How to Make a Vintage Inspired Carnival Sign

Have you ever had one of those project ideas that rolls around in your mind for months and months?  You can envision how the final product will look, but you have a hard time coming up with the steps to get there?  Yeah, me too.

For several years now, I’ve wanted a vintage carnival sign lit with small, globe bulbs.  I’ve seen the real deal at antique shows for mega bucks ($500+), but I just knew there had to be a way to fake my own custom version for cheaper.  I much prefer an authentic product, but sometimes my budget won’t allow it.  My problem with building one on my own was getting the casing around the lettering just right.  I wanted it to be as real as possible, and every sort of tutorial I saw online used cardboard.  That’s a great budget-friendly solution, but it’s not very authentic looking.

One night, I woke up with a start and had it all figured out.

Once I figured out how to put it together, I knew the final result would be nothing short of awesome.  I’m pretty sure I was right.

It honestly took me about $100 to put this sign together since I bought all of the materials brand new.  I’m certain that I could have done it for cheaper using some things I already had (and buying my metal at a local metal distributor), but it is hot and I didn’t feel like rummaging in the garage.  I put together a tutorial so you can put together your own version, too.

Materials – Most items can be found at Home Depot, and I’ve linked the products below in case you want to see exactly what I purchased.

36″ x 24″ piece of sheet metal – 26 gauge, zinc plated
116 inches of aluminum flat angle bar – 1″ wide by 1/20″ thick
4″ corner braces – 4 total
24 machine screw with nuts and washers –  3/4″ long. These screws are flat on the end instead of being pointy.  Make sure they will fit into the holes of your corner braces.
10 carriage bolts with nuts and washers – 3/4″ long
Rustoleum “Clean Metal” spray primer
Delta Cermacoat Crackle Finish
Off white and gray flat paint – I used leftover latex paint, but you can also use acrylic craft paint
3/4″ thick smooth plywood – depending on your letters, you’ll probably want between 1/4 and 1/2 a sheet
String of clear globe lights
7/8″ spade bit
handful of 3/4″ sheet metal screws
7/8″ hole saw
roll of aluminum flashing
1/2″ or 3/4″ staples
Rustoleum 2x Cover Gray Primer Spray
Rustoleum 2x Cover Gloss Apple Red Spray
Drill and range of drill bits
Jig saw
Hammer and nail
Staple gun
Paint brush and/or foam roller

Whew!  That seems like a lot of stuff, doesn’t it?  Okay, let’s get started

1. Cut four lengths of your flat angle bar.  You will want 2 pieces that are 36″ long and 2 that are 22″ long.  I just used a jig saw with a metal blade to cut my sections.  A jig saw is one of the easiest saws to use.  If you’ve never used it before, check out Brittany’s primer.

Lay them out around the edges of your piece of sheet metal to make sure they form a little frame.  The reason that you cut 2 lengths 22″ instead of 24″ is because the angle bar is 1″ wide.  Make sense?  Also, don’t worry about your sheet metal getting banged up and dented.


2.  (Photo 1) Flip your angle bars over so that they make a frame for the sheet metal (right side down).  Put your sheet metal inside to make sure that it fits, and attach the corner braces where the angle bars meet.  Mark the screw holes, drill a hole in sides of the angle bar, put your machine screws in the holes, and fasten with washer/nut.  You’ll notice that there will be one hole empty hole in the corner brace where the angle bar doesn’t reach, so you can just go ahead and fake it by putting a screw through that hole.

3.  (Photo 2) Turn your frame over so the right side is facing up.  Mark, drill, insert 2 machine screws into the top of each corner brace, and fasten with washer/nut.  These screws will go through the angle bar and the sheet metal.  You might want to put a block of wood underneath the corner brace to hold the sheet metal in place.

4. (Photo 3) Now you will drill holes for your carriage bolts along the edges of your angle bar.  I put two bolts on the 22″ side and three bolts on the 36″ side.  Measure and mark where you want the bolts, put a block of scrap wood underneath the frame for support, and drill the holes for your bolts.  You’ll really have to push to get the drill bit through the metal, so don’t get scared if it feels hard.

5.  (Photo 4)  Insert the carriage bolts and fasten with a washer/nut.  As you can see, I bought carriage bolts with the largest side head I could that would be smaller than the angle bar and still be 3/4″ long.  You could just use screws, but I prefer the look of the carriage bolt heads.

