brown

    October 21, 2002 at 8:26 am

    nothing like a good in-depth post Lee 😉 makes for a great read!

    good luck on the fit and banking that luvvvvverly cheque. 😀

    I remember having used automotive fillers in the past, just how aggresive some of them are and those that are very fast setting can create amazing amounts of heat…some, you can’t even touch during the cure – they’re too hot!!! (hot)

    look forward to the pics..

    more soon

  • Robert Lambie

    October 21, 2002 at 12:08 pm


    i look forword to seeing the finished work… thanks for the posts 😉

  • Lee Attewell

    October 22, 2002 at 12:22 am

    Ok job is finished…Customer is really happy with the outcome. Cash is getting put directly into my account today, and I’ve got some window tinting jobs to do there when they fix some broken windows.

    What a beautiful day it was yesterday. Really clear and warm, as the back of my legs will attest-Sunburnt, where I missed with the blockout.
    Summer’s coming and I have to watch it…Red hair and freckles a bad combination in Aus.

    Lets see if this works…

    The shot was taken from across the street, about 100m from the sign so it doesn’t give much credit for the size and depth of the foam. I’ll have to go back to take some more shots.

    As for the installing:

    There were existing brackets used to fix the original sign letters. I removed the brackets, pulled out the nail about 30mm ( these are the nylon plug and nail sort) and cut off the head. This gave me a little spike to push the foam onto. There were four per letter.

    It was pretty windy ( about 12 – 20 knots), so I used double sided foam tape to hold the letters while the glue sets, the glue used was Fix all by selleys, which had a great instant bond.

    I reckon I’d be able to have put these up using the glue alone, but I feel good having spent more time and having the other fixings as backup.
    It’s not unusual to have winds over 100kmh often in Perth.

    I really enjoyed making this job. It was a good challenge. Thanks to all who helped me with encouraging posts and advice.

    I have one more thing to say…

    I’m glad it’s done.


  • Mike Brown

    October 22, 2002 at 1:11 am

    …the link works fine Lee…and the job looks fine 😉 – thanks for sharing, it was a great topic to follow.

    more please!

  • Martin Pearson

    October 23, 2002 at 10:57 pm

    Happy to hear it all went well for you Leeroy, the whole post has been quite interesting so dont worry about boring people.

Log in to reply.