Chewing the Rag with New Bohemia Signs

Damon Styer

Damon Styer (image courtesy of Printmag)


It’s often said that a good sign-maker changes the whole appearance of the town or city in which they work. In San Francisco, a small shop by the name of New Bohemia Signs has been quietly but effectively beautifying the city, with their hand-lettered artistry. In fact, it could be said that this little shop is responsible for spawning the contemporary sign-painting revival. An overstatement? Hardly, when you consider that some of America’s best-known sign-artists – Jeff Canham, Caitlyn Galloway, Josh Luke, Ken Davis and others – all learned their craft under the tutelage of New Bohemia’s Damon Styer. Many of them have, in turn, passed on the skills to others.

Hand-Painted Alphabets

Hand-Painted Alphabets at New Bohemia Signs

Recently, I had the chance to find out more about this sign-making powerhouse from Damon himself:

Could you tell us the history behind ‘New Bohemia Signs’? Also, why the name?

New Bohemia Signs was created in 1992, by Steve Karbo, who’d been involved in various entrepreneurial exploits in San Francisco for decades prior. I remember him telling me he was the first (or one of the first) businesses selling bell-bottom jeans on Haight Street, back before /during the “Summer of Love”.

Steve Karbo

Steve Karbo, founder of New Bohemia Signs

There were still sign painters in San Francisco in ’92, but very few, and Karbo’s old-timey style-sense and knack for marketing helped N.B.S. take off immediately, as a sign shop offering exclusively hand-painted signs. I think within a year, he hired Yvette (“Eve”) Rutledge to help, and she’s got a preternaturally graceful hand and eye for design, which I think did much to establish demand for “New Bohemia” style signs. They partnered up and business grew exponentially, to the point that, by ’96, they’d decided to light out for less hectic urban environs, and moved to New Orleans, opening Mystic Blue Signs, which Eve still runs today.

Eve Rutledge

Eve Rutledge (image courtesy of Mystic Blue Signs)

They left New Bohemia under the management of Norma Jeanne Maloney, herself a sign painter of exquisite grace, but before long, she left to open her own shop, Red Rider Studios, nearby (which eventually she took with her to Austin). A few other people managed the shop for Steve and Eve, before I came by, inquiring about an apprenticeship in June of ’99. Maurice O’Carroll was handling it then, as well as servicing his own free-lance sign clientele. He said, “Come in tomorrow, you do a half-hour practice on your own time, every day. Then I’ll pay you $7/hr.”, and so I did.

Norma Jeanne Maloney

Norma Jeanne Maloney (image courtesy of Samuel J. Macon)

A few months later, he’d found his freelance work had started demanding more time than would allow him to stay atop New Bohemia’s clients needs, and he recommended me to take over his role, which I did, basically transferring my apprenticeship over to Steve and Eve. I’d still practice at least a half hour each day, then document it and mail photographs to New Orleans. They’d call back with suggestions for what to practice the following week.

Casual Ampersands

Casual Ampersand Practice

The arrangement proved untenable, and they decided to either close up shop, or sell it to me if I’d like. Not having any other income streams in the offing, their low asking price was enticing, and I found some friends to loan me the cash to swing it. So, here I am.

We Can Make it Work Sign

‘We Can Make it Work’ – a good slogan for Damon’s early years at NBS. This sign was painted by Caitlyn Galloway for an art show called East on Sunset.

“New Bohemia” was a name chosen to reflect the then-burgeoning artsy hip climate of the Inner Mission neighborhood in which we were situated. Since then, I’ve read that my surname, Styer, is an anglicization of Steiger, which might just mean “from the hills”, or more specifically, “from the Styrian Alps”, which I’m choosing to believe is roughly analogous with the historical realm of Bohemia, although the analogy may be so rough as to be abjectly untrue.

Europe as a Queen

Map of Europe as a queen, printed by Sebastian Munster in Basel in 1570. Note that Bohemia is centrally located. (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

What attracted you to sign-painting?

When I came looking for an apprenticeship at NBS, I’d recently begun trying to inculcate a ‘creative work ethic’ in myself, because I’d sussed out that in exercising my creative ‘muscles’ I was able to channel something much bigger and more beautiful than I could understand into existence. I’d say this insight came much later in life than it ought to have, after I spent much of the nineties laying relatively fallow, creatively, slogging away at a loathsome job, largely squandering whatever practice and skills I’d developed pursuing a BFA in painting, at the start of the decade.

