Artcraft Sign Co.
14,000 sq. ft.
Paper and pencil!
AXYZ 4000 4×8-ft. CNC router
Gerber and Graphtec plotters
As you scroll down the page at www.artcraftsignco.com, you see scores of photos of beautiful signs—3-D, vehicles, neon, storefronts, illuminated, interior, flat, carved. Before you’re halfway down the page you’re thinking, “Hey, this is quite a busy shop. It must be a fairly large operation….”
You’d be right assuming it’s busy and it’s large. Artcraft Sign Company occupies nearly 14,000 sq. ft. But the staff size would surprise you. Artcraft is essentially a oneman operation.
Jim Jackson bought the 82-year-old business in 2009. He’d grown up around his father’s sign shop, [Jackson Signs in Wakefield, Rhode Island] though he never actually worked there. Even so, he ended up working in many sign shops over the years, in all areas of the industry, from shop hand to franchise vinyl shops to franchise corporate headquarters to management of a shop with an annual gross of 3 million dollars. Along the way, he had his own shop a few times.
“In the early ’80s,” Jim says, “I was getting excited about learning to letter. My dad had always inspired me, and Peter Schnibbe, Kenny Pitts and I spent many hours scribbling business plans on bar napkins, literally drooling over the amazing talent in the latest SignCraft magazine, dreaming of having our own custom shop one day.
“My dad helped me order a bunch of 1 Shot and some supplies, and I started learning and practicing my letters. But then the Gerber Signmaker arrived on the scene, and that altered the trajectory of the industry—and of my lettering skills—dramatically.”
“So I never really became a skilled old school brush guy. I did a lot of computer work, but it didn’t do much for me. There was, though, this market for creative custom signs. That work was unique, dimensional and interesting. I had always had a real appreciation for the creative side of the business and the traditional approach.”
Jim had landed in Raleigh after a few moves and was managing a franchise vinyl sign shop in 2005. It was a block down the street from Artcraft. Jim stopped in to say hello and got to know the owner. They became friends over the years and in 2009, after Jim had moved on and opened his own sign business, she told him she wanted to sell Artcraft and retire.
“I thought it was a great opportunity so I rolled my existing operation into Artcraft, which had slowed down quite a bit over the last few years. I started to rebuild the Artcraft brand, which had a lot of fascinating history behind it. I wanted to make available all of the traditional signage products using a combination of old school tooling and techniques, while incorporating modern equipment like computers, the CNC machine and large-format digital output. I felt that the product line needed to match the long history of the company. Artcraft has slowly turned around and developed a good reputation for high-end specialty signage, but the reputation can be kind of deceptive because customers sometimes think I have this big staff on tap, ready to jump on a project for them tomorrow.”
Sticking with his niche
When he took over Artcraft, Jim’s plan was to focus on the very narrow niche of creative custom signs, especially 3-D signs. After 30 years in the business, he felt he couldn’t stay passionate about generic production sign work and expect to stay in the business much longer. He wanted to do work he could be excited about, so it seemed logical to push the custom work with Artcraft.
“I offer a different product than most of the local shops,” he says. “I love using dimension whenever it’s appropriate because it can add so much character to a sign. You can use layers, cutouts and textures to create an appeal that you can’t quite get with a flat sign. Even with the amazing effects that you can create in Photoshop for digital prints, it’s not the same as the magic of real 3-D.”
So where do you find the customers for this type of unique signage? Jim says it works the opposite way:
“They find me. I do very little marketing beyond some social media and my website. The site is very simple, but it’s loaded with photos of the work. We’re in the visual communication business, so why not use the same aesthetic philosophy to promote our own work?”
Referrals are a big part of his business, too, which is an advantage of becoming known for a specific type of work. Your customers help spread the word, and others see it and find out who made it. Jim also gets a lot of referrals from other shops who don’t tackle this sort of custom work. In a more typical production shop, a custom project can really slow things down. Jim’s not into quick turnaround production work, so it works for him.
Small shop, big footprint
As for his huge shop space, Jim doesn’t expect it to last. The shop is in leased space in a block downtown within sight of the capitol building, which is likely to be redeveloped soon. He may eventually move the business to a 5,000-sq.-ft. building he owns that is outside of town, though he’ll miss the old shop’s inspiring environment.
“I don’t have much walk-in business,” Jim says, “and my customers rarely come to me. When they do they are amazed by the shop, since it’s almost a museum after being in the same space for 40 years. But most of the time I need to go to them—to see their site and get a feel for their business and its location. Sight lines, visibility, readability, connecting the signage to the architecture and style of the client’s building and business brand, these are all things that a sign professional should be looking at in serving the client well. Selling signs from the shop eliminates this professional approach.”
Jim does most all of the design and hands-on production. He subcontracts his digital printing to PC Signs [www.pcsigns.biz] and Stop Sign Graphics [www.stopsigngraphics.com]. His good friend Mark Shearon at DMS Neon [www. dmsneon.com] in Wendell, North Carolina, bends all of the glass for the neon work. He and Jim work closely on all of Artcraft’s neon projects.
“When you primarily work alone,” says Jim, “the shops you subcontract to and collaborate with are a big part of your business. The people I work with all have the same core philosophy as me. They’re also knowledgeable and very good at what they do. They’re easy to work with and they are good friends as well.
“Everything else, though, is pretty much me,” Jim says. “Hand lettering, gold leaf, CNC, LED, dimensional, design, fabrication—I enjoy it all. I try to do whatever signage product is the best fit for the application and function of the piece. I don’t see a sign as a panel with letters on it but rather a piece of graphic art that creates an image and an invitation for a business.”
Jim has had employees, but doesn’t particularly like managing people—even though he’s done quite a bit of it over the years. He does, though, enjoy teaching people how signs are made and talking about it, so he misses that part when working alone.
“I do like working alone,” he says, “even though it introduces a lot of complications— like wishing for another pair of hands when you’re assembling something or on an installation. Or when you have to go pull a permit, and work isn’t getting done at the shop. It stretches you a little thin. But there’s also some strange bit of pride in saying you did it all by yourself.
“I sometimes think about bringing in an investor-partner to enable Artcraft to hire a few excellent key people and really amp up the volume, energy and profits. I think it would be cool to be able to bring a few passionate folks into this experience, and trends indicate that we would have no problem selling our brand of work. Being a bit busy I guess I am waiting for that person to just walk in one day!”
He says it’s also not easy to find people with the passion and commitment that it takes to do custom signage.
“I’ve had people come in and say they love the work and want to learn how to do it,” Jim says. “I give some of them a try and they might last a month or they might last a year. It’s something you really have to have a passion for, or as I say sometimes, something you have to be a complete idiot to do! [Laughing.] Money can’t really be your primary motivation. It takes a lot of energy.
“I love the work and I’m focused on doing something I love to do. And that’s something that, sadly, a lot of people can’t say.”