Makin a Sign...

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Hi Folks:

Let me begin by saying that I am normally to be found on the Neanderthal (Hand Tools) chats. We make dovetailed hand planes and have recently moved into a new larger facility. We are in the process of making a new sign and I am posting here to get a bit of advice.

One of the acquisitions we made, along with the move is a new 8’ bed CNC Router – not considered very Neander in some Hand Tool circles. We can make letters in numerous fonts and sizes however, I would like some help in materials and finish selection.

Our logo has changed and become more Victorian in style. As a start, do I choose to use plywood to make all of the sign components and if so, what kind of paint/finish should I use to get good life. If this is the construction, what kind of life expectancy can we achieve?

Is there any literature out there that would help?


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Established Member
26 Nov 2004
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With Ply I would be worried about the amount of endgrain especially if you are routing in three dimensions not just two. Not sure if you can get it in the US but I would suggest exterior grade MDF with a good oil based finish on front & back of the letters. Thats whats used on a lot of pub signs so it can't be bad :D



Established Member
30 Sep 2005
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Ive made quite a few signs for churches , schools ,cricket clubs etc . Most of them are varnished but the guy i make them for always wants me to use ply for the main board (dont know why ) and then any end grain is lipped with a fancy moulding . I made a shop front style sign out of exterior grade mdf a few years ago . There was a lot of routing involved and i was a bit worried i may have cut into the material too much but i drive past it most days and it still looks as good as new .

Sgian Dubh

Established Member
12 Oct 2004
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And you make very good planes too by all accounts Doug. I didn't pick up your post for a few days due to my current irregular visits to this forum, but in the US a great deal of MDO is used in road signs due to its durability.

Here's a link to a website with some information on man made board materials you might find useful, including MDO

MDO is likely to be readily sourced in Canuckland you being neighbours to the Yanks. There are other sources of information, but that lunk will do for a start.

If you decide to use MDO then I think it's fairly obvious that one of the good choices would be a high quality paint designed for exterior use. Paints are the most effective readily available material easily applied that keep out damaging UV rays and seal the wood or other material from rain, snow, freezing, and at a microscopic level resist oxygen exchange which causes oxidation of the wood. All these factors lead to deterioration of the wood and the more you protect it the better it survives. All pretty bloody obvious really so I apologise if I'm teaching my granny to suck eggs so to speak.

Failing paint (and you require a clear finish) then a top quality long oil based varnish would be your best bet. Long oil varnishes are things like yacht varnish and spar varnish with a lot of linseed oil in them which keeps them soft and and flexible as compared to short oil and brittler interior cabinet varnishes.

Whether you go the paint or varnish route, to reduce the speed of the signs deterioration requires a regular maintenance programme and this depends a bit on your particular climate. A very harsh climate will require more maintenance than a mild climate. Some of those climates in Canada I'd describe as quite harsh as compared to the climate I experience here in the UK where I'd expect to be sanding back and repainting or revarnishing every two or three years-- perhaps four years if I'm lucky. Slainte.