Signs, Signs, Everywhere a Sign

How to make professional looking signs for your layout

By Craig Bisgeier

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Signage is a very important part of the model railroading experience.  Knowing where you are, what track this or that is, or which direction you are moving in can be the difference between a good operating session and a lousy one.  So when it became necessary to start labeling things on my own railroad, I wanted to be sure it was done right. 

I drew on my experiences of operating on other layouts to come up with my own methods, and in the end I think I came up with something simple, highly visible and useful that is neither complicated nor distracting.

After a moderately successful try at casting my panels out of polyurethane plastic in rubber molds, I decided I needed something simpler and easier to make that was also less expensive.  I considered P-Touch labels but wanted something larger for better visibility and more decorative too.  I eventually turned to a readily available and flexible solution, my trusty PC and a copy of Microsoft Word.  (Now, before you MS Windows haters get out of hand, it could be any computer and text / graphics program, this is just the one I chose to use because I had it handy and know how to use it.)

I turned to the drawing tools in Word to design my signs.  I chose a standard layout, which was a black rectangle with a yellow border, and picked a common font all signs would use (printed in the same yellow).  From there it was a simple matter to cut and paste enough copies of the basic sign forms onto a page and type in the station names.  Consistency is the key to making all the signs look professionally done.  Though it was my intent to have 1/8” borders around the sign edges, I drew the yellow borders at least ¼” wide, and I’ll explain why in a few moments.

I have access to a nice color photo printer at work, so on off hours I printed copies of all my signs off on good photo paper.  The color saturation and intensity is really nice this way.  You can have it done at a Kinko’s for just a couple of dollars.  Even still I wanted to protect the signs and give them a tough finish, so when I got the m home I gave them a couple of coats of clear gloss enamel spray paint.

Once the paint dried I cut out the signs from the photo paper sheets and put them aside.  Now it was time to give them some real depth.  As I said earlier, I kept the sizes of all my signs standard during the design phase, and now I took a bunch of 1/8” masonite scraps I had saved up and cut them on my table saw to the same finished dimensions, less ¼”.  Why cut them smaller?  Because when centered on the back of the paper signs, there would be a 1/8” overlap on all edges, which could be folded up and used to hide the edges of the masonite. 

One at a time, I spread white glue out on back of each paper sign, and than placed a masonite backer in the center of it.  I pressed it down to get a good bond, then clipped the corners with a razor blade so I could fold over the corners without them bunching up.  A little more glue and some steady pressure for a fee minutes along the edges, and the sign was finished.

To mount them on the layout, I bought some 1” wide double-sided foam tape and stuck a good-sized piece on the back of each sign.  Then I placed it on the fascia and leveled it, and pressed it down but good until it had a strong bond.  When it’s mounted, the plate kind of hovers off the fascia a bit which looks kind of cool to me.

The foam tape is great because if you ever need to move the sign, you can just stick a hobby knife down there and slice the foam down its center, and the sign pops right off.  And then the foam tape also peels off easily without marring the surface.

Since I made the station signs I have gone on to make other types and sizes of signs for the layout – North and South plaques, fusee switch control panels and now I’ve used the color printer to make the faces for my fast clock and train order board panels.  Everything has a family feel to it, which really helps bring it all together and looks very professional. 

This technique is pretty simple for anyone to do and I hope you’ll give it a try for your own layout.

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