Guest Blog from Paul at Art Sign Works

Guest Blog from Paul at Art Sign Works

HDU Custom Carved 3-D Bas-Relief


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


A majority of the signs and plaques created throughout the year are carved in 2.5-D, raised multi-level or engraved (incised) relief from Precision Board. With that, 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, police and fire departments, 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 and signs appear most realistic when viewed up-close. When viewed from a greater distance, it is difficult to distinguish between 3-D bas-relief or 2.5-D raised relief. For some signs or plaques, the 2-D artwork may not be appropriate to model in 3-D relief because the artwork is composed of objects that have flat surfaces, such as buildings.


3-D bas-relief plaques have prices that are up to two times higher than artwork carved in 2.5-D relief because it requires considerably more machine time along with additional hours of labor that are required to carve and paint them. However, despite these drawbacks, about 1/3 of the products we make are carved in 3-D bas-relief, and are very popular with government agencies, police and sheriff’s departments. When plated with bronze, brass or aluminum metals, these products are more favored over solid metals because products that are plated cost one third of solid and weigh only a tenth as much. Plated products also make installation of large plaques on walls much simpler.


Most of our 3-D plaques and signs are made out of PBLT-20 Precision Board Plus HDU, because of 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, thus making them more popular with our customers than wood signs and plaques.


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 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 ft x 8 ft x 2 inches thick, on one of our six large Shopbot CNC routers, with tables up to 5 ft x 12 ft. The 3-D geometry model artwork file can be reused and scaled to any size. The 3-D model has a one-time cost and the software model can be used for hundreds of future plaques.


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 6-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 the time 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 sign or plaque 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 Mathews 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.



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