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  • Writer's pictureLisa Havniear


Updated: Oct 13, 2021

Let’s be completely transparent! Or is it more like translucent? So what do they mean and how are they different? Many times these two terms are mistakenly interchange in describing building materials, structures and objects. And if the incorrect term is used to specify a building material, it can lead to unintended poor aesthetics and function of the building or structure. Knowing what each term means and how they function, amazingly creative elements can be fabricated and installed. To know how to use these terms correctly, one must understand what each mean. Translucent in its shortest definition describes an object or material as semi-clear. Translucency can even mean frosted, stained or darkly colored. Transparent is defined as completely clear.

What does that mean? ​

Translucent materials allow partial light to pass through it but does not necessarily follow the law of refraction (the act of light bending as it penetrates through an object). Translucent materials can be colored but that color is dependent upon the amount of light that is scattered, absorbed, and reflected by it. Objects on the other side of a translucent material is only somewhat visible. Examples of translucent materials are frosted glass, stained glass windows, wax papers, ice cubes, plastics like milk jugs, and some sign vinyls.​

Transparent materials are just the opposite. They allow light to completely pass through and they follow the law of refraction. Colors of transparent materials are determined by the amount of light it emits because it cannot absorb light like translucent materials. And transparent materials allow one to see objects clearly on the other side. Examples of transparent materials are Diamonds, cellophane, plate glass, clean water, liquids and acrylics.

In the sign industry, it’s very important to know exactly what type of material one is needed for the project. Acrylics are not all necessarily transparent. Some acrylics are considered “frosted” and have different levels of frost which is considered translucent. Some colored acrylics are transparent while others are translucent. The end result of the project will determine whether translucent or transparent is the material of choice. The same can be said for polycarbonate, which is a clear or painted thermoplastic material that is shatter-resistant and typically used in lighted channel letters and signs. Also used in lighted structures are translucent vinyl. This allows the lighting from behind to shine through but the bulbs, LEDs and components are not seen. Transparent vinyl are used to create colored acrylic or to simulate stained glass where natural or indirect light is positioned. Transparent vinyl is not typically used in lighted structures because it allows too much light to refract therefore the image or message is blown out. So is it time to be translucent or transparent? Still unsure, that’s okay. Contact me,, for a free consultation on your next project and together we can provide clarity on what materials are best to create the right end result. Shine on! Lisa Havniear

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