With a few thousand dollars to tide me by in the near term, left over after some globe-wandering soul-seeking, I started looking for an apprenticeship somewhere. Initially, I called various Bay-area cabinetry shops, since I’d built assorted pieces of furniture for myself and for friends, but lacked any ‘finishing’ skills, and that seemed like an attractive thing to develop. None of the places I called wanted to take on an “apprentice without experience”, which maybe speaks to the deterioration of the concept of apprenticeship in this day and age.

New Bohemia Sign

The sign at NBS current location (image courtesy of Asterisk San Francisco)

I dropped in at New Bohemia, on a whim, since they were only five blocks from my house. I’d asked someone there a couple years earlier about an apprenticeship, also on a whim, and been spurned (which is just as well, as I wouldn’t have had the time for it back then), so I didn’t have high hopes – but this time, it worked! I feel like maybe I should start spinning this as, “Yeah, they turned me down for a job, so I came back and bought the place!”

New Bohemia Signs

NBS has moved several times, since its inception. Pictured here is the Harrison St. location, where they were based for nearly a decade, from 2002 until 2011.

But anyway: I could say “what attracted me to sign painting” was proximity. I’d taken a course in calligraphy as a child, and growing up, my doodles often involved letterforms, although little of the art I worked on at school did so. I drew and pasted up letters for posters and record jackets for a band I was in, in my twenties; but other than a basic understanding of letterforms and layout and a natural skill, primed to develop, for brushwork – oh, and what I’d guess you and all your readers might recognize as an easily understood, broadly shared and completely normal appreciation for the inherent beauty and charm of hand-lettering – the main things that attracted me to sign painting were the short commute and low start-up costs!

New Bohemia Signs

Inside New Bohemia Signs (image courtesy of Naz Hamid)

What do you think of the contemporary idea of ‘signs as art’, signs being displayed in art galleries and such-like?

It’s fraught!

Ah, y’know, pretty much whenever anyone asks me how I am or what’s going on, these days, I respond with, “Oh, the usual: signs, signs, everywhere signs, breaking up the scenery, breaking my mind”, and we share a chuckle or an eye roll, or whatever, because those half century old song lyrics point out how long it’s been a tiresome cliché to feel awash and overwhelmed by the ubiquity of signs. There are so many different ways signs, or even just parts of signs – a well-formed letter or a fading brushstroke, for example, or just a color combo – can affect us emotionally and intellectually, right?

Damon Styer Sign Painter

Damon at an art show entitled ‘It’s a Sign’ (image courtesy of ‘I’m in front of a sign by Josh Luke that, of course, became the name of his shop in Boston. It was inspired by his, and Jeff Canham’s and my efforts to get ourselves listed in the SF Bay Guardian’s annual “Best of” issue, as the city’s best dressed signpainters (which entailed wearing ties under our aprons).’ – Damon

Anyway, my art school education was geared toward “fine art” (viz. focused on releasing one’s muse, albeit with zero employment training) and I came out of it feeling, unfortunately, pretty stifled; like, enthralled with other artists’ concepts and work, but nearly incapable of coming up with any conceptual framework for my own art, commensurate with my technical skills. That’s certainly why I’m making my living in a commercial art/graphic design field, comfortable, to the extent I am, with being given assignments by clients: I know what this sign needs to say, my only task is to make it suitably pretty.

Pencil Sketches

Pencil Sketches

Having “something” to say, and a fixation on putting it somehow at cross purposes to actual words, within a medium (sign painting) that, to great extent, depends on direct verbal communication, is the puzzle I’m forever trying to solve for myself, when we’re approached by someone who’d like New Bohemia Signs to be part of an art show (a.k.a. making “signs without a client”). Fortunately, the other painters who’ve worked here don’t seem to get quite so hung-up about it.

Signs at an Art Show

Signs by Ken Davis at the ‘It’s a Sign’ show, painted during his tenure at NBS (image courtesy of Art Business)

I mean, I try so hard to resist “clever phrases” and pun-smithery, because I’m less interested in selling posters and t-shirts, than in striking some kind of numinous chord… or somehow finding how to apply this practice and these materials to tickle myself in some unique way… But in case you can’t tell, I’m a bit wordy, so, like, word play is a compulsion, and I all too easily succumb. Virtually every short set of words I read or hear or invent, that holds my attention for longer than a moment, gets subjected to, “How can I make that into a sign?”. I often doubt I’m in the “right” line of work for me, but if I’m a sign painter for any reason at all, it must be to mould words into visual art. Must get better at it.

