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Case Study - Custom Carved Signs


Until less than two years ago, Eric Erickson, owner of Custom Carved Signs, had never even heard of a CNC router, despite owning a router of his own that he had never used! Today, Eric is regularly making custom carved signs for a range of clientele utilizing the efficiency and power of CNC, including Vectric's VCarve Pro software. With an energetic approach to both his business, and CNC that is certain to motivate novice and professional sign makers alike, Eric discusses how his passion for woodworking began...

"For 18 years, I owned a jail and prison supply business. My customers were county jails, state prisons and federal penitentiaries. As you might imagine, my customers, being various government agencies could be, at times, difficult to work with. So, when I was approached by an interested party to sell my business, I didn't offer up a whole lot of resistance."

"With all this new free time on my hands and not knowing for sure what was next for me career wise, I started on a project that had been put off for far too long. I was finally going to build my basement bar that I talked about building for probably 15 years. Unfortunately I didn't own any woodworking tools. Luckily my friend owned just about everything that I needed tool wise, and he was full of helpful advise and expertise too. Having never really done any woodworking before, I learned how to do a lot of new things over the next month while building my bar. I got my bar done just in time for the Christmas festivities and it was enjoyed by all. It turned out great and I now had a new interest in woodworking."

"I decided to download Vectric's VCarve Pro software since it seemed to be the most popular amongst the CNC guys. I watched several tutorial videos from the Vectric website. I was pleasantly surprised how easy it was to learn the software just from watching a few videos and playing around with some things. I think the Vectric software, and how easy it was to use, sold me on the CNC idea even more than I already was.", Eric Erickson, Custom Carved Signs

3 Bears SignNamas Park SignSilly Goose SignWolfs Lair SignLoon Bay Sign

After returning his friends tools, Eric decided to purchase his own woodworking equipment to create further projects, including a toy box, medicine cabinet, work bench, picture frame(s), and flower boxes to name a few. After a 26 year kart racing career/hobby/obsession, he describes how his new found love for woodworking has helped fill his newly found spare time...

"My wife, Nancy, and I went fishing with our new fishing boat as often as we could. One weekend we went to my parent's cabin. In appreciation for using their cabin, I wanted to make them something. I noticed a lot of cabin owners have those routed signs. It's kind of a tradition in many places to "brand" your cabin or lake place. So, I figured I could make them a sign with an old router I never used. That's where I clearly ran short of talent."

"Now I'm obsessed with making them a sign. So, I begin searching the internet for letter templates, so I can route this sign, and stumbled upon CNC routers. This is way too cool. I literally spent the next 3 weeks looking at CNC router information and watching videos. The more time I spent looking at these things and learning everything a person could create with CNC, the easier it was going to be to convince Nancy that we really couldn't live without one for any longer."

"The next tough decision was going to be which one was I going to buy. As luck would have it, while I was lurking on the ShopBot forum, I saw that they were putting on a ShopBot camp just over an hour away the very next week, and I didn't even need to bring a tent. I emailed the organizer and asked if I could attend, even though I didn't own a ShopBot. Of course, he said I was more than welcomed to attend."

"After I got the clearance to attend the ShopBot camp, I figured that I better do some more studying up on how CNC works and maybe take some software for a test drive. Keep in mind that this is the fall of 2009 and I'm not a total stranger to vectors. I've had a plotter since around 1995. I bought a computer and plotter to make graphics for my racing karts and equipment that I previously mentioned. I'm not the most computer savvy guy either. Until the fall of 2010, I was still running my plotter on the original computer I purchased, which was a 486 Dx2 operating on
windows 3.1 (mainly because I was afraid to change anything if it was still working)."

Gilligans SIgn Clausens Sign
19 Par Sign Keenans Sign

"Vectors are vectors. I kind of knew X and Y stuff from cutting the vinyl. I just needed to figure out some new software. I decided to download Vectric's VCarve Pro software since it seemed to be the most popular amongst the CNC guys. I watched several tutorial videos from the Vectric website. I was pleasantly surprised how easy it was to learn the software just from watching a few videos and playing around with some things. I really liked how I could do a preview cut and see exactly what my projects were going to look like. I think the Vectric software, and how easy it was to use, sold me on the CNC idea even more than I already was."

