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I am currently trying to build 3ft wooden letters for my sorority's recruitment booth. I want them to be sturdy and weather resistant but also lightweight and portable. The letters will be in storage for most of the year only coming out when we have recruitment activities at the beginning of each quarter. I was wondering what is the best kind of wood and thickness to use for this project.

I have a bit of experience in wood working but this is my first time undertaking a project of my own. Right now this project is just in the planning stages. I need to propose a budget before I can move forward and make more solid designs but I am looking to create letters that look similar to this photo:

wooden letters

Our letters are Lambda Sigma Gamma. I will also need to make stands for the letters, especially the Gamma.

  • Do you have any design details that would help us give you an answer? – grfrazee Jul 30 '15 at 20:16
  • Right now it is just in the planning stages. I need to propose a budget before I can move forward and make more solid plans but I am looking to create letters that look similar to the photo in the link Our letters are Lambda Sigma Gamma so I will also need to make stands for the letters especially the Gamma – Flo Ramirez Jul 30 '15 at 20:21
  • Thanks for the info. I would suggest editing your post to incorporate this design information. Comments are not considered to be long-term information, so anything pertinent should be in the Question itself. – grfrazee Jul 30 '15 at 20:26
  • For reference, the letters in your link are made with plywood with a high grade face (meaning that the top veneer on the plywood is high quality "pretty" wood) – Daniel B. Jul 30 '15 at 20:33
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    @ Dainel B, I thought those vertical stripes were just shadows. You can kinda see them on the wall behind the letters. Or my eyes are playing tricks on me. I suppose it doesn't matter much. – grfrazee Jul 30 '15 at 21:08
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If you're looking for weather-resistant and lightweight, you can't do much better than cedar for the wood choice. Cedar also has a good strength-to-weight ratio, making it very sturdy. For thickness, using 2x material (i.e., 2x4, 2x6, 2x8, etc.) is probably ok given your letter sizes. Bear in mind that cedar usually has somewhat of a premium in price over other woods you'd get at a big box store.

A bit less expensive of an option would be pressure-treated dimensional pine boards, which also come in 2x thickness. These will be heavier than the cedar but should have similar weather-resistance and sturdiness at a lower cost.

Based on the link you provided, you might be looking at using plywood for the letters. Pressure-treated (exterior-grade) plywood is available, which will fit the weather-resistance bill. However, I would advise backing the plywood with a frame of 2x material to keep it from bending when wet.

You state that these are going to be used for your recruitment booth. Are they going to be kept outside for long term (i.e., months or years)? If so, you'll want to consider using a waterproof glue such as Titebond III and/or coated deck screws for assembly. This will ensure that it stays together for the long haul as compared to less robust glue and fasteners.

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    Looks like you added plywood while I was writing mine ;) I wouldn't do this out of dimensional lumber, this is definitely a job for sheet goods. – Daniel B. Jul 30 '15 at 20:35
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    Yep, started writing my answer before seeing the picture then edited after seeing it :) Agreed that plywood is the way to go for this, but thought I'd leave the other options as added information. – grfrazee Jul 30 '15 at 20:42
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Plywood is designed specifically to resist warping and to be stronger than solid wood of the same dimensions due to the properties of lamination. The plywood you want will be labeled as being for "outdoor use," which is treated to be rot resistant. It is easily worked and paintable/sandable. If you want to leave wood exposed rather than painting, then you can use a higher grade plywood which has a top veneer of high quality material; this is commonly used in furniture.

The thickness for something that isn't taking any kind of load is really up to your opinion regarding the aesthetics of the thing.

You can use plywood for the stands as well. Using dimensional lumber for a project like this would require jointing the lumber together and cutting it to a curved shape unless you wan to use greek "block" letters.

If this will be used outdoors, particularly in wet weather, you'll want to apply an outdoor finish or paint to your letters, even if the wood is rated for exterior use. Frankly you may not find exterior rated plywood with a high grade, since it's typically used in applications where the plywood is a backing for something else (e.g. shingles). If this is the case, it's even more important to apply judicious layers of outdoor finish to protect your project. Indoor plywood typically doesn't use waterproof glues between layers and moisture may cause it to split.

  • For what it's worth, I've seen exterior-grade plywood warp like crazy when wet. – grfrazee Jul 30 '15 at 20:43
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    Yes. I would still apply a finish to it. – Daniel B. Jul 30 '15 at 20:55
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    If the letters are only being used for recruitment events, as indicated by the OP, even non-outdoor rated plywood will be just fine, especially if painted in the house colors. Even if it does eventually become lousy, the OP will be long gone and the replacement will provide an opportunity for the next generation to hone their skills. – whatsisname Jul 31 '15 at 3:27
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The other answers are helpful for explaining what types of wood to use for the environment but fail to take into consideration how you are going to construct the letters.

The simplest way I can think of would be trace the outlines of the letters onto plywood sheets and cut them out with a jig saw.

If you use non-engineered boards of wood, either dimension framing/decking lumber (2x4, 2x6, etc.) or lumber you have milled to dimension, you're going to be dealing with wood that isn't very wide on average. This means that you're going to be joining (glue, screws, etc.) boards together and cutting all sorts of angled cuts, likely requiring multiple types of saws. It will also require a lot more finishing. While doable, this is significantly more complicated and is unlikely to be as durable as a single board.

Similar to cedar, there are composite deck products that are not wood but can be worked with like wood. They will not rot, expand/contract, twist or deform and are water proof.

  • Definitely think about construction, that's the first thing I thought of as well. Building them from a single piece will be much easier and sturdier than constructing from multiple pieces. The letters in the board above are probably machined with something like a laser cutter or a die press - you could use a jig saw to do much the same, but it will be a bit difficult to do well if you're not familiar with a jig. – Joe Jul 31 '15 at 13:52
  • @Joe What's going to be more available to a woodworking novice? A $30 jig saw or a laser cutter? – Doresoom Jul 31 '15 at 14:50
  • @Doresoom Oh, absolutely. Not trying to suggest buying one... just pointing out how it was probably made (and that this might be a difficult project as a novice, unless you know someone who has the tools/experience...) – Joe Jul 31 '15 at 14:56
  • @Joe Okay, I wasn't sure if you were advocating going with that route or not. Good point about knowing someone though - I bet on a college campus there might even be a fabrication lab or maker space nearby that might have a laser cutter they could rent time on. – Doresoom Jul 31 '15 at 15:15
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Are they going to be painted in a solid colour or bare/stained wood? If painted then most signmakers these days seem to use moisture resistant MDF (medium density fibreboard). This is super easy to cut and machine and very durable once painted.

The place where I work uses Medite exterior-grade MDF for a lot of (painted) exterior board components.

  • Given lightweight and weather resistant, signmakers foam is probably a better choice than MDF, which is still pretty weighty. – Ecnerwal Aug 21 '17 at 13:34

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