Thinking about a new sign for the storefront of your business? Not sure what the options are, or even what the various terminology means? Welcome to Channel Letters 101, where we explain what a Channel Letter is, review the different types of Channel Letters, and explain the various parts of a channel letter sign. Take time to learn the channel letter basics before you buy – – make sure the first sign you buy is the sign you want to keep!
What is a Channel Letter sign?
A channel letter sign is a three-dimensional graphic element with an individual structure and separate illumination. In simpler terms, a channel letter can be any letter, number, or other character that, when combined with other like characters, makes up a sign presentation. Each letter is made using aluminum sheeting, and acrylic. Channel letter signs are highly flexible, and can be made using a wide variety of fonts, colors, and sizes.
How are Channel Letters Fabricated?
Channel letters consist of the following parts;
Face: For a standard or front-lit channel letter, the face is made using 3/16” thick colorfast acrylic sheeting that is typically cut to shape using a CNC or multicam router. The acrylic sheeting is available in a variety of color options, and can be customized to a wider spectrum of available colors through the use of high quality translucent vinyl or perforated vinyl from leading manufacturers including 3M, Avery, and Oracal. The acrylic face of a channel letter is attached to the channel letter “can” through the use of “trim cap”.
Trim Cap: The mechanism for attaching the acrylic channel letter face to the body of the channel letter is a UV-stable, earth-friendly, highly durable plastic that is extruded around aluminum foil. The trim cap attaches to the acrylic channel letter face using a liquid bonding agent that “welds” the trim cap to the channel letter face. The face is then ready to be attached to the body of the channel letter.
Return: The side of a channel letter is known as the “return”. For standard of front-lit channel letters, the depth of the return is typically 3”, 5” or 8”, and may be specified either in the Sign Criteria of your Lease Agreement, or in local city/county ordinances. Returns are shaped to form the appropriate character by the use of computer-driven bending machines. The aluminum sheeting used in the manufacture of channel letters is also available in a variety of standard colors, or can be custom-painted with your choice of PMS or other color-match shades.
Backs: The back of a channel letter is made using router-cut aluminum sheeting, which is available in a variety of thicknesses, including .040, .063, and .090.
Light Source: Channel letters are made both as an illuminated sign option, and as a non-illuminated sign option. Today, nearly all internally-illuminated channel letters are made using LED illumination, resulting in significant energy cost savings over neon illuimination options commonly used in the past.
What Types of Channel Letter Signs Are Available?
Front-Lit Channel Letters: The first and most common type of channel letter is the front-lit or standard channel letter. A front lit channel letter will have an acrylic face, trim cap, aluminum returns, and an aluminum back. Again, the number of options is large – – these signs can be customized in a variety of ways!
Reverse Channel Letters/Back-lit Channel Letters/Halo Channel Letters: For a unique and classy look, consider reverse channel letters! Instead of an acrylic face, reverse channel letters utilize .090 metal faces and .063 aluminum returns, and have clear 1/8” or 3/16” Lexan or poly-carbonate backs. The return of a reverse channel letter is typically smaller, usually about 3.5”. These letters are mounted with a 1.5” standoff so that – – when illuminated – – there is a “halo effect” surrounding the shape of each individual character.
Combination-Lit or Front/Back Lit Channel Letters: Ever thought about doing a sign that has red illuminated faces, and a blue halo effect? Well, then a combination-lit channel letter is for you! These signs use 3/16” acrylic for their faces, mounted with trim cap to the aluminum returns (usually about 5”). Like the reverse channel letter, combination-lit channel letters use clear Lexan backs that have been customized using translucent vinyl graphics to create the desired halo color.
Reverse Channel Letters with Direct Mount, 1.5" standoff.
How are Channel Letter Signs Priced?
Every channel letter sign we sell is considered a custom sign due to the large number of variables in the makeup of the sign, from letter height, stroke thickness, font, return depth, return thickness, return color, back thickness, type of mounting, face color, trim cap color, trim cap thickness, and so on. Our process is to quote each approved design on its own, based on the options chosen.
What are the mounting options?
There are a handful of mounting options that anyone considering a channel letter sign needs to be aware of.
Raceway Mount: Many property management companies and landlords will require that any channel letter signs be installed on a raceway, which is a metal “box” that houses the electrical wiring and power supply for the individual letters themselves. The advantage to a raceway mount is that it reduces the number of wall penetrations that are required to complete the installation – – something most landlords appreciate. Raceways are typically painted to match the color of the building façade or sign band.
Direct Mount or Flush Mount: If appearance is key, then chances are you’ll favor a direct mount installation. With a direct mount, the letters are attached directly to the building façade using a pattern, with non-corrosive fasteners. For reverse channel letters, direct mount with standoff spacers is the common option. With direct mount or flush mount channel letters, the power source and electrical wiring connecting one letter to another is housed behind the bulkhead wall or façade.
Backer Mount: Similar to raceway mount, except that instead of a metal box, the channel letters are attached to a metal cabinet or backer panel that is typically larger in height and width than the channel letter configuration. The power supply and wiring can either be housed inside the backer “cabinet”, or behind the bulkhead wall or façade.
Front-Lit Channel Letters with Backer-Mount
What are the Watch-Outs?
1. Before spending any time considering the various types of storefront or business sign options, check what is required – – either in your lease, in a local zoning classification such as an area labeled as a historical zone, or in the local sign ordinance. Consult with the property owner/manager, and read the Sign Criteria in your lease agreement thoroughly!
2. Think long term… Purchase the best sign you can afford. Signs aren’t like print media or direct mail. With a sign, you have a higher up-front cost, but a relatively low cost once the sign has been installed (electrical and maintenance). A $3,500 channel letter sign costs less than $10 per day in advertising. Divide the cost of your sign by the number of days in your lease.
3. It’s less expensive to buy a sign once. In other words, purchase a sign that you will be happy with next year, and three years down the road. Are you sure bright pink is the way you want to go?
4. Don’t cut corners. Using low quality LED’s means your sign won’t be as bright today, and will be even dimmer tomorrow. Using low quality trim cap means the trim cap will crack, and the appearance of the face of your sign will deteriorate. Using low quality acrylic that isn’t Colorfast means the red, blue, green, yellow, purple, or orange face of your channel letter sign will fade sooner than it should.
5. Check before you order… Will your sign be UL approved? In many cases, your lease will require all signage to be UL approved. Confirm all colors, including the raceway color, if applicable.
6. Sweat the details. Don’t just compare price. Compare the thickness of the acrylic used for the face, the thickness of the metal used for the returns. What’s the warranty on the power supply, and what is the hour life of the LED? Remember, it’s less expensive to maintain a quality, well-made sign!
Signs House is a full service custom sign provider in the Metro Chicago area, serving Illinois with quality signs and excellent customer service. Our goal is to provide you with a product that’s better than you expected! If we can be of service to you, or if you have a sign-related question, please give us a call!
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