10 must-know things about starting a vinyl signs and decals small business

Every signage requirement can be an opportunity for your vinyl signs small business

Consider the following results of a FedEx Office study which sought to measure the power of signage and how it impacts customers’ decisions:

  • 76% of consumers said signage was their motivation behind entering a shop they had never visited before
  • Approximately 68% of consumers believe that signage reflects the quality of a company’s products or services
  • 75% of respondents said that signage was the sole reason for telling others about a business
  • Almost 60% of consumers said that lack of signage prevents them from entering a business
  • Around 67% of consumers said that attention-grabbing signage was their reason for purchasing a product or service
Signage is a critical requirement for business success

While opinions may vary as to what these statistics imply, one glaring undeniable fact does stand out: we need signage and that need is not going away any time soon.

Starting a vinyl signs and decals small business is one of the ways you can make money in this industry.

The sign, graphics and visual communications industry is broad. The chart below illustrates the various sectors that make up this industry:

Source

The latest data from the United States Census Bureau indicates that the sign manufacturing industry is worth $11.7 billion, a figure that doesn’t factor in revenues from related business sectors e.g. digital printing, graphic design, display advertising and consulting, and which, combined, are estimated at $100 billion globally.

In this report, Lori Anderson, President of the International Sign Association (ISA), states that the U.S. on-sign premise sign industry (signage that excludes billboards) contributes $37.5 billion to the economy annually.

According to the International Sign Association’s 2016 State of the Industry Survey, the sign and graphic industry enjoyed a decade of growth and continues to grow. Also, the ISA’s 2016 third quarter economic report predicted growth for the signs, graphics and visual communications markets in 2017, a trend that is expected to be sustained into 2018.

There’s increasing demand for directional and indoor signage in 2017

These sentiments are echoed by Sign World, with a key takeaway being that demand for indoor signage is set to rise by 1.2% in 2017. Another Sign World report provides the following insights:

  • Signage is becoming increasingly popular in the corporate settings, sports, education, leisure, and entertainment industries. Directional and way-finding signage is particularly in demand
  • Customers are increasingly preferring to buy online
  • High demand persists for posters, backlit displays, pop up displays, banners, etc
  • Demand for indoor signage is fast overtaking that for outdoor signage
  • Demand for short-lived signage continues to rise

Here’s what you should know before launching your vinyl signs and decals small business:

1. You need to choose an appropriate vinyl cutter aka plotter

The vinyl cutter aka plotter is a computer-controlled machine capable of translating your design into an outline and then cutting this shape from a sheet of vinyl with a sharp blade.

Three types of cutter exist i.e. laser, flatbed and roll-fed varieties.

You won’t need a complicated vinyl cutter to create decals like these…

There is an abundance of plotters in the market today and your choice of equipment will basically be determined by the nature and size of your requirements and business.

For example, a hobbyist getting into vinyl cutting doesn’t need to go for commercial type equipment.

Entrepreneurs who are just starting out, on the other hand, will have much more to consider.

You’ll need a commercial vinyl cutter for such jobs though…

Depending on the success they find earlier on, there might be a need to invest in a new machine capable of meeting the required demands for:

  • Size — You need a cutter that can accommodate the widths of vinyl material you’ll be using, with the most common width dimensions being 15, 19 and 20 inches
  • Speed — Your plotter needs to have superb cutting speed
  • Memory — With adequate buffer memory your plotter can quickly download designs from the computer
  • Blade force/pressure — This is adjustable and depends on the thickness of the materials you are cutting
A vinyl cutter with a digital servo motor will offer the precision required for cutting this design

This is all good but successful professional vinyl sign-making calls for considering far much more plotter technical detail.

These include the following:

  • The equipment’s type of drive motor i.e. the component that powers the grit roller which is responsible for moving the media back and forth as required and also moving the blade. There are two types of drive motors to choose from:
  1. Mechanical stepper motors — This type is driven by physical gears and the resulting movements are minute increments. While they make for an affordable and economical option, their use results in mechanical losses. Using these motors is noisy and the precision is noticeably inaccurate especially when you need to cut out smaller graphics.
  2. Digital servo motors — Here a digital encoder is used instead of physical gears. As a result using such a vinyl cutter is markedly quieter, faster, and the cutting is supremely precise even for tiny letters.
  • Tracking ability — This is the ability of a cutter to maintain a straight line on a length of vinyl. Digital motors are capable of as much as ten times the tracking ability of stepper motors. Nevertheless, a couple more qualities go into influencing tracking ability including what type of pinch roller assemblies have been installed, control panel features, and whether or not the equipment has a floor stand.