"Glen Kadelbach from Innovative Foam was the host of the camp and Bill Palumbo, from ShopBot, made it easy to understand the mountain of information presented. I left there knowing that I had nothing to worry about."

After ordering a new ShopBot BT48 Buddy with the Porter Cable just a week after attending the ShopBot camp, Eric spent the next several weeks (whilst waiting for his new CNC router) playing with Vectric's software and researching the best way to make some cabin signs. After further research and determining several different techniques to use, Eric details how he experimented with his new router and software...

"My ShopBot arrived on December 18th, 2009. Yes... I remember the date. After the neighbor unloaded my crate from the truck with his skid steer, I had my new CNC router out of the crate, set-up and hooked up in record time. I think I was carving test cuts within a couple hours. Over the next several weeks I experimented quite a bit with different router bits, feed rates, and router speeds. I seemed to gravitate towards making the cabin signs out of cedar because it's naturally weather resistant and it looks great. Cedar is also pretty affordable and very available in my area. After I figured out how to best carve my cedar signs, I needed to figure out how to paint and finish the signs."

Machining Torbenson's Log Sign 1 Machining Torbenson's Log Sign 2
Machining Torbenson's Log Sign 3 Machining Torbenson's Log Sign 4

"My original thought was to spray paint the carved areas and sand the surface after the paint dried. I found that most of the paints took too long to dry enough to sand and the paint didn't sand off very well. After trying several different paints, I ended up using Marsh's Stencil Ink. It comes in a spray can and dries good enough to sand in about 30 minutes. Don Thomson, of Diamond Lake Custom Woodworks, bought some stencil ink in the jug and tried spraying it on his signs with a HVLP spray gun. It took a lot longer to dry, and the clean-up wasn't worth the cost savings. I'm glad he tried that though, because that was my next experiment."

"Once the ink is dry, I start to sand the sign's surface with my orbital sander using a 60 grit sanding disc. It took me a little while to figure out how to let the sanding disc do the work during the sanding process. Cedar is a pretty soft wood and it's very easy to get carried away and try to speed things up by applying too much pressure. Even though it's a 60 grit disc, I still sand to a light touch. Otherwise I end up sanding too deep and sand away parts of my carved images. After I remove all of the ink overspray from the sign's surface, I sand again with a 80 grit disc and then a 120 grit disc."

"At this point, I'll also sand the back of the sign. Because I spray the edges of the signs black too, I'll often end up with a little black overspray on the back of the sign. After I'm satisfied with the sanding, I blow the saw dust off the sign with the blow gun."

"As of a couple months ago, before the sign will get treated with any finish, I brand the back side of the sign with my branding iron. The brand shows my company name and website address. I'll take any kind of advertising I can get. Plus, I've got a cool looking brand and I love showing it off."

Finishing Supplies"Finally it's time to put a finish on my little masterpieces. I use Cabot's "Australian Timber Oil" in the natural tint. I spray the timber oil on with a inexpensive HVLP spray gun. I usually spray the bottom first. Then I immediately flip the sign over and spray the edges and the front of the sign. It takes about 12 to 14 hours for the finish to dry enough to wrap the sign in a plastic bag to box up and ship. Don't try to brush this Australian Timber Oil on if you used the stencil ink I use. The timber oil will take the black ink and smear it all over the sign. I found this out early on in my experimenting with different finishes. This is the main reason why I spray the finish on. I buy my HVLP spray guns for $12.99/ea. After using the same gun for a month, I usually get sick of cleaning all of the little parts that get gummed up and just throw the gun out. The reason I use the Australian Timber Oil as opposed to a spar urethane is the timber oil doesn't dry to a hard shell finish like the urethane. It's more of a penetrating treatment and won't eventually crack and peel like urethanes after a few years. Not to say the sign won't need to be retreated at some point with the timber oil."

Now perfecting his production methods, Eric soon had friends and neighbors that wanted him to manufacture signs for them as well. It was this passion for woodworking, and interest in his work that prompted him to go into the sign business. Eric explains how he went on to setup Custom Carved Signs...

