Projecting Signs

The fabulous 50s. I hesitate to admit that I still remember the era of sock-hops, saddle shoes and Elvis. In those days, “sign hangers” really were sign hangers. When the hanging sign was king, stiff-arms and guy cables (Fig. 1) dominated city streets. But now the king is dead — and most of the old signs are rusted hulks. In fact, I can’t walk beneath one of these dinosaurs without looking up to see whether a transformer is ready to fall through its rusted bottom onto my head.

Hanging out

You might get the impression from inspecting these old structures that the sign people of yesteryear were a pretty haphazard lot. Actually, however, the old-style, hanging sign was a practical necessity for two related reasons. The first reason is that old buildings are much more substantial than their modern counterparts. If you’ve purchased a new house lately, you’re well aware that they really don’t build them like they used to. I’ve installed signs on older building walls that were as thick as fortresses. Some had exterior surfaces of slab marble or granite with alternating brick and block courses behind them.

The second practical reason for the old “hangers” was the primitive state of tool technology at the time. The normal method of “drilling” through thick masonry walls back then was a hand-held “star drill.” This is essentially a large chisel with a special tip. You drove a star drill through the wall with a sledgehammer. Not surprisingly, this encouraged installers to devise a mounting method that didn’t require complete penetration.

The traditional, hanger method addressed these conditions by employing a stiff arm and guy cables anchored to the wall with lag bolts and expanding lead shields. These required only 4-6-in. deep mounting holes (much to the relief of the sledgehammering installer). The ability of hanging signs to swing in the wind was a critical aspect of this method. Because the sign’s ability to swing reduced wind load significantly, the old method worked quite well. However, if the sign could not swing, this method would be inadequate.

The real McCoy

Fig. 2: A true projecting sign must incorporate a substantial steel frame to support the cabinet, and include adequate bracing behind the wall. Fig. 3: This large, vertical projecting sign has five main supports composed of square tubes with mounting plates welded to the ends. These plates are fastened to the building surface with steel through bolts.

I’ve never considered the old-style “hangers” to be true projecting signs. They might appear to “project” from the building surface; however, the sign is actually suspended from above. A genuine, projecting sign incorporates a heavy, integral, steel frame and mounting bolts or steel supports that completely penetrate the building wall. These “through bolts” or supports must be attached to heavy, horizontal, steel braces on the inside wall surface (Fig. 2) to enable the sign to resist wind force.Fig. 3¬†shows a large, projecting sign that overhangs a public sidewalk in a busy downtown area.

Thanks to thinner wall construction and improved power tools, sign erectors can usually attach projecting signs with relative ease. True projecting signs represent a substantial improvement over the old hangers for two reasons:

  • First, they are completely stable and do not require flexible electrical feeds or retainer bolts to prevent them from “traveling” back and forth along the stiff arm.
  • Second, real projecting signs have a much cleaner appearance — without the rusty guy cables and turnbuckles.

When people talk about “the good, old days,” they tend to forget these things.

Some projecting signs (Figs.4 and 5) are hybrids. They aren’t suspended from a stiff arm, nor are they attached with through bolts. If the installer hasn’t penetrated the wall and used adequate internal bracing, he must attach guy cables or steel braces between the wall surface and the projecting end (street side) of the sign. This type of installation is more typical of signs installed prior to 1970.

Fig. 4: This sign is mounted in front of a window on a heavy steel angle spanning the glass area. Because it’s not through-bolted, however, the sign still needs guy cables.
Fig. 5: External steel braces have been fabricated to attach this sign, but the cables indicate that this structure is not adequate to stand alone.

Because of wind loading factors, it’s uncommon for projecting (non-hanging) signs to extend more than 6 ft. from a building’s surface. Larger signs with greater projection commonly include a steel weldment (a heavy, fabricated steel structure) that is bolted to the sign cabinet on the side that abuts the building wall. This weldment provides secure attachment for the sign cabinet and forms a sturdy, structural member that can be attached to the wall with large-diameter, high-strength bolts. Given the substantial wind force on this type of sign, a heavy structure is required on both sides of the wall.

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