New Bohemia Sign Art

A piece by Jeff Canham at the same show, painted when he was a NBS employee (image courtesy of The Bold Italic)

Are there sign-makers and artist you take inspiration from, for your work?

 I don’t know quite where to begin… I feel pretty parched for artistic passion and enthusiasm, for the most part, so I like when I see it in others, like, especially, the other painters in the shop. They’re a rather enthused lot, by and large! I think this is also why I get a kick out of teaching. The kids are so excited, it’s infectious.

Ken Davis

Ken Davis (image courtesy of Austin McManus)

  • Ken Davis, who used to work here, is certainly doing well for himself now, not least on account of his bubbly zest for sign painting. He’s been doing a little gallery work in collaboration with Colt Bowden, who is, as you may have already surmised, another guy with irrepressible zeal for the craft. They’re good to tap when my outlook’s grim.

    Erik Marinovich Lettering Artist

    Erik Marinovich (image courtesy of Like Knows Like)

  • We’ve worked on a few projects recently with Erik Marinovich, who’s plainly head over heels about lettering, and a lot of fun to work around. He shares an office with Jessica Hische, who’s got pretty keen taste-buds for a letter’s flavor.

    Lettering work by Louise Fili

    Lettering work by Louise Fili (image courtesy of Louise Fili)

    Shadow Type Book

    (image courtesy of Louise Fili)

  • I guess, when I’m sifting thru reference books, I often return to Heller & Fili collections.

    Jon Bocksel Artwork

    (image courtesy of Jon Bocksel)

  • I’ve been enjoying looking at the invented letters and “possible curse words” Jon Bocksel has been producing. They’re pretty good for shaking off the dreck of accumulated meaning, separating the sign and the signified, or some such thing.

    Art by Tauba Auerbach

    (image courtesy of Tauba Auerbach)

  • Tauba Auerbach, who also worked here for a few years, appeals to every sublimated science-y, math-y artistic urge I’m possessed of, but too timid to explore.

    Wayne White Artwork

    (image courtesy of Wayne White)

  • Wayne White

  • Ed Ruscha

  • Wim Delvoye

  • Faig Ahmed

  • I wish I’d devoted more of my professional life to date, approaching sign painting the way Gerhard Richter approaches painting, but I don’t expect I’m quite serious enough a man.

Favorite project?

Usually, whichever one I just got finished with. As a matter of fact, right now we’re working on a billboard for out in front of our nearby Rainbow Grocery co-op. I’m not so in love with it at the moment – it’s in a delicate space, and feels like it could go off the rails quickly, because I’ve got everyone in the shop working on it and they’ve all got ideas coming into play that could ultimately collide with and/or hijack my overarching vision, such as it is. But I’m pretty optimistic, based on the enthusiasm of everyone involved, including the clients, that it’s gonna make shopping there an even more delightful experience than it already is, for me. It could end up feeling like, ‘Okay, I did this job for these clients, and got paid; but ultimately, I’ve given this gift to the City’, which feels pretty cool when it happens.

Sign Pencil Sketch

Sketch for the Grocery Billboard

New Bohemia Sign in Progress

Sign for Rainbow Grocery Co-Op in Progress

Rainbow Grocery Sign

The finished sign gets wheeled to its new home on a dolly.


Some places come to mind, off the bat, when I think about feeling that way: Far West Fungi, The Stinking Rose, Mike’s Liquors.

The Stinking Rose

Far West Fungi Gilded Signage

Mike's Liquors Signs

I’ve also done a few cornhole boards, relatively recently, for local wedding receptions: I think that may be a growth industry! (I don’t know if that’s a game familiar to Aussies: it seems to be rooted in the American southeast, but it’s definitely on the rise. I just like saying it. For the latest gig, the client sent me a file of design inspirations she titled “cornhole moodboard”, which just… I wanna use that again and again, with other clients: “Perhaps you might see something you like here on this cornhole moodboard?”)

[I am familiar with the game, although it’s not well-known in these parts. We do have our own cornhole set here at the shop, albeit not nearly as typographic as the ones pictured below.]

Cornhole Boards

Cornhole Boards by Damon Styer

Could you tell a bit about your sign-painting classes?