"I started with buying my domain name for a website I built my own website from a template and didn't think it was difficult at all. Remember, I had just retired my old 486 running windows 3.1. So, if I could do all this, it must have been pretty straight forward and easy."

"I had some business cards printed. I pass out my business card every chance I get. I gave a lot of my friends and relatives business cards to hand out too. Every time I go into a business that has a bulletin board, I make sure I pin up a few of my business cards. You just never know where that next order is going to originate from."

Partworks (VCarve Pro) Toolpath Screenshot
Partworks (VCarve Pro) Design Screenshot

"I started early on posting an ad in the arts & crafts section of Craigslist. It's free advertising and there are actually a lot of people that would look on Craigslist for an item like the signs I wanted to sell. Now, I post a Craigslist ad in a few different market areas. I'm in one of those weird places that's near a couple other neighboring market areas and I certainly don't want to limit my potential exposure."

"A picture is worth 1000 words. How often have we heard that? It's true though. There were many occasions I would hand my business card to a stranger and get a puzzled look when I explained to them that I make carved wood signs or cabin signs if you will. So, I had some tri-fold flyers printed up displaying several different signs I had made for other people. My flyers have been a huge success because now the potential customer can see some of my signs without a need to go to my website and check out my photo gallery. But, if they have enough interest in having a custom carved sign made, they'll ultimately end up at my website anyway."

"Now, in addition to spreading my business cards everywhere I can, I leave some of my flyers with area businesses. I'll stop complete strangers and give them one of my flyers and talk a bit about the cool signs I make. This tactic drives Nancy crazy when she's with me. She's not as outgoing as I am. I stopped a couple out for a walk two weeks ago as they were walking by our house. They were very friendly and explained to me they were relative newlyweds and they have a cabin down the road. I invited them into my shop to see some signs and gave them a flyer. They ordered a carved sign about a week later."

"Vectric's preview image has been a real sales tool for me. Most customers can't visualize what their sign could look like. Having the ability to preview the project in the software and create an image that can be emailed to a customer is priceless. For me, this feature sells my signs to many people. I don't actually carve a sign until the customer has seen the preview image and has approved the design. Most of my customers don't just happen to be walking by out on their evening walk."

VCarve Pro Preview Image Finished Sign from preview

"I live in northern Wisconsin and I'm surrounded by potential customers. But, as much as I try, I'll never be able to get the word out to everybody. I need to keep thinking of unique ways of marketing my signs. One afternoon I was running around and decided out of the blue to stop by a large local realty office. My intention was to sell them on the idea of giving away one of my custom carved signs to all of their new cabin and lake home owners as a house warming gift. They absolutely loved the idea and immediately put a plan together with me. I think a lot of businesses are looking for unique ways to attract or keep customers these days and my signs were just the ticket here. But, it doesn't end there. I joined the local Lions club when we moved here last fall and the manager of the realty company is also a member of the same Lions club. He hadn't been to any of our meetings since I joined the club. I pointed out to him that if he had come to the last meeting he could have seen the Lions club cribbage board I made and brought to the meeting to show off. His eyes lit up, and he asked me to repeat myself that I make cribbage boards. I had to explain to him that I had made one cribbage board. But, nothing to say I couldn't make more. He went on to explain that another local guy had made them some cribbage boards with the company name carved into the board and they had just given away their last one a week ago. He showed me his own board and asked if I could make them some and how much would I charge. He said they would order 25 cribbage boards if it made it easier for me to justify making them. He ended up ordering 25 cribbage boards and the boards I made were way better than the boards he had made before. This was all accomplished by a random stop on a whim."

Eric Erickson in the WorkshopEric's web site is a fantastic resource that's constantly kept up-to-date with the latest imagery of any new signs produced. Having customers call with a decision on what they already want based on what they have seen on the Custom Carved Signs website is evidence of it's effectiveness as a sales tool. Eric is also a keen user of social networks such as Facebook where he keeps his name and newly completed projects in front of a lot of potential customers. Every now and again, Facebook generates referrals from a connected friend of a friend or relative that would like a custom carved sign. You can discover Eric's online presence at the following addresses:


Eric Erickson, Owner, Custom Carved Signs

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