A Live Edge Sign Story at the Brewery

What is a live edge sign anyway?

When Jay, President and Head Brewer at Brewery Silvaticus, reached out to me in late 2018 about a possible project, I was excited. He wanted a live edge sign for his brewery. The sign needed to “convey who we are”, and also be “visually and aesthetically pleasing”. Silvaticus is latin for “Savage” and the literal translation is “of the wood”.

The Temporary Brewery Sign

The existing sign worked fine and served its purpose, but Jay wanted something unique. Something that would stand out.

Jay sent over his mock-up and we went from there:

Having a design mock-up for a live edge sign is super helpful when project planning!
The original sign mock-up

The live edge sign would either be a single slab, or two slabs joined. The wood species was definitely going to be black walnut. I didn’t know how I was going to cut out the lettering at the time we signed the contract. But as an engineer, I knew I would come up with something… good beer helped with brainstorming!

Selecting and Joining The Slabs

The first thing we needed to do was get our slabs. I knew Highland Hardwoods had a good selection of walnut, so we headed over. The target width was > 24″ so we had to get two. Check-out one of our other blog posts for options on where to get slabs here.

The very first thing I did when I got them back to the shop was straight line cut each with my BEEFY track saw:

Take your time when straight-line cutting big slabs. Rushing might cause the saw to kickback, which you do not want!
Using the Festool Tracksaw TS 75

I then straight cut the ends, removed the bark and prepped for joinery. On large projects like this I like to use my festool domino joiner for added security.. these slabs are heavy suckers.

Theoretically you could join two big slabs with glue only. But, I prefer the extra security of dominoes..
Dominoes in place and wood glue applied!
When doing any type of joinery it's important to get things flush and keeps things flat while curing.
Making sure this thing cured as flat as possible!

The Slab Flattening Process

I now have to flatten these slabs. Why? Because I want a flat surface to cut the letters into and also mount the sign. Removing material also knocks the overall weight down too; added plus there. There are multiple ways I could have flattened these slabs but options were limited in my basement shop. I chose to build a router sled. Having a plunge router also made this process easier.

If you do not have access to a big ass planer then a router sled is a great option. Yes it's tedious, but it gets the job done.
My router sled in action

The router was pushed back and forth on the top side several times until the slabs were mostly flat. I then flipped it over and totally flattened the back side. Finally, I flipped it back over and flattened the top the rest of the way. I’m not done yet though, because I now have a series of path marks that need to be sanded down 🙁

Prepping For The Letters

With the help of Jay’s Adobe skills, we gave the slabs a final mock-up. I had decided a couple months back that a shaper would be my letter cutting method. I’m a mechanical engineer and totally geek out over new tech. This fed that side of me and also served my purpose for this project.

Mocking up your design on the actual piece is great for visualization!
Mocking up the actual slabs was super helpful with planning. Kudos to Jay!

BUT, I had never actually used the shaper to cut anything. So I ran a bunch of test cuts on scrap plywood. I decided that my best approach was to cut out all the letter outlines first, and then cut each letter pocket from right to left; I.E., carve out the insides.

Running practice cuts on scrap wood can save a TON of money later on. I'd much rather make a mistake on $40 piece of ply than a $1,500 slab..
I stopped cutting when I was happy with my technique

On top of that, I ran several sample cuts on scrap walnut with different epoxy filling techniques. The router bit, depth of cut and outline style all impacted the final look. Depth of epoxy in the letters has an impact too.

I also noticed that the epoxy cures at different levels of color intensity if the depth is different. I drilled a hole in one letter that was deeper than the rest of the cut. When the epoxy cured I noticed that the hole was much darker than the rest of the letter. Exactly why you make samples!

Making sample cuts and pours is also a great way to test ideas on scraps. Yes it cost a little bit of time and money but well worth it!
Which was the selected cut style and epoxy depth

Making The REAL Letter Cuts

The shaper requires special tape laid down on the work surface in order to “see” it. I laid out the image of the letters via augmented reality (AR) and placed it how I wanted.

Even though the Shaper is precise, it is not exact! It's still important to take your time and not rush.
Shaper Action Shot!

Once everything was cut, I had to go back over some of the letters and retrace the outline to clean up edges. This was done 2-3 times on some. The shaper is fairly precise, but it is NOT perfect by any means.

I actually find using the shaper to be sort of fun.. but, it is VERY tedious and time-consuming.
Close-up of the letter cuts

The Epoxy / Resin Layering

The first step of the finishing process was to fill checks and holes with epoxy and stabilize the checks with bowties. I inlay-ed two bowties on the underside and none on the top. This took 3-4 days with curing in between.

Stabilizing cracks and checks in live edge slabs is super duper important
The underside of the live edge sign after penetrating epoxy

A full coat of penetrating epoxy was then applied all over. This fills additional voids and gaps within the wood, I.E., penetrates. The epoxy was allowed to cure 48 hours and was then lightly sanded.

Black walnut appears to be very light before any finish is applied
The naked slab before the penetrating epoxy
Black walnut changes color drastically with a little oil, epoxy, etc,
The slab after the penetrating epoxy

Ecopoxy mixed with black pigment was poured into the lettering at roughly 0.25″ deep. This was done very carefully to avoid spillage onto the other surfaces. The ecopoxy was allowed to cure for 8 days.

Note that the wood was already pre-sealed with the penetrating epoxy. If I hadn’t done this, then I would’ve applied a thin coat of epoxy in the letters before pouring the fill. This prevents air bubbles forming at the edges.

Pouring epoxy into inlayed lettering is tricky!
Lettering filled with epoxy

Final Varnish Coats

Jay requested a flat, or matte, finish on the sign (wood and letters). Since this was going to be out in the elements, layers of marine varnish would be applied. There would be 4-5 coats of gloss for the base, and 2-3 coats of matte to finish.

My first attempt at this resulted in bubbling with the last coats of matte varnish. It was not fun. I tried to smooth it out but ended up sanding it back down to the wood..

Varnishing is tough. Take your time and do research!!
Right after sanding my botched varnish job down to the wood 🙁

My second attempt at the varnishing worked out as planned. Booyahh! It was actually a very difficult and tedious process though. I would varnish the lettering first, and then go back over the surface. You only have a short window with the varnish being spreadable. You need to work fast and avoid leaving clumps / streaks. If you’ve worked with varnish then you can probably relate!

A matte varnish gives a more natural look than gloss. It's totally up to you on preference!
This is after the final coat of matte varnish cured

This was a long process and a very collaborative effort with Jay. I am very appreciative of the opportunity and happy to have piece of my work at such an awesome brewery. Check out what Jay had to say in his testimonial!

Also a big shoutout to Clay at Big Rig BBQ for fabricating the mounting bracket to hang the sign off the brick building. Thanks Clay!!

Here are a few of the items you might need to build your own:

Planing Sled

Flattening Router Bit

Planing Sled Rails

Festool Joiner

Penetrating Epoxy

Epoxy Resin / Hardener (crack and check filling)

Ecopoxy (for lettering)

Black Diamond Pigments

Epiphanes Gloss Varnish

Epiphanes Matte Varnish

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