2D and 3D cut out letters & logos

Products2D and 3D signs

Cut out 2D (two dimensional) and 3D (three dimensional) letters, 3D logo's and 3D signs make a very elegant statement about your business, your product and / or YOUR service. Three Dimensional signs have long been, and remain, one of the most impactful forms of signage available, and will most likely continue to be popular for a long time into the future.

There are two main forms of individual cut out letters − "flat (2D)" and fabricated or pan letter (3D). The pictures below demonstrates the differences.

As the name suggests, flat cut letter signs or flat cut out signs including logos are only as thick as the substrate used.

A huge range of materials can be used for flat cut out letters, with the most commonly used substrates being dependant on where the flat cut out letters are to be used.

For flat cut out letters that will be fixed to a substrate – be it a metal sheet or a wall or anything in between, as long as the substrate is SOLID – the flat cut out letter sign can be made from either printed vinyl or from pre-pigmented vinyl through to almost any element from aluminium, brass, glass, Perspex (plastic), steel and wood.

For flat cut out letters that will be free standing or will be fixed to a substrate that is not solid – think suspended or fixed to rails or palisade fencing – the flat cut out letter sign would need to be made from something more solid than vinyl, so the flat cut out letter sign could be made from materials including aluminium, brass, glass, Perspex (plastic), steel and wood, with the deciding factor being practicality, cost and how the cut out letters would be attached to the substrate.

Flat cut out letter signs have become increasingly popular with interior designers who make use of these signs as wall décor or as part of a text or picture wall, where the cut out letters become a focal point in a room or display.

For flat cut out letter signs are used extensively in displays for trade shows and exhibition stands where they are either used as silent sales people or to draw a prospective client in to the stand or to draw the viewers attention to a specific item or focal point that the marketing team want the viewer to see.

While traditional sign writers used to hand write on walls or glass, making flat cut out letter signs a time consuming and costly exercise, modern cut out letter signs are mostly made from vinyl making them cost effective, disposable and quick to install and remove. Because of their ease of use flat cut out letter signs are increasingly popular in retail settings – such as store windows, isle markers, product displays, and point-of-sale displays, all of which can be (and are) updated regularly to keep viewers engaged.

Because of their versatility and ease of application and removal, flat cut out letter signs are also very popular for personalizing event signage – such as birthdays, corporate events and weddings where the cut out letter signs are used to introduce the event – “Happy birthday to Name” or “Congratulations to Mr and Mrs Name” – or to direct participants to various locations at the venue.

Aluminium Cut Out — Standard Aluminium sheeting comes in thickness’s ranging from around 0.6 mm to 8 mm (although other, non standard thickness’s are also available). Any thickness Auminium can be cut to create flat (2D) and fabricated (3D) letters or logo’s. Although Aluminium does not rust it can ‘bleed’ (the industry slang used to describe the rust like streaking that can sometimes occur) when Aluminium comes into contact with certain other metals. Untreated Aluminium can also oxidize in certain environments.

– Brushed aluminium has a warmer, more lively, texture than standard mill finished aluminium sheeting and is very commonly used for outdoor and indoor signage. Brushed aluminium is sensitive to “touch” in that touching the brushed aluminium can tend to leave finger prints.

– Anodised aluminium The natural ‘silver’ anodised finished is common, yet there is also the opportunity to anodise in an ever increasing variety of colours and techniques. Anodised aluminium is stronger and more robust than untreated aluminium and if the sign is likely to be touched, then anodizing is a good option to use, as anodised Aluminium is easier to clean.

– Spray painted aluminium (used to match a specific colour). While the range of Anodised Aluminium colours and techniques is always increasing, if a specific colour needs to be matched (with a 10% variance from the specified colour being considered acceptable), then spray painting or powder coating is the best and correct coating method to use. A wide variety of paints can be used, not all of which are recommended for ALuminium or for outdoor use. For long lasting results, it is imperative that the correct primer and automotive paints or powder coating be used.

– Powder coated aluminium (as with spray painted, used to match a specific colour). Like spray painting, powder coating can be used to match a wider range of colours than anodising. Powder coating uses similar pigment to spray painting, but while spray painting uses thinners and is a wet applied process, powder coating is a dry application that uses electrical current to bind the powder pigment to the substrate.