That’s definitely the most rewarding part of the job for me right now! I’ve kinda always felt a bit like a caretaker for sign painting, or like… how to describe… like the industry got passed through this fine mesh strainer and I’m one of the viable seeds that made it through? Or no: like I’m a piece of manure, dropped onto the desolate landscape of sign painting in the wake of the vinylocalypse, here to fertilize the ground for nutritious crops of sign painters to come! Yeah, that’s more like it! Remember, up there, when I wrote “If I’m a sign painter for any reason at all”? Well, it’s not to mould words into visual art: it’s definitely to goose young whippersnapper signwriters along their way, to light a path for the people who are going to champion this craft in the coming century. I mean, my light’s perhaps not the brightest, but I can definitely steer you off some rocks! And mix up a few metaphors along the way!

Damon Styer

Damon demonstrates how to hold a brush (image courtesy of Typotalks)

I’ve been teaching weekend workshops, the past couple of years, once or twice a month, just basic introductory level stuff, for people who’d never touched a lettering quill before. We spend a day practicing basic strokes and tracing simple alphabets, then another day developing a pattern and lettering a signboard – and I’m frequently bewildered by how enthusiastic they are, after a day of repetitive stroke after stroke. Some really take to the meditative nature of the craft, the opportunity to focus their attention on such a narrow set of small, subtle, coordinated movements… Actually, maybe that’s just me: I don’t know what, necessarily, they’re taking to, individually, but I’m bowled over by how often I’ll hear how much fun they’re having, or “Best weekend ever!” And I’ve even had a handful of students hang out their sign painting shingles, in the wake of the class. When I started with the classes, friends would ask, “Aren’t you training your competition?”, and I’d respond, “Not unless they all start teaching their own sign painting classes.” And actually, that’s starting to happen: I saw an Instagram shot of an early student conducting a small brush lettering class at Cal State Fullerton, recently! This stuff happens fast! They’re gonna sweep me out of the way before long.

New Bohemia Signs Painting Class

One of Damon’s recent classes

So, I’ve got to keep advancing, somehow. I just started teaching my “level 201” class, focused on script lettering. Whereas, in the first class, we focus on single-stroke gothic letters, and casual (or “speed”) letters, always paletting the brush out to its fullest natural width, in the script class, there’s a lot more modulation to the stroke width being developed, and different approaches taken to that. I’ve only taught one, thus far, but it went well, and students are clamoring for more. I’d like to maybe set up an intro-to-glass-gilding next…

What effect does creative signage have on a business, neighbourhood or city? You’ve been at it for a few years & have probably noticed results.

Well, for my own business, I’ve found several times in the past that, whenever I invest some time in sprucing up my storefront with new signage, business immediately spikes. We’ve been in our current shop space for three years now, and I haven’t focused the time and energy on decorating the storefront the way I’d like, partly because we haven’t really had any down time in that period. We’re simmering along at capacity, so I can’t even guess what the elaborate plans in my sketchbook are gonna lead to.

New Bohemia Signs

The exterior sign at the former location on Harrison Street

As for San Francisco, the City’s had no shortage of creativity on display since time immemorial. Nonetheless, back when I started with New Bohemia, Steve and Eve (and subsequently, Norma Jeanne over at Red Rider), had really established themselves as sources of a particular hand-crafted style that harkened back many decades. I walked into a situation wherein we were really respected and cherished as a premier source for “old fashioned” signs, and my challenge was to maintain that image, to the best of my abilities. But back then, there was definitely a greater sense of being unique, as though we were practically the only place churning out attractive hand-painted signs here. I’d just argue that the more attractive signs we’ve painted, the more attention they’ve gotten, and the more local businesses have chosen to get hand-painted signs; and thus, the more need has arisen for more sign painters.

Hand-Painted Sign

It pans out in a lot of directions, too: people see a sign and they know they like it, but they’re not sure why. Maybe it’s because it’s hand painted – “I should get a hand painted sign!” And then, regardless of how appropriate is the design they’ve already had put together, or whether or not anyone but themselves is going to be in a position to appreciate its hand-painted-ness, they’re bent on getting a hand-painted sign! I can only applaud that urge. It may not result in the most beautiful or proud signs, but it’s an opportunity for practice, and if it works out well, it keeps hand lettering in the conversation and on the advance across the landscape.

