OK, I’ve promised this blog post for a while now, so here it is.

Let me begin with a story;

I was working in a sign shop in Marietta years ago, and a guy comes in the door, walks up to the counter, and asks me this question:

“Are you crazy too?  I mean, I’ve just been to two other sign shops, and I’m almost convinced that all sign makers are just nuts.  Are you nuts too?”  Wow, what a way to start a conversation!  He never told me the name of the other two sign shops he had been to, but as best I could understand, he was looking for a certain type of sign, made only by a special type of sign maker.  The shops he had been to were “generalists”, they made small signs and banners, and didn’t make the special type of sign he was looking for.  I don’t know exactly what had happened at the two other shops he visited, but the best I could do was to give him a referral to another sign shop, one that made the particular type of sign he was looking for.

It’s hard to say he made a mistake, but sometimes expectations are a difficult thing to manage.  His expectation was that, any sign shop he walked into would be able to make the particular type of sign he was looking for, and in reality, that’s just not the world we live in.  

I’m looking for the perfect analogy to explain sign makers, and the best one I know is the restaurant analogy.  If you are hungry, and not looking for any particular KIND of food, there are plenty of restaurants that serve a VARIETY of food.  If your taste buds require a CERTAIN KIND OF FOOD, let’s say seafood for example, chances are, you will go to a restaurant that ONLY serves seafood.  If you wanted a great steak, you would probably go to a steak house.  Sign shops are a bit like that.  It’s not a perfect analogy, but pretty close.

Part of the problem is human.  People are simply born with different skills, gifts and talents.  I am of the mind-set that sign makers are BORN, not MADE.  Of those who are born sign makers, they tend to be born a specific KIND of sign maker.  Many start out as generalists, working at the local sign shop, then discover the particular type of sign they are good at, then start their own business making ONLY that kind of sign.   Here’s the best approach; in order to define the different types of sign MAKERS, let’s itemize the different types of SIGNS:  

ELECTRICAL SIGNS     These are lighted signs that can be attached to a building or freestanding.  They tend to be larger metal type signs that require a great deal of fabrication, welding and painting.  Some examples might be: channel letter signs, billboard signs, lighted marquee signs for supermarkets and malls.

The companies who build these have to have plenty of space for construction in a large warehouse, and they tend to build ONLY those types of signs I just mentioned.  Here’s the problem:  If you are looking for a sign for your yard sale this weekend, and you do a Google search for “signs”, this sign company might come up.  If the name of the company is “Bob’s Signs”, and they don’t have a web-site, it’s difficult to tell that they don’t do the type of sign you are looking for.  You can give them a call, or just keep looking.

SANDBLASTED SIGNS        Equipment for the sandblasting process is very specific, and there is a lot of art involved.  Since it is such a specific kind of sign, people who make sandblasted signs tend to make ONLY sandblasted signs, for the simple reason that the process is so laborsome and specific.  They are specialists, and have little time to do anything else.  They may have a retail presence, or not – they may sell to the general public, or “to-the-industry” only.  They all tend to be different.

SCREEN PRINTING     This can mean screen printed apparel, or signs; rarely both in the same building.  Some local sign shops still do screen printing in house, but screen printing on a large industrial scale is becoming more popular.  This goes for apparel, as well as signs.  As discussed in past blogs, the internet has made it possible for large companies to set up in areas where warehouse space is CHEAP, and they can print and ship anywhere in the world.  Just about everyone has had some experience screen printing in high school art class.  THIS AINT THAT.  Modern automated press machines can crank out printed t’s by the thousands per day, and they’re just not the guys you call for a banner, however, their name just may come up when you do an internet search for signs in your local area.

There are more “big category” signs than that, but let me tie this off with this last one:


That’s funny, right?  “Signs” is such a broad umbrella covering so many different products; anything from a pen with a company name on it, to a blimp with an LED message over a football field.

 One of the last categories to mention isn’t really a “category” at all.  Nowadays, the local hometown sign shop can be “independent” or it can be a franchise business.  There’s plenty of info to chew over about the differences between local independant sign shops and franchise sign shops, but that is the subject for another blog post.  

Chances are, you know the ones I mean.   These shops tend to have the biggest retail presence, and are a primary interface that most people encounter when in the market for a sign.  Their mission is to be all things to all people at all times.  Now that can be good and bad.  As I’ve mentioned in other posts, “subcontractor” is not a dirty word in the sign industry, and these general sign shops use subs as well as vendors who do 100% of the job.  These shops try to offer just about any type of sign under the sun, and they often promise same day or next day service.  They tend to be thought of as the best source for banners, yard signs, t-shirts, vehicle graphics and smaller types of signs.  Their equipment and capabilities vary from shop to shop and region to region, and it’s impossible to know what they’re all about until you’ve dealt with them.  They’re also subject to employee turn-over, so the shop that serves you well today, might not do a good job tomorrow.   Makes it sound like a crap shoot, doesn’t it?  Well, sometimes it is.  My best advice is to ask around.  Talk to people you know who have purchased signs in the past, and see if they have a “go-to” source for signs.  The “everything” sign shop can be a good place for a referral, if they don’t make the type of sign you’re after.  They should at least be a dependable repository for knowledge, or they won’t be in business long.

Dan the Sign Man