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Monday, August 16, 2021

Sign Language

From the Computer Vault Dept.: Not only was the piece below written 26 years ago, I also have practically no memory of writing it, so assembly-line was my process of cranking out technology pieces back then. The technology herein described is laughably ancient, but I still have the “Hands Off” coffee mug described – and its label remains firmly intact.


THE PROBLEM: You run a small retail business, you want to post the store hours on the door, and you don’t want to hang some cheesy paper sign that will get yellow and dog-eared in a week. What do other retailers do? They hire a sign painter. Or post a supplier-sponsored sign with a garish ad. Or, worst of all, put up one of those boards whose letters are all but guaranteed to fall out over time.

You and I know better. We harness the computer, which already has better typesetting ability than any sign painter. And when you use Roland Digital Group’s Stika—a compact hybrid plotter and stencil cutter—and SignMate, the included software, those signs are made from sturdy, colorful vinyl.

The uses go way beyond “Open Daily” signs. If you already have a printing or sign-making business, this technology puts words and pictures in unusual places. Think of any situation where you can’t easily print directly onto a surface: a car door, a filing cabinet, your computer case.

Paper labels aren’t visible enough or won’t withstand the weather. Vinyl is colorful. And this gadget cuts letters up to 2 inches high.

The stuff adheres tightly. I made up some lettering for a coffee mug, and it’s been through the dishwasher a couple of times already with my “Hands Off” label intact. SignMate lets you reverse the image for use inside a window, and by using a special transfer tape, you can iron a label onto a T-shirt.

Vinyl is resilient, but try to cut something too intricate and it will wrinkle up or, worse, stick to itself. That’s why it’s important to design things with fairly simple shapes. Look for silhouettes and interesting typefaces to work with. That’s where SignMate is vital. (We chose the Windows version for this project; a Mac version is also available.) To reduce the amount of clutter in the image, SignMate will automatically trace any TIFF file (the bottom of the Stika doubles as a hand scanner). Auto-tracing creates an outline of the image, making it both easy to cut and easy to fill in with a solid color.

Individual vinyl strips come in 8-inch lengths; rolls of vinyl are available separately so you can cut signs up to Stika’s maximum length of just under two feet. If you need to make a longer sign, you can run several passes of vinyl through the machine. Any sign file can be saved for later use or editing, which helps if you’re using the same ideas repeatedly.

This is addictive stuff. There’s vinyl all over my file folders. And you think you’ll get away with customizing just one coffee mug? Everyone in my household needs a personalized mug now.

B. A. Nilsson has an embarrassingly large amount of colorful vinyl signs.


  • Set up a clear, flat surface for your transfers.
  • Keep a pair of tweezers handy.
  • Handle the cutting blade with care.


  • Use complex images in your sign.
  • Let the adhesive side of the vinyl fold onto itself when you’re applying it.
  • Try to scan green lettering. It won’t read properly.

Everything You Need for This Project:
Stika, bundled with cables, SignMate for Windows or Mac, and starter materials; $149; Roland Digital Group; (800) 542-XXXX, (714) 727-XXXX.
PC running Windows 3.1 or Macintosh.

Procedure (Photos by John Popplewell)

1. Install the Cutting Blade

The blade, which is incredibly sharp, comes in a little Tyvek envelope with a transparent window. Remove it carefully, leaving the protective cap on its tip. Open the rectangular panel on the top of the Stika, and locate the white knob used to hold the blade housing. Twist the housing to the left and pull it out. Insert the dull end of the blade into the bottom of the housing, remove the protective cap, and push the housing back into the machine, securing it with a firm, clockwise twist of the white knob. Replace the rectangular panel.

2. Connect the Stika

Plug the power converter into a wall socket, and attach the other end to the back of the Stika. Then plug the data cable into the back of the Stika, and attach the other end to an available serial port on your computer. (Hint: If your COM port uses a 9-pin connector instead of the 25-pin connector that comes with the Stika, you’ll need a 9-to-25-pin adapter.)