Always popular, even while becoming more costly as worldwide brass costs increase (with the Russian invasion of Ukraine having a massive knock on effect as a result of less solid Brass being available worldwide).

Brass can be obtained in varying thickness’s, with the thickness having an impact on the input cost of the sign.

Well maintained solid Brass signs and Brass cut out letters – either by the Brass being sealed with a clear coat OR the Brass being left unsealed and the Brass being polished on a regular basis – always look VERY classy and timeless.

Untreated solid Brass signs require regular polishing. In order to reduce the need for regular polishing, Brass signs and cut out brass letters can be sealed with a clear coat (varnish), which although it reduces the need for regular polishing, may need to be repeated every few years, depending on the Brass’s exposure to sunlight.

Brass cut out signs are often used for house numbers, as they are a great way to display either a house number or the house name or the address, or all of these. As is possible with many metal signs Brass can be customized with the sign being wither individual cut outs or a solid sign that is either stencil cut – where one can see through the cut out parts – or etched (or engraved) where the etched area can be left untreated or filled with color – the most popular being black as it provides an excellent contrast against the gold Brass. In South Africa, especially in Gauteng, sign companies are advising our clients to move away from Brass house signs unless the client is in a secure complex as Brass has a high value to recyclers and is thus often stolen.

Brass cut outs can also be used for monograms – where one personalizes your property in a classy and timeless manner, with either your initials, a full range of text or symbols.

Brass cut outs are popular for displaying logos and branding elements of businesses that sell high end products or businesses who want to show that they are a high end supplier.

Brass cut out signs are also popular for nautical themes, especially for shapes of seashells, anchors and lighthouses, possibly because the Brass cut out signs are known to last while adding a touch of the beach (feel and imagery) to one’s property.

While solid Brass is costly, it is still substantially less costly than solid gold, but since solid Brass looks very much gold in color, solid Brass is popular for the contrast it creates, especially when attached to or fitted spaced off black or dark walls or boards. This interior design trick (effect) is used by many businesses and homes.

Like clear Perspex, Pelxiglas and other acrylic materials, glass can be used as a backing board used in conjunction with other materials, or you can have glass cut out signs with the glass being cut into shapes of varying thickness’s to create a sophisticated looking, transparent glass sign.

While standard glass (or any other transparent material) is more likely to be used for a backing board, the glass can be cut into individual letters and used in conjunction with other materials for the visible face − most commonly polished and mirror finished steel.

The combination of glass and other material can make for a light, modern look that can also be rear illuminated to either have the light project through the face or to create a halo effect.

Glass cut out signs are popular for indoor and outdoor signs and are commonly used as a backing board for cut out reception and lobby or foyer signs where they create a modern, sophisticated and professional look. Glass cut out signs areas also used for retail store signage, where the glass cut out sign provides a sleek and modern appearance and can be used to display the store name, the store logo, or the stores promotional messages.

Perspex, polypropylene, fibreglass and similar acrylic materials all fall under the larger umbrella of plastic / acrylic when referring to signs.

Acrylics come in a wide variety of colours with some being easy to work, allowing for a wide range of interesting designs and products that can be created from these materials.

Plastic / acrylic materials, especially Perspex and Plexiglas (different brand names for materials available in South Africa) are mostly high gloss materials that have a long (up to ten years) outdoor life expectancy and are easy to work, making them a favourite for fabrication of cut out signs – especially when manufacturing 3D sign elements that have a long outdoor life expectancy. If clients are looking for cheaper options, shorter life materials plastic materials – such as ABS – can be used in place of the Perspex or Plexiglas.

ABS and Forex are sometimes also used for fabrication, although their raw outdoor life expectancy is substantially shorter. Perspex and Plexiglas can also be used for moulding cut out signs and large format signs, although Fibreglass is the material of choice for moulded – especially moulded, non-illuminated – 3D sign elements.

Perspex cut out signs and signs of similar material are ideal for advertising and marketing purposes because of their ability to be customized to any almost any shape, size, or design, which is a great benefit when the marketer is looking for eye-catching signs that will draw attention to their product or service.

Perspex cut out signs are a popular choice for outdoor cut out signs as well indoor cut out signs, although their indoor life expectancy is far longer than their outdoor life expectancy, especially in the harsh South African sun.

