I still design largely by hand after all these years but instead of pencil and paper, it is digital these days. I love using my iPad as an interface/digital tablet. It’s hooked up to my computer, so I am actually working in Adobe Photoshop.
The design purposefully looks hand drawn. The customer is impressed with my drawing skills and this furthers the respect and trust I need as a professional. Aside from making a digital print, there is little here other shops could duplicate.
Our MultiCam CNC router is an awesome tool. With it we can produce more accurate work much faster than we could by hand. This machine takes the grunt out of our sculpted work. We use it for tasks that require precision.
When we acquired our plasma cutter, we weren’t sure how much we would use it—but we have cut hundreds of sheets of steel on the amazing machine. Custom brackets and other bits are created daily. This project required more than 1000 leaves and one-off brackets, all much harder to do by hand!
When I first started I learned to weld using oxy-acetylene, moved to a stick welder and now use MIG welders, which are much faster and cleaner. Cutting steel is largely done with our CNC plasma cutter these days. I don’t miss the old days when we fabricated everything by hand!
Even after all these years I still love working with my hands. For smaller detailed projects sculpting epoxy is my favorite medium. The required tools are about as basic as they come—a sharpened stick and my fingers (in gloves) work best.
Gold leaf is not a dying art in our shop. There’s absolutely nothing as nice as 23K gold. The lettering was created on our MultiCam CNC router using 30-lb. Precision Board HDU and then hand painted using exterior acrylic house paint. Once that had thoroughly dried Alyssa sized the letters and laid down the W&B gold leaf.
On larger areas we go back to one of our favorite mediums— fiberglass reinforced concrete. We mix it up in our paddle mixer and trowel it on nice and thick. When partially cured, it’s time to quickly carve in the brick and stone details. The result is a wonderfully themed sign base that would be almost impossible to create in any other fashion.
The bricks and rocks were then skillfully painted by Becke and Alyssa. The result is totally realistic and believable and yet fantastical. People are drawn to it and wonder just how we pulled it all off. The answer of course is that it is a wonderful combination of new and old, digital and done by hand, combined with a whole lot of imagination.
As we finished the sign that evening, I grabbed some pictures with my iPhone. These were digitally cropped and edited and then posted to our journal on our website with a short caption—as I do each and every day. This posting was then automatically posted to social media, Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.
Within hours hundreds of readers from around the world read my entry and see our latest work. By hitting the “Like” button (which happens frequently) they instantly shared it with their friends and family. This is how the modern world works and how we find the best customers the world over.

Combining traditional skills and today’s technology

Technology has given powerful tools to signmakers

By Dan Sawatzky

Posted on Monday, August 26th, 2019

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I turned 65 this past year—an age when most think seriously about retiring. Not me! I enjoy what I do far too much. Things continually change here, however, and often in a big way. My son Peter and Hailey, his wife, now own the business. This takes much of the pressure off me, freeing me to enjoy the creative aspects much more. While I’ve never been involved in the sign business for the sake of money, it is more about the art than ever these days.

Operating a business in today’s fast-paced digital world is definitely much different than it was years ago. Now we have a lot of technology to assist us and also many great machines to take the hard work out of the process. That’s not a bad thing. Materials have changed as well. While I often hear many “older” folks in the industry comment about missing the good old days, I would never want to go back.

Embracing technology I believe the key to adapting to this new age is to embrace the best of the new and mix it in with many of our favorite old methods.

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Dan Sawatzky's shop, Sawatzky's Imagination Corporation, is in Chilliwack, British Columbia, Canada. Dan shares his experience in his Sign Magic Workshops on 3-D sign making, and his Sculpting Workshop.

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