We love our customers here at the ReStore. We get all kinds of people who shop here, from contractors who are in need of construction material, to families who are looking to remodel their homes. Every once in a while, we’ll meet a customer who has a very unique purpose in shopping at the ReStore. Chuck Peterson has been buying cabinet doors from us for many years now, and repurposes these doors into replica antique vintage signs. These hand painted signs are very special, and we love seeing what sign he’ll design next whenever he leaves the store with one of our cabinet doors! The other day I had the privilege of sitting down with him, and asking him a couple questions about the work he does everyday.
Tell me a little bit more about what you do
I’ve been interested in letter form and typography since before I could even read. I remember when I was in kindergarten, there was a man stenciling numbers above the doors in the classroom. I couldn’t even read yet and I was fascinated by what he did. Till this day, the oldest thing I own is a book on fancy decorative typefaces that I made my mother buy me when I was about 8 years old. I still have it, and this fascination with typography is what led me to ultimately pursue sign making as a career.
Sign making is very unique, how did you actually start your career doing this?
Well I started painted signs before I knew I could make a living out of it. When I was a teenager, I was painting designs on the walls on my room, like rock and roll posters, and things like that. The man who lives across the street happened to be the foreman of the art department of a big sign company in San Diego, Cal Neon Signs. He offered me a job, not as a sign painter, but as an apprentice, because I wasn’t good enough to paint yet. My first day on the job was spent cleaning pigeon manure out of old neon signs. Since I showed up the next day my boss, let me paint the eyes on Jack in the Box Restaurant clown heads. One of the many important things that Fred taught me was “Always do a GOOD job. We do good work here, we’re not just another sign company”. I worked there for a couple years, and then went off and did other types of work, After a few years, I realized I missed sign painting and started my own business. Sign painting has always been interesting to me, I thought it would be the coolest job in the world. I took a lot of evening classes at the community college (graphic designing and illustration) and pretty much taught myself everything else. I got jobs repainting old signs, which is easier because I learned how to handle the brush and learned about letter forms. Other times I would teach myself to do free hand lettering, as well as tracing typefaces through the light. Whatever way you choose to learn, the key is to work hard, and be determined to do good work.
You mentioned this used to be a secret trade, how did you get into it?
It’s interesting because sign making has come a long way. Back in the 70’s, it used to be more of a secret trade, but as more signs are increasingly produced through digital print, it is slowly becoming a more open and recognized field. I’d see sign painters and sign shops back in the late 70’s and 80’s, and most of them didn’t want to share any secrets with me because they were afraid I would learn to paint signs and take business away from them. I went to shops and picked the brains of every sign painter who would talk to me, many of which wouldn’t. I once approached an old master lettering artist painting a store window and tried to ask him some questions. He would not reveal anything, probably out of fear of someone learning his trade secrets, so I watched him from my truck across the street with binoculars. Today, however, it has become easier to learn about sign painting. There are new communities emerging that aim to connect painters and discuss the methods and techniques of sign painting. For example, Sign Craft Magazine came out and connected a lot of smaller painters as opposed to big sign companies. Then Letterheads movement began and they organized community gatherings all over the country to paint murals together on brick buildings and learn from each other. It’s exciting to see how the field has really evolved over the last decade or so.
Sign making is a very specialized field. What advice would you give to other aspiring artists or individuals who are interested in getting into a specialized field with niche market.
Take classes, and learn everything you can. Be interested in what you’re doing. Make sure it’s something you enjoy. I would suggest to anyone who wants to get into this line of work to study design and to appreciate the finer details. I don’t consider myself very talented, buy I have a lot of interest and desire to do a really good job. I believe that if a person has the heart and desire to learn and grow in their profession, then they will succeed in all ways possible.
How has Habitat helped your business?
I have always loved brushed lettering, so I decided to start up a small hand painted sign business on the side. I used to carve the wooden signs out myself, but it’s a lot of work and I do not enjoy wood work as much as I do painting. Then one day, I saw an old photograph of a storefront about 100 years ago, and the frame of the sign looked like an old cabinet door to me. That’s when the idea clicked, and I began to seek out cabinet doors for my signs. No one ever guesses that it’s a cabinet door until I tell them to look at the back. I love the Habitat ReStore because of the variety of items they carry in their store at an affordable price. They always have a huge stock of salvaged cabinet doors to choose from for $5 a piece. I go to them all the time to buy cabinet doors so I can continue to create my special hand painted signs.