Cut out 2D (two dimensional) and 3D (three dimensional) letters, logo's and signs make a very elegant statement about your business, your product and / or service. Dimensional signs have long been, and remain, one of the most impactful forms of signage available, ad will most likely continue to be as popular for a long time into the future.
There are two main forms of individual cut out letters − "flat (2D)" and fabricated or pan letter (3D). The pictures below demonstrates the differences.
As the name suggests, flat cut letters or logos are only as thick as the substrate used. A huge range of materials can be used for flat cut out letters, with the most commonly used substrates for flat cut out elements being aluminium, brass, glass, Perspex (plastic), steel, wood and vinyl.
Standard Aluminium sheeting comes in thickness’s ranging from around 0.6 mm to 8 mm (although other, non standard thickness's are also available), any of which can be cut to create flat and fabricated letters or logo's. Although Aluminium does not rust it can 'bleed' (the industry slang used to describe the rust like streaking that sometimes occur) when it comes into contact with other metals. Untreated Aluminium can also oxidise in certain environments.
Always popular, even while becoming more costly as worldwide brass costs increase, brass can be obtained in varying thickness's. Well maintained brass signs and cut out letters always look VERY classy. Untreated brass signs require regular polishing. In order to reduce the need for regular polishing, brass signs and cut out brass letters can be sealed with a clear coat (varnish), which although it reduces the need for regular polishing, may need to be repeated every few years, depending on the brass's exposure to sunlight.
Like clear Perspex, Pelxiglas and other acrylic's, glass can be used as a backing board used in conjunction with other materials, or cut into shapes of varying thickness's to create a sophisticated looking glass sign. Although glass is more likely to be used for a backing board, it can be cut into individual letters and used in conjunction with other materials for the visible face − most commonly polished and mirror finished steel − the combined material make for a light, modern look that can also be rear illuminated to create a halo effect. Glass for signs is most commonly used as a backing board for reception and lobby or foyer signs.
Perspex, polypropylene, fibreglass and similar materials all fall under the larger umbrella of plastic / acrylic when referring to signs. Acrylics come in a wide variety of colours with some being easy to work, allowing for a wide range of interesting designs to be created from these materials. Plastic / acrylic materials, especially Perspex and Plexiglas are high gloss materials that have a long (up to ten years) outdoor life expectancy and are easy to work, making them a favourite for fabrication – manufacturing 3D sign elements. ABS and Forex are sometimes also used for fabrication, although their raw outdoor life expectancy is shorter. Perspex and Plexiglas can also be used for moulding signs, although Fibreglass is the material of choice for moulded - especially moulded, non-illuminated - 3D sign elements.
Almost any steel can be used for signs, with the most commonly used steel's being stainless steel and mild steel. The most common finishes for stainless steel signs are a mirror finish, a brushed stainless steel sign finish and a mill finish. Because of the nature and difficulty associated with coating stainless steel, it is not suggested to coat (paint or powder coat) certain types and grades of stainless steel signs. Stainless steel is available in a variety of thickness's, is remarkably strong, tends to be heavy, and requires specialised machinery to drill and cut. Like aluminium, generally stainless steel has the advantage of not rusting, although it too can bleed (the industry slang used to describe the rust like streaking that sometimes occur) when it comes into contact with other metals. Mild steel is also available in a variety of thickness's and can be used in a range of signs. Mild steel does rust – with some client's even looking for a rusted effect – and can be coated – both spray painted and powder coated. It is always recommended to coat mild steel in order to delay or prevent rusting. Because they are easily coated mild steel signs can be made to match almost every available colour. Like aluminium, mild steel signs are fairly easily worked and can thus easily have pins (studs) attached to the rear of the cut out in order to raise the sign elements away from the substrate or wall where the sign is to be installed.
Vinyl stick on, self adhesive letters are commonly used to decorate signs. The vinyl is microns thick and comes in single – flat - colours or can be digitally printed to give different effects. Vinyl can only be applied to correctly treated surfaces – substrates – and is not suitable as a stand alone product for 2S and 3D signs, but can be used in conjunction with almost every other substrate.
Wood cut out letters, wood cut out logo's and a substrate made out of cut out wood are all popular because of the natural, grained look they project. Natural wood and processed wood 2D and 3D signs can be laminated (joined) and are thus available in varying thickness's starting from around 3mm, and can be made to almost any size required. The thickness of the wood that is used will depend on the type of wood as well as the effect one wants to achieve. Depending on where the signs are to be located wooden signs may need to be treated against the weather. Wood signs can be varnished or painted depending on the effect and look desired. Natural wood has a longer outdoor life than wood 'look alike' products like wood veneer, wood effect vinyl and wood laminate, although these man made products are sometimes easier and most effective to use for certain applications.
Cut out sign elements – logo's, letters etceteras – made from any number of substrates can be converted into a 3D effect sign by raising the cut out sign elements away from the backing substrate (or wall) by using thin steel or acrylic 'pins' or a clear, polished acrylic element to match the visual element you want spaced off the substrate. Pins attached to the rear of the cut out element can space the cut out element almost any distance away from the substrate, although these cut out letters are generally spaced between 20 mm and 50 mm from the substrate. Almost any material, other than vinyl, that can be used to create a flat cut sign can be used for sign with raised cut out letters.