Other important technical criteria you want to be on the lookout for are:

  • Tangential emulation — this will facilitate the cutting of elaborate graphics in thick media
  • Vinyl cutters that can convert printed images into contour-cut decals. This is made possible with ARMS (Advanced Registration Mark Sensor) equipment.
  • Cutters capable of cutting and perforating vinyl i.e. a two-stage process that begins with just cutting through the vinyl face film (kiss cut) and then cutting through the face film, adhesive and liner — all this without damaging the platen
  • Plotters with inbuilt media sensors capable of detecting the surface of the vinyl and then determining the precise amount of force the blade will require to cut the vinyl
  • Cutters that can advance the amount of vinyl required for a given job from a roll, make faint grooves in the face film, and then retract this pre-feed back towards the roll. Once the cutting begins the grooves will act as subtle tracks for the pinch rollers, and there will be enough slack to reduce stress on the cutter’s drive mechanism.
  • Details about these and other vital considerations, including equipment warranty, are provided in this vinyl cutters guide.

As many people have experienced, you need time to master using a vinyl cutter.

Unfortunately, the phone support your cutter’s manufacturer can provide is unlikely to be very helpful. Owners of similar machines, and indeed other sign-making professionals, may be your best bet.

As such, before you buy a cutter, go online and do some research about it. You mostly want to go to YouTube to see if there are many tutorials that can guide you in troubleshooting. Also, find relevant forums and communities where you can get answers and tips to questions you may have.

Fluency in using design software and the ability to come up with creative designs is a prerequisite for success

2. An appropriate choice of vinyl cutting software must be made

In most cases, when you purchase a vinyl cutter it comes with accompanying software. Hopefully, what you get should be adequate to get you started seeing as you can use it to create basic vector designs. Alternatively, you can purchase and download other people’s designs and load them into your software.

Nevertheless, acquiring and using comprehensive professional software from the onset will give you a much better possibility of making yours a successful vinyl cutting small business.

You see, in this business, one of the most important competitive advantages you can have is the ability to make your own incredible designs. These are what will enable you to compete against other top designers in the business.

In fact, anyone intent on getting into vinyl cutting should be familiar with and capable of using design apps.

If you don’t plan on designing your own stuff though there is always the option of downloading other people’s designs. You’ll have to pay for a commercial license to use these, of course, meaning you’ll have to sell at higher prices (which isn’t too bad if you can make it happen). Sadly, these designs will always remain to be other people’s work.

Some clients’ requirements will need you to be very adept at design

So, how do you go about this?

First, well before opening shop, take time to learn design using either or both CorelDraw and Adobe Illustrator. These, and the sign software we’ll discuss below, are accessible via a rolling cloud subscription fee. Mastering either of the two can be challenging but once you become fluent the results will certainly make the effort worth it.

There is a good reason for using these two software but not options like Adobe Photoshop, Corel PhotoPaint, Microsoft Paint, etc. The two are vector applications; this allows them to be used with vinyl cutters. The other options are raster-based software.

Vector applications produce graphics made of lines and connecting points or nodes, the sort of art that vinyl cutters are designed to read. Raster applications, however, convert pixels to dots, a form that your vinyl cutter will find near impossible to convert to graphics. Read more about the difference between vector and raster images here.

At this point you have three options.

You can decide to send your designs directly from Adobe Illustrator or CorelDraw to your cutter. This will require a plug-in and it’s possible that your plotter may not have one.

The other option is to acquire sign software and use it as a bridge to your plotter. You’ll basically be exporting your designs first to the sign software and then to the cutter.

The last and most reliable option is to acquire sign software and produce your graphics in it.

NB: Raster graphics can be converted to vector form, i.e. vectorized, using software. The result won’t be perfect and will therefore require some optimizing and tuning.

3. You need associated equipment, tools and supplies

In addition to the vinyl cutter and software you will need the following:

a. A computer — It must have adequate processing power and enough RAM to run the software; minimum specifications can therefore be 2.0 GHz processor, 4GB RAM, 4 GB primary hard drive open space, and 1152 X 854 monitor screen resolution with 16-bit color. Note that while your Mac will suffice, having a Windows PC will give you many more options in the sign business.

b. Printer

c. Camera

d. Packaging materials

e. Squeegee or putty-knife tool

f. Transfer tape

g. Weeding tools and blades (scissors, tweezers, X-Acto knife, etc.)

h. Cutting mat

i. Vinyl rolls — you can start by stocking the most commonly used colors i.e. white, black, silver, pink and red

It is possible to acquire a good number of these tools and supplies as part of a bundle when purchasing your vinyl cutter — don’t expect to find a computer, printer or camera there, of course.

