Phil Swain


Posted on Tuesday, October 20th, 2015

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Shop name:
Fine Signs
Shop size: 3600 sq. ft.
Age: 59

Graphics equipment:
Roland Soljet Pro 4 XR-640 printer
Mutoh SC-550 cutter
Sign Lab, Corel Draw
and Adobe Creative Suite

Phil Swain began his career in the sign business the way many of the middle-aged sign makers in New Zealand did—serving an apprenticeship as a sign writer. He went on to start his own shop, Fine Signs, which grew and changed along with the sign industry. Today with the help of his wife, Anne, their staff of three (which includes their daughter Nicole) provides all the typical types of sign work—and more.

Petone is a suburb of Lower Hutt, which, with its surrounding communities, has a population of about 300,000. Thirty-two years in the business have helped them develop a strong customer base. They do little advertising, with most new customers coming by way of referrals.

Phil’s roots are apparent both in his design work and in the variety of work the shop handles. Vehicles, storefronts, hand-lettered honors boards, illuminated signs and digital printing are just part of the mix.

The traditional apprenticeship used to take four years, right?

Yes. Those were sign painting days, and the apprenticeship program took you through learning all the skills you needed to design, paint and build signs. It was a different industry then—everything’s changed now as far as training.

My good friend Rob Cooper, who now lives in Thailand, also came up in the business here. I met Rob when he was starting his apprenticeship and I had just completed mine. Rob does some beautiful work.

It looks like you still do a lot of painted work, too.

We try to. A lot of work is still best done with paint. I sleep a little better at night when I know it’s painted on the wall and it’s going to stay up!

We still do quite a bit of hand work and that sets us apart. We get some nice projects referred to us, which keeps things interesting. I do wish we could specialize in things like carved signs and custom work, but it comes along with a lot of other general sign work that needs doing as well.

And you do your share of digital work as well, by the looks of it.

My daughter, Nicole, looks after the digital print and computer work—which is way over my head. I turn the computer on but that’s about it. She’s been handling that for about ten years and it works out very well. She came on just about the time we got our first digital printer. Last year we upgraded to the Roland Soljet Pro 4 XR-640.

She’s also involved with calligraphy and loves the hand done work. She’s a lefty so it’s a bit unusual in the local calligraphy circles. She’s also quite a bit younger than most everyone else there.

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