Another Guest Blog from Paul at Art Sign Works

Art Sign Works Inc., founded in 2005, has been making 3-D bas-relief plaques from Precision Board since 2009. Previously, our team utilized HDU from two U.S. manufacturers but we determined that Precision Board was the highest quality material and was the best for carving. Here at ASW, we create about 10,000 signs and plaques each year; efficiency and quality are key to completing orders in a timely manner.

A majority of the signs and plaques we create are carved in 2.5-D, raised multi-level or engraved (incised) relief from Precision Board. We also design and fabricate over 1,500 3-D bas-relief plaques and signs. A large number of our 3-D orders are wall plaques that are for federal, state and local governments, law enforcement, and universities as well as businesses, churches and homes. Additionally, our plaques hang on walls in the White House, Air Force One, Congress, the Supreme Court, the Pentagon, and many state capitals. A few of our 3-D signs and plaques are shown below.

3-D bas-relief plaques require considerably more machine time, along with additional hours of labor for carving and painting, than artwork carved in 2.5-D. About 1/3 of the products we make are carved in 3-D, and are very popular with government agencies, as well as police and sheriff’s departments. When plated with bronze, brass or aluminum, these carved HDU products are favored over solid metals because they cost only about one-third and weigh only a tenth as much. Plated products also make the installation of large plaques on walls much simpler.

Most of our 3-D plaques and signs are made out of PBLT-20 Precision Board HDU, due to its high quality and ease of carving. We also make about 20% of them from solid Mahogany, Maple, Cedar, Redwood and Oak woods. We paint or metal-plate the HDU plaques and signs, and typically stain the wood. 3-D HDU plaques and signs are typically half the price of 3-D wood plaques, and they are cleaner and last longer, making them more popular with our customers.

Let’s take a look into the process of creating 3-D signs & plaques. We start off by developing a 2-D Adobe Illustrator vector rendering, similar to what we would make if it were 2.5-D. This defines the areas that need to be raised and lowered. One of our graphic designers then develops a custom 3-D geometric model from the 2-D rendering using 3-D graphic software such as Maya, Z-Brush, or Rhino. This then generates an STL file that we can incorporate into our 3-D CNC router tool path control program called ASPIRE. The 3-D software modeling process can take anywhere from eight (8?) to 20 hours. To speed up the process, occasionally we’ll purchase off-the-shelf STL files of animals, trees and man-made objects from commercial companies.

Next, we put a sheet of Precision Board, usually 5’ x 8’ x2” thick, on one of our six 5’ x 12’ Shopbot CNC routers. The 3-D geometry model artwork file can be reused and scaled to any size.

In order to ensure accuracy and attention to detail, the 3-D CNC routing requires ball-nose router bits as small as 1/16 inch in diameter (1/32 inch in diameter for very detailed artwork) to carve smooth routed surfaces. It can take from six to 36 hours to carve a single 3-D sign or plaque, depending on its size and detail. For a 3-D version, it takes 6-to-10 times as long as a 2.5-D, multi-level raised relief sign or plaque. We run our six CNC routers up to 16 hours a day, six days a week to keep up with our orders.

After routing, our craftsmen perform fine hand sanding of all of the front surfaces to remove any tool marks and, if background areas need to be sandblasted, this is when we’ll do that as well. It is then painted with a thick HDU primer to further smooth the surfaces, and the background color is added in our paint spray booth.

Next, the piece is moved to our finishing and fine paint shop, where our artists use brushes to paint the plaques in long-lasting vibrant colors. We exclusively use Matthews acrylic polyurethane automotive-grade (MAP) for background areas and 1-Shot paint for artwork, text and borders. It takes longer to paint a 3-D sign or plaque than one carved in 2.5-D relief because 3-D artwork must be painted with an artist brush due to its curved and rounded surfaces, whereas 2.5-D artwork has flat surfaces and can be painted with a mini-roller. All plaques and signs, both indoor and outdoor use, are then coated with two Matthews MAP semi-gloss or satin clear coats to protect against weather, UV radiation, oxidation, scratches and graffiti.

To learn more about Art Sign Works, including additional samples of our work, FAQs, pricing and ordering information, please visit our website at or give us a call at (951) 698-8484

If you have any questions regarding Precision Board, please call Coastal Enterprises at (800) 845-0745 or via email at