Make Signs Not War

We’re currently tending our niche as “sign painters to the tech industry”, which is pretty interesting on a lot of levels. Their assorted campuses are ersatz neighborhoods that we’re having a hand in transforming. The places where high tech intersects with our comparatively Luddite craft are interesting to chart. I was just thinking about that (well, really, I think about that a lot), watching the video link you recently sent me, talking of “a time before the industrial revolution, when there was no mass production”, as you pass some kind of sign foam substrate through a band saw. A few years back, we applied the budget allocated for getting a giant pattern printed, to instead purchasing a mechanical plotter with a pattern pouncing attachment: essentially the very same machine that ran the majority of sign painters out of business a few decades ago, churning out vinyl appliques! It’s a slippery slope! I enjoy navigating the digital divide, figuring out how to apply tech, while still striving to keep the work connected, as much as I can, to the way my arm swings from my shoulder – pencil-based design, and the brush being the final arbiter, etc. Let me underscore here: we don’t produce ANY vinyl lettering, or digital printing. Everything that comes out of New Bohemia Signs, comes off the end of a brush or roller (the exception that proves the rule).

Internet Sign

You’ve trained up some very creative lettering artists such as Jeff Canham, Caitlyn Galloway, Josh Luke, Tauba Auerbach and Ken Davis, to name a few. Do you think there’ll ever be real competition in the lettering industry, or will it always be as positive and collegial as it is now?

I remember, again, back when I was starting, characterizing the old hands I’d meet as all having “wild hair, and one wandering eye, and conspiracy theories about all the other sign painters”. Nowadays, I’m well into the wild hair, but my eyes still seem to triangulate well enough, and I don’t think the other sign painters are conspiring as much as just, y’know, hustling, working hard, making a wave when they can – good times!

Josh Luke

Josh Luke (now the proprietor of Best Dressed Signs in Boston), back when he worked for N.B.S.

I’m sure, if – perish the thought – San Francisco’s economic bubble ever bursts (which, what folly!), those among us with keener marketing skills than I, might keep their heads above water, while the rest of us simmer in resentment. That sounds like the sort of thing I imagine went on in sign painting everywhere, at the dawn of the vinyl age: “Augh, why didn’t WE get that gig?!?”, stings a lot more when we don’t have a couple dozen other gigs in the pipeline.

As it is now, you do good work, you can expect to reap the adulation of your compadres.

bohemia signs from Mission Local on Vimeo.

Jeff Canham

Two New Signs in Elgin

It sometimes happens that two businesses open next door to each other, offering goods or services that complement – rather than compete with – each other, benefiting both shops. For example, here in Inverell we have a classy little bookshop called The Dust Jacket. Immediately behind it is Out The Back Cafe. The combination of good coffee and good reading is irresistible, and people flow through the back door from one shop to the other, as if the two businesses were one. Farther down Byron Street, The Magic Pudding Cafe and Me & Mr Jones enjoy a similar arrangement. This type of collaboration fascinates and intrigues me.

Fancy Cafe Sign Inverell

Sign for The Magic Pudding Cafe, Byron Street, Inverell

Last October, two businesses in Elgin, Illinois approached us for dimensional signs. The shops wanted signs that were different, but complementary. It’s a little unusual for two businesses to order signs together, but the two shops obviously collaborate on more than just signage. Elgin Knit Works and The Soulful Sparrow clearly share a common vision for the appearance of the historic building in which both reside.

Here are some photos of the signs being installed by Mike Armado, of Sign-A-Rama Carpentersville, who managed the whole project as well. Thanks Mike!

Installing a sign in Elgin Illinois

Mike Hold the Sign for Elgin Knit Works in a downward pincer grip.

Installing a sign in Elgin Illinois

Hooking the eye-bolts through the quick-links.

handcrafted signs in Elgin Illinois

Both signs hanging in place, ready for an Illinois winter, and what a cold one it was!

And here’s two close-ups of the signs, to give you a better look (photography by Mike):

Elgin Knit Works Sign

The Elgin Knit Works wanted a sign reminiscent of the workings of a watch – a nod to the town’s watch-making history. The Elgin National Watch Works produced pocket watches from 1864-1964.


Sculpted Branch Detail

Long live small business collaboration!

Aaron Draplin

Aaron Draplin

If you didn’t know any better, you could be forgiven for thinking that this blog is based in Portland, Oregon. We’re not, of course. We’re proudly publishing out of Inverell, New South Wales, Australia. But today we catch up with one of Portland’s better known graphic designers. This is a man who dresses like a lumberjack, sporting a work jacket and trucker’s cap, even when delivering lectures to the turtle-necked design elite.