3. Load Some Vinyl

The Stika accepts two types of adhesive vinyl, for indoor or outdoor use, and material for T-shirt transfers (my project didn’t need anything sturdier than a piece of indoor-use vinyl). Turn on the Stika. After it warms up, insert the vinyl strip, colored side up, into the slot marked “sheet.” The machine will grab the strip and feed it in as a fax machine does. It will send the strip almost all the way through in order to measure it—don’t pull on the strip during the measurement process.

4. Install and Configure the Software

The Stika comes with a Windows program called SignMate that provides a simple drawing program customized to work with the machine. (A Mac version is also available.) Launch Windows, insert the installation disk into you’re a: drive, and choose Run from the Program Manager’s File menu. Type A:INSTALL and press Enter. Most of the configuration choices will be made automatically, but you have to tell the program which serial port you’re connected to. To do so, select Cut/Plot Setup from the File menu and click on the Communications button. There you’ll find a pull-down window with COM port choices. Enter your COM port and click on OK.

5. Design a Sign Template.

Before you start lettering your office window or even get near your car, I recommend creating a simple starter sign. For example, I keep my Computer Life articles in a storage folder, which would look nicer with handsome lettering. I decided on a combination of lettering and a picture. Among the clutter in my root directory was a fairly simple image of a monitor and CPU stored as a TIFF file, so I began with that. Any TIFF file can serve as a template, but don’t use something so complicated that it will drive the cutter crazy.

Pull down the File menu and choose Open Template. Locate your filename in the directory listing (my file is called COMPUTER.TIF) and double-click on it in the File window. Next, position the template by moving your mouse (don’t click on anything!) until the rectangular image frame is settled where you want it. I put it against the right margin of the label and clicked to drop it in place.

6. Trace and Fill the Object

If the image takes up the entire screen, resize your work area by clicking on the Zoom Out button at the bottom left of the screen. Next, click on the Auto-trace button, which resembles an arrow pointing to a dotted line. The mouse pointer will become a crosshair. Position the crosshair at the upper left side of the template silhouette, then click and drag the mouse to surround the entire template. The auto-trace will begin when you release the mouse. To fill the image, select a
color from the little eight-panel rainbow at the bottom of the screen. Click on the outline that was just traced to select it, then click on the Fill button to apply the color.    

7. Choose a Typeface

The default typeface size is in inches, which isn’t the best unit of measurement to use if you want the same precision that page designers enjoy. Pull down the Size menu and select Units. Select Points from the Units menu. For my sign I chose the Arial Bold typeface in 60 points, which I added to my font choices by pressing the Add button in the Font Sizes menu.

8. Add the Lettering

The art director is going to kill me for this, but I messed around with the magazine’s logo. Most drawing programs let you stretch and squeeze lettering, and I wanted to test SignMate’s abilities. Try it yourself: Click on the T (typeface) button on the toolbar, and position the cursor at the leftmost part of the label area, about halfway down. Type “Computer.” Click on the toolbar’s selector arrow (located at the top) and click anywhere on the word “Computer.” Nine little boxes should appear in a rectangle around its perimeter. Click on any of the boxes, and you can pull and stretch the word in various directions.

9. Create Your Sign

From the File menu select Cut/Plot, confirm that you have the right color of vinyl loaded in the machine, and click on OK. Your sign is not much to look at when it finally emerges, but peer closely and you’ll see where the outline has been cut. Transferring the letters to their destination is the trickiest part of the operation. Use the provided application tape to lay the design on its back against the mild adhesive and pull the unwanted vinyl away. This is where tweezers come in handy. The adhesive side of the vinyl is facing up, so take care not to let it roll back onto itself and turn into a gluey mess. When the letters are ready, the application tape lets you position them exactly where they should sit—and the tape is translucent enough to let you see any guidelines you’ve drawn. Press hard, smooth out the wrinkles, and peel the application tape away.

Computer Life, April 1995

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