4. What vinyl type do you go for? Introduction to cast, calendared, monomeric and polymeric vinyl

There are numerous varieties of vinyl available in the market, each suitable for a given application.

The bottom line, however, is that all these vinyls can be grouped under three categories i.e. calendared, cast and specialty types.

Calendared and cast vinyls are however the types that you’ll commonly be working with and it’s therefore prudent to know what the differences are.

The main ingredients of vinyl films are PVC (polyvinylchloride), a plasticizer (used to make films flexible because PVC is quite rigid), pigments, and various additives to impart desirable qualities (UV absorbers, heat stabilizers, fillers and processing aids are some of these).

Calendaring and casting are the two techniques used in manufacturing vinyl films; cast films are generally of higher quality.

The grade of plasticizer used also impacts on how flexible the film will be. This also results in two categories of vinyl i.e. monomeric and polymeric.

Monomeric vinyls are produced when the plasticizer used has a smaller molecule size. As a result the molecule migration is greater and more consequential on the adhesive and laminates of the film. Also, as the molecule chains are shorter, these vinyl films tend to become brittle when used in demanding environmental conditions.

Polymeric vinyl films have longer molecule chains. There is therefore less effect on the adhesive and laminates; these films are more stable and are less susceptible to shrinkage.

While monomeric and polymeric vinyl films are available in both cast and calendared forms, monomeric cast films are rather rare. Polymeric films are also more printer-friendly thanks to the type of plasticizer used.

Monomeric vinyl films are used for most jobs

Monomeric vinyl films

Pros:

  • Suitable for flat-sided applications
  • Will do for most customers’ jobs
  • Can be more affordable than polymeric and cast vinyls
  • Short to medium lifespan (2–5 years)
  • Films are easier to handle as they are thicker/stiffer
  • Being thicker (75–85 microns) they have more abrasion resistance

Cons:

  • Not ideal for uneven or contoured surfaces
  • Possibility of slight shrinkage over their lifespan
Using a polymeric vinyl film will be advisable here

Polymeric vinyl films

Pros:

  • Longer lifespan compared to monomeric films (5–7 years or 8+ years)
  • No shrinkage
  • Suitable for flat and slightly curved applications
  • Thicker films (70–75 microns) give greater abrasion resistance

Cons:

  • These are more expensive than the monomeric variety

5. Production of vinyl films

Cast vinyl films

In producing cast vinyl films, the required ingredients are added into a mixing churn according to a predetermined order. The mixing is done at a specified speed for a given length of time and this results in a liquid mixture called an organosol.

The organosol is then cast onto a casting sheet and taken through a series of ovens where the solvents are evaporated. The solid “film” that remains is then wound up and taken for adhesive coating. Different casting sheets are used to produce films of varying texture.

Cast vinyl films will give a reliable long-term performance in demanding conditions

Features of cast vinyl films:

  • These films experience the least shrinkage because the relaxed manufacturing process used doesn’t apply stress on the film
  • The manufacturing technique and raw materials used also ensure that these films have the most durability (8–10 years)
  • These films are soft to handle, and easier to cut, weed and apply than calendared types
  • Since they can be made very thin (50–60 microns) these films can be applied over complex uneven surfaces where they’ll also be less vulnerable to abrasive forces
  • These films are the best at retaining their color and other desirable properties
  • The manufacturing technique allows for small production runs

Calendared vinyl films

In this case the ingredients for calendared vinyl films production are mixed and then “kneaded” in an extruder. Huge heated (as hot as 350°F) steel rollers, known as calendar rolls, are the used to form the vinyl into thin sheets; this process is what’s known as “calendaring”.

When the melt reaches these rolls it passes between multiple gaps where its temperature and uniformity are increased. Subsequent gaps make the film thinner and wider.

The hot film then comes to the embossing station where different patterns and gloss levels are applied; different film surface structures are produced using different embossing rolls and specified settings of the calendar line.

Finally, the film is cooled and taken for winding. Films as thin as 2.0mil can be produced using this technique.

Calendared vinyl films are generally inferior to cast vinyl films on all counts.

Summary of these vinyl films qualities:

Source

6. Some of the common substrates that you’ll be using

Put simply, substrates are the surfaces on which to stick your vinyl signs.