6.  Paint your metal frame with the Rustoleum Bare Metal spray paint.  I just painted the front and the sides of the frame and didn’t worry about the back.

7.  When the spray paint is dry, paint your frame a dark base color.  I wanted mine to look like old sheet metal, so I picked one of the 50 Shades of leftover Gray (kidding!) paint that I have stored in my laundry room.  I went with the Dark Granite (Behr) paint I used in my master bedroom.  I just painted it with a foam roller.

8.  (Photo 1)  When the base color is dry, apply the crackle finish in sections wherever you’d like the finish to look old.  Don’t just apply it over the entire surface, because that will make it look fake.

9.  (Photo 2)  When the crackle medium feels tacky (mine took about an hour), load a foam roller with a lot of paint and do one roll of flat top coat color over your crackle medium.  You have one shot to get this right, so don’t roll it more than once.  The good thing is that it’s supposed to look messed up, so if the medium is gummy you will still be okay.  The top coat I used was Oyster Shell (Glidden) that I had left over from my drop cloth rug.

10.  (Photo 3)  Paint the rest of the frame with your top coat, drying not to disturb where you painted over the crackle medium.  The end result will look like your worst paint job ever, but I promise it will be okay in the end.  Set it aside to dry.

11.  Draw your sign letters onto the plywood and cut out using a jig saw.  I printed my letters from my computer and traced them onto the plywood.  Try to use thick, chunky letters and avoid anything that’s too ornamental.

12.  Measure the radius of the blubs on your string light and cut a little circular paper template that size.  Using the template, space out where you will want the bulbs to be placed on each later.  If you are smart, you’ll only use the number of bulbs on one string of lights (25 on mine).  If you are like me, you’ll use four more bulbs, which will make you buy another set of lights and wire them together…which is annoying.  With a hammer and a nail, mark the center of each circle.

13.  (Photo 2)  Place the letters where you want them on your metal frame.

14. (Photo 3)  Use your sheet metal screws to attach the letters to the metal frame in 3 or 4 places per letter.  You can either just attach them through the top (the easy way) or measure where you want the holes, secure the letters to the base with Painter’s tape, flip the base over, measure and mark where you should put the screws and attach them from the back (my way).  Honestly, I’d go for the easy way if I were you.  My screws are hidden, but that was a lot of needless work.

15.    Using your little nail holes as a guide, drill a small pilot hole through the letters to where it makes a little mark on the sheet metal.  Unscrew the letters from the sheet metal and set those screws aside.

16.  With the spade bit, drill a hole all the way through your wooden letters using the small pilot hole as a guide.

17.  Drill a pilot hole all the way through your sheet metal, using the little mark the drill left as a guide.  Once the pilot hole is drilled, use your hole saw (my new favorite drill attachment!) to drill a larger holes in the sheet metal.  This will be a two person job – one to drill and one to hold down the sheet metal.  You’ll also want to wear gloves, because the drilled out metal pieces will be sharp and hot.

18.  (Photo 1) Cut your roll of aluminum flashing into three long even pieces.  We were able to score it with a box cutter and snap it apart.  Each piece will be about 3 1/2 inches wide.

19.  (Photo 2) Using a block of wood, fold over one edge of the metal strip about an inch.  We folded it over by hand using a block of wood, pressed the crease with another block of wood (Photo 3) and then pressed it flat by hand.  You’re basically just creating a straight, folded over edge so that you don’t cut yourself on a sharp piece of metal.  Tom came up with this technique, and I think it’s brilliant.

20. (Photo 4)  Staple the raw edge of the strip to the to the bottom edge of each letter.  We used a stapler attached to our air compressor, but you could probably use a staple gun as well.  Crease the edges to form corners where needed.  The flashing is pliable enough that it curves and bends well.  Once you have the metal stapled around the letter, you can fold the two raw edges together to form a seam.

21. (Photo 1) Prime the metal and wood letters with Rustoleum 2x Cover gray primer.  (Photo 2)  Paint the primed letters with the color of your choice (I used Rustoleum 2x Cover gloss apple red).  I used one can of each total.

22.  Reattach your letters to the metal frame using the sheet metal screws that you set aside.  The big holes in your plywood and sheet metal should match up.

