For Bob, doing garment printing while working his way through college was his doorway to the sign business. He went on to apprentice as a sign painter. Working in sign shops taught him most aspects of sign making, and he went on to learn neon bending. He launched Bob’s Signs in 1984, creating a diverse graphics business that’s still growing.
Signs and more:
1200 sq. ft.
Three plus Bob
2-by-3-ft. Laguna IQ Pro CNC router
30-in. Roland VersaCAMM digital printer
80- and 100-watt GCC Laser Pro laser cutter/engravers
4-by-4-ft. PlasmaCAM plasma cutter
4-head embroidery machine
Two screenprinting carousels
Sign Wizard software
We’re getting ready to break ground on a 3000-sq.-ft. shop. We’ll finally have enough room—or at least I think so! [Laughing.] Right now the sign shop is in a 30-by-40-ft. building, and I have multiple outbuildings on the property where we do the engraving and embroidery work. It’s two acres that we’ve taken to calling “The Compound”.
There’s a lot going in our area right now—wineries, schools and lots of tourist-related businesses. These are businesses that want unique custom signs so we get into some fun projects.
We do a lot of signs, but we also do a lot of screenprinting and embroidery. It has become about half of our business, and it fits in very nicely with the sign work. You’d be surprised how many sign customers turn out to also be customers for embroidery, screenprinting or laser engraving.
We’ve always tried to be a one-stop shop for everything from signs to promotional items to T-shirts to hats. They all kind of go together. Garments and promotional items aren’t like signs—they’re used up and reordered. You build a sign to last and it’s out there for decades, but folks come back for screenprinting, embroidery and promotional things.
Tell customers what you do:
When you work like this, it’s important to make sure every customer knows everything you can do. Otherwise it’s too easy for them to go online and order a bunch of T-shirts. Six months later when you do a sign for them and they see a stack of shirts in your shop, they’ll say, “I didn’t know you did T-shirts…” It’s the same with signs. If you do a monument for them, they may think you don’t do wraps. They need to know you can do it all.
Cut from steel:
I’ve been doing cutout metal letters forever. I have always liked that look. We’ve done a lot of them on our plasma cutter. I like to use interesting finishes on them, too, because it really adds to the effect.
And using the plasma cutter is what got me into laser cutting. It’s amazing what you can do with this equipment. Our 100-watt laser will cut through 3/8-in. acrylic, which makes a beautiful letter. It’s also thick enough that I can tap it to use it on a sign face.
From everything in-house to outsourcing:
For decades I wanted to do everything in-house. Then I realized that it made more sense for me to outsource a lot of this work rather than to keep adding equipment and staff.
Jim Lago of Healdsburg Signs and I work together a lot, so we have access to each other’s equipment. Jim’s work has been in SignCraft before. He and I were originally partners in Healdsburg Signs. But partnerships are tough, and I wound up leaving and learning to bend neon. I did that for six or seven years until I burned out on the repair work. I love the glasswork for the creative part, but I couldn’t stand doing the repair work.
Lately I tend to have Jim do almost all my CNC router work. It just goes faster and easier. I also sub out most of the cut metal work to a shop with a waterjet cutter. The waterjet cuts really clean, so there’s no slag, no grinding and no finishing to do. We do a rough sanding on the letters, and they’re ready for paint or patina stains.
I have a small digital printer, so I sub out all the big prints. That works well, because I don’t really have the room that you need for the printing, drying and laminating. I outsource the 54-in.-wide prints for signs and wraps to Signs365.com or Tribute Signs. The same with banners—I don’t think I’ve printed a banner in-house for a decade. It’s much more practical to outsource those, mark them up and deliver them. They hem and grommet them, and I think that makes a better banner.
More time for design:
While someone else is doing the production work that you sent to them, it frees you up to do more of the creative part, which is what I really enjoy best. I like design, and I like the custom sign production, too.
We’re doing a set of big letters right now from SignFoam HDU board
. They’re 5 feet tall and we’re cutting them out by hand. I still go old-school on projects like that. I made paper patterns and pounced them, and we’re cutting the letters out with the jigsaw. We’ll use a rasp to clean them up, then a router to round the edges over. There’s still something good about doing things by hand.
Downside of the business:
I don’t really see any downside. There are things I don’t enjoy doing anymore, but that’s the good thing about having employees. [Laughing.] When I was younger and working alone I had to do it all, and that was no fun at times. Now I don’t have to dig post holes anymore. I don’t have to do the date change on the banner the customer just brought back.
Goodwill is good marketing:
I believe in building a good relationship with local businesses and the community. A good example is that banner that needs a date change. People like to use banners year after year , so we do the dates with removable vinyl.
I do little things like that at no charge. It creates a lot of goodwill. I couldn’t realistically charge for the time it takes, so I find that doing it at no charge puts a smile on the customer’s face, and they remember you. Often it’s for a banner for the Rotary club or some other nonprofit, and it’s good advertising for me.
I prefer to buy from local businesses, too. A lot of small towns have lost local businesses because people buy everything online or in big box stores. I’d rather support those small local businesses because they’re just like me.
Dealing with price resistance:
Sometimes people push back on a price, and I understand that. If I quote a vehicle wrap for $4000, they may mention how it’s “just printed vinyl.” I usually agree and say that while there may only be $1200 in material involved, it’s going to take two skilled people several days to clean and prep the vehicle, remove hardware, then professionally apply the film.
Time for biking:
Once the new shop is built I hope to have, Brett, my son take over more of the responsibilities so that I can work less. In a year or so I’d like to cut back to three days a week and have a little more time for mountain biking and hiking. Right now Brett runs his business here sort of parallel with mine. It’s called Fat Freddy’s Creations. He does a lot of laser engraving and laser cutting—including mine. It’s really cool to see his business grow and see how it fits with mine.