Author:

Gevorg Hambardzumyan

Founder of leading, full-cycle sign-fabrication company in Los Angeles - Front Signs.

CHANNEL LETTERS FROM A-Z

Everything You Need To Know About Channel Letters To Get The Most Out Of Your Sign Without Being Tricked Into Overpaying For It By a Signage Company

Channel letters or pan channel letters are large individual letters. They are commonly used as exterior signage on businesses, churches, and in shopping centers. Truth be told, from my extensive (15+ years) experience heading a leading sign-making company in LA, and having worked with businesses of all stripes and sizes, I can tell you that…

From all types of signs, channel letters are the most effective in their attention-grabbing power. Moreover…

I first wanted to reproduce here some chart graphs a few of our clients sent us. They clearly indicate the radical growth in foot traffic – and, subsequently, customer base- they experienced after the installation of channel letter signs we fabricated. But that would unnecessarily prolong the introduction… so you have to take my word for it – from all types of signs, channel letters produce the most outstanding results in terms of pulling customers into your business.

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And here I’m about to cover EVERYTHING you need to know to make a well-reasoned order of channel letters for your business. By the time you finish reading this article you will know the following:

  • Types of channel letters and whether or not you really need an illuminated one
    (this info may become a real money-saver)
  • Installation options (which one really suits your needs best)
  • How to choose the best font for channel letter for maximum impact
  • How to go about the color so you don’t – by accident- order channel letters in a color that absorbs light and diminishes visibility
  • How to choose the size to ensure your sign is visible and readable from a distance
  • And a quite a few, little-known pro tips from my over 10-year experience in the industry

Let’s begin...

TYPES OF CHANNEL LETTERS

Channel letters are aluminum or plastic “cans” or “pans” shaped into letter forms. The term “return” refers to the sides of the can and “face” means the surface seen by the viewer. The cans are most commonly made from aluminum.

There are four basic types of channel letters. The major point of differentiation between types of channel letters is in how they are illuminated (and of course, whether they are illuminated or not.)

Channel letters are mounted either individually on the wall or are mounted to a “raceway” which is mounted to the wall. (more about it in the installation section)

Non-illuminated channel letters

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Open-face (also called marquee) channel letters.

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Internally (Face Lit) - lit channel letters

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Reverse channel letters

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NON-ILLUMINATED CHANNEL LETTERS

Non-illuminated Channel Letters are exactly what the name implies – individual letters that are not internally illuminated.

Although we would recommend illuminated signage for any LA-based business, non-illuminated is a more cost-effective option for organizations that:

  • Run regular (9:00 – 5:00) business hours and don’t necessarily need the luxury of 24/7 visibility
  • Don’t necessarily have walk-in traffic,
  • Or that are required to have non-illuminated signage for landlord or bylaw restrictions.

Pro Tip: Non-illuminated channel letters are also used for non-retail signage or where exterior lighting is provided by the building

These are letters that generally have a 3″ to 5″ deep cabinet shaped to the letter and a translucent acrylic face with 1″ trimcap.

OPEN -FACE (ALSO CALLED MARQUEE) CHANNEL LETTERS.

This type of channel letters used to be very common. They are quite simply an aluminum can shaped as a letter. The difference between open-face and other types of channel letters is that in open-face channel letters the face of the sign with electrical workings is actually exposed to the viewer (Instead of being encased behind colored acrylic.)

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INTERNALY (FACE LIT) - LIT CHANNEL LETTERS

These are sometimes called front-lit channel letters. The cans have the open side facing the viewer as does the open-face channel letter… BUT… the face has a colored acrylic face so none of the electrical workings show. The lighting inside the can is diffused and lights up the face of each letter evenly.

REVERSE CHANNEL LETTERS

Reverse lit channel letters, reverse pan channel letters, back lit and halo lit channel letters are all the same thing. The “reverse pan” refers to the fact that the open side of the can faces the wall. The viewer sees a solid face which can be any color.

Pro TIP: If the surface of an installation site for halo-lit (reverse channel) letters is dark and glossy, it will absorb light and create a mirror effect with the LEDs. A matte sheen with proper color contrast, on the other hand, can support a stronger halo effect.

Reverse lit, backlit, and halo lit refer to the illumination coming from behind the letter rather than from the face of the letter.

The channel letters are mounted off the wall with studs or a raceway so the lights inside the can cast a glow around each letter from the back (we’ll discuss this in more detail in the installation section.)

