Channel Letter Basics - What Are Channel Letters?

Posted by Kristyn Jones on

Channel letter signs are a staple in the sign industry. Channel letters make great storefront signs due to their large size, style, and illumination. When picking out your channel letters for the first time, there are a lot of things to consider. It can seem a bit daunting at first, but once you get the basics down it can be pretty fun! 

What Are Channel Letters? 

Channel letters are custom-made metal or plastic letters. Channel letters are commonly used in exterior signage, and sometimes in interior spaces like malls. Channel letters are internally lit with a variety of lighting and LED color options. Small details like trim and return color, face color, and illumination style are all important things to consider when designing your channel letters.

 

Channel Letter Diagram | AdVision Signs - Pittsburgh, PA

Channel letters come in a variety of styles to choose from. The most popular channel letter styles are, without a doubt, Face-Lit and Reverse-Lit (Halo-Lit). Since these are the most common styles, you will find them to be a bit more affordable. The most affordable style being Face-lit. Other styles of channel letter include a Face-Lit/Reverse-Lit Combo, Exposed Neon, and Plastic Formed. Here are some quick facts and tips that will help you get started.

How Are Channel Letters Made?

Anatomy Of A Face-Lit Channel Letter | AdVision Signs - Pittsburgh, PAChannel letters are made with a couple of different parts and each style has their own slight differences. In general, you are going to have the face, trim, returns and backs. Some styles, like the Halo-Lit letters, have no trim or acrylic face. Instead, the face and returns are made from metal, bent, welded/adhered, and painted. Exposed neon signs do have an acrylic face, but it is typically a transparent one to help keep the neon safe from the elements and critters. To the left, you will see an up-close look at the anatomy of a Face-Lit letter. This will give you a better idea of how channel letters are made. 

Channel Letter Styles

Face-Lit Channel Letters | AdVision Signs - Pittsburgh, PAFace-Lit Channel Letters

Face-lit channel letters typically consist of metal returns, colored trim cap, and a colored translucent acrylic face that allows light to shine through the face (front). Vinyl graphics, including digitally printed vinyl, can be applied to the face of the acrylic lens to further customize your sign based off your needs. Face-Lit channel letters are among the easiest to see at night, offering the best visibility. Face-Lit channel letters also tend to be a more affordable option compared to other styles.

 

Reverse-Lit / Halo-Lit Channel LettersHalo-Lit Channel Letters / Reverse-Lit Channel Letters | AdVision Signs - Pittsburgh, PA

Halo-Lit or Reverse-Lit channel letters are fabricated, typically, from aluminum. There is no trim cap like face-lit channel letters. The LEDs in halo-lit letters are attached to face the back of the sign. This style also features a clear or translucent plastic backing to diffuse the light and protect the LED components. When illuminated, the light floods the wall or backer panel that the letter is attached to, creating a negative space. Halo-Lit channel letters look high-end and are unique. They can, however, not be as visible as the traditional Face-Lit letter. If you are on a busy road or if your sign is being viewed from a far distance, Reverse-Lit channel letters may not be the right sign for you.

 

Halo-Lit/Reverse-Lit & Face-Lit Channel Letters | AdVisionSigns - Pittsburgh, PAFace-Lit & Halo-Lit Channel Letters

Face and Halo-Lit Letters provide a unique look that implements multiple illumination styles. This style of letter combines the same features of a face-lit and back-lit letter. This style is the ultimate standout sign. You get the unique look of the Halo-Lit channel letter without sacrificing any visibility. There is a bit more legwork into making this style of letter, so you will generally find these at a higher price-point than other styles.

 

Exposed Neon Channel Letters | AdVision Signs - Pittsburgh, PA

Exposed Neon Channel Letters

Exposed neon channel letters are not a commonly made style anymore. Neon is an outdated lighting method that is more expensive than LEDs. Neon is also toxic and the glass tubing that houses the neon can break easily. With that being said, exposed neon channel letters are a style that some brands may crave. This style is made much like the face-lit letters. Instead of LEDs, the letter forms are filled with neon tubing. To keep birds out of the letters, a clear acrylic face is attached to the front of the letter.