There are two types of these i.e. flexible and rigid.

Flexible substrates include banners and awnings.

Rigid ones, on the other hand, are plentiful. Note that a material suitable for a rigid substrate must be smooth, flat and chemically stable.

A substrate’s qualities will determine its suitability for different signage requirements

Here are a number of substrates suitable for large format signage applications:

  • Acrylic — Lightweight, provides luminance and optical depth, easy hanging and mounting, durable
  • Black PVC — Suitable for white-ink printing technology; high quality and durable final product
  • Coroplast — A corrugated plastic material. Lightweight, cost-effective, waterproof, weather-resistant; ideal for outdoor and indoor applications
  • Dibond — Features a plastic core surrounded with aluminum facers. Ultra-smooth, durable and maintenance-free. Works for outdoor and indoor applications.
  • Falconboard — Visually-outstanding and cost-effective. Provides superior print quality and dimensional stability.
  • Foamcore — Lightweight, easy to handle and cost-effective. Suitable for indoor applications; can be mounted with or without a frame.
  • Gatorboard — Lightweight, stable, easy portability, water-resistant and durable
  • Matte Scrim Banner — Ideal for customers who need high impact banners, exhibition stands and portable displays. Can be used for outdoor and indoor applications.
  • Removable vinyl — Features vinyl material with a removable clear adhesive backing. Can be used on dry, flat, painted wall surfaces and then taken down without leaving a mess. Suitable for indoor applications.
  • Smooth Banner — Excellent image quality, affordable and durable
  • Styrene — Thin, lightweight, durable and economical. Used for outdoor and indoor applications.
  • White PVC — Waterproof, weather-resistant, resilient, durable, and offers excellent image quality
  • Other substrate varieties include: Lexan/Polycarbonate, FRP Fiberboard, MDO Wood and Aluminum.

7. The procedure for making vinyl signs and decals

Having set up your equipment and gathered all the necessary tools, materials and supplies, you can now start making vinyl signs and decals.

The process is as follows:

  1. Creation of artwork
  2. Importing it to your vinyl cutting software for formatting, framing, sizing, scaling, rotating and manipulating as required
  3. Loading your vinyl cutter with vinyl film
  4. Selecting a blade and then setting the blade depth and pressure (depth and pressure must be adjusted every time you are using a different vinyl type)
  5. Sending the artwork to the plotter and cutting it
  6. Weeding i.e. removing the negative parts of the image. This is done by hand and will be much easier if the blade was properly set. This step may take time if the artwork is complex and you may be required to use tweezers, a weeding pick or X-Acto knife
  7. Application of transfer tape on your design taking into account the side of the vinyl sign that’ll be placed on the substrate. For designs larger than your width of transfer tape you can apply several lines of tape, each slightly overlapping the next. Finally, firmly press the transfer tape onto the vinyl decal using a squeegee.
  8. Carefully pulling the tape and attached vinyl away from the vinyl’s paper backing. This will expose the vinyl’s adhesive side.
  9. Carefully placing the vinyl adhesive-side down on the substrate. If re-positioning will be required you can use application fluid, i.e. wet application, and then slide the design into the desired position
  10. Using a squeegee to press out any air bubbles between the vinyl and substrate
  11. Finally pulling off the transfer tape to reveal the vinyl sign

NB: Application fluid doesn’t work for all vinyls; learn more from this guide.

Legible graphics are what make for an effective vinyl sign

8. The basics of good vinyl sign design

The hallmark of a professional vinyl sign-making business is the ability to produce legible graphics that will communicate effectively with the intended recipients of the message.

The legibility of your signs will be affected by the following:

The use of contrasting colors helps signs to stand out

a. Contrast — Only with this quality can a sign grab attention, and ensure that the most vital part of the message, e.g. name and contact details, is communicated, however brief a viewer’s eye contact with the graphic is. Contrast can be easily achieved through the use of contrasting colors and fonts.

Using different fonts will highlight your sign’s main message

b. Fonts — The arrangement of your fonts should be such that it will be easy to distinguish between the headline or main message, and the subsequent related message. Adjusting the size, style and weight of your font for the primary, secondary and tertiary message will help you achieve a desired contrast.

In case the tertiary message has too small a size of text, using serif font will help to make it more legible.

Nevertheless, an abundance of fonts or styles on your sign will diminish its visual appeal. Using three different fonts can be okay but restricting yourself to two will have better results.