Pro Tip: The best halo illumination effect is produced with a letter-to-wall distance of about 1.5 in i.e. the minimum depth for a face-lit sign, but the designer will need to decide just how wide and bright an illuminated outline is desired around each letter or other visual component and around the sign as a whole. The spacing between the letters may need to be adjusted, for example, to prevent the appearance of the letters ‘blending’ when lit.

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INSTALLATION

There are two common types of installation for channel letters. Let’s quickly go through each:

DIRECT WALL MOUNT INSTALLATION

The Channel letters can be installed directly to the facia of a storefront. If the channel letters have internal lighting, this requires hidden transformer boxes and high voltage pass-thru’s from the letter outside to the interior behind the store front.

There are two common types of installation for channel letters. Let’s quickly go through each:
This installation looks cleaner from the front side, but requires 2 holes per letter through the building facia. Some land lords do not allow this type of installation.

The 44-second video below shows wall-mount installation of channel letters for 2 different projects. By the way, the channel letters you see in the video are designed, fabricated and installed by us (Front Signs.)

Direct Wall Mount Installation – The Channel letters can be installed directly to the facia of a storefront. If the channel letters have internal lighting, this requires hidden transformer boxes and high voltage pass-thru’s from the letter outside to the interior behind the store front.

RACEWAY INSTALLATION

The Channel letters can be installed onto a raceway, ie. basically a 7″ deep aluminum box that runs the entire length of the total lettering. This ensures all high voltage wiring and transformers are inside of the aluminum box.

Then the box is simply installed to the facia of store front, with one hole for electrical service protruding through the facia. The raceway usually is painted the same color as the store front facia, so that it does not detract from the letters.

This form of installation is required by some landlords that have regular tenant turn around.

In a short, 54-second video below you can see a detailed explanation of the raceway installation process.

Okay, Now that we’ve dissected the types of channel letters & installation options let’s get to the fun part. Let’s see how you should go about the design of your channel letter sign…

COOSING THE DESIG & TECHNICAL SPECS (THIS SECTION WILL SAVE YOU MONEY)

LETTER HEIGHT AND PLACEMENT

Where you plan to install your channel letters will determine their size. Do you want the sign on your storefront above your front entrance? Or on a wall on the side of your building?

Opt for symmetrical placement with the size proportional to the background, surroundings, and distance from passersby.

Keep these tips in mind and consult with the sign experts when planning the design of your own channel letters. Channel letters truly stand out, offering businesses professional, eye-catching signs that are easy to read both during the day and at night.

Pro Tip: A rule of thumb for letter height is the 1-inch by 10-feet rule. For example, if you want your sign to be visible from 200 feet away, your letters should be 20-inches high.

FONT

Distinct fonts are a great way to catch the attention of passersby. The type of font you choose should also reflect your brand and match your logo if you have one.

However, some stylish fonts may be too hard to read for everyone, such as cursive fonts, so be cautious when choosing. If you want a cursive font, make sure to increase the letter height. This will ensure your sign is more visible and easier to read.

Rule of thumb: sans serif fonts tend to be better for legibility and serif fonts tend to be better for readability. Note: Sans Serif fonts are the ones that don’t have extending features called “serifs” at the end of strokes. (ex. Arial, Roboto, Avenir) as opposed to serif fonts (ex. Times New Roman, Georgia, PT Serif)

COLORS

The color of the mounting surface should be contrasted strongly with the colors of the letters.
As with font style, the colors of your channel letters should also match your brand, logo, and overall color scheme. LED signs come in a variety of colors to choose from, so you won’t have trouble matching your brand.

Perforated vinyl letters offer another option—daylight black and night white. During the day, the perforated “screen” is black, but at night, white light shines through.

Pro Tip: White is the brightest channel letter color, and both blue and red are popular as well. If you go for colors, ask for colored translucent acrylic instead of white with colored vinyl. Acrylic channel letters tend to be brighter and last longer than vinyl. But if you opt for vinyl, have a white border around the colored letters.

Also, for the trim cap of the letters, choose a color that contrasts the walls (the returns). Returns are typically black or white, so for black, choose a light color, and vice versa. This contrast will make the letters stand out even more.

This is by far everything you need to know about channel letters to place a well-reasoned order for your project. For inspiration and channel letter ideas for your business make sure to check out our extensive portfolio of channel letters below. If you feel you’re ready to submit your project, scroll down to the Get-a-quote form below, fill in your details and our customer support agent will get back to you shortly.

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Get A Free Quote On Your Channel Letter Project, Now!

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Please note that Front Signs is a full-cycle sign manufacturing company. We handle all your signage needs in-house - starting with fabrication/printing and ending with installation and getting a permit for your sign (when necessary) in compliance with local laws and ordinances.


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