Profile: Ian Macdonald
Posted on Monday, February 22nd, 2021
Ian Macdonald left the sign business back in the nineties as computers became more involved with making signs. His roots were in hand lettering and hand carving, and he wasn’t too interested in shifting gears into the world of computers, plotters and printers. He ended up in the business of building kiosks and carts for retail markets, and that led him to building out food trucks. But a turn of events brought him back to the sign business three years ago, and he’s enjoying it more than ever:
I did other things for quite a while, and design and signage of some sort was always a part of it. But my heart was still in making signs. I finally decided that there was an opportunity for handmade custom signs done with traditional materials once again, so in 2018 I went back into the sign business.
There have always been a lot of beautiful 3D signs in New England. There’s a tradition around carved wood signs here, and they became really popular about 40 years ago. You see a lot of them, and many of the older ones are showing their age. I decided that I’d focus on restoring these signs so that they would last another 30 or 40 years—rather than end up in the landfill. I started Historic Sign Restoration for that reason.
In and out of the business
I apprenticed in the sign trade in Tucson while going to college back in 1979. I really enjoyed the work and by 1981 I was at it full-time. I made signs right through the mid-90s.
I’m from Rochester originally. I worked in a few different shops here, then had my own business in Atlanta for several years. Then I came back to New York state, but I wasn’t into doing computer-cut graphics. When an opportunity to be a part of the kiosk business came around, it took me in a different direction. My friend Dave Mansfield of Corsair Display Systems gave me that nudge to do something different.
And now, here I am—I’m a sign guy again. I’m getting to restore some fine old signs and am designing and building some new ones, too. It’s good.
My shop is small—about 800 sq. ft. Some of the signs take up most of the shop! In the summer I can work outside on some of it, but this time of the year it’s cold out so it gets pretty crowded in here.
I use vinyl when it’s necessary or appropriate, as I did on some architectural signs the other day. I try to do most everything else by hand. I outsource all the computer work. I have a friend who cuts my vinyl and another who does CNC router work when I need it.
I have one all-around guy, Scott Knox, who works with me. He’s a MacGyver—he can do all sorts of things. He’s good with the woodwork and can fabricate most anything. That’s important in the custom sign business because you can get yourself into pretty unusual projects.
I handle the sales, the repairs on the restorations, the hand lettering and gilding. We use a lot of traditional materials—smalt, slow size, enamel paint—and we fabricate most everything from the raw materials.
Getting the work
I’m old-school when it comes to marketing, too. I’m out there beating the bushes. When I see someone who needs a sign or has an old sign that needs restored, I stop in. In the summer when things are really busy, I don’t have time to go out looking for work, but if I see something along the way I’ll check it out. When things slow down in the fall and winter, though, I start dropping in on prospective customers.
I stay active online, too. During the slow time, I’m updating my website, Instagram and LinkedIn. I want people to see what I can do for them.
I’m also a member of the Landmark Society in my area, which promotes historic preservation. Beyond that I’m calling on developers and property managers and anything else I see along the way.
You have to stay focused on sales because that’s what it’s all about. No sales means no work. It’s not going to find you, especially in your first few years in business, so you have to go out there and find the work.
I really believe in the personal sales call. It’s a tried-and-true approach. People love it when you visit them in person. Nobody does that much anymore. They want to text or email you for everything. I want people to meet me and shake hands.
I just came from meeting with a prospect about a fairly good-sized job. At the end of the meeting he told me he had contacted two shops from the Buffalo area who were interested in making the sale but didn’t want to come to discuss the job. That’s not me—I’ll come and look at the project.
Small towns, small businesses
Along with the restorations, this is a good market for custom signs, too. Many customers value having a unique sign. There are a lot of little towns that still have busy downtown areas, and plenty of small businesses.
Life is fun again. Working with my hands has brought me back to life. I’m really glad I’m back in signs. I wouldn’t trade this for anything.
My wife and I are looking for a piece of property now where we can have our home and a sign shop. We would like to do an Airbnb thing along with that. Our area, the Finger Lakes area, is a great vacation spot. There are a lot of wineries, distilleries and outdoor recreation along with the lakes and mountains.
People are often surprised that there is someone who is still doing signs with brushes and paint and hand tools. I sometimes outsource things, but all the finish work—that’s me. All the design—that’s me. All the worry and the arm-twisting—that’s me, too!
Scott Knox and Ian Macdonald