Choose a font size that’ll allow your sign to be legible from a given viewing distance

In terms of the relationship between font size and the distance from which your sign can be viewed, it’s recommended that font size should increase by 1 inch for every 10ft of viewing distance away from the sign.

Your letter height and viewing distance chart will therefore read as below:

c. Color — Using highly contrasting colors will help your sign to grab attention. Suitable combinations include black and white, black and yellow, white and red, etc.

Using contrasting colors helps to clarify the message even for word-free signs

The rule is to use text and substrate colors that are not too close to each other e.g. white and yellow or black and dark blue. Such a graphic will be difficult to read and may even go unnoticed.

A thick bold font can be read from afar

d. Thickness of the letters used — Seeing as thin letters will be difficult to read, it is advisable to go for a simple bold font.

e. White space — This refers to the open area around the copy. It is important to resist the urge to cram the sign with text; enough white space is required to enhance the text’s legibility.

A good approach for this is the 40/60 rule i.e. creating a graphic where text takes up 40% and white space occupies 60%.

Proper use of white space and kerning enhances legibility even in creatively designed signage

f. Kerning — This describes the negative space between letters and also has consequences on white space. Letters vary in width and therefore some will take up more space than others.

Also, if the space between a word’s letters appears too big, chances are that legibility will be compromised by this distraction.

As such, you must ensure that letters are well spaced; the kerning tools in various recommended software should help with this.

g. Other considerations you should take into account are the sign’s location and substrate material used

9. How to price your vinyl signs and decals

While producing high quality vinyl signage is a prerequisite for attracting customers to your vinyl decals small business, the prices you are going to charge will determine whether or not your venture will be sustainable.

Nevertheless, deciding on a pricing strategy is understandably tricky.

However, there are some basic guidelines for anyone getting started on this.

First, the right price is a reflection of the law of demand and supply. It’s not too high (thus deterring sales) or too low (thus increasing demand but curtailing profits). Second, the right price is competitive as compared to current market rates, covers production costs, and is a reflection of what the product is worth to the customer.

That being said, the labor plus materials method is a most sensible way to price vinyl graphics.

You’ll first calculate the cost of materials used and then add a markup. Many sign makers calculate this amount by doubling the materials cost. For example, if $30 was spent on materials the cost so far is $30 X 2 = $60.

You then add the labor cost. First you’ll need to estimate the time it takes to create the sign and then multiply this by your hourly rate. For example, if it takes you 45 minutes to create a banner and your hourly rate is $70/hr, the labor cost will be 45mins X $70/hr = $52.50.

(Note that the time estimate assumes that you are an experienced signmaker)

The total cost of the banner will therefore be ($52.50 + $60) = $112.50

Note that this method is effective for certain types of vinyl graphics only. Using it across the board, say for banners, may result in under-pricing. Here the best recourse would be to base your price on standard industry rates.

10. Marketing and selling your vinyl signs and decals

Only by vigorously marketing your business can you create awareness for your business and make sales, both offline and online.

Offline marketing and selling

Here you’ll be targeting immediate and not-so-distant potential customers in the vicinity of your shop.

For decals, the first step will be to ensure you have a good product that people will want to buy. However, selling unit pieces of your decals won’t be good enough; the idea is to go for volume sales.

Local businesses always need signage, say for product packaging; cater to this need

Some of the potential customers you can approach in this regard may include local businesses, event-throwers, schools, political organizations, fundraisers, and people who need product labels.

For signs, your marketing strategy should be based on your specialty area, say, for example, full color graphics. With this in mind, you can now do some market research to establish who your potential customers are and how you can reach them. You’ll also need to know who you are competing against.

Creativity can inspire the growth of your vinyl cutting business in myriad ways

These three considerations will form the basis of your unique marketing proposition i.e. unique qualities that only your vinyl cutting small business can offer. Understandably, this can’t happen overnight; lots of consistent effort will be required to make this work.

You’ll also need to invest in advertising. Newspaper ads, posters, banners, business cards, signs, etc., will help to spread the word about your business.

To reach potential customers like local businesses and political organizations you may need a more direct approach. Writing business proposals and cold calling are some of the approaches you can use.

Online marketing and selling

Thanks to platforms like Etsy selling your vinyl graphics online is comparatively easier. A description of how to get started is offered here.

To support your online shop and create more awareness for your business it is advisable to find and actively contribute on relevant forums. Blogging is another effective way to do this.

You can do brisk business online if your vinyl decals are catchy and popular
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