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

Dan Sawatzky and The Tottering Tortoise

We love using Precision Board in our shop to create unique dimensional signs and we go through literally tons of it each year. Precision Board is versatile and easy to work with as it accepts almost any finish and is durable over the long haul. Even so, it is rare that we only use Precision Board to make our creations as it’s often combined with other materials, a recent pub sign project is a good example of this.

The pub sign is a sample piece that hangs in our studio. The name of the fictional enterprise is Tottering Tortoise and we decided to add the 1954 date to ensure some history (1954 happens to be my birth year). We have more than 150 such samples of dimensional signs on display in our studio. These samples allow us to experiment with new methods and materials and build our skills, but most importantly, they help us sell a tremendous amount of quality work. This sign has already proved its investment by selling a large new project with similar signs.

The first order of business was to create the concept art. The concept art allows us to work out the bugs of a new design. These drawings are quick and easy, done in a loose style that allows plenty of room for interpretation as we build. This was accomplished by freehand using an iPad as a digital drawing surface and Adobe Photoshop as the program. 

Typically, when creating a project for a client, I produce a second drawing with more information on it such as measurements and notes which is pictured above. I wanted to replicate my normal process in case anyone has questions on this specific project.

I then produced the needed lettering vectors using Adobe Illustrator before importing the file into EnRoute Pro to generate the CNC routing files. This drawing is tight and not changeable (the client never sees this portion of the artwork).

We created two identical routed panels on our MultiCam CNC router from 1.5” thick PBLT-25 Precision Board. A centrepiece was also created with a hole in it to accept the horizontal square tubing frame. We welded that to the steel mounting plate, which was attached to the wall. The two sides and the centre were laminated together using Coastal Enterprises PB Fast Set glue, then clamped until they were cured. This is a glue we love as it is one-part and sets in less than an hour.

We then welded a steel armature for the tortoise and the tree using 1/4” steel pencil rod. It is easily formed by hand and then welded together. 1/4” holes were drilled into the Precision Board sign for the steel rod to be glued into. We used Sculpting Epoxy to first form the tree and then sculpt the tortoise.  Additional final textures were added by pressing crumpled tin foil onto the surface. 

Next, we welded scores of plasma cut steel leaves to the branches of the tree. While it looks complex, the sculpture is relatively simple. I find sculptures with a lot of character and age much easier than most.

We applied three coats of base color (acrylic house paint) and then a series of glazes to bring out the texture and detail. After each glaze color was applied, much of it was wiped off with a soft towel.

Since the tortoise was the most complicated and the messiest part of the painting, we did this first, then masked him off to do the balance of the painting. Once the min part of the tortoise was finished I went back and added the details such as the eyes.

The finished sign featured 23k gold leaf letters for some extra bling. The combined materials of Precision Board, steel and epoxy work together to create a very strong and durable sign. The detail in each part is superb. Unless you touch the sign, it is almost impossible to tell which part is made from which material. That is the way the components of a sign should work together!