Posted on Saturday, December 29th, 2018
Paducah, Kentucky, sits at the juncture of the Ohio and Tennessee Rivers, about 40 miles before the Ohio empties into the Mississippi River. It’s a growing historic river town of about 25,000 with a total of 65,000 including the surrounding county. It’s also home to secondgeneration sign maker Rob Estes.
Well-known for his mural and wall work, Rob turns out a variety of custom sign work from his one-man shop. Both his father and uncle were in the sign business, and he worked in his dad’s shop from 1984 until enlisting in the US Navy in 1989. He then opened Brushstroke Signs in 1995. SignCraft spoke with him between finishing up a large engraved plaque and planning a wall lettering project—and hoping the mid-November weather would cooperate.
Bread, butter and 3D
2400 sq. ft.
ShopBot 4×8 router
On Facebook as Brushstroke Signs
Most of my work is what I’d call breadand-butter—digitallyprinted and some routine vinyl signs. I also get a decent mix of layered dimensional work that I do with the CNC router and hand carving. Before I bought the CNC router, most of my dimensional work was sandblasted. I don’t do as much blasting as I used to, but mix the two when the job calls for it.
Overall, the dimensional work is my favorite. Seeing a project start as a onedimensional sketch and turning it in to a piece of advertising sign art for the customer is very rewarding. I enjoy all of the aspects of the process. My dad used to tell me that some jobs would call us to be an engineer, electrician, carpenter and a sign painter. In his shop we did everything from hand lettered vehicles to electric signs but I find that it is best to limit myself to certain types of work. I’ve created my own niche with the custom carved, routed, hand painted walls and signs.
Since I opened, I’ve worked alone for the most part. I have had a couple of part time employees on an as-needed basis over the years but never hired anyone full time. I’ve become comfortable wearing so many hats of the business that it makes it tough to give up the hands-on part of the workload. There have been times that it has crossed my mind to hire someone but I have always decided not to.
Taking advantage of outsourcing
Most of my customers are small businesses, and I handle those jobs in the shop. One of my larger customers is a local hospital that orders several laser engraved donor plaques throughout the year. I sub out this type of work to GeminiPlaques.com. I also outsource my digital printing too. I’ve had a couple of printers, but have found that in my situation it makes more sense for me to outsource it to someone like Signs365.com. This way I don’t have to stock all the different materials and laminates or worry about maintenance issues. I can an order before 8AM and I’ll have it the following day.
Smoking out the customer’s budget When I meet with a new client to discuss their signage needs, I always ask what their budget and timeline is for the signwork. A common response to my questions are “I haven’t thought about a budget…” and “How fast can we get it?”. At this point I show photos of different signs that I have made ranging from basic to complex along with pricing information. This gets us in the ballpark of what type of sign they are looking for and a budget that they are comfortable with. If the customer is getting bids for signs from other shops in the area I make sure that we are pricing “apples to apples”. Sometimes a potential customer comes along and knows exactly what they want; they have photos in hand and a budget in mind. That definitely makes the sales process easier.
Getting around to your own work
Working on my own projects or business presence and identity has always taken the backseat to the paying gigs. For example, my website, www.brushstrokesigns.com, is just a landing page with my logo and basic contact information. I do keep my portfolio photos on Instagram and my Facebook business page but would like to have an inclusive website that potential customers could get most of their questions answered. I have always had good intentions to build a full website but I seem to never have the time to devote to it.
Making sales easier
Growing up in my dad’s shop, I was intimidated by sales. Hearing the word “No” was tough. Dad used to tell me “More people will say no than they will say yes” and “When you are hungry enough you’ll sell something” and he was right. When I opened my own shop, no one knew who I was and I knew I was going to have to make a lot of cold calls.
At first I targeted businesses that had signs that looked bad and were in poor condition. I thought that would make the sales process easier. How could they say “No” if I was telling them that their sign looked bad and that was a direct representation of their business? The first cold call on the first day I sold the job, and that was the boost of confidence that I needed to make everything seem possible.
Making sales has become easier over the years, and I’m always refining my process. Going out and making cold calls is still the least appealing part of the business to me, but as the saying goes, “Nothing happens until something is sold,” so I just roll with it.
More walls to paint
I’ve been doing quite a few wall lettering projects lately. There is something appealing and satisfying about the look of hand painted brick. Plus, whenever I am out painting a wall, I usually pick up a new customer or two. Being out on the job site is some of the best advertisement.
Last summer I painted a local brewery’s logo on their wall and as soon as I was finished, people began to take selfies with the logo. These photos end up on social media and make great advertising for the client and me.
The first Walldog event that I attended was in 1997, in Belvidere, Illinois and I try to attend one every summer. These events have been a resource to learn new painting techniques and styles. It is also a fun time to hang out with my art family. It has been an honor to serve as a project leader at several events over the years. Currently we are in the beginning phase of holding a Walldog event here in Paducah in 2021. I am looking forward to that. They are always a lot of fun.