In 1985 Brad Johnson quit his day job to go into sign making full time. He was, in his words, “completely green, totally on fire with the pilot light blazing.” He had learned some basics and was picking up freelance sign jobs. His college education was in landscape architecture, but his interests were heading into graphic design.
“I had been reading those early issues of SignCraft,” Brad says, “and it was just what I wanted to do. I loved letters and rock ‘n’ roll album art. I was crafty and loved to make and build stuff. I was stoked. I could hardly sleep those first couple of nights after the big aha moment, finally knowing my life’s calling.”
We’ll let Brad bring you up to date:
PVC letters on overlaid plywood, finished with 1 Shot enamel with an automotive clear coat
So here I am 35 years later still loving it. I do a mix of design, hand painted, dimensional and some digital printing. I do a lot of work in the downtown Corvallis area—custom storefronts, dimensional signs, window lettering and an occasional vehicle.
I’m also doing a lot of large graphics for area schools—big hand-painted walls indoors and out with lettering and mascots. It’s really fun! I just finished a high school gymnasium with 80 feet of lettering down one side and a 30-by-65-ft. overlapping mascot that turns the corner. It was a big one. The letters were 10- to 12-ft. tall.
Letters are HDU board CNC-routed with a z-axis profile, then spray finished with mixed dark blue to robin egg blue 1 Shot enamel colors then clear coated.
I work on two iMac computers. The older one is a legacy setup that runs my Mac version of FlexiSign software. The newer machine has Adobe Creative Suite and Affinity Designer on it.
I typically design in FlexiSign. If it’s for digital output, I export layers as PDFs and take those into Photoshop to colorize them and add effects. I have a Roland CAMM-1 24-in. plotter that I’ve used since the early ’90s and it’s still going strong. I obviously don’t cut vinyl all day. The Epson printer is used for my wife’s fine art giclées and film positives for screen printing.
Letters, books and borders are SignFoam HDU board [www.signfoam.com]. Orange trim is PVC board. The letters are finished in 23K gold leaf and the background is green smalts.
I work alone, as the shop is a tad small. It’s a life of voluntary simplicity. I learned early on to work with other shops for CNC fabrication. That way I’m not a slave to any one machine. I get things CNC router-cut, laser-cut, laser engraved, plasma-cut and water jet-cut, depending on the material. Signs365
does my digital printing.
I’m very comfortable screen printing, which is a great asset if you’re doing custom work. It’s an old-school technique that lets you do all sorts of very tight, detailed work. I can expose photographic imagery or sometimes cut to the chase with a simple cut-out vinyl sticker on the back of the screen. We jokingly call it “scream printing” and I have learned from each mishap.
Letters, logo and border are HDU board on an aluminum composite panel over a welded frame of 2-in. aluminum tubing. Letters and logo are finished in 23K gold leaf.
I’ve learned a lot through the great contingent of Letterheads and hand-painted sign guys here in Oregon, thanks primarily to Pete McKearnan and Lee Littlewood, who share a shop in Portland. They have get-togethers at their place every few months. Although it’s a two-hour drive I try not to miss them. It’s really where I learned about gilding, glass embellishing and general sign work—along with SignCraft and a couple of local sign guys who were very helpful early on.
Aluminum leaf and 1 Shot lettering enamel on glass
My shop is small but sweet, just 640 sq. ft., and pretty dialed. There’s a lot going on in here and best of all it’s just ten steps out my back door. I really like the convenience of being a home-based sign guy.
Brad’s shop is a compact workspace where every inch is put to use. The design area at left has a storage loft above it.
It’s divided into roughly three workspaces. One-third has a bare concrete floor and can be separated from the rest of the shop by a big curtain sewn of heavy painters’ drop cloths. That’s where the tools are and where all the dirty work gets done. I can pull the curtain across to make dust, or to use it as a spray booth. That can be a bad combination, but it works if you clean up appropriately. I keep the shop pretty tidy and organized. It’s easier that way. This space is covered in over-spray because I used to spray blend every other job that rolled out of here.
The heart of the shop.
The rest of the shop is carpeted, and most of that is production area. I have a 10-ft. easel and a couple of 4×8 worktables that can easily become 12- or 16-ft. tables. The shop has high ceilings, which provide a lot of storage, including a loft above my design area. Below is a collection of samples, lots of books and vinyl—vinyl LP records, that is.
Variety keeps it interesting
As for the work, it’s fun to mix it all up. I’d get tired of doing the same thing over and over. After doing a big job where I’ve just trashed the shop and there’s SignFoam everywhere, it’s good to clean it all up and sit down to dive deep into design work.
Digital prints for a contractors van. “Lots of dimensional illusion here,” says Brad.
A few years ago, I did two 4-by-40-ft. signs back to back. One was all hand painted with their retro logo. The next was all digital eye-candy. Both were equally fun.
I love the variety and the challenge. I’ve always been good at thinking sideways and finding creative solutions. How can I use the materials and the technology to do something a little different than anyone else has done? I’m a bit fearless that way.
The swooshes are HDU board and the face is cut out aluminum composite material over a sheet of copper. “I textured the copper using a sanding disk on a hand grinder,” says Brad, “methodically guiding it against a straightedge. It was then clear coated.”
I’ve picked up multiple sign projects for different school districts throughout the central Willamette Valley. A lot of the high schools are in the same league, so they see the work I’ve done at other schools.
I have another high school project on the horizon. I’ll be doing a dozen projects, and four are big outdoor jobs—one is 35-ft. in the air and 95-ft. long; another is almost the same. These will be projected, hand cut-out and hand-brushed with Matthews acrylic polyurethane on ACM in three colors with blended centers.
I just learned that Matthews polyurethane can be brushed and rolled if you use their retarder. I wish I’d known that ten years ago. I thought it could only be sprayed.
“This is one of a series of five projects on the fourth floor of Oregon State University’s Strand Ag Hall,” says Brad, “where the Dean’s Office is. They are two-tone white gold leaf done in reverse on half-inch plate glass which is mounted on clear vertical grain Douglas fir plywood. I took photos of the old building, converted them to black-and-white in Photoshop and posterized them. I screen-printed them on the plywood using clear ink tinted with asphaltum varnish to let the wood grain show through the print.They vary in size up to five feet wide.”
Keeping it fun
I’ve got a great sound system in here and a massive collection of music. I always have music playing and it makes everything more joyous. I like being out here and being productive.
Painted with 1 Shot enamel on double-faced overlaid plywood
Bidding and pricing is my least favorite task, but it’s getting less painful. My website has been recently re-created in WordPress and is coming along. It should be awesome some day.
When you work alone you really have to do it all—sales, marketing, design, production, installation. I do all my own accounting, too.
I don’t really see retirement in the picture. I like the work I get to do downtown and the school projects. Lately it’s been mostly eclectic, creative work. Big projects that matter. I’m right where I want to be at this point of life.
No doubt I’ll quit doing high ladder work and cancel the contractor’s license some day. But so far, I’ve been quite fortunate to fulfill that urge to hangout in the man cave and make something cool with my own hands. I’ll happily keep doing this for years to come.
Cut-out PVC letters, shadows and parts on overlaid plywood. “The two sheets criss-cross to create a larger sign face,” says Brad. “It’s finished with 1 Shot enamel, and the 6×6 pressure-treated posts are wrapped with cedar.”