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Top 8 Substrates for CNC SIGNS

Sign Makers: feel free to add your favorite material in the comments! This is not a concrete list, and is certainly subjective. What are you using?

Melissa Jones (co-founder of Hytek Tools) and I, (Jason Jones, also a co-founder of Hytek Tools) have traveled the USA extensively over the past 5 years setting up sign shops with Hytek Tools CNC routers. Many of our clientele happen to be sign makers and sign shop owners. We will share here what we believe to be the most popular materials for 3D sign makers across the country, and maybe some details and tips about each. It seems like a great first post for the new blog here.  Please comment below if you would like to join the conversation.



Good old fashion wood, who's popularity would stand the test of time for sign making, no doubt. While it is far from the most popular material for commercial signs today, you never know when it will make an inevitable comeback! The most popular choice for wood signs always seems to be Western Red Cedar. It's known for good durability in the outdoor elements, easier to carve than hardwoods and is sandblast ready. It also takes paint, stains, and holds screws relatively well. If done right, wood can make for some beautiful signs. Keep an eye our for deals on hardwood and exotics though, many hardwood signs could be considered a premium!

Availability - Everywhere! From the local lumberyard, big box store to the backyard!


Sheet aluminum is pretty popular in the sign industry for LED sign cabinets, push through sign boxes, sign box frames, and even free standing letters. 6061 will cut like butter with a good CNC router and sharp o-flute carbide cutters.

 Availability: Steel Shops, Sign Supply Houses, some big box stores. 


While they are almost completely used indoors, there are a couple exterior options, though we believe they would be temporary. If you walk around some big box stores, like Walmart especially, this stuff is all over the place in their lettering and signs.

Availability:  Sign Supply Houses


With the cardboard or ribbed plastic structure, this stuff is pretty popular for temporary outdoor signage. Real estate, construction company yard signs, you get the idea. Some of the thin stuff can be cut on your CNC with a knife blade, or drag knife by Donek, or Hytek's oscillating knife option. The thicker stuff we recommend cutting with a regular CNC router bit, like an o-flute or compression bit.

Availability:  Sign Supply Houses


There are some really cool signs being made with acrylic! There are so many colors and styles to choose from. Crystal clear, translucent, and the opaque color options are endless. Acrylic is a great option on the CNC table for free standing letters, LED back lit signs, and even halo lighted lettering.

Availability:  Sign Supply Houses, Plastic Suppliers


 PVC is a very popular substrate in the sign industry in general, you can print directly to PVC with little hassle. It's also a pretty amazing material on the CNC machine. It can be used as the main solid sign substrate, even for multi layered dimensional signs. It also works great for additional layers of sign elements, like letters and shapes. It can be purchased in a few select basic colors, though white and black are the most popular. PVC will hold up to weather with the best of them, it is almost completely oblivious to most of the vulnerabilities of other materials. It does not absorb water at all, it's a hard material and resistant to hail, termites and other destructive critters. (cough, cough, wood peckers)

Availability:  Sign Supply Houses


ACM is real popular in sign shops across the country. There are like a lot of different names for it; dibond, alum-a-core, aluma composite, and so many more. The idea of it, typically, is an aluminum/PVC/aluminum sandwich. Usually like .125" PVC, sandwiched with .020" aluminum, or some similar sandwich configuration. There are a few options out there with double the PVC dimensions, like; 0.250" with  .020" aluminum sandwich. Is that enough sandwich talk for ya? I think it might be time to head over to Jimmy Johns!

Seriously though, its good stuff and used widely in sign production. There are a couple other cool uses for it as well, like for instance; light boxes and other 3D sign structures.

Availability:  Sign Supply Houses

1. HDU

While we know that the number one pick is going to be highly subjective, we had to go with it for so many reasons!

HDU is gaining popularity in the sign industry, even as a stand alone substrate for some instances, but not all. Less than 2" thickness can have some vulnerabilities to warping and other structural challenges, especially across long spans that are not backed with any support. We aren't going to try and be some kind of structural experts on the subject, you really just need to use some common sense with spanning and support. We have spanned 2" thick HDU across 6ft., though the face was doubled up on the front side border. Some sign producers would never use HDU, in any case as a stand alone substrate. There are some makers out there that back this stuff with welded steel frames. It comes down to how concerned you are about the longevity of the install, and the premium you are offering. You will have to judge this, but please feel free to ask here in the comments or messaging. We will do our best to help and we can also refer to our connections that are way more experienced with structural capabilities of HDU products.

Availability:  Sign Supply Houses

Note: Try mixing these materials on your sign making for awesome contrasts, and creative results.

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