An Overview of Channel Letters

Improvements in safety and manufacturing accompany a bull market for channel letters

The following article originally appeared in the October 1998 issue of Signs of the Times magazine.

By Bill Dundas

Sign-company promotions commonly designate “neon signs” and “plastic signs” as separate categories. The advent of enclosed channel letters, however, eliminated this distinction. During the past three decades, channel letters have become one of the most widely used signage forms.

Fig. 1: Because channel-letter faces faded by sunlight are quite difficult to color-match, break-resistant plastics can protect your customer’s investment. This sign incorporates AcryIite! SG impact-resistant acrylic sheet manufactured by Cyro Industries (Rockaway, NJ).

The complex shapes of various letter fonts once restricted channel-letter production to the realm of craftsmen. Today, however, computer-driven machinery fabricates channel letters in a fraction of the time formerly required. By simplifying the production process, technology has created new opportunities for sign companies to enter an expanding market. Combining traditional sign components (neon, plastic and sheet metal) with the latest production methods, the channel letter is a natural for contemporary signshops.

Specifying safety and durability
Despite some well-publicized neon fires, current trends in channel-letter production are moving toward improved safety and smarter user specification. Commercial developers across the nation are ahead of the curve in this regard because, increasingly, they specify raceway-mounted or integral-transformer channel letters for new outdoor shopping centers. It’s not clear whether this is being done primarily for safety reasons, to minimize drilling through building facades, or to eliminate the need for sign repairmen to work inside offices and stores. Nevertheless, by mandating that high-voltage components remain outside of buildings, many channel-letter specifiers have dramatically reduced potential fire hazards.

Fig. 3: Scandinavian retailer IKEA (Humlebaeck, Denmark) uses 8-foot-high letters to identify its store in the Pittsburgh suburb of Robinson Township.

Additionally, the ultimate impact of UL 2161 will be to safeguard a substantial number of channel-letter signs operated by remote transformers. In the near future, high-voltage arcs from secondary faults will shut down malfunctioning signs, instead of perhaps igniting buildings. Thus, the sign industry now faces the pleasant possibility that channel letters will be equated unequivocally with safety.

Another concern for end-users is the cost to “re-face” damaged letters. After channel letters have been exposed to sunlight for a relatively short time period, sufficient color fading occurs to make matching of the plastic faces impossible. This means that if one letter face is broken, the user must replace all the letter faces to achieve a uniform appearance. Many channel-letter manufacturers address this problem by fabricating their products with break-resistant faces (Figs. 1 and 2). In addition to wind damage and vandalism, ordinary acrylic letter faces are frequently damaged when sign maintenance is performed.

It’s also important for channel-letter specifiers to observe reasonable size restrictions. Letters that are too large or too small can present serious maintenance problems. If a given sign is difficult to service, it will likely be damaged by sign mechanics. Small, narrow-stroke channel letters don’t provide adequate clearance for neon tubes and connections. Large letters are quite effective visually (Figs. 3 and 4), but many are difficult to access without damaging the plastic faces. Additionally, some letter fonts (particularly script styles) can complicate service (Fig. 5). because the more curves and bends in a letter, the more difficult it is to handle the faces.

Installation challenges
An important part of the sign specifier’s job is selecting a suitable channel-letter type for the proposed mounting location. Mounting surfaces vary widely according to the building’s age and type. If the wall surface is particularly difficult to drill (stone, marble or granite), raceway-mounted channel letters are a good choice to reduce installation costs.

Because all masonry walls are somewhat difficult to drill, reducing the number of wiring holes is obviously desirable. Channel letters with integral transformers isolate high-voltage components outside the building and require only half the number of wiring holes needed to install remote-transformer letters. This type of letter is frequently used for larger-format jobs (Figs. 6 and 7).

Fig. 5: It’s much more difficult for service personnel to remove, handle and reinstall large script letters (like the one-piece “B” and the interconnected “ally” faces) than is true for individual, block-style letter faces.

