Introduction: Massive "Marquee Letter" Decorations!

About: I used to be that curious kid that broke stuff by taking it apart to figure out how it worked. But I got smarter, and now I can sometimes put it all back together! My work and hobbies overlap through an intere…

University Graduation! And at our university, the University of the Fraser Valley, that's the biggest party of the year. So we celebrate in as much style as we can make. This year, the events team wanted some props for students to get their all important social media pictures (#UFVTrades, #GoUFV #UFVAlumni, #StudentLoans)with, and this is that story.

So, we present to you, our Massive Marquee Letters! There was a bit of misinterpretation of communication during the initialization of the project, but we are pretty happy at how it turned out...

Step 1: What Was Actually Asked for VS What We Ended Up With.

I was in my office, mumbling to myself as I was marking a stack of my students electronics diagrams. Then the phone rang, and I did the responsible thing of answering it. (aka, I jumped at the chance to procrastinate.) It was Tricia and Courtney, who were planning the event and decorations, and the conversation went something like this...

Them:"Hi, we were wondering about making some photo props for graduation, and wondering who we could ask to make them. So we thought we should phone you."

Me: "Um, OK? What were you thinking?"

Them: "We were thinking we should have some giant letters for the students to take pictures with. For out front of the building as we get ready. We thought you can make them on your machine"

(Here is where it all started to diverge. They were actually thinking small enough to hold,about 16 inches tall and having me cut them on the laser, but "Giant letters" to me only starts at about 4 feet tall and I was already thinking the 5x9' CNC.)

Me:"Oh yeah. We can make those. We can't really go larger than 4 feet wide though before we would need to deal with seams though, so as long as they aren't larger, we should be fine."

Them: "Oh that would be perfect"

(This had escalated swiftly in size, but they were happy and weren't letting me know though. Strike while the iron is hot!)

Me: "If we are going that large are they just going to be plain? Or are you thinking lit and like an old-school Marquee? Something freestanding so the students can stand around it in the parking lot?"

(Here my imagination was starting to take over... Bad move, should have kept it simple. Would have been so much less work.)

Them: "Oh for sure. That would be amazing!"

Me: "OK. I'll make a sketch tonight and if you're cool with it, we can get this thing going."

After that,we talked a bit more about the details about when it was needing to be completed, budget, etc. As well as who all else would need to be involved in order to complete this. That night I made them a sketch of the concept, and they approved it...

Step 2: Sound the Conch and Assemble the Team!

At this point I was committed to the project, but I also knew that I would not be able to complete on my own. I could take care of some of the parts and process, but not all of it! I needed some help from my colleagues.

This was going to be a digitally designed project, but someone trained would still need to operate the CNC to cut the plywood. So I asked our joinery instructor, Mark Ryan, if he could run the machine and cut the files.

Because the letters would be so large, we would also need large brackets to support them. Metal ones. So I went to see Matt Olafson in our welding department to ask about his plasma table and welding. He said if I could send him the files, he would get them cut and welded.

Teamwork makes the Dream work! As cheesy as all those slogans are, they are true. It's always a pleasure working with Matt and Mark, as they are sharp and hardworking, and always deliver quality and on time. These letters wouldn't exist without their help.

Step 3: Materials and Tools

Materials used in this project were as follows:

  • 3/4" plywood - 3x full sheets
  • 6" aluminum roof flashing - 2x 50' rolls
  • 1/4 Steel plate - 6x square feet
  • Outdoor string lights - 3x kits
  • Spray foam - 9x cans
  • Gold spray paint - 3x cans
  • Gold spray glitter - 2x cans
  • Black Gloss spray paint - 3x cans
  • Assorted fasteners like screws, staples, ects

Tools and equipment used in this project were as follows:

  • Something to cut wood - We used a CNC Table cable of cutting full plywood sheets, but a jigsaw could also be used by hand.
  • Something to cut Metal - We used a Plasma metal cutting table, but an angle grinder or torch could also be used by hand.
  • Something to weld metal - We used a TIG welder, but use an arc welder, or buy and bolt on metal angle brackets.
  • Something to fasten tin. We used a pneumatic stapler, but screws or regular staples could also be used by hand.
  • Tin snips
  • Cordless impact driver for screws
  • Large serrated knife for foam - We used a $2 watermelon knife from the dollar store.

Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) used on this project were as follows:

  • Gloves when handling the rough wood and metal brackets
  • Safety glasses. Always when working in the shop.
  • Mask when sanding
  • Respirator when painting

Step 4: Designing the Letters and Bases

Our University uses a specific font for most of our official communications. But I needed to convert that font to a vector shape so I could then create the .DWG CAD files for our CNC and plasma cutters. I did this via Inkscape, which is a free and powerful piece of software. Using the specified font, I input the letters, then selected them and used the "Object to Path" command in the Path menu to convert the letters to vectors. At that point I could "Save As" the file as a "Plain SVG".