 

Plastic Formed Channel Letters | AdVision Signs - Pittsburgh, PAPlastic Formed Channel Letters

Plastic Formed Channel Letters have a molded plastic base with a raised lip. A plastic molded cover, also known as the face, snaps over the base (see below). The face comes in several styles including flat, round or prismatic. The face is fabricated from translucent light-diffusing colored plastic. Light shines through both the face and the sides of the letter. If you want to create custom lighting effects, cut vinyl can be applied to the face.

Preformed Channel Letter Assembly | AdVision Signs - Pittsburgh, PA

Channel Letter Mounting Options

Choosing how to install your channel letter sign is another key thing to closely consider. Not only will the mounting method affect the end style, but it will also affect things like cost. For example, a raceway tends to make install go by faster and will save you in labor costs. Not all channel letters can be mounted the same way. For example, Halo-Lit letters cannot be raceway mounted because it would disrupt the light. If you need to raceway mount your sign to fit regulations, you could mount your Reverse-Lit channel letters to a sign backer, which would then be attached to a raceway. 

Raceway Mount: A raceway mount features a metal box with a power supply and electrical wiring for each letter housed inside of it. Raceways require less wall penetrations having to be made, so some landlords may require your signs be raceway mounted. Raceways can also potentially lower install costs because they create a faster install. Raceways can be painted to match the building, which can help minimize distractions and allow the raceway to "disappear". 

Direct/Flush Mount: If you want to avoid the raceway look or are choosing Halo-Lit letters, you will probably choose a flush mount install. In a flush mount, letters are mounted onto the façade using a pattern. This install method is also commonly referred to as "direct mount". During this install, letters are attached using non-corrosive fasteners. The power supply and wiring connecting the letters are installed behind the façade or bulkhead of the building, so you will need to ensure that there is access behind the sign. Flush mounts tend to require more on-site install time, so the cost can be a bit more than a raceway mount.

Dimensional Channel Letters/ Channel Letter Backer Panel | AdVision Signs - Pittsburgh, PABacker Panel Mount: Backer mounts can create a unique, multi-dimensional look to your sign. In this style, channel letters get attached to a backer panel that is larger than the letters themselves. You may hear this panel referred to as a "cloud". The panels can be attached to a raceway, which can houses the wiring and power supply, or it can be installed directly to the building and the wiring goes behind the building's façade. Backer panels can be painted or digitally printed with a design of your choice, making them a fun add-on to your traditional letters. 

Helpful Channel Letter Tips

  • Check with your local zoning office before getting set on a particular style, size and/or color. Some zones have design and sizing standards that you must follow. 
  • Also check with your Landlord to find out what requirements they may have for your sign, if any.
  • Don't settle for second best! Investing in your channel letter sign will be worth it. Channel letters are long-term signs that offer a high return-on-investment (ROI).
  • Choosing lower quality materials to cut costs might sound like a good idea for your budget, but it's not the best decision long term. For example, low-quality LED’s means your bright sign may not be bright for long. You will notice your LEDs begin to fade much sooner. Low quality trim, paint, or vinyl can also age prematurely. We recommend the highest-quality materials to keep your sign looking fresh.
  • Pay attention to the details. Make sure you know the color of your returns, trim and face. If you want a color-match, be sure to make that known up-front. These small details make a difference for your brand.
  • Know your warranties on power-supplies and electrical components, if any.
  • When looking to get your new sign, figure out what you have to spend and what style fits in that budget. Face-Lit letters on a raceway are going to be the most cost effective. If you want Face-Lit/Reverse-Lit on a custom-shaped printed backer, you will need to be willing to pay a little extra.

Channel letters are the most important sign a business has! AdVision Signs can provide you with the professional advice, design expertise, and skilled install team to create the custom channel letter sign of your dreams. Simply REQUEST A QUOTE or give us a call (toll free) at 1-888-792-3400. We look forward to hearing from you!


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