A Sign of a Successful Business
Although its projects have included everything from lighting to landscaping, a Vermont company has thrived for more than 30 years because of its hand-crafted signs.
By Sam Gazdziak
Wood & Wood Sign Systems’ new headquarters has everything the old place didn’t — a state-of-the-art spray booth, 18-foot ceilings in the woodworking shop, custom oversized exterior doors. There’s enough square footage (3,800 square feet, to be exact) to ensure that the employees won’t find themselves working outside under a tent in the Vermont winter.
This new building is the latest evolution for Wood & Wood, a Waitsfield, VT, company that began in 1972 when Sparky Potter discovered a talent for painting on wood. Within those 30-plus years, his company has become a leading manufacturer of wooden hand-carved and hand-painted signs, and its clients include American Girl, Bruegger’s Bagel Bakery and Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream.
“It was sitting and waiting dormant all through junior high and high school,” Potter says about his artistic nature. “I never even had an art course.” He developed a technique for painting wood where he first burns lines into the piece, so the paint does not bleed across the surface. He also wets the wood first so the paint adheres to the wood better. “You can do these amazing techniques on wet wood,” he explains. “You can make it look air brushed or like an oil painting.” The wood grain shows through the paint with this technique, and Potter says it lets people appreciate the beauty of the wood as much as the beauty of the art.
Potter is quick to mention the importance of the Wood & Wood staff in the work. “I worked by myself for three years, and it was really boring,” he says. His first employees were like him in that they didn’t have a woodworking or design background. “We were all college graduates with no sense of how to use our hands, so we taught each other how to do it. I just got lucky with some of the people who came along.”
Wood & Wood has evolved into being a design house as well as a production house, which is why the new headquarters also has a large “bullpen” area where all the employees can gather to brainstorm ideas. “Everyone in this shop is a designer,” Potter says, “and I don’t care what background they have. Their general life experience is more important to me than their specific experience in the workplace.
“What matters is what kind of person they are, and if they want to learn and help the rest of us learn,” he adds.
Wood & Wood’s former building had a bullpen, too, an old ping-pong table that soon became a central meeting area. The shop was located in Potter’s house; as it grew, more buildings were added. Space soon became such a premium that the table saw had to be operated under an overhang that was built on the outside of the building.
The company moved into its new building earlier this year. All the operations are kept under one roof now, making the business much more efficient, Potter says. One of the biggest improvements is a spray booth for painter Brett Bellnap. “We do so many small pieces that we were painting by hand,” Potter explains, “that we were getting less competitive because we didn’t spray our stuff. While big pieces are all hand-painted, a lot of smaller pieces will be sprayed so we can be more economical.”
The production floor features large ceilings and doors. Employees had to work on large-scale pieces outside in the old shop, because there was no room. Now, they can do all the work indoors, drive a truck into the building and load it up for delivery.
Production is done with a Grizzly table saw and bandsaw and a Porter-Cable router. Wood & Wood bought a printer to produce lettering that is not carved or painted directly onto the signs. This is especially useful for menu displays that are constantly changing. The signs are still hand-carved with chisels.
Wood is the basis for most of the company’s work, but it is capable of working with almost any material. For example, a display at a typical Bruegger’s Bagel Bakery store includes vinyl lettering, PVC, photography, paint and carved foam. One notable feature is a three-dimensional representation of a bowl of minestrone soup. The client did not want any photographs on his wall, even though Potter, who’s also an accomplished photographer, said he couldn’t paint a bowl of soup and make it look appetizing. So, he did the next best thing.
“I was eating a bowl of soup in a restaurant one day, and I looked down at it and thought, ‘This is great.’ So I took it outside and photographed it,” he explains. “I took the photograph and printed it on watercolor paper, and I had the staff come in and highlight some of the key areas with paint, so it took away the feeling of a photograph.” The image was then inserted into a soup bowl that Dick Lane, Wood & Wood’s foreman and master carver, had carved out of foam.
Wood & Wood & Ben & Jerry
Initially, the company was hired to build some fixtures for the Ben & Jerry’s factory tour and gift shop in Waterbury. Ben & Jerry’s art department was so impressed that it started giving Wood & Wood some external signs to fabricate for its local ice cream parlors.
“When we proved to them that we weren’t going to go away, they started to throw more things at us,” Potter says of the relationship, “and I started to throw back ideas on how to take some of their art and make it come alive outside.”
Ben & Jerry’s eventually hired Wood & Wood as co-designers for the ice cream company’s exterior sign manual. Wood & Wood does all the designing of the signs and most of the fabrication. Potter says that he introduced to Ben & Jerry’s the idea of using three-dimensional signage. The company adopted the look, and now everything that it does is three-dimensional. “By carving it three-dimensionally and painting it artistically, we maintain the integrity of the art department’s intent while also adding craft and shadow to it.
“This is what makes something look yummy and inviting,” Potter adds, referring to a three-dimensional Ben & Jerry’s sign of a hand holding an ice cream cone. “If that sign was flat, it would have as much curbside appeal as [the three-dimensional sign].”
Potter says that working with Ben & Jerry’s has been everything that he had hoped for. “They’re fun-loving people, and I always like to take an opportunity to go to the public with a light-hearted tongue-in-cheek approach,” he explains.
Three-dimensional objects are just one of a variety of options that Wood & Wood provides for a client. Potter says he will offer the client several prices for a project based on the amount of detail that’s going into the sign. For example, one sign may have an option for a flat painted sign, one for a combination of painting and carving, and one for a completely carved sign. Prices are determined by an hourly rate of $55 an hour (plus Potter’s design skills, which run $75 an hour).
Wood & Wood value engineers all its projects, Potter says, which gives the company more flexibility in pricing. “If we design something well, the client will not feel cheated in the fabrication by doing a less expensive piece,” he says. “If the design works, then they’re going to make money on the investment whether they bought an extensively carved piece or not.”
Wood & Wood has done work in several ski resorts, and it is accomplished at taking the resorts’ “cash cows” and making them more inviting and more efficient. One ski school presentation was quite dark and dreary, and Wood & Wood picked out new carpeting, lighting and paint for the walls and ceiling and built new desks, tables and fixtures. The curved desk is made of birch and cherry veneer, and slatwall was added to display merchandise. The result was so successful that Wood & Wood has been asked to add wall paneling to the room. The company is also building fixtures for seven different eateries at the resort, with each one having a different theme (New York deli, general store, etc.)
Wood & Wood’s abilities have even stretched as far as to do landscaping for The Canyons, a ski resort in Park City, UT. The company built the entrance sign for the resort, but Potter added a finishing touch. “I was on tour up in the mountains with the president of the company, and I saw an outcropping of stone that we both liked,” Potter says. He and the president agreed to add a smaller version of that outcropping to the base of the entrance sign. “He had his people drop off 40 boulders and he gave me a backhoe operator. We went out there and did the whole sculpture,” says Potter.
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