How lettering is made for public display: hand-cutting in wood and stone, & routing in metal and plastic.
Metal and machine: M&S sign by Active Signs
Profile-cut letters for public signage are usually ‘routed’ by machine, from a cutting guide based on digital keyline drawings of the letter shapes. A spinning blade, called a ‘routing bit’, is positioned over a sheet – typically made of metal, wood, acrylic, plastic or nylon – which it cuts to the required shape. The process is fully automated.
Hand-cutting in stone: Fergus Wessels
Drawing letters for stone-cutting requires great skill, and techniques vary between cutters: some use a soft, chisel-pointed pencil that enables them to draw both sides of the letter with a single stroke, while others bind together two pencils, creating a double keyline with a single movement. (A letter-cutter relies on kinetic memory as much as eye.)
Hand-cutting in wood: Caroline Webb
Wood letter-cutters draw their forms with a soft pencil outline, but they must take note of the wood’s grain: broad deep vertical ‘v’ cuts are best made across the grain. Some carvers cover the wood with masking tape and draw the letters on the tape, then cutting straight through it: this minimises the risk of chipping the edge of a letter.
Hand-routing: Specsavers lightbox by Active Signs
Some signs are best routed by hand, in which case a skilled operator guides the bit around the letter outlines. The routed letters can be surface-mounted as a sheet or built into a three-dimensional form that stands proud of a wall or the floor, and can be internally illuminated.
First published in Eye no. 67 vol. 17 2008
Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published quarterly for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions and single issues.