With it as an SVG, I opened Microsoft Visio and imported the file. As that point I could start manipulating the letters and creating the tooling lines. I made the letters as large as possible to fit onto a 4x8' plywood sheet, and then measured the light sockets on the string lights, and created octagons that they would be able to friction fit into. With only 15 sockets per string, it took a little time to balance and align that across all letters. But it all worked out, and with that all done, I sent the outlines off to Mark as DWG files for the CNC to run.

I also sliced the letters and created a set of files for the welding department to make the steel brackets with. These were done from the same files, just truncated to become shorter, and with enlarged holes around the sockets. Once again I saved the drawing as DWG files, and sent to Matt who could load the files into the plasma cutter and then weld up.

Last of all, I created bases. I wanted to lift the letters about 1 foot off the ground, as well as make sure they would be sturdy and hard to tip. So I designed bases with a 4x3' footprint. Working within the confines of a 4x8' plywood sheet, i designed and nested a set. These were also sent to Marks as DWG to cut on the CNC.

Step 5: Cutting the Plywood

With the files loaded, Mark fired up the CNC and cut the wooden backplanes, as well as the base pieces. They came out beautifully, and with a little sanding to remove the largest slivers and smooth the front faces, they were done. We did some test fits and it was all aligning perfectly.

Step 6: Welding and Metal Work

With the wooden backplanes ready, the next step was getting the steel brackets so we could stand them. Matt was on this. The files were loaded, the plasma table cut them, and then he enlisted some of his students to weld them up. These are heavy duty, and there is no chance the letters are going to fold!

Step 7: Lighting

These letters would not be complete without lights. These had been planned to be an integral part of the letters. I had purposely selected the string lights, not only for speed, but also so that I could do so safely with all wires insulated. Each of the sockets was fit into the plywood hole, and a piece of PVC pipe (modified with a notch for the wire to pass under so it doesn't pinch) was used with a mallet to force them into place. Then the wires were coiled and stapled down.

Step 8: Test Light #1!

With the letters cut, the bases screwed on, and all wiring done, I clamped them onto the workbench, put in the bulbs, and gave it some power. What a beautiful sight.

Step 9: Flashing

With the backplanes wired and bracketed, it was time for the flashing. I set each of the letters facedown on a 3" spacer made of scrap lumber, and then started the edge wrap. This was 6" aluminum roof flashing, and easy to work with. Whenever I came to a sharp corner, I would mark it with a pencil, and then use a speed square and bend the angle around it by hand. As I went along, I also stapled the flashing to the plywood edge. Finally, I ran a bead of DAP down the edges to smooth in the transition from the tin to the wood. The letters were really beginning to look great now, more 3D with the 6" depth. Ie set them up again and tested to see how they would look,

Step 10: Foam

The flashing is pretty light duty metal. We wanted to stiffen that up, hide away all the electrical cords where people can't tug at them, and lock the sockets in. So, we bought a ton of Spray Foam to do so.

First, I taped the edges up so that the foam wouldn't curl over my metal as it expands. Then I applied about 3 canisters per letter. You can see my son, misting with water to speed up the catalyzation on the foam. We left it for 2 days, and then used a serrated watermelon knife to trim it down flush to the back metal. At this point, the physical build of the letter shapes was done!

Step 11: Paint and Glitter

Before starting the painting process, I taped over each socket, then trimmed to size with a an x-acto knife. Then, it was into the paint booth, put on my safety equipment (mask and gloves) and spray. Each letter got a coat of Gold spray paint, and then a shot of gold glitter overtop of that. They all then sat and dried for a day. Unfortunately, the foam had also started to shrink a bit now for some reason, and as it was bonded with the tin, it pulled the edges in a bit at the back. Hard to see, but a bit disappointing.

Step 12: Bases

Remember that cart full of CNC cut pieces for the bases? Well, now was the time to assemble them. I squared them all, then used 1 1/2" screws and an impact driver to fasten them all together. Because they were drawn to have their edges align, they were fast to assemble, with no measuring necessary. Once they were finished, I took them into the spray booth, put on my mask and gloves one last time, and spray painted them gloss black. They were the final pieces needed before final assembly...

Step 13: Final Assembly!

All that was left, was lag screwing the letters onto the bases. Boy did I ever enjoy finishing these, as they had been a last-minute idea and we had less than 2 weeks to get them together. They had taken all our spare time in the afternoons and evenings after teaching, but they were now done!

We put them outside, and Mark and I got our pictures with them, then we loaded them into the trades van and delivered to the main campus where Graduation ceremonies will take place starting Monday, June 3rd! And that is a Party time, both for the Students finishing the year, and for us instructors who are also done for the year!

I doubt anyone will build these three letter specifically, but the concept works well for any shapes. If you do build a similar one, post up and let me celebrate that with you!

Step 14: Update - Convocation Day

This morning was the 1st of the 4 convocation ceremonies for all our graduates. Speeches, gowns, hoods, and like.

The TLA (that stands for Three Letter Acronym) for University of the Fraser Valley was setup in the celebration area, and people were getting their pictures after the ceremonies. Mark and I got one more picture, and I got some with a few of my students.

It was fun to watch people getting excited about these, posing and taking pictures to remember their convocation with. Makes me proud to be a small part of their memories here.

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