Fort Lauderdale, Florida
Posted on Saturday, December 29th, 2018
The first boat John Teeto lettered was a very large boat—and it was in the water, which was something he hadn’t done before. That meant working off a float that was pitched up and down by the constant waves. The customer gave him the job, paid him in full, then left for Europe. When John got on the float and started lettering, his motion sickness got the best of him. He could only do two or three letters at a time before getting off the float to throw up.
“What an experience!” he says. “I so wanted to walk away from that job but I just couldn’t. The guy had paid me, and I promised it would be done when he got back. It was the longest lettering job of my life. Thankfully, though, as you get used to it and concentrate more on your lettering, bobbing around on a float doesn’t bother you anymore. I do it all the time now.”
Stock cars to gold leaf signs
1800 sq. ft.
Gerber Omega software
Growing up back in Niagara Falls, New York, I always had the art thing going. My dad was in the used car business, and he raced dirt track stock cars. I started off lettering a few cars for my dad and his friends. As I got older and they started paying me, I figured, “Hey! This is the way to go!”
At the races I checked out all the other lettering on the cars, and I loved to see my work out there on the track. My work was nothing to brag about, but it got me started. Plus they were always wrecking the cars, so there was plenty of work. [Laughing.]
I was lucky because one of my Dad’s friends, Mike Plummer, was a sign painter at a big manufacturing plant in our area. He did some sign work from his garage, and I used to ride my bike over there to watch him letter. Eventually I started helping him out. That’s where I got my first real training.
Making a move
In the ’70s, the economy in Niagara Falls started to slide. The manufacturing jobs were going away, and I decided it was time for a change. Mike had retired and moved to Florida, and was really busy with sign work there. My brother was also living in Florida. So in 1980 we made the move.
Mike started sending some accounts to me, and I went to work for Harry Bundy at Bundy Signs in Hollywood. They did everything there—from show cards to billboards and electrical signs. I met an outstanding show card writer there from up north, Lee Hill. Over the years, I’ve known some great sign people— Harry, Lee, Jerry Hancock, Jimmy Prohaska and many others. They have all been real inspirations.
Boat after boat
After four years at Bundy Signs, I opened my own shop in 1985. At first I was doing a little bit of everything. Then my brother met Jerry Hancock, who specialized in boats. Jerry was a great guy and did mostly gold leaf transoms. He was getting ready to retire and gave me many of his accounts. Before long, I was specializing in boats.
Today 95% of my work is boats or boat related. About 60% is done with the help of the computer, and the remaining 40% is hand-lettered. I do a fair amount of traveling, sometimes up as far as Jupiter and West Palm, which are over an hour away.
Boat owners have flown me all over to do their boats—Costa Rico, South America, Puerto Rico. It’s a lot of fun.
I do a lot of sport fishing boats. They are very conscious of their image, and they are proud of their boats. I do a lot of gold leaf and RealGold gold leaf film
, and still do some custom airbrush work on some of them. Lately I’m using quite a bit of RealGold Silver film. People like that more trendy look, and I needed a silver film that would last.
Me and JT
It’s me and JT, my son, here fulltime. JT runs the computer, does all the bookkeeping and keeps track of my schedule. It’s great for me because it lets me just focus on doing the work. We make a great team. He grew up around the sign business, so he understands it inside and out.
My dad comes down from New York for six months during the winter and it’s great to have him around the shop. My dad has been a major influence for me. He always worked hard and did his best. I’ve always admired that about him.
Customers value service
When vinyl came along it made the business a lot more competitive. It seemed like everyone was cutting vinyl letters. I lost some customers who went elsewhere for a lower price, but most of them came back. They liked my designs and our service. Other sign people often don’t like to work in the boatyard environment or to work off a float on a boat that’s in the water. It can be a tough gig.
I’ve always done my best to take care of the people I work for, and that’s led to some very loyal customers. I’ve done five or six boats for many owners, and they refer others to me. I think I learned that from my dad being in the car business. He always gave people a great product and took care of any problems that came up. People really appreciate that and tell their friends.
Hassles are inevitable
I love the business but that doesn’t mean there aren’t hassles. Materials give you problems, and you have to do a job over. Some guy in a boatyard reads the wrong work order and sands off the lettering you just did two days ago. [Laughing.] You’re working outside all the time, so you have to get used to the heat. It gets pretty hot inside a tent. But you deal with it and keep grinding it out.
Until not too long ago, they painted everything outside in the open at most boatyards. You had to deal with sawdust and paint spray and others working on boats nearby. Today boats that are out of the water are usually tented for painting, which cuts down on the mess.
Our shop is in a building that we bought about a year ago. It’s about 1800 ft. and is a beautiful setup. We’re still working on getting it organized the way we want. We have a computer and a cutter, but we outsource our digital printing. That works out well for us.
I’ve always been involved with cars and always seem to have a classic car in the shop. I just bought a 1952 Chevy pickup, and I plan to letter the doors and use it as our shop truck.
Grinding it out
I really enjoy my work, and as long as I can do it I’ll be doing it. My father taught me to just grind it out, and I enjoy doing that. I talked to people in other jobs who hate their work, and it‘s a shame to have to live like that. I love what I do.