Wyckoff, New Jersey
Posted on Tuesday, August 27th, 2019
1400 sq. ft.
Roland SP540 printer
Summa S-class 48-in. plotter
Roland EGX-350 engraver
Race cars and custom paint have led more than one person to a career in sign making. That’s the path Art Amerman has followed—learning the wide variety of skills along the way that make you successful in a custom sign shop. Ultimately it has brought him to a “day job” handling the graphics for the New York Waterway—the ferry boats, buses and informational signs for this very busy transportation system. We’ll let Art tell you how he landed there:
As a young man, I always had an interest in cars and trucks, but how they look has always captivated me more than what makes them run. My interest led me to spend many of my early working days in auto body shops. There I developed skills as a welder, painter and Bondo sculptor. I also spent a lot of time doing fiberglass repair and fabrication while working as a mold maker with an automotive aftermarket company.
I especially enjoyed the opportunity to do custom body and paint work, and it became pretty evident that this was the direction I wanted to go. My eagerness was further bolstered by the visual overload I experienced after seeing my first Bob Gerdes “Circus” drag car lacquer paint job, complete with lettering by the ever-stellar Glen Weisgerber. I felt like I wanted to eat that thing!
As I worked towards becoming a customizer, I had reasonable success. I did whatever show car projects I could muster, including a custom show truck I built for myself in the 1980s. It was a trophy winner and was featured in a national trucking magazine.
Long hours, low pay
My enthusiasm was eventually tempered by the reality that cutting one’s teeth in the custom painting world often required painstaking perfection at “Earl Sheib” prices. (Do you remember, “We’ll paint any car for $39.95”?) It always seemed to be easier to make money repairing broken stuff than creating custom stuff, but that is what I really wanted to do.
On to sign work
The frustration of that reality led me to the pursuit of another passion, my love of letterforms and sign work. I had an abundance of inspiration from New Jersey’s hotbed of innovative sign talent and SignCraft alumni I had become acquainted with: Jules “Mr. J” Braet, Rich Dombey, Russ Mowry, Glen Weisgerber, Bob “Cos” Cosgrove, Mike Frederick and Bert Quimby (who introduced me to SignCraft magazine).
After a stint in an electric sign shop, and armed with a ton of can-do naiveté and just enough money for my security deposit and the first month’s rent, I opened my sign shop in Ridgewood, New Jersey, in the fall of 1989. This was a challenging endeavor. I wrestled with it for about 15 years and eventually moved the business to my home.
A new gig
In 2004 my fortune changed when I had an exceptional opportunity. I accepted an offer to become the Fleet Image Coordinator and crew leader with New York Waterway. This is the ferry company of Flight 1549 and “Sully” fame. The image department is responsible for all things that are visible on their fleet of 37 ferries and 52 buses.
This includes painting, cosmetic repair, interior renovation and all signage. It’s a union gig and a completely unique position for me. I’ve been able to utilize the assortment of skills that I’ve developed from the collision, fiberglass and sign businesses in this work. I also have a great benefit package that includes hospitalization, pension and paid holidays and vacation—all things that were hard to manage when I had my own business.
I have since relegated my sign business to a moonlight operation. This affords me the luxury of being more selective of the sign jobs that I choose to do and the ability to risk more in my selling prices, because I don’t have to worry about missing the job. My sign business has never been better or more profitable than it is now. Strangely, my largest volume sign customer, a family grocery store chain, became a customer of mine after I was on the ferry job for two months.
When I retire from the ferry biz, I plan to return to my sign business full time. I really enjoy that work. I often wonder if many other trades people feel the same sense of creative satisfaction that sign people are able to. Somehow I doubt it.
As for me, I am thankfully able to get that experience in my work. I’m grateful for my current lot in life and my wife of 41 years, Linda, who has hung in there with me through good and questionable fortunes.