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Ask the Experts: Backlighting

by Norris Comer

“To me, every hour of the light and dark is a miracle.”

–Walt Whitman, Poem of Perfect Miracles

BacklightingThe cherry on top for that special boat in your life is the presentation. Whether you go paint or vinyl wrap, bright colors or keep it classy white with a subtle race stripe, we all want that warm fuzzy feeling when we look over our shoulders at our boats. How will that name, the name you chose, fit into the picture? Regardless as to whether you chose the name of your beloved spouse or a goofy pun (Ship for Brains, for example), you want that name broadcasted to the world loud and proud. If you want to go all out, you may want to get that name backlit.

Backlighting a boat name is pretty much the apex of design, both in terms of presentation and complexity. You are bringing the miracle of electricity to the equation, after all. Essentially a boat name with a lighting component, there’s many ways to skin this cat for the craftsperson. Due to the game-changing affordability and efficiency of LED lighting in marine applications, you may have noticed more backlit boat names in the marina, and not just exclusively on the biggest yachts.

To learn more about backlighting projects, we turned to Brad Cole, the owner of South Seattle-based Prism Graphics. An avid boater, he’s been in the vinyl wrap and boat graphics game since 1993 and the backlighting scene for a few years now. As with all things in boating, there’s more to it than meets the eye.

NWY: Can you talk a bit about how backlighting entered the fray at Prism Graphics?

One of my interests growing up was electronics engineering. I went to school for it for a bit, but quickly realized I needed to focus my attention on vinyl graphics if I was going to make that successful. As time went on, more and more customers have been asking for backlit names on boats. I honestly turned them down for some time; however ,with the prices of LED lighting becoming so affordable and easy to work with, it just made sense to get into the market.

NWY: How long have backlit boat names been in the industry and how has backlighting changed over the years?

I think people have been putting backlit names on boats for many years. However, I feel only recently (within the last five years) has it become cost effective for your average boat owner to be able to afford them due to the cost of LED lighting.

Prism Graphics

Prism Graphics was founded in 1976 and has been in South Seattle since 2015. The company specializes in signage of all kinds and is widely used for vinyl wrappings and graphics for boats. “I estimate that since I bought the company in 1993, I have done over 20,000 vinyl boat names. With that kind of experience and knowledge, we have become well known in the marine industry as ‘the guys to go to,’” says owner Brad Cole.

Website: prismgraphics.com

7609 5th Ave. S, Seattle, WA 98108
(206) 282-1801

Serenety Boat Name Prep - Prism Graphics

NWY: What are the various components at play with a backlit boat name? How does it work?

As with anything you install on a boat, it needs to last in a pretty harsh environment. Honestly, the reason I didn’t get into the backlit name business earlier than I did is that I only wanted to be able to do it if I could produce them so they last. There are a lot of things to consider with backlit names. Things I have to take a hard look at are the mounting surface and access to the back. These are rigid, dimensional letters, so they don’t go on a curved surface quite as well as vinyl lettering does. Also thickness of the actual letter comes into play, as they usually need to be a bold font style to be able to fit the lights inside the letter.

NWY: What kind of materials are used? Are there pros and cons?

I have come up with a process where I use an acrylic background to the letters, I then rout out the face and give myself a channel. In that channel I run a strip of LED lights. I then fill the remaining channel with clear silicone. I
then put the actual letter on top with studs going through the acrylic. The face letter is usually polished stainless steel; however, I can do aluminum or colored plastic as well.

The pros are that the names come out stunning. They look so nice and classy, it’s hard to not love the look of a backlit boat name.

The cons? While my process of creating the names has become more cost-effective, they are still quite a bit more expensive than vinyl names.

NWY: What kind of lighting is used and why?

As previously mentioned, we use LED strip lights. I tend to spend a little more on materials and get the silicone-sealed, waterproof light strips. I then line the inside of the letter with them, then seal the remaining space with clear 100% silicone to make them watertight. We can do solid color lights or RGB (red-blue-green) ones that come with a wireless remote to change the color as you wish.