Perspex cut out signs does not only refer to cut out letters, cut out numbers and cut out logo’s but can also refer to cost effective cut out shapes and point of sale display items that can be attention grabbing, flexible and popular with marketing teams, especially in retail environments, trade shows and promotional activities.

Perspex cut out signs are also a popular choice for safety signs that are required to be easily visible and highly visible.

Perspex cut out signs are commonly found in use for directional signs, way finding signs, point of sale displays, trade shows, promotional events, industrial settings, schools, public buildings, reception area’s and retail spaces.

Steel cut out signs have been around for longer than blacksmiths – the original manufacturers of steel cut out signs.

There are many different types of steel, each with it’s own unique properties and characteristics, with the type of steel to be used depending on the requirements and application. For signage almost any steel – from mild steel, alloy steel and spring steel to stainless steel, can be used.

For cut out signs the most commonly used steel’s are stainless steel, alloy steel and mild steel.

The most common finishes for stainless steel cut out signs are a mirror finish, a brushed stainless steel sign finish and a mill finish. Because of the nature and difficulty associated with coating certain grades of stainless steel, it is not suggested to coat (paint or powder coat) certain types and grades of stainless steel cut out signs. Stainless steel for cut out signs is available in a variety of thickness’s, is remarkably strong, tends to be heavy (which can be a disadvantage for signage), and requires specialised machinery to drill and cut.

Similar to Aluminium, stainless steel has the advantage of not rusting, although it too can bleed (the industry jargon or slang used to describe the rust like streaking that can sometimes occur) when certain metals comes into contact with other metals.

Mild steel is also available in a variety of thickness’s and can be used in a range of signs. Mild steel does rust – with some client’s even looking for a rusted effect – and can be coated – both spray painted and powder coated.

It is always recommended to coat mild steel in order to delay (or prevent) rusting. Being they are easily coated, mild steel signs can be made to match (within about 10%) almost every available colour as long as the client has the relevant Pantone, TAL or CMYK color reference.

Like aluminium, mild steel signs are fairly easily worked with a laser, saw, or waterjet and can thus easily have pins (studs) attached to the rear of the cut out in order to raise the sign elements away from the substrate or wall where the sign is to be installed. When raising the steel cut out signs away from the wall it is important to be aware that if the material is too thin unwanted burning can appear on the face of the steel cut out.

White it is largly dependant on location – especially proximity to humidity and chemicals – steel cut out signs can be extremely durable and resistant to wear and tear. This means correctly placed and correctly treated steel cut out signs can withstand harsh weather conditions, rust, and corrosion and maintain their appearance over a long period of time.

Steel cut out signs are popular as they have been around for as long as people have worked steel, with the advantage that steel cut out signs can be customized to any shape, size, or design to meet the specific needs of the client.

Steel cut out signs are great for unique and eye-catching signs that are sure to grab attention, and are still highly popular, even in the modern world where a number of alloy and composite materials with great working and weather resistant properties exist.

Steel cut out signs can be used to get multiple outcomes – including advertising cut our signs, business branding cut out signs, and cut out signs that advise directions, as long as the steel cut out sign can be placed on a backing such as a wall, a fences or a post with runners.

Traditionally steel cut out signs have been considered cost-effective for the long run, as steel cut out signs last for many years without requiring frequent replacements, and only occasional coating if quality coatings are used. With the introduction of modern alloy and composite materials steel cut out signs are often less cost effective as the modern materials can have outdoor life expectancies of up to 20 years, can be more cost effective up front, and in struggling economies such as in South Africa, the composite materials (more so than the alloy materials) are becoming increasingly popular for cut out signs as they have no residue or scrap value so the signs made from composite cut outs are less likely to be stolen and removed for scrap. The removal of steel cut out signs – including alloy cut out signs that have a market for recycling – is an ever increasing and very present problem in current day South Africa.

Today printed or pre-pigmented vinyl cut out signs, vinyl stick on signs, vinyl self adhesive text signs, vinyl letters, vinyl logo’s or other vinyl graphics are the most commonly used to material to decorate signs. Most vinyl is microns thick making it a cost effective material that is easily applied by experienced applicators.

