Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin
Posted on Tuesday, August 27th, 2019
In 1992, after hand lettering for 15 years, Kurt Gaber decided to switch careers and become a union plumber for a local plumbing company. His first call from the union sent him to a different company, though, and he explained that at the interview. When they heard he was switching careers, they said they had four vans that they needed lettered. So Gaber Signs was born, and Kurt’s plumbing career never happened. Here’s where he’s at today:
Bicycles to race cars to signs
3000 sq. ft.
Roland XR-640 printer/cutter
Three Gerber Edge printers
Gerber and Graphitec plotters
On Facebook as Gaber Signs
I got my start at 13, lettering bicycles, in my hometown of Washburn. We built a bike racing track in the neighborhood, and I started painting bicycles for the other kids. Then one day a kid came whose bike had been professionally lettered by a sign painter in Eau Claire, about three hours away. I was amazed—and jealous. It made me want to get better and keep learning. Ironically, years later I wound up working with that same sign painter, Walt Karker.
From bikes I moved on to race car lettering. I grew up around race cars, and I lettered my brother’s race car. When I did his car again the next year, it looked a lot better, and I started getting calls from guys who wanted their cars lettered. I was 14, so my mom had to drive me to their garages because I was too young to drive.
From there it was on to boats and a few signs. My dad really encouraged me, too. He was very artistic and did great cartoons. I was more of a lettering guy. He gave me ideas as I sketched layouts at the kitchen table. At 14, my business cards said “Li’l Gaber Signs” because that’s what people called me.
After high school, I went to college for advertising design, but left to be near my girlfriend. I never went back to school, but ended up working at a few sign shops instead. I worked with some great old timers and learned a lot. I also ended up marrying Natalie and we’ve spent the last 34 years together.
Then in 1984 I went to a Letterheads meet in Plymouth, Wisconsin, where I met Bob Behounek, Vince Balistreri, Ray Drea and Pat Finley. Their work was incredible. I knew little about SignCraft until after the meet, and then I realized I had been around some of the top people in the trade.
27 years in the business
In 1992, I ended up opening my own shop after almost switching careers to be a union plumber. It was a good decision, and I’ve been busy ever since.
I have two full-time employees. Cindy Peeso Hilger has been with me for nine years. She does a lot of the sales and customer service, which frees me up for production. She’s really friendly and very creative. Dirk Johnson, who I worked with at another sign shop 30 years ago, has worked with me for almost five years. He’s an outstanding sign maker and hand letters, too.
I would call our work “small commercial signs.” I don’t have a boom truck because I don’t want that liability and overhead. We letter and stripe a lot of fire trucks for Darley, a fire apparatus manufacturer nearby. Their trucks go all over, including about 25 per year to China.
We do a lot of fleet lettering—vans and trucks for contractors and construction-related companies. We’ve been lucky to have a steady flow of customers who like what we do. We pay attention to detail and use top quality products, and that keeps them coming back. We use 3M vinyl on them all.
We do some Gemini letters and a few lighted sign faces. We also print a lot of decals on the Gerber Edge printers. We still do some sandblasted signs, though not as many as we used to. You hear other sign people say how their area is kind of depressed, and customers don’t have as much to spend on signs, and that is sort of our situation here. We do bluecollar signs. Gold leaf and 3-D carving are the exception here.
As much as I would like to do more of that custom work, our customers have tight budgets. We survive on the blue-collar, breadand-butter stuff. Likewise, we do very few full wraps. If we do a wrap, usually it’s a partial wrap.
Marketing your work
I don’t do much advertising because most of our work comes from referrals. We sponsor community events, though, and advertise at youth baseball fields and hockey rinks.
One thing I have tried is movie theater advertising; it’s a short video that runs before the feature film. I’ve done a couple of those, and I think they were worth it. It helps to keep people aware of your business.
I know that my website and Facebook work for me, too, because people often tell me they saw my work there. Word-of-mouth and people seeing your work are still the best way to get good customers, though.
Changes and challenges
The business has changed a lot since I got started in it, and I’ve tried to change with it. The work is different and so are customers. They want to be more involved in the design. It gets frustrating. As sign makers, we may be guilty of helping them do that when we show them layouts on the computer and make changes in front of them. I try to avoid that for that reason.
More to come
We’re one of the few shops around here that still do hand-painted signs, and I’d like to push that a little harder. I really enjoy that work, and there is a market for it.
I’ve also given a lot of thought to getting a flatbed router. I’ve been subcontracting that work out, but it would be nice to be able to do it in-house. That would let us get into some work we’re not doing yet.
But I like where we are right now, and the work we’re doing. I still do a few race cars, and still enjoy doing them, even after all these years.