Brad Cole

“I was probably on a boat before I could walk,” says Brad Cole of his impressive boating background. His family had sailboats growing up and Cole grew up to be an eager sailor racing lasers and keelboats. He currently lives on a 48’ trawler and loves to hydroplane race during the summer with his two teenage kids. Cole bought Prism Graphics when he was 18 years old in 1993 and has been hard charging in the industry ever since.

Brad Cole

NWY: Each boat name is, by definition, a custom job. Is this where the artist comes into play? What’s the process from concept to execution?

Ah yes, you are very correct. We start by designing what the customer wants, but we then see if that design will work in a backlit/stainless format. We do keep that in mind along the way and advise the customer as needed to adjust the thickness of the design so the end result will work in the format we need it to.

NWY: What does the electrical side of things look like? What kind of draw on the batteries does a backlit boat name have?

Most of the lights we use only draw about 1-2 watts per foot. A typical letter has 1-2 feet of strip lights in it, so the total draw is usually anywhere between 10-30 watts of 12-volt power for the entire name. I always recommend installing a dimmer switch, which I provide, on the 12-volt source. This does two things; the first is you’re able to dim down the lights on the name. Say you’re at anchorage in a very dark bay with five other boats. Turning the brightness down on the name may quickly become important as to not irritate other boaters. The second is that the dimmer regulates the voltage on the actual light diodes, which can be sensitive to voltage spikes when either running the engines or plugging into shore power and the charger kicks on.

NWY: Are backlit boat names for power only, or can a sailboat also pull them off?

They can certainly be installed on anything with a 12-volt power source. However, I will say that the names, being that they stick out anywhere from three quarters of an inch to an inch and a half, make much more sense on a powerboat. I can honestly say that I have not done any on a sailboat yet, but it certainly could be done.

NWY: Should anyone worry about how backlighting could mess up navigation lights, or no?

Backlit names should not have any effect on navigation lights. The name should be on a completely separate electrical circuit from the navigation lights. I believe it is up to the discretion of the boat owner as to when the name should be on or not.

Ask the Experts: Backlighting

Every backlighting project for a boat name is a custom job. However, every backlit name ultilizes LED lighting in conjunction with stylized lettering to pull off the desired effect. Prism Graphics works with talented installation experts to pull it all together.

NWY: What are the hallmark signs of a bad backlighting job vs. a good one?

I think there are two parts to a quality name. One is the quality of the product, and two is the quality of the install. I have worked pretty hard to develop a process to produce the lettering that I feel is a high quality product. On the install side of it, I actually don’t do the final install. I have three or four high-end yacht outfitters that I trust to install my names. I work with them closely to make sure the result is a very high-quality product and install.

NWY: Is there an easy way to approximate the cost of a backlighting job? What factors determine the final price tag?

Honestly, I have not been able to come up with a formula that makes it easy to estimate the cost of these names. Since every job is custom and can vary in attributes, it is nearly impossible to accurately estimate the costs. The main factors that govern the costs are the material used for the face letter (stainless, aluminum, or plastic) and type of lighting desired (RGB or solid colors). Then on the install side, there is access to the back where wires need to be ran and where the power comes from that can drive the costs.

NWY: Is a backlighting installation job an in-water process with quick turnaround, or a longer job that requires a haulout?

As long as there is easy access to the area where the names are going, there’s no reason for a haulout. Most can be done in the water.

NWY: What about backlighting projects do you enjoy most as a craftsperson?

Well since these backlit names pretty much take all three things I really enjoy and combine them, I just love to design and build them in general. Boats, art, and electronics have been a part of my life for as long as I can remember, and the fact that I get to work with them on a daily basis makes me really enjoy what I do. And I feel if you have a passion for what you do, you will do a good job.

NWY: Do you foresee any kind of disrupting technology when it comes to displaying boat names in the near-future? 3D? Virtual reality?

Fifty years ago, all the boat lettering on boats was painted. No one saw the development of vinyl stick-on letters that would outlast paint. I’m now doing full wraps on boats that cost one third of the cost of a paint job and last up to 10 years.

I’m sure things will change over the next 25 years. I heard recently that you could get a digital license plate for your car that automatically renews your tabs when they are due. That being said, a digital reader board of some kind that displays a fully changeable digital boat name is probably not out of the question. I believe it’s not a matter of if things will change, more of when will it and what will it be?

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