Profile: Laura Walker
Lake Placid, New York
Posted on Monday, June 28th, 2021
A chance visit to a sign shop towards the end of high school changed Laura Walker’s career choice from veterinary school to the sign industry. Since 1983 she has been making custom signs in the Adirondack Mountains of northern New York State. Her signs have appeared in SignCraft Magazine in the past and this spring we had an opportunity to hear about her roots in the industry and how she built her business in her tourist-driven, seasonal market:
In high school, my plan was to become a veterinarian. I had the grades and planned to head to vet school. Then I went with a friend to pick up his dump truck that was being lettered at a sign shop. As soon as I walked into that shop I was mesmerized—the smell of the paint, all the colors everywhere, the hand-lettered signs.
The sign painter was the late Henry Blue. He was in his 70s at the time, sitting at his bench in his little shop with his brush and mahlstick, lettering away with the music playing. At that point, I was on the accelerated track in high school and had landed a full scholarship to veterinary school. Needless to say my parents were very disappointed to hear that I was going to be a sign painter instead.
Henry eventually took me under his wing and gave me a job. I sanded and coated panels, cleaned and oiled brushes, swept the shop and helped install signs. For Christmas he bought me a set of brushes and started teaching me to letter. It was 1983.
I like motorcycles and ride a Harley, and my dream was to take my sign business on the road, pinstriping and airbrushing at motorcycle rallies, doing art and painting signs. I thought that would be the life.
In 1995, though, I was severely bitten in my right hand by a dog. I lost most of the feeling in the index finger of my right hand along with other issues. There went my airbrush and lettering plans. I became left-handed out of necessity.
Eventually, I got more into 3D signs. To me, life is about dimension. That’s what makes things pop. And I like working with multiple materials—HDU, wood and metal.
Signs and picture frames
My shop is about 2500 sq. ft. Along with sign work, I also do picture framing. It shares my showroom area with my sign work displays. The businesses work surprisingly well together. Often someone comes for a frame and becomes a sign customer or vice versa.
Most of my signs are larger 3D signs. That’s what I’m known for around here. I do the small signs, cut vinyl and do printed graphics, but I focus on the dimensional signs.
I do the initial site work and the design, then I get back to the customer with some ideas and prices. Once they make a decision I talk to my steel guy and CNC guy, and it starts coming together.
One of the things that sets me apart from the other shops is that I do all the permitting work. I’m a one-stop shop. I go to the planning board meetings, deal with the Department of Transportation, the park agencies and Dig Safe NY to see the project through to the end for my clients. I cover a huge area, too—up to the Canadian border and down to the southern Adirondacks near Albany.
I’m always doing something different from one minute to the next—cutting glass for frames, then setting up a job for the plotter or doing some hand-carved HDU work or gilding. I really like that variety.
My shop is right next to my house so I can come out here in the evening if I want to do a little catching up. I can crank up the music, pour a glass of wine and be creative. I don’t want to sit in front of the TV.
A team of subcontractors
I work alone but use a lot of subcontractors. I’m just one person, and I can’t do it all. I like working with and supporting other craftspeople like myself.
Many people in our area have two or even three jobs, because the cost of living is high in a tourist area like ours. Most of my subcontractors have a full-time job but have a business as well. One does my CNC carving, and another friend does my large-format printing. A blacksmith does my brackets and metal work.
I do all the design, finishing and installations. It works well because my shop isn’t large enough to accommodate all the equipment related to those other production aspects.
One of the reasons I prefer working alone is that it’s so hard to find help. I don’t want to manage people—I want to make signs. I don’t want to be checking on others who are making the signs while I’m in the office using QuickBooks.
Keeping it custom
I still do a lot by hand. I use the computer and the technology, but I know that it has taken a lot of the craft out of sign making. I love to see folks who are still hand lettering and hand carving.
Even though computers have made design work easier than it was back in drawing board days, I think many of us still rely on our traditional skills when we do a layout. It’s not a matter of just grabbing some clipart and sticking it beside some text and charging someone a lot for it.
I think using custom fonts has been a big benefit for me. It helps give a unique look to your signs and makes it much harder for customers to get someone else to duplicate your work. I use a lot of fonts from SignDNA.com and those aren’t things that everyone has on their computer. Clipart is the same way. I do a custom illustrations—not something they could just grab off the Internet.
There are three signs in this relatively small town that have a logo that uses the same exact piece of clipart. That’s not a logo at all—it’s not unique to that one company. The people who are looking for cheap, cookie-cutter signs don’t shop with me.
A busy year
I actually noticed a little up-tick in sign work last year. Some businesses seemed to be working on their marketing or businesses changed hands. In other cases, people who had lost their jobs because of the pandemic decided to go into business. That was a pretty big risk to take, but it was an opportunity for them to become self-employed.
I also started to doing more small, distressed, custom residential signs. People were at home and doing projects around the house. It created a market for things like that.
I have to say that I truly love what I do. My daughter is graduating and will be going off to college soon. She’s trying to decide what she wants to do. I’ve told her that the only advice I would give to anyone is to find something in life that you’re passionate about. If you’re passionate about it, you will be good at it. To me it’s not about just bringing home a paycheck.
Some people don’t understand that. I can only explain it by comparing it to riding a motorcycle. If you don’t ride, you can’t really understand that experience. It’s likewise with being passionate about your work. It’s so much different than working 9 to 5.
I’m content and plan to keep doing what I’m doing. My dad always said if it’s not broke, don’t fix it. Sometimes I can’t believe people pay me to do this work. I love being in my shop and working on cool projects.