Pre-pigmented vinyl comes in single – flat – colors that can be made into single color cut out signs or one can get white printable vinyl, clear printable vinyl or sandblast effect printable vinyl that can be digitally printed to create a full color sign with almost any visual effect imaginable. All printed vinyl signs can also be made into vinyl cut out signs with the advantage that the cut outs can be multiple colors and multiple shades per color.

Pre-pigmented vinyl and printed vinyl can cut out to create signs that can be applied to a wide variety of surfaces, with one limitation that if the incorrect vinyl is used on an incorrectly prepared surface, the vinyl will not adhere effectively and will curl, peel and fall off.

Vinyl cut out signs – whether pre-pigmented or printed are only suitable for use on existing substrates, and are not suitable for use as a stand alone 2D and 3D sign.

Printed and pre-pigmented vinyl cut outs can be used in conjunction with almost every traditional sign substrate.

Common uses for either printed vinyl cut outs or pre-pigmented vinyl cut outs are wall signs, wall decals, to decorate banner signs, to decorate vehicles – either for a full or partial wrap or even if only for vinyl cut out decals -, vinyl cut out window graphics, vinyl cut out floor graphics, all sorts of vinyl cut out signs to display text, businesses, location, direction or whatever the purchaser desires, decorating A-Frame signs, and for trade show displays, for example the name and location of the stall.

Wood cut out letters, 3D wood cut out logo’s and substrate made out of cut out wood or compressed wood are all popular because of the natural, grained look they project. Natural wood and processed wood 2D and 3D signs can be laminated (joined) and are thus available in varying thickness’s starting from around 3mm, and can be made to almost any size required.

One’s budget as well as the desired thickness of the sign and the effect one wants to achieve will determine the wood that is used.

Depending on where the signs are to be located wooden signs may need to be treated against the weather. Wood signs can be varnished or painted depending on the effect and look desired. Natural wood has a longer outdoor life than wood ‘look alike’ products like wood veneer, compressed board, wood effect vinyl and wood laminate, although these man made products are sometimes easier and most effective to use for certain applications.

Cut out sign elements – logo’s, letters etceteras – made from any number of substrates can be converted into a 3D effect sign by raising the cut out sign elements away from the backing substrate (or wall). The raising of the elements of the sign is typically achieved by using thin steel or acrylic ‘pins’ or a clear, polished acrylic element to match the visual element you want spaced off the substrate. Pins attached to the rear of the cut out element can space the cut out element almost any distance away from the substrate, although it is most common for cut out letters to be spaced between 20 mm and 50 mm from the substrate. Almost any material, other than vinyl, that can be used to create a flat cut sign can be used for sign with raised cut out letters.

While there is no fast rule as to how far cut out letters should be spaced from a wall or substrate, the factors to take into account are the height and letter width of the elements / letters, as if the pins are too long, they can make the most elegant sign look gaudy and cheap.

For non-illuminated signs the 3D effect created by spacing a cut out letter off a wall allows for a natural drop shadow to be created when light, especially the sun, is shone onto the front of the sign. Adding a drop shadow / 3D effect by raising the elements off the backing wall adds a feeling of class and luxury to the sign.

Raising cut out letters off the substrate or wall is a cost effective method of creating a 3D effect for a sign. The cost advantage of placing pins behind flat cut out elements raising them away from a substrate makes this a very attractive option for businesses that are looking for a modern, 3D type effect on a tight budget.

It is also quite common for raised cut our sign elements to be illuminated from the rear, especially when ‘halo’ effect illumination is required. With LED lighting we are able to create a halo or back lit effect that adds a further dimension to the sign, and the sign doesn’t need to stand more than about 20 mm off the wall or substrate.

The greatest disadvantage of raising elements using pins is that the pins can be visible, and can be seen as unsightly when the sign is viewed from the side or from directly below the raised elements. Sometimes aluminium tubing or chromed tubing or painted acrylic tubing is used to hide the visible pins. Depending on the type of material to be raised off the backing substrate, including it’s weight, sometimes clear acrylic can be used as the pin instead of metal pins, as the polished clear acrylic is less visible.

Pan lettering, also known as 3D, fabricated cut out letters, tends to be the standard specified by the majority of consultants, designers, architects and managers of retail malls throughout the world. Because these signs are so commonly used for retail outlets, they are often referred to as “retail signs”, “3D retail signs” and “store signs”. In fact, 3D signs are so popular with large retail malls that it takes a great design for any other type of sign to be approved for installation by the mall management, thus even independent stores and small chains prefer using pan fabricated 3D signs because they show that the store’s are modern, upmarket, trendy and keeping up with the times or “with it”.