23.  Use some sandpaper or scraper or chain to rough up the metal base.  You want it to look beat up.

24.  Remove the bulbs from your string of lights and thread each base through a hole from the back.  My bulbs were a little smaller than the holes I drilled (but too large for a smaller drill bit), so I halved some craft sticks and stuck them through the outdoor bulb clips to keep the bubs from sliding through the holes.

25.  Screw in the bubs on the front of your sign and plug it in.

26.  Bask in your awesomeness.

I strung a piece of picture hanging wire from two of the bolts on the back of the base and hung it by two nails in the wall studs.

We actually installed an inline touch dimmer to the wiring on the back of the sign so I could just touch the metal base for it to turn on and off.  We ran the cord behind the wall (like people do flat screen TVs) so the cord would not be exposed.  It comes out through a hole near the outlet, and that’s hidden behind the blue stereo cabinet.  The touch dimmer keeps me from having to plug/unplug it each time I want to turn the sign on/off.

It’ll take you a few days to complete this project because it’s kind of lengthy, but it will be one of your favorite things in your home.  Plus, it’s just plain FUN!

Questions?  Let me know!

Filed Under: Create Your Decor, Project Gallery

About Lindsay Ballard

Lindsay Ballard is a former college mascot turned political geek turned DIY fanatic who is conspiring to live in a Technicolor dream world. Her designs are bold and graphic, while her spirit is fun and full of color. Lindsay chronicles her projects and design ideas here at Makely, where she shares daily tutorials and inspiration. Lindsay lives outside of Austin, Texas with her husband (Tom), children (Zack and Emma) and dogs (Jack and Duke).


  1. This is brilliant! Thank you so much for sharing.
    One of my first jobs was traveling with a carnival. this brings back FUN memories.

  2. I just LOVE this!! Brilliant. Totally pinned. :)

  3. Amanda @ mommyiscoocoo says:

    Girl, You are amazing!

  4. Wow Lindsay! You did a fabulous job!

  5. Wow! Impressive!

  6. Oh my goodness this is a-mazing! I may have to ask you a million questions if I ever decide to make my own, but your instructions are so great that I think I could actually do it. I’m excited! Lisa~

  7. Heather C says:

    One word: GENIUS!

  8. Tara@Tales of a Trophy WIfe says:

    Amazing! Way, way out of my skill set but super cool!

  9. Mirna Barriga says:

    Wow! Lindsay you are awesome! I wish I had the tools to make one of my own. For now I will bookmark this page and keep an eye out for sales on the tools I need.
    Thank you so much for posting.

  10. I love this! I’ve been pinning neon signs on Pinterest, but I like that this is a DIY.

  11. Holy Crap…that’s a DIY…I mean Holy Crap!

  12. Wow. This is awesome! I saw some on Urban Outfitters’ website, but they are around $200 each. Ouch. This is really awesome! Great Great job putting that together! Maybe I’ll try and tackle an “&”!

    • Oooh, I just went and checked them out at UO’s website. They always have such fun stuff. You could DEFINITELY DIY it for cheaper than that!

  13. wow, wow, wow, wow! this……are amazing

  14. Lindsay, this is AMAZING! I am utterly impressed by your design and engineering skills. Metal-working is a whole other enchilada. Fabulous. I also love the carnival theme (without the carnies, even better!).

  15. Wow — this seriously looks amazing! And I can’t believe you did it yourself. See, this? This is why you are in *inspiration* to us, Lindsay! xx

  16. So creative! What a wonderful idea, I love it! Wish I
    was handy enough to try this!

  17. I can’t believe there aren’t more posts for this. This is amaaaazing! I just love how you see something you want/love and instead of walking away from it because it’s pricey (like me), you find a way to make it yours. You are an inspiration- thank you!!!

  18. emily strawn says:

    do have an idea of how much it cost you to make the sign?
    It is AMAZING!!!!

    • Hi Emily! If I remember correctly, it cost me about $100. A lot. It would have been cheaper if I would have bought my metal pieces at a metal store instead of at Home Depot. But, it cost WAY less than the “real” thing, so that was my silver lining. :)

  19. I love this sign!! putting this on the honey-do list, found your blog….We live in south Austin!! kinda like bloggy neighbors?

  20. WOULD LOVE TO FEATURE YOUR LITTLE FUN SIGN! if that would be ok please let me know,


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