Introduction: Custom Wood Sign Made on Shopbot Using VCarve Software

I wanted to make some custom signs as gifts this year.   In this instructable we will touch on using VCarve as a lettering solution for signs, making a jig to simplify locating and holding the signboard, and making inexpensive wood look better.


- VCarve Pro software
- Shopbot CNC router tool
- paint or stain, dark color
- hardwood plank - I like maple, but poplar works well also
- some scrap wood for the jig

Note that access to TechShop or a well stocked Hackerspace makes this project easier.   I used the Shopbot and VCarve program at TechShop San Jose. 

Step 1: Prepare the Sign Blank

I had some nice maple hardwood, which I cut to size and used the jointer to clean up the rough edges.

For my first attempt, I used some Rustoleum stain, "Kona" color, which is a rich dark brown.  Leaving the stain on for 10-15 minutes makes for a nice color.  For later signs, I used some IKEA black paint I found in their furniture section.  See the Outtakes section for why I switched to paint.

Make sure to get the edges as well as the top surface, as the edges will likely be visible.  I did not bother to paint the back, as I assumed it would be mounted to a wall. 

Step 2: Lay Out Your Sign in VCarve

Vectric software's VCarve Pro is a very accessible CNC program. 

I wanted the sign to be about 24" wide, and my maple hardwood was about 4.5" wide.  

I set up my material in VCarve, then used the text tool to write out my sign text, and chose a font I liked, Times Roman.  This typeface has nice serifs, which look good when carved. 

I moved over to the path creation section of the program and selected the tool I planned to use, a largish V-Bit.  After setting the appropriate feeds and speeds, VCarve created the shopbot toolpath file. 

Step 3: Make a Jig to Hold This Sign Blank (and More in the Future)

I built a jig so I would be able to secure the sign blank without having to use screws thru the sign itself.  I found a piece of plywood about 24x30 inches, and some other 3" wide scraps and made an "L" in one corner.  I cut two wedges out of a 1x4, and secured one of them  to the jig base.  I also used another scrap as a spacer, as I wanted to be able to use different width sign blanks.

Step 4: Attach the Jig to the Shopbot Table, and the Sign Blank to the Jig

I countersunk some holes in the base of the jig so I could use brass screws to hold it down to the shopbot table.  Once in place, I put my sign blank in and hammered the wedges tight.

Step 5: Set Up Shopbot, and Cut the Sign

I zeroed the shopbot, then moved the spindle to 3" away from the origin in both x and y.  I checked the corner, which is easy with a pointed bit, and reset zero to the corner of the jig.  I loaded the cut file, and made some sawdust. 

The jig makes it easy to make several signs in one session, since the zero point is fixed, and changing sign blanks only takes a minute or so.

Easy!  Well, yes and no. See step 6 for the outtakes of this project.

Step 6: Outtakes

Not every project goes flawlessly, and this one is no exception. I thought it would be useful to show what didn't work, along with what did.

I made several beginner mistakes when cutting the sign, mostly because I thought I was in a hurry.  Needless to say, hurrying usually ends up taking longer.

First mistake:  I forgot to hammer the wedge tight, and the sign board slipped. I saw it immediately and stopped the job - the left upright of the B is slanted.  I secured the wood, and restarted the cut, hoping for a miracle.  Nope.   I didn't have a spare, stained blank so we went on to cut #2.

For Cut #2, I cut the sign text in a piece of raw wood, planning to stain the letters and plane off  the top layer.  Lousy results, mostly due to stain seeping into the grain.  Not the effect I was looking for. 

Attempt #3:  I realized Stain was a bad idea, and switched to IKEA wood paint. Once this was dry I mounted it in the jig, but forgot to zero the Z Height, so it dragged the bit diagonally across the face of the board and made a scar.  I set the Z Zero, cut the sign and figured I'd fix it afterwards.  Nope, the scar was still visible even after I repainted the line.  Fortunately I had painted a couple of blanks, and could cut sign #4 almost immediately.

Since #3 was already bad, I tried an experiment, which was to use the IKEA liquid beeswax seal. It goes on milky white, and dries rather clear. But it was too yellow, so I didn't put any on #4.  The last photo shows #3 and #4 together.