City Hall sign - Huntingdon, TN Knott & Herndon Law
Office - Milan, TN
Block City Pizza - Huntingdon, TN Carroll Bank & Trust - Huntingdon, TN
Cumberland Presbyterian Center - Memphis, TN
Parkers Crossroads Battlefield - Parkers Crossroads, TN (sign & box trailer)
Hog Wild Bar-B-Q - Townsend, TN Mallard's Restaurant - Huntingdon,
Milan Welcome Sign - Milan, TN
Mudslingers Studio - Huntingdon, TN Bruceton Welcome sign -
Mold Busters Logo - Milan, TN
Huntingdon Heritage Cabin - Huntingdon, TN Phipps Pharmacy - Jackson, TN
Hollow Rock Welcome sign - Hollow Rock, TN
First Choice Collision Logo - Huntingdon, TN
PDF Version with descriptions
of sign pictures.
Shop Name: Elliott Design
Shop Size: 3800 sq. ft.
Years in business: 44
Staff: Larry & Kay with occasional part-time help
Graphics Equipment: Ioline Studio-7 Cutter, 4x8 EZ-Router CNC, and one old brain circa 1948.
I started drawing as soon as I was big enough to pick up a crayon and just kept trying to improve from there. Without any formal training, I was however fortunate to have some very talented mentors in my past and through their patience and tutoring I was able to learn the basics. My step-father worked as a display artist and window dresser for some major department stores in Nashville, TN back in the 60's, he was also a great sketch artist, pictorial painter and sign artist and with his instruction on composition, perspective and shading I received a good foundation in art that greatly enhanced my natural talents.
Most of my school years were spent drawing cartoons in class or making posters for my teachers in place of studying the three R's. After high school, I figured my artistic endeavors were never going to make me a living so I went to work in a factory and hated most every minute of it but kept drawing, studying and painting a few signs on the side to feed my creative needs.
Finally I got fed up with the factory job, made a drawing of my dissatisfaction of factory work, left it on my work station, walked out and went into business for myself without knowing anything about business and not much more about making signs.
But with determination and a desire to learn I searched out all the local sign makers and offered to help around their shops just to learn a few tricks and tips. I have never regretted my move from factory worker to self employed sign painter although it did get slim sometimes between making a profit and paying bills, it was worth the peace of mind that comes with doing what you love.
Back in the late 1960's, Bud "Scotty" Scott was the best signpainter around for color combinations and snappy layouts, he shook like a mutt in winter but his signs had a style that far outweighed his wiggly edges and not-so-neat stroke ends, I studied his layouts and watched him for hours as we talked, or he talked and I listened.
Another outstanding sign artist that helped me along was my friend Frank Brown, he had the smoothest script and most perfect shaped letters of anyone around, he handled a brush like it was an extension of his own hand, his use of color and a tight formal layout style was classic and he taught me so much about signs, life and business. His wife Wilma, sons Craig and Mark still run Brown Sign Company in Paris, TN. Another mentor, Earlie Clenney had a shop in Milan, TN. in the 1970's, I would hang around there every chance I could, he was more than a sign painter, he was an inventor, musician and all around great guy with knowledge on many subjects, he was very interesting to know and many of his tips still help me out in the shop to this day.
I opened my first shop in the corner of an old vacant store in 1968, I couldn't afford to rent the whole space so the landlord was generous enough to let me use one corner and he used the rest to stow his own junk. I stayed there for about six months until a building became available that was previously used as a body shop and garage, it was in horrible shape but had a bay door where I could get a vehicle in from the weather to letter it, I was in heaven. I rented the building for over 20 years, along with a few additions the landlord added for other tenants, as they moved out I expanded into those spaces fixing and patching until I had it remodeled to look like a business and finally got the opportunity to purchase the property in the 90's, I used to laugh about it with my previous landlord that I had bought the building at least three times twice in rent and once for keeps. It's grown from a 1200 sq.ft. un-insulated tin building to over 3800 sq. ft. shop with a sales office, computer room, photography studio, paint and material storage room, and production shop with a 14' tall bay for large projects.
My business and the sign industry itself has changed so much since 1968 when everything was done by hand to the digital age, I regard the early time in my career as a great learning period because it provided me with good basics of design that made working with computers easier to accomplish. A computer is just a tool and you need those basic skills of layout to be able to make it do what you want.
When learning some of the software programs, I was intimidated and let the computer lead me off my intended design, but after a while I became familiar with the process and took control of the computer and made it follow me because I still wanted my lettering and design to look hand-made, it took a while to accomplish this but really sets our shop apart.
Kay, my wife of 31 years is my right hand here in the shop and in my life. She's my secretary, office manager, janitor, "weedy-girl", chef, groundskeeper and everything else that needs to be done including installations. We've grown the business together and she's put in lots of long hard hours doing things that most other women would find demeaning.
To keep a small business going we all have to sometimes do things that are not real fun, only necessary. I recall we were lettering a billboard on I-40 in a hog pen years ago, stretched out to the top of the ladders when some curious hogs came around and started scratching their backs on the ladders, we both were swaying in the air before I could get down and run them off, since then the only hogs she likes are on the breakfast menu in the form of bacon.
All the sign shops in this area are more associates than competitors, we all borrow materials and help each other when needed and use each others skills and equipment to provide our own customers with products and services that we would normally have to turn away, networking has many benefits and opens up new possibilities. Craig and Mark Brown of Brown Sign Company help us with illuminated projects and crane service for larger installs, and Bruce Ottway of Ottway Signs & Stripes in Murray, KY. has a large format printer to provide us with digital prints. I in turn have a CNC machine to cut letters and router carve signs for the other shops, we have a great working relationship that is beneficial to us all.
When your business is out in the "sticks" you have to provide your limited client base with everything they need, in the town our shop is located we have a population of 260 and the whole county has only about 29,000 residents. Our client base covers customers from all surrounding counties and we still do business the old fashioned way, face to face.
Our web presence is an online portfolio that lets us show prospective clients our abilities. All sales are made in our shop or at the customer's location except for regular repeat customers. We refer new prospects to visit our website, view samples of actual signs we've produced and to read our company policies, if they are interested in our services then we will meet and discuss their project.
I still hand letter, pin stripe a little, hand-carve and sandblast some signs but most of my time is at the computer designing logos, printwork and websites or creating files to run on the CNC. I like the sign business and how it has evolved with the computerized equipment but still enjoy wetting a brush for a special letter style to be used in a logo or for a quick knock out sign.
I have every issue of SignCraft starting with the 1st one in 1980 and often go through back issues to look for ideas and inspiration, there is a world of education within the pages of this magazine for anyone desiring to study and learn great design, color combinations, business procedures, tips, tricks and so many things that can help any sign maker no matter their skill level.
Being in the sign business for many years has helped with learning the skills necessary to work with many types of materials and various techniques and the enjoyment of learning something new keeps the spark of creativity going strong. This has been a "labor or love" that at times was a "pain in the butt" but we can see the end in sight and the benefits for our community will last long after I'm gone.
Giving back to the community, town or county you are in by serving on committees or boards is a great way to build public relations for your business and do something positive for the people who support your business. Kay and I volunteer for lots of community projects and I'm sure this has helped keep our name at the top of the list when someone needs a sign, and I know it's kept our name on the top of the volunteer's list.
From an interview with John McIltrot
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