A new illuminated sign was recently installed in the forecourt of Hamilton City Hall, featuring letters large enough for visitors to stand inside. Unlike the dimensional Toronto sign, which was originally intended only for temporary use during the 2015 Pan Am Games, this one has been built to last, by Hamilton Scenic Specialty (HSS) in nearby Dundas, Ont.
A setup for stage sets
When Mike Kukucska founded HSS in 2000, he and his team were primarily experienced in the construction of theatrical sets and recognized an opportunity to continue to succeed in that field.
“We had business relationships with a lot of American theatre companies and the Canadian dollar was quite low at the time,”he explains. “We just needed to know when to say ‘no,’ as your business will fail if you overextend yourself.”
HSS started in a 557-m2?(6,000-sf) space and its first project was a set for the Broadway production of the Abba musical,?Mamma Mia!
“It was designed to break apart, fit in a truck and then get put together again on the stage,” says Kukucska. “Through these kinds of projects, we developed a good reputation as a talented workforce.”
Indeed, HSS went on to build five?Mamma Mia!?sets as the show grew with touring companies and was staged in Las Vegas, Nev. The company also did work for?The Lion King, Blue Man Group’s shows and?The Sound of Music.
As one might imagine, fabricating props, backdrops and sets for such large-scale stages in a moderate-sized facility was challenging. With a tape measure in one hand and the other tending to his notebook computer, Kukucska laid out the shop floor plan as efficiently as possible.
“We put our tool stations on wheels, so we could shift things around,” he explains, “and we found other clever ways to work with very little. Sometimes we even built outdoors!”
The company originally specialized in the construction of stage sets for live theatrical productions.
Six years in, the business more than doubled in scale, expanding to 1,208 m2(13,000 sf).
“The space became available and we certainly needed it,” says Kukucska. “Just five weeks later, we landed a huge job for the Queen musical,?We Will Rock You.”
In more recent years, however, the theatrical market has proved less consistently lucrative.
“That industry is not as healthy today,” says Kukucska. “Touring productions are brought into town, rather than theatres producing their own shows, so there are fewer sets being built overall.”
Adapting to this change, HSS began to branch out into other types of work, such as public art, themed environments, museum exhibitry, interactive displays and commercial broadcast sets, including one for CHCH’s 2014 revival of the kids’ variety show,?Tiny Talent Time, and another the same year—as a subcontractor—for?Hockey Night in Canada?(HNIC), when its production moved from CBC to Rogers Communications’ Sportsnet.
This branching out turned out to be the right decision. As word of mouth spread, the company became more well-known to a diverse base of clients.
“While we were still not afraid to say ‘no’ to a job and we wouldn’t be everything to everyone, we gained a broader reputation for doing a wide range of different things,” says Kukucska.
The tools for the jobs
Its roots in theatre set construction also proved beneficial, as HSS already had many of the tools it would need to fabricate other applications.
“Theatrical work is a fabulous background for fabrication in general,” Kukucska says. “No two theatrical sets are the same, so you need to be very adaptable. Before building any signage, we were already well-experienced in working with metals, plastics and fabrics. Any tool we need, we probably already have!”
Originally starting out with woodworking equipment, HSS has added metal inert gas (MIG) welding, a metal tube bender, a pipe notcher and hydraulic machinery over time.
“When we installed a computer numerical control (CNC) router seven years ago, I wished I had bought it eight years earlier, because it led to so much other work,” says Kukucska. “It has been fantastic!”
With its team of estimators, creative interpreters, computer-aided design (CAD) detailers, technical specialists, carpenters, electricians, scenic artists, project managers (PMs) and installers, the company is now able to offer prototyping, sculpting, fabrication of wood, metal, acrylic and fibreglass, painting and faux finishing, all under one roof. It can incorporate lighting, sound, graphics and motion into props, sets and exhibits.
“We’re often at capacity and simply too busy to take on a new job,” Kukucska says. “You’re only as good as the last job you’ve done, so it’s not worth trying to cut corners to get things finished more quickly.”
Steeltown’s new sign
The new sign’s aluminum letters are held in place by stainless steel bolts and an HDPE base.
Installed in the forecourt of Hamilton City Hall, the sign has quickly become a popular photo opportunity.
Pitched in 2017 as a Canada 150 project, the $300,000 Hamilton sign was privately funded by contributions of $25,000 each from 12 local families, groups and companies, including a steelmaker, homebuilders and hospitality businesses. Its light-emitting diodes (LEDs), which can change the colours of the nearly 7.5-ft (2.3-m) tall letters, reportedly cost only $1.50 per day to power.
“This is our first really big sign build,” says Kukucska, “but we are always up for any creative challenge!”
As it happened, HSS had previously worked as a subcontractor for the fabricator of the Toronto Sign, Unit 11, on both the aforementioned Rogers’ HNIC set in 2014 and a 50th?anniversary sign for Toronto-Dominion (TD) Centre in 2017.
“In fact, we had the chance to bid on the Toronto sign but said no,” Kukucska explains. “In the end, we learned from that example, as it was only meant to be temporary and has taken a lot of money and work to maintain for the longer term.”
For the Hamilton sign, HSS avoided the steel of the Toronto sign, in favour of aluminum. The letters are held in place by stainless steel bolts and a high-density polyethylene (HDPE) base. The company even designed its own bending machine for aluminum composite panels (ACMs), so as to achieve the gentle curves of the letters.
“That was new for us and took a lot of trial and error,” says Kukucska. “That sign will last 1,000 years!”