The Business of Sign Making

So you’re thinking about the business of sign making? Well you’re in luck! Sign making is an easy business to get into and it has a very stable market. As long as people need to market their goods or services to those around them, they’re going to need signs to do it!

Now, when I say that it’s “easy” to get into sign making, that’s a relative term … It’s still a business and like any business you need a good plan. This article won’t deal with writing a business plan as there are plenty of other resources for that. What this article will deal with are some of the key factors in building a successful sign business, including a general overview of the talent and equipment you’re going to need to get started.

The topics we’ll cover here are location, artistic talent, software, equipment, supplies and the types of signs you can expect to sell right out of the box.

Location, Location, Location

When you’re starting out, you’re customers are likely to be local political campaigns, other small businesses, schools, churches, municipalities and occasionally an individual looking for a vinyl graphic to spice up their vehicle. So with a sign making business, having your shop visible to customers in your area is important, but don’t break the bank right away by trying to open up a shop in Times Square. A second floor office space or a shop at the edge of town is fine, as long as lots of people drive by and can see your sign as they pass.

Also, don’t forget that your own sign is going to say a lot about the type and quality of work that you do … after all, who’s going to want to use a sign shop if the shop itself has a terrible sign?

If your customers can’t come to you, take your business to your customers! An interesting sign business I came across recently was a 19 year old guy who outfitted his minivan with a “mobile sign studio”. He would travel around to regional racetracks where he would rake in the cash for offering on the spot vinyl lettering and graphic service to racers who needed some extra vinyl on their vehicles before their events. Sometimes a little creative thinking can go a long way when it comes to reaching your customers.

Design Sense

The next priority is to find someone who can handle the artistic requirements of your sign business. If you’re already a graphic designer looking to start a business than you’ve definitely got a leg up as you won’t need to hire anyone right off the bat. If you’re not an artistic person, than you’ll want to start searching around for someone who is. While most of the software used to design signs is easy enough to learn, becoming a good artist is not.

Hiring a good graphic designer may cost you, but putting out poorly designed signs because you’re trying to do everything yourself will cost you even more. Also, someone who can fulfill your design requirements can easily learn all the other aspects of the business and become a valuable “all in one” employee … especially if they have excellent people skills and can act as sales/customer service as well.

When looking to hire a designer, REQUIRE that they’re proficient in Adobe Illustrator (or similar vector based design program) and request that they submit their portfolio when submitting their resume/application for the job. If they can’t provide a portfolio, throw their application out and immediately move on!

You don’t have to be an artist yourself to recognize good design. Simply look over their portfolios and interview the ones that strike your interest. In addition to the quality of their designs, also pay attention to how their materials are presented and how good their social skills are. You’ll want to pay attention to attributes that illustrate the applicant’s craftsmanship as well as their ability to communicate with customers.

Software, Vinyl Cutter and Computer

The 3 major pieces of equipment required for a sign shop are the software, the vinyl cutter and a computer to drive everything.

When it comes to software I usually recommend Adobe Illustrator, it’s the industry standard for vector artwork and as you expand your business, you’ll never outgrow the software. It costs about $500 and is widely available. Plus, most design schools teach Illustrator so most design students and new graduates should already have a basic understanding of how to use the program.

Your vinyl cutter is going to be one of your largest investments and the lynch pin of your business. Major brands are Roland, Gerber and Graphtec. The standard vinyl cutter starts at about $2000 and goes up from there.

In addition to the major brands, you’re going to find a plethora of second rate vinyl cutters on the market. Be sure that you don’t buy a sub standard vinyl cutter because cheaper vinyl cutters are prone to jams, misalignment and other critical cutting errors that waste expensive vinyl film and your time.

Computers today are simple to buy and you don’t need any special requirements to run the software that drives your vinyl cutter. Simply spend about $1000 on a new computer and it’s going to be capable of cranking out all sorts of signs. (You can even run things off a laptop if you like.) One little upgrade you may want to think about is a nice large monitor. As an artist myself, I like to put a little extra money into a nice monitor because it makes things more convenient for you or your artist and it’s also convenient when your customers are looking over your shoulder as you present designs to them.

Sign Warehouse is an excellent place to go for great deals on vinyl cutters and related equipment.

Vinyl and Sign Supplies

Your primary media when starting a sign business will be vinyl film. You can buy hundreds of different Pantone colors, reflective vinyl, metallic vinyl, vinyl that simulates etched glass, holographic vinyl and even vinyl film laced with 24 carat gold! With the variety of vinyl films available, the artistic possibilities are nearly endless!

My personal favorite brand of vinyl film is Avery, they have an excellent selection and their products are very easy to work with. One key point you’ll want to remember is that vinyl comes in different “quality levels” and the quality is usually determined by the length of time it will withstand exposure to the sun and the elements. So you’ll want to assess the environment that the sign will be displayed in and use the appropriate grade of vinyl.

In addition to vinyl films, you’ll also need a good workbench, plenty of transfer tape, squeegees, metal straight edges, rulers, tape measures, T-squares, X-ACTO knives, tweezers, Rapid Tac and STABILO pencils. All of these tools are relatively inexpensive so beyond the software, vinyl cutter and computer, there isn’t a lot of additional cost for equipment.

You’ll also want to keep plenty of blank substrate materials around such as various sizes of banners, Coroplast, Alumalite and magnetic sheeting. Basically you’ll want to keep enough on had to fulfill most basic requirements for quick sign making. More elaborate or specific substrates and larger quantities can be easily ordered and most sign supply companies can have fresh materials out to you in about 24 hours.

For a great place to buy sign making supplies, check out Beacon Graphics.

The End Result

Once you’ve setup a nice little sign workshop you’re going to find that you’re capable of a variety of different signs. Most notably, banners, vinyl lettering and graphics applied to vehicles and store front windows, Coroplast signs, Alumalite signs and magnetic signs.

While I’ve condensed the list here for the sake of time, there are literally thousands of different applications for the signage that you can make with the aforementioned tools and materials. For signs that fall outside the realm of your abilities, find other sign shops to subcontract work out to. While the shop I worked in dealt primarily with vinyl, we collaborated with local awning manufacturers, neon installers and larger shops with vinyl printing capabilities.

As you grow you can slowly upgrade your equipment as demand increases, although you may find that you’ll never outgrow your initial products and services as vinyl cutters are literally that versatile and the demand is almost always there.