While there is no fast rule as to how far cut out letters should be spaced from a wall or substrate, the factors to take into account are the height and letter width of the elements / letters, as if the pins are too long, they can make the most elegant sign look gaudy and cheap.
For non-illuminated signs the 3D effect created by spacing a cut out letter off a wall allows for a natural drop shadow to be created when light, especially the sun, is shone onto the front of the sign. Adding a drop shadow / 3D effect by raising the elements off the backing wall adds a feeling of class and luxury to the sign.
Raising cut out letters off the substrate or wall is a cost effective method of creating a 3D effect for a sign. The cost advantage of placing pins behind flat cut out elements raising them away from a substrate makes this a very attractive option for businesses that are looking for a modern, 3D type effect on a tight budget. It is also quite common for raised cut our sign elements to be illuminated from the rear, especially when 'halo' effect illumination is required. Today with LED lighting we are able to create a halo or back lit effect that adds a further dimension to the sign, and the sign doesn't need to stand more than about 10 mm off the wall or substrate.
The greatest disadvantage of raising elements using pins is that the pins can be visible, and can be seen as unsightly when the sign is viewed from the side or from directly below the raised elements. Sometimes aluminium tubing or chromed tubing is used to hide the visible pins. Depending on the type of material to be raised off the backing substrate, including it's weight, sometimes clear acrylic can be used as the pin instead of metal pins, as the polished clear acrylic is less visible.
Pan lettering, also known as fabricated cut out letters, tends to be the standard specified by the majority of consultants, designers, architects and managers of retail malls throughout the world. Because these signs are so commonly used for retail outlets, they are often referred to as "retail signs", "3D retail signs" and "store signs". In fact, 3D signs are so popular with large retail malls that it takes a great design for any other type of sign to be approved for installation by the mall management, thus even independent stores and small chains prefer using pan fabricated signs because they show that the store's are modern, upmarket and "with it".
Although pan lettering or fabricated cut out letters are very common in retail outlets when used as store front signs, they are just as likely to be used as interior reception signs, interior building signs¸ exterior signs¸ outdoor business signs, commercial signs and exterior building signs – especially when identifying a building.
While there may be a number of methods to create a 3D effect, the three most common methods are: (1) designing a sign to be decorated with digitally printed and / or cut vinyl creating an impression that the sign is 3D when viewed from the front, (2) laminating (fixing a number of layers of material together) to create a thicker material that can then be cut and shaped and (3) pan lettering or fabricating (welding sides - called returns in signage language - to a cut out element – called the face – in order to create a 'The method of installation will depend on the desired effect, whether the sign has an open or closed back, the material that is used to manufacture the sign and how the sign is to be illuminated.
Designing and printing and or cutting vinyl to create a 3D effect can be a cost effective alternative for a 3D sign. The advantage of the cost saving is sometimes discounted by the sign being static, in that no matter from which direction the sign is viewed, the designed 'drop shadow' used to create a 3D effect will always be in the same place. Also, when the sign is viewed from the side, nothing will be seen, as the face of the sign is in fact flat.
Laminating can be a cost effective method of creating thicker, 3D signs for smaller cut out letters (especially when they are too small or too thin to fabricate) as well as when wood or similar materials are used to create certain large 3D signs. Depending on the size of the letters and the substrate used, laminated elements can be individually rear illuminated using a variety of illuminating methods, including LED lighting, neon strip lighting and florescent tube lighting.
Pan lettering or fabricating (welding sides - called returns in signage language - to a cut out element – called the face – in order to create a 'boxed' or 'pan' 3D effect) sign elements create a box / pan type 3D sign that is modern and visible from multiple positions. 3D fabricated (pan) elements are generally individually internally illuminated and can either be installed flat against a backing substrate or spaced off the backing substrate on pins or “feet” depending on the required effect, whether the sign has an open or closed back, the material that is used to manufacture the sign and how the sign will be illuminated.
When designing a 3D fabricated sign for a letter or logo that is already visually 3D, it is important to establish whether the boxed section of the letter or logo should reflect the visual 3D element (the return), or if the visual 3D element will only be reflected on the face, and not the face and the return, of the boxed sign.
As with flat cut out signs, fabricated 3D signs can be manufactured from a number of materials, with the material of choice varying from area to area. The choice of material will depend on the location of the sign – for example certain materials work better in dry area's than at the coast, the height and face width of the elements that are to be fabricated, the availability of material and the client's budget. In South Africa Perspex, Plexiglas, ABS, Aluminium and brass are amongst the materials most commonly used to fabricate 3D signs.
Fabricated 3D signs refers to the '3D box' or 'pan' effect created when a return is welded to the sign face – whether it be the full sign or the individual elements. These days it is most common for fabricated elements to refer to the face (front) of the sign being closed, with open face (closed rear) fabricated elements being referred to as pan fabricated.
Open pan fabricated letters and elements are less common these days because they were most commonly used for neon illuminated signs, where the neon was visible and the fabricated return of the sign was used primarily to protect the exposed glass tube of the neon lighting. Because of the brightness and visibility of exposed neon tube, neon illuminated, pan fabricated letters and signs generally have the advantage of being visible - and legible - from a greater distance than internally illuminated (reverse pan) fabricated signs where a percentage of the light is lost, being absorbed by the material on the face of the sign.