Board Games — Working With Foam for Signage

Unleashing your creativity with foam and foam boards

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Foam board and foam products are inexpensive and versatile, and that is why they are so popular in the sign and digital graphics industry. From pop-up displays and exhibits to dimensional signage, foam fuels people’s creativity.

High-density urethane started getting popular in the 1990s as a replacement for wood. This foam product can be CNC routed and painted, and it is much easier to work with because it is so much lighter than wood, says Brad Burnett, HDU sales representative for DUNA USA Inc., which makes CORAFOAM. It is also waterproof because water can’t be absorbed into it, which makes it perfect for outdoor uses.

Wood comes in thin sheets that then must be laminated together and planed down. Foam is “ready to work right away,” he says. With wood, you have to be careful of the wood grain, but with HDU, there is no grain. “The dimensional capabilities of being able to customize it are much greater. It cuts and carves like butter.”

Most people use DUNA’s foam for exterior and interior signs. They use them in monument signs, channel letters, fascia signs, address plaques, golf course signage, hanging signs and signs that are hung between posts. CORAFOAM does have to be painted.

CORAFOAM was invented for the sign industry 20 years ago and the formulation has never been changed-and it never will, says Burnett.

“The stuff is very strong and very smooth, which is also a benefit. It produces chips instead of dust when it is cut on a machine. Chips and shavings are much nicer to work around; no dust clouds everywhere,” he says.

CORAFOAM starts out as a liquid. Two different chemicals are poured together into a trough. When they mix together, the chemicals begin to foam up. The foam is produced using continuous manufacturing that creates a 200-yard-long, 12-inch block of foam.  

“The benefit of doing it this way is the cells are much tighter together and produces the characteristics people really like about our board,” he says.

“Not too many people are using wood anymore. Most have switched to these products,” Burnett says.

The downside to this business is that it isn’t the easiest thing to get into. Shops need a CNC machine or a sandblaster to start. If not, they can outsource the CNC machining and then they can finish the sign with paint.

“A lot of the shops we are gunning for are using other materials. They already have a router but they are not familiar with HDU,” he says. 

DUNA has been in the United States since 2001 and its sales are “doing really well,” says Burnett. “It is not easy to get sign makers to switch (materials) but little by little we are chipping away and it is working.”

Foam board typically comes with different surfaces, sandwiched around foam.

“It is extremely lightweight and relatively inexpensive compared to other options, such as wood veneer products and PVCs,” says Bill VanHorn, director of sales for The Gilman Brothers Company.

What sets Gilman’s foam board apart from the competition is that it is about 2.5 times more dense, so it cuts better, he says. Because of its density, shops can use a drag knife or high-speed computerized cutter on it and it doesn’t create a mess.

The biggest benefit of Gilman’s foam board is the flexibility of the adhesive it uses to attach the styrene onto the foam. It can be sliced in such a way that the board can be folded into 3-dimensional displays.

“That is what is allowing retailers to look at displays and signage they couldn’t do before,” says Vanhorn.

Gilman will color its foam in any color imaginable so that when viewed from the side, any sign made with its foam board will make a statement.

“There’s a cost, but when you get tired of the same look, maybe have the edge of the sign not be white or black. Make it the company logo color,” he says.

Gilman’s boards are also 20% lighter than their competition, which makes them cheaper to ship.

At United Industries, Ultraboard is the number one selling styrene-faced foam board. It is mostly used for interior signage in big box retail establishments, trade show booths and for wayfinding signs.

Ben Strickland, United Industries‘ national sales manager, says that Ultraboard is a superior foam board because of its durability, rigidity and warp resistance.

“We make ours to what the standards used to be,” says Strickland.

He points out that many foam board manufacturers have reduced the thickness of the styrene backing on each side of the foam to reduce the cost of the product but that makes it less dent resistant and more prone to warping.

Ultraboard uses UV-stabilized styrene so that the styrene doesn’t yellow with exposure to light over time. The product is used to make routed letters and logos and interior signage.

Its Ultra Aluminum product is a lightweight structural panel consisting of a rigid polystyrene foam core faced on one side with anodized aluminum and the other with high impact polystyrene.

“It has a very high-end look at a very reasonable price because it isn’t inch-thick metal,” says Strickland.

Companies like Lowe’s, Target or Home Depot, have a dominant color with their sign systems. The cost of ink runs 25 cents per square foot if UV printing or silk screening, he says. “We can make the board with a Pantone-matched screen on the front of it.” For Target, which has a red and white bullseye for a logo, the company can make the board with a red styrene face on both sides and then white circles can be printed on it for the bullseye, which significantly reduces ink costs and improves print quality, he adds.

United Industries batch-laminates its foam board, meaning it takes flat sheets that it glues together forming stronger and sometimes thicker foam board. The company can make it up to 3 inches thick. If a company doesn’t have a printer that can print on 3-inch-thick foam board, the company will pre-print the company’s message on styrene or paper and then laminate the prints to the specified thickness of foam board.

Because the company extrudes its own foam, it can create foam board to custom specifications.

“There’s a lot of ability to customize a sign with our product,” Strickland says. 

3A Composites’ Gatorfoam is a heavy-duty foam board that is made from extruded polystyrene foam bonded between two layers of wood-fiber veneer. The product is great for point of purchase displays, trade show exhibits and kiosks, framing, monument signs, channel letters, hanging signs and fascia signs. Print shops can screen print, digital print and paint the material and it can be cut with a saw or routed, just like traditional wood.

There are a lot of different short-term and long-term applications for foam board, says Ben Branham, marketing manager for 3A Composites USA. Short-term options are displays that will run for a week or two before they are discarded and recycled. Medium-term options might be displays that are going to be used throughout the year, say for a traveling exhibit or kiosk. Long-term applications are hanging signage, like wayfinding signs in schools, retail and grocery stores.

Gatorfoam is one of the original foam boards, he says. Foam-X is a lightweight foam board with a polyurethane core that is coated with multi-layered paper liners, suitable for indoor applications. Because the foam is softer, the edges can be “pillowed” or pushed together to eliminate the sharp edges.

Foam board makers are always trying to come up with different uses for their products. Branham says that for upcoming trade shows, the company made a roulette board, including a roulette wheel, out of Gatorfoam Pro. It also has made cornhole boards out of Smart-X, another lightweight foam board with all-plastic sheet material with surfaces of UV and weather-resistant solid polystyrene and a core of expanded polystyrene that is moisture-resistant.

“It is up to the designers to come up with cool ideas, but the versatility of the foam board will accommodate it. You will get some circumstances where you can’t but that is really rare,” Branham says.

Branham is currently working on building an 8-foot replica of the Wright brothers’ plane out of foam board for the company’s showroom. He calls it a work in progress.

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Paula Aven Gladych

Paula Aven Gladych is a freelance writer based in Denver, Colo. She can be reached at pgladych@gmail.com.

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