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Dimensional Sign Substrate Review

Dimensional signage, by its very nature, stands out. It can turn an ordinary idea into something spectacular. But which substrates should be used for which purposes?

Aluminum Sheet – For long-term outdoor durability it’s hard to beat aluminum. It is easy to work with, completely impervious to any form of weather and 100 percent recyclable—a winning combination. It can be cut with a CNC router or a water-jet cutter with equal ease. The finished product looks high-tech and professional. But it’s also expensive.

Layered Composites – A common lower-cost alternative to aluminum is aluminum/plastic composites. Utilizing the light weight and moisture resistance of thermoplastics for the core and thin layers of painted or anodized aluminum for the outer surfaces, these convenient products are perfect for sign production. Composites come in a variety of thicknesses and sizes, including 5′ x 10′ sheets. It is dimensionally stable and weather-proof yet much lighter than solid metal. They are a UL-recognized component for electrical signs, have a Class 1 and Class A fire rating and are NCHRP 350 approved for highway and safety signage. Their composite structure gives them excellent strength and rigidity, meaning that less substructure is required during construction. Composite sheeting is easy to fabricate using ordinary shop and woodworking tools, and often comes pre-painted for a completely hassle-free experience.

Expanded PVC – Expanded PVC boards are very popular for indoor dimensional signage. Light, tough, stable and very easy to work with, they are also fire resistant and direct printable. Routers cut through them like butter, leaving perfectly finished edges. And they are available in a variety of colors, meaning that no paint is needed for further savings, as well as a variety of thicknesses. Outdoors the PVC can be replaced with polycarbonate or strengthened acrylic sheets that also cut easily but are much more durable (and obviously more expensive). They can also be used as facials for backlit dimensional letters, coupled with one of the edge trim systems readily available from most sign suppliers.

Thermoformable Sheet – Thermoforming with plastics is another way to create dimensional signage when multiple copies are required. A mold is created and the plastic sheet is heated until it slumps over the mold and forms the shape required. Various types of thermoforming and vacuum forming equipment can be used to accomplish the task. Molds also work well for fiberglass thermoforming. The end product can range from light and portable to thick and tough.

HDU – High density urethane (HDU) commonly known by the brand name, Sign Foam, is particularly useful for creating dimensional signage. Working with HDU can open up a whole new world of opportunity in dimensional signage. It is available in thick, easily carved slabs and is ideal for 3-D sculpture. Signs are no longer restricted to two dimensions, but can be large, impressive shapes. And it comes in a wide variety of qualities, densities and sizes that paint up beautifully. Depending on its density and thickness the material can be CNC routered, sand-blasted, cut with a hot wire system, or hand-worked with standard woodworking tools such as gouges, chisels and awls.

Wood Sheet – You can’t talk about dimensional signage without talking about wood. Despite its long history in this industry it has never gone out of style. Sandblasted wood signs are an art form that is still popular today. The beautiful natural textures, rich warm colors and mesmerizing grain all combine for a WOW product that no synthetic material can accurately replicate.

MDF Sheet – Medium density fiberboard (MDF) is a very popular substrate. MDF is made by converting wood chips into fibers. Liquid resins are added to create a thick mat which is pressed into boards using heat and pressure. An advantage of MDF for the graphics industry is that the product is uniform throughout, including the edges—without the irregularities found in natural wood. It can be CNC routered and sandblasted easily for almost unlimited effects. It is not outdoor durable, although some variants of this ubiquitous product do use outdoor grade resins for increased moisture resistance.

Light – Duty Materials-Many lighter-duty temporary dimensional signage projects can be completed with foam board, corrugated plastic sheeting or paper-based display boards. The advantages are that they tend to be much less expensive, are often printable and are easily fabricated and cut to shape. These materials are great for creating dimensional indoor displays for retail promotions.

There’s a substrate for every need, and many uses for every substrate. Imagination is the only limit.
Article Written By: Duane Fast

Printed in Sign & Digital Graphics, April 28, 2014

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