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Rolling signage: Prices, choices for signs on vehicles
By Jan Lindsey

Want everyone in the neighborhood to know about your cleaning business, but not willing to collar them with a sales pitch at the mailbox? Consider a sign on the side of your car.

"It's a rolling billboard for your company," says Greg Cotter, president of, based in Dayton, Ohio. "That investment amortized over a number of years is a great investment."

Decision time
A number of factors will govern which sign you buy -- and almost all of them affect the cost:

  • How long will you have the vehicle -- or the business? Generally, the more expensive the sign, the longer it will last. There is no point in spending extra money for a sign that will outlive the car.
  • If your personal car doubles as a business vehicle, do you really want to advertise everywhere you go? After all, a funeral procession might be the wrong place to point out that you own a comedy club.
  • Do you live somewhere where commercial vehicles are outlawed? If your homeowners association or local government forbids the parking of commercial vehicles, you will need a sign you can remove.
  • How long can you do without the vehicle? Magnetic signs can be made to your specifications and slapped on the car in short order, but having letters or logos hand painted on the car's surface may require days in a shop.
  • How many vehicles do you want to tag? With some kinds of signs, decals for instance, the price goes down as the quantity goes up. But there is probably no point in buying more than you need.
  • How much information do you want to dish up? This is not a newspaper ad you are designing here. Unless you're stuck in a traffic jam or parked at the grocery store, people will have only moments to absorb your message.

"Normally, a name and a phone number is adequate," says Judy Loper, co-owner of Art Design and Sign in Mesquite, Texas. "We try to keep it to three or four lines. It's the most readable."

Or, as Cotter puts it, "Less is more with vehicle graphics."

There are four basic types of signs: hand painted, vinyl, decal and magnetic. Before you decide which to buy, here's one more thought. Loper warns that vinyl signs, decals and painted signs can mean higher insurance rates: "Permanent signage on the side of the vehicle means that is a business vehicle, and it needs to be insured that way."

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Hand-painted signs
These are permanent -- or as permanent as anything gets in the vehicle sign world. It should last until the original paint job begins to go, and today's factory paint is lasting as long as 10 years, Johnson says.

If a design is complex and you plan on using it for a long time, it might pay to have it hand painted. Having a series of vinyl signs made as they wear out might cost more than having it painted once, says Sid Roberts, owner of Bill's Signs.

Roberts' Riviera Beach, Fla., shop works in vinyl and paint, and Roberts says paint costs only about $15 more for small, simple, two-color signs. The price difference widens as the job becomes more complicated.

If you want your vehicle painted, you are limited to shopping in the area around your home or business. You will not want to ship your vehicle across country to take advantage of a good price.

Vinyl signs
The price difference between paint and vinyl is more marked at Husky Signs and Graphics in Boulder, Colo. Owner Mark T. Johnson, used to do a lot of airbrush work but has since "gone digital." He says the change allows him to do more work in less time and at less cost to the customer.

A plumber with a white truck who wants his name, address and phone number hand painted in red on the door panels would have to pay about $100 at Johnson's Boulder, Colo., shop. If he wants a second color or a logo added, the designer says, "then we start bumping up in the $300 to $400 range. That same project in vinyl would be half the cost."

Vinyl signs have an adhesive back that sticks to the car. When high-performance vinyl is used, the signs will last between five and seven years. "Don't use a pressure washer. Don't go through a car wash with brushes on it," Johnson says.

After three years or so, the signs may leave a "shadow" on the paint job. It can be professionally buffed out after the sign is removed -- unless the vinyl has been baking on the car's surface for 10 years.

The price of decals declines when you buy in bulk, so they make sense when a lot of signs are needed. They last between three and five years, but you can double that by covering them with a clear film. That ups the price, but might be worth it if the decal is complicated and costly.

Decals are more difficult than vinyl signs to install because they are not as stiff. They become cumbersome when they are more than a foot tall, Cotter says.

Magnetic signs
"You have to be real careful with magnetics," Loper says. "They have to be kept clean and on a flat surface. I keep them on my refrigerator."

The vehicle has to be clean and dry -- no wax, please -- and the sign needs to be placed on a flat area so wind can't get under it and rip it away. The area under the sign should be cleaned twice a month to prevent the vehicle from rusting, Roberts says.

Do it right, Cotter says, and "You will generally get five years out of a good magnetic sign."

One final word of caution: Pricing is all over the map, particularly for hand-painted signs, so make sure you shop before you buy. Take a look at our sampling of prices for a few examples -- it'll give you an idea of the range of prices.

-- Posted: Feb. 2, 2001


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