How to Paint Outdoor Lighted Signs

by J.E. Myers; Updated September 26, 2017

Outdoor signage is an extremely important part of the advertising and marketing of any business. A lighted outdoor sign creates a lasting and effective “first impression” of your business, whether on first-time customers or on drivers passing by your location. While a professionally produced outdoor sign is usually preferable, it is possible to design and make your own lighted sign in order to save money, but follow some reasonable and prudent precautions.

Check building permits and your lease first. Many commercial landlords, and some communities, prohibit “do-it-yourself” outdoor signage. Both often prohibit “homemade” signs as a protection against work that mars the appearance of the property.

Determine how to light the sign according to codes or building rules. You can illuminate signs externally with floodlight units attached to sign, but some communities and landlords prohibit these methods; check building codes or details of the lease first. Most approved signs have internal lights. Internally lighted signs are made of a sheet semi-transparent acrylic mounted on a metal box. Inside the box are one or more low-temperature florescent lamp units that will work regardless of subfreezing weather.

Locate or purchase a large panel of acrylic to mount over a lighting box. This acrylic panel can be fully transparent or only semi-transparent with a light “frosting” on the surface. These panels are usually 1/4 inch in thickness.

Choose paint or vinyl colors based on their ultraviolet (UV) ray "fastness." Whether made of paint or vinyl, dark colors will fade in sunlight faster than lighter colors. Red also has a tendency to fade to pink especially if facing south. Look for outdoor paints and vinyl materials that are UV fade-resistant if possible.

Apply suitable semi-transparent artwork onto the acrylic sheet. Whether using paint or vinyl, light must be able to pass through the material. If you use opaque vinyl or paint, the color will not be properly back lit by the lighting box at night; the color displayed will appear to be black because the light cannot pass through the material. If you use paint for lettering or designs, you must apply it without leaving brush strokes and in a uniform thickness. Otherwise, the back lighting will make these imperfections too obvious and mar your result.

Protect your work. If you are painting on a plywood board, seal the edges with trim to prevent warping or blistering of the plywood. Use heavy-duty marine epoxy paint. Seal all painted signs with polyurethane or cover acrylic sheet signs and painted signs with a sheet of clear acrylic for the best protection.

Mount your sign with professional help. Serious legal implications will occur if a person is injured while installing your sign—that is, if the sign falls and injures a pedestrian, or if the sign blows off the building in bad weather and causes injuries and other damage. Installation of outdoor signs is not a do-it-yourself project.

Hire an electrician to wire the sign to your power source and account. Most landlords will prohibit the use of "general building" electrical accounts to light tenant signage, especially signs that are always "on."

About the Author

A writer and entrepreneur for over 40 years, J.E. Myers has a broad and eclectic range of expertise in personal computer maintenance and design, home improvement and design, and visual and performing arts. Myers is a self-taught computer expert and owned a computer sales and service company for five years. She currently serves as Director of Elections for McLean County, Illinois government.

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