While 3D pan lettering or 3D fabricated cut out letters are very common in retail outlets, especially when used as store front signs and departmental signs in store, 3D signs are just as likely to be used as interior 3D reception signs, 3D interior building signs¸ 3D exterior signs¸ 3D outdoor business signs, 3D commercial signs and 3D building signs for exterior use. 3D signs are also commonly used when identifying or naming a building.

While there may be a number of methods to create a 3D effect, the three most common methods are:

(1) designing a sign to be decorated with digitally printed and / or cut vinyl creating an impression that the sign is 3D when viewed from the front,

(2) laminating (fixing a number of layers of material together) to create a thicker material that can then be cut and shaped into a 3D sign and

(3) pan lettering or fabricating (welding sides – called returns in signage language – to a cut out element – called the face – in order to create a full 3D sign. The method of installation will depend on the desired effect, whether the 3D sign has an open or closed back, the material that is used to manufacture the sign and how the sign is to be illuminated – whether the illumination will be visible or the light – but not the means of light – will be visible through the face of the 3D sign.

While it will not have the same effect, especially when viewed from the side, designing a sign to include a 3D effect, whether the sign is printed or is decorated with overlaid cut vinyl to create a 3D effect, can be a cost effective alternative to a 3D sign. The advantage of the cost saving is sometimes discounted by the sign being static, in that no matter from which direction the sign is viewed, the designed ‘drop shadow’ used to create a 3D effect will always be in the same place. Also, when the sign is viewed from the side, nothing will be seen, as the face of the sign is in fact flat.

Laminating can sometimes be a cost effective method of creating thicker, 3D signs for smaller cut out letters (especially when they are too small or too thin to fabricate) as well as when wood or similar materials are used to create certain large 3D signs. Depending on the size of the letters and the substrate used, laminated elements can be individually rear illuminated using a variety of illuminating methods, including LED lighting and flex neon strip lighting. If the letters are fixed to a box, the box can be illuminated using a variety of lighting methods.

Pan lettering or fabricating (in order to create a ‘boxed’ or ‘pan’ 3D effect) sign elements create a box / pan type 3D sign that is modern and visible from multiple positions. 3D fabricated (pan) elements can be non-illuminated or individually, internally illuminated and can either be installed flat against a backing substrate or spaced off the backing substrate on pins or “feet” depending on the required effect, whether the sign has an open or closed back, the material that is used to manufacture the sign and how the sign will be illuminated.

When designing a 3D fabricated sign for a letter or logo that is already visually 3D, it is important to establish whether the boxed section of the letter or logo should reflect the visual 3D element (the return), or if the visual 3D element will only be reflected on the face, and not the face and the return, of the boxed sign.

As with flat cut out signs, fabricated 3D signs can be manufactured from a number of materials, with the material of choice varying from area to area. The choice of material will depend on the location of the sign – for example certain materials work better in dry area’s than at the coast, the height and face width of the elements that are to be fabricated, the availability of material and the client’s budget. In South Africa Perspex, Plexiglas, ABS, Aluminium, Stainless steel, Compressed Plastic and Brass are amongst the materials most commonly used to fabricate 3D signs.

Fabricated 3D signs refers to the ‘3D box’ or ‘pan’ effect created when a return is welded to the sign face – whether it be the full sign or the individual elements. These days it is most common for fabricated elements to refer to the face (front) of the sign being closed, with open face (closed rear) fabricated elements being referred to as pan fabricated.

Open pan fabricated letters and elements are less common these days because they were most commonly used for neon illuminated signs, where the neon was visible and the fabricated return of the sign was used primarily to protect the exposed glass tube of the neon lighting. Because of the brightness and visibility of exposed neon tube, neon illuminated, pan fabricated letters and signs generally have the advantage of being visible – and legible – from a greater distance than internally illuminated (reverse pan) fabricated signs where a percentage of the light is lost, being absorbed by the material on the face of the sign. That said, signage, like fashion, is cyclical, so it may only be a matter of time before we see an increase in the number of open pan letters being used.


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