Aaron Draplin

(image courtesy of Vimeo)

I’m referring to Aaron Draplin of Draplin Design Co. (DDC). Aaron’s love for vintage signs is so great that he once bought a broken-down motel sign in Missouri and drove three days to pick it up. When he arrived, the sign was much too big for his little Passat. I think he would make a great sign-maker, but he has earned a reputation in the design community for his solid, no-nonsense design work. It’s a privilege to have him on the blog today.

Wiener Dog

(image courtesy of Hear Hear)

(Aaron): My favorite things are designed with function in mind, or, are “undesigned.” No irony, pure in form and free of extraneous, or even worse, pretentious extras. Each little piece on the page means something. I find the same amount of beauty in a grid with a mountain of information successfully laid out, as I would some ornate piece of typography. Beautiful communication and clarity really turns my screw. Get what you need to get across first. And then go from there. Sometimes, design drowns in “style.” And you can’t even figure out what the thing is communicating. Not good. And yes, I know there’s a schtick to my stuff, with all the Futura Bold and orange riff raff. But remember, that’s just my personal stuff. When I’m on the clock for someone, it’s my job to make them appropriate solutions. If it calls for wild, then you go wild. It it calls for simple, then strip it down. I never force styles on a project. If it fits, it fits. If it means inventing something that I might feel a little uncomfortable with, then that’s my job to get it to that place and make it work. What’s the problem? How we gonna fix it? How we gonna tell ‘em what we need to tell ‘em? What’s the marketplace look like? I answer these, and get down to work making something that can stand on it’s own legs.

Memo Books

A small part of Aaron’s extensive collection of memo books. (image courtesy of Beard is the New Black)

I love old signs, and not just around Portland! Around greater North America! Hell, the world. The old signs remind me that optimism and color can transform how the viewer perceives that hotel or watering hole. In the end, it’s the same bed or cold beer as the next place, you know? But with a little extra icing on the cake, you’ll savor their good service, or selection, or whatever the hell they are calling attention to. Or the idea of simply telling it how it is. You look up at some old “BAR” sign and there’s three characters: B, A, R. Done. Doesn’t need to say anything else. straightforward and beautiful in its unapologetic sparseness. I love that stuff. A good reminder in a world of overwrought graphic complexity. Sometimes it’ll be the type. Or the optimism of the forms. Or the scale. Or the copy-writing. And I like to document it, file it away and remember the options it offers to the work I do. Don’t forget the old stuff!

Neon Bar Sign

(image courtesy of DeAnna’s Restaurant)

I haven’t had the chance to design a sign just yet! Have my fingers crossed for that opportunity. And when I get it, I won’t force the old vernacular on anyone. The sentimental quality of the old signs simply represents a different time in design for me. A simpler time, graphically. And ultimately, how much more successful it was considering the landscape of ugly work people keep whipping up, littering the world. Need a sign? Let’s talk.

Sunset Motel Sign

The sign Aaron bought (image courtesy of Vimeo)

Saul Bass is my number one inspiration, with Paul Rand right behind him. Their logos, their restraint, their big picture/global thinking for the brands they built…those principles will never die. Effective communication shouldn’t be a ‘style’ we pick from. It’s a system. A set of principles. And I have to say, when you subscribe to that, just about everything else feels like cake decoration. And don’t get me wrong, I love the “everything else-ness” too. I’m just in awe of the beautiful logos they made, and how they transcend time and generational differences.

Paul Rand Ford Logo

A logo Paul Rand designed for Ford Motor Company (image courtesy of Logoness)

A ton of my work is what I call ‘micro-design’ – for regular people! Hell, I just signed off on a logo for a construction company [Duco Construction] for $1000 a couple emails ago. And the guy was blown away. He thanked me profusely, surprised I’d even take the job. Other people shot him down? I don’t know. I just liked how he talked about his company, how he knew he needed help, and how he dug my work. And for that $1000, I’ll treat him the same as treat the $10,000 gig. In the end, it’s my job to make him something that gives his company sturdy graphic legs. I love that exchange. I want him to be fired up to get it on the side of his truck as soon as I hand him that final vector. Design shouldn’t be something that only “those who can afford it” get to tap into. Does that cheapen our trade? I don’t care if it does. I am a working designer and I make things for whoever will trust me with their project. Big, small or hell, sometimes for no loot. I dig making things. I dig how a logo or graphic feel can propel a cool idea or sagging company. Everyone deserves good design. So yeah, I do a ton of stuff for the little guys. And when you stack ‘em all up, it adds up big time. In loot, and in pride.