The letters’ helter-skelter mounting points, the wall’s exterior surface and the locations of interior structural supports can present problems for installers. A sign’s placement is seldom negotiable, so the mounting pattern dictates (for better or worse) where the installer must drill. For example, suppose a crew installs a set of large letters on the facade of a building with a heavy structural beam directly behind the sign’s mounting area. To properly attach the letters, the crew must drill several 1/2-inch-diameter holes through the beam. If the manufacturer shipped channel letters with protruding electrode housings, this installation is probably impossible. If you’ve ever tried to drill one small hole through 1/4-inch steel, you don’t want to even think about drilling several holes more than 1 inch in diameter! This example illustrates the crucial importance of tailoring the sign type to its proposed mounting location.

Fig. 6: These 5-foot-high, integral-transformer letters were manufactured and installed by C-Al) crete-block wall for the wiring feed, C-AD’s Signs (Pittsburgh) for a regional supermarket chain, crew installs one of the 5-foot letters.

Fig. 7: After drilling a hole through the concrete block wall for the wiring feed, C-AD’s crew installs one of the 5-foot letters.

Another installation challenge is the uneven mounting surface. Fluted concrete block, for example, has become quite popular for new commercial buildings. The fluted areas are recessed 2-3 inches deeper into the wall surface than the block faces.

A similar situation occurs when corrugated metal siding covers building walls. This situation can require protruding double-nut bolts to prevent the letters from appearing skewed when they are fastened. Also, with the growing popularity of faux masonry surfaces composed of rigid foam panels, through-bolts that penetrate interior structural members are often necessary to attach channel letters (Fig. 8). Protruding bolts may also be necessary if the channel letters are backlit, or if the specifications call for holding the letters a certain distance away from the building surface.

Fig. 8: These all-thread mounting bolts will support a set of channel letters that incorporates back-mounted integral transformers. This installation requires the letter mounts to stand-off approximately 4 inches from the wall surface. These letters are both front- and back-lit; however, through-bolts may also be used when mounting standard channel letters on irregular or insubstantial surfaces.



Something special
At press time, Hyla Lipson, president of Fiberoptic Lighting, Inc. (Grants Pass, OR) announced the development of a new channel-letter prototype that employs end-lit fiber-optic (FO) cable to produce a unique lighting effect (Fig. 10). Working with a 48-by-18-inch, channel-letter treble clef fabricated by Eugene Sign and Awning (Eugene, OR), Lipson’s firm installed small-diameter FO cables through numerous perforations in the clef’s plastic face panel and trim-cap border. The FO-cable bundle exits via a hole in the back of the clef and connects to an illuminator that can be located in a raceway or inside the building.

Fig. 9: JTB Sign Service (Pittsburgh) installed these 3-foot-high channel letters above the second-floor windows of a store in Bethel Park, PA. Philadelphia Sign Co. (Palmyra, NJ) manufactured the integral-transformer letters, which span approximately 54 feet of the building facade.

The FO cables outlining the clef’s borders are connected to a different “track” than the cables that fill in the remainder of the plastic face. While the clef’s outline remains illuminated as a light-blue sparkle, the face’s main portion changes to 36 different rainbow colors. As the lighting sequence moves from one end of the clef to the other, it creates the impression that the clef is being hand drawn or brushed. This prototype introduces a special-effects capability to ordinary channel letters that goes significantly beyond sign-industry norms. It’s a tempting option, however, for the sign customer who desires a truly unique image.

Fig. 10: Fiberoptic Lighting, Inc. (Grants Pass, OR) equipped this channel-letter “treble, end-lit fiber-optic cables to produce a unique lighting effect. The clef changes to 36 different colors in a sweeping, end-to-end motion that mimics a brush stroke.

With better materials, lighting techniques and production machinery, channel letters are undoubtedly improving. Considering the safety and durability concerns, the key to satisfying customers lies in the sign builder’s awareness of necessary and proper specifications. An important part of the sign professional’s job is selling customers on the long-term savings of features that might cost a bit more on the front end. Sometimes this is a difficult task, but better products elevate the industry.

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