Field Notes‘ is, hands down, the best memo book ever made. Ever. Let me expand on that: Back in 2004 or so, after being frustrated with the current offering of memo books in the marketplace, I up and made my own. Started out by screen printing and assembling a couple hundred for friends and colleagues. Made the first batch by hand! Then I made 2000 books for 2000 bucks. And gave a stack of those to Jim Coudal, and a couple of handshakes later, he took me under his wing and built out an incredible, little company. Thank you, Jim Coudal. For 999 lifetimes. The guy rescued me from obscurity! And all these year later, we’re a scrappy, little company dedicated to making cool little books, writing instruments and leather pouches.

Field Notes

(image courtesy of Field Notes)

Everything is made in America, proudly. We pay insane attention to detail, from the staples to the inks to the printing processes to the extra goodies each order gets. We’re always scheming up a new set, a movie to launch it and then openly sharing and celebrating the simple, unassuming beauty of writing things down on paper. How it frees you up! We live in a fast world that’s only gonna get faster. Slow down with Field Notes!

Field Notes Calendar

Records are my favorite print pieces to make. All the different pieces, surfaces, papers and spaces. I love considering all of it. From the record down to the CD and back up to some poster. Feels oddly antiquated in a world of MP3s and digital this-n-thats. I always enjoy making records.

DDC Action Cap

Right now we’re working on a 7-inch record for Dawes/Conor Oberst, a record for The Old 97s, a four-record set called ‘Divided & United: Songs of the Civil War’, a logo for Resolved Records, a logo for Insieme Music Publishing, a logo for a construction company, a poster for Red Wing Boots, branding and packaging for Finex Cast Iron Works, new binding logos for the Union Binding Co., a limited edition hat/patch set for Coal Headwear, new DDC action caps, prepping for the next seventeen shows on our winter/spring tour, a record for Willy Vlautin’s new band The Delines, a logo for a Seattle gaming design agency and a couple other goodies I can’t talk about just yet. Let’s just say, I keep myself busy. Always.

State Posters

Sculpting a Crest for The Red Dragon

Here’s the post about the Red Dragon Sculpting video, as promised. First, the transcript:

There’s just something about a handmade object that’s attractive and beautiful. Everything used to be hand-made. Actually, everything used to be custom-made. It’s inspiring to think back to the times before the industrial revolution, when there was no such thing as mass-production.

Actually, these days, it seems like once again, a lot of folks are starting to wake up to this fact & realise that products need to have a bit of soul to them. They need to have a bit of a story behind them. After all, who would want something that’s mass-produced and made by a machine, when it could be hand-crafted? It’s an old way of doing things, but it’s becoming new again & I think that’s a beautiful thing.

You’re in the sign-shop of Danthonia Designs, in Inverell, Australia. Every sign in this shop is hand-crafted. Every sign is custom-made. You won’t find two signs in this shop that are the same. We feel like we’re not just making signs, we’re making the world more beautiful. We’re helping small businesses. We’re keeping old crafts alive. Of course, most importantly, we’re making people happy. There’s nothing instant, there’s nothing fast about the process of making a handcrafted sign. There’s skill involved, and there’s something very beautiful about it.

And then, just to see the finished work of art & to know that it will be hanging there for years. It’ll be out in the wind & weather. It’s going to last a long time. It might be around for longer than we are. That’s just very, very satisfying!

Very inspiring, I know, but now for the nitty-gritty:

Chisel Sharpening

Here, Geordie is sharpening one of our angled chisels, on a Japanese waterstone.


Using carbon paper, we traced the artwork onto a panel of HDU.

Drawing with a Sharpie Pen

The lines were darkened using a sharpie pen.


Cutting out the shape with a hand-held jigsaw


I guess you can tell what’s happening here, without me explaining it.

gilding brushes

Our collection of gilding size, gold leaf, and squirrel-hair brushes (No animals were harmed in the making of this film)

Peeling the stencil.

Peeling the stencil.

The finished Crest

The finished Crest!

The finished sign was shipped to St Petersburg, Florida, where it was affixed to the stern of a replica pirate ship called ‘The Red Dragon’. This vessel will make its home in Port Aransas, Texas.