Here are some of Jim’s responses to frequently asked questions from our customers.

What is the best type of wood to use for a sign?

If the sign will be used outdoors you should choose a wood that holds up well outdoors. I usually use Northern White Cedar because it’s harvested locally here in Northern Michigan. But Western Red Cedar, Cypress, White Oak, Walnut, and Black Cherry also are good choices for use outdoors. There are probably other species that would work just as well. Try to avoid knots because they can chip away and can throw off the accuracy of your cut when you bump into them with the router bit. Indoor signs can be made of just about any type of wood. I sometimes use Basswood for indoor signs that will be painted.

What type of paint is the best for use on outdoor signs?

Keep in mind that no matter what paint you use on wood it won’t hold up forever when exposed to the elements. Just look at an old painted wooden house – that’s what you’ll get in time: Pealing, cracking, discoloring, etc. There are lots of different opinions about painting and you can always ask a professional painter or someone experienced at your local paint store if you want a second opinion.

But here’s what I usually do: I use high quality alkyd (oil based) enamel, but I’m not particular about a specific brand. If I’m painting on raw wood, instead of using a white-pigmented primer, I’ll use a thinned down coat of the finish color as a primer coat. My dad, who was a boatswain on Great Lakes freighters, taught me this trick. This way, one finish coat should give you adequate coverage. There’s no advantage in piling up a thick layer of paint – it will just crack and fail in time. Just use what you need to get good coverage.

What computer drawing program do you use to design your signs?

I use either Macromedia Freehand or Adobe Illustrator on my Macintosh computer. These are full-featured drawing programs used by commercial artists. Both programs allow me to print a large page size (i.e. large sign size) on as many letter-sized sheets as it takes. This feature is called tiling. Then, as I demonstrate in the DVD, I tape the sheets together to make the full-size paper design. For designing signs you don’t really need all the features of the drawing programs I use, but you should probably look for a program that features tiling. I imagine there are many different programs that would work, but I’m only familiar with the ones I use.

In your video you use enamel paint over varnish and also over a penetrating sealer. The guy at the paint store said this isn’t a good idea.

I've painted over varnish and penetrating wood sealers for years with good success. I have seen some minor orange peeling, but nothing too severe. I think this was the result of the varnish or sealer coat not being dry enough before painting over it. So, if you choose to try this, let your sealer dry well before painting. All I can tell you is what I do and what I’m familiar with. There are lots of different opinions and I know from experience that my way isn’t always the only way or even the best way. I wouldn’t suggest anything dangerous, but I don’t think you’d get in too much trouble trying this. Good luck!

What sizes of router bits should I get?

The bits I use are all "round nose" bits. I use a range from the smallest diameter available, which is 1/8" or perhaps a bit smaller, up to 3/4" in diameter. The smallest diameter bits are usually made of high-speed steel and the larger bits are made of carbide. Buy 1/2" or 1/4" shank bits, as you prefer. You can get these just about any place that sells router bits. I don't have a brand preference, but keep in mind that while you may not always get what you pay for, you almost never get what you don’t pay for.

What brand of router is the best for sign carving?

What is the best router? I usually don’t recommend brands. But I will say this: Don’t make your router purchasing decision based on price alone. Whatever plunge router you choose, make sure it has a smooth-operating plunge mechanism. I’ve used inexpensive plunge routers that stick and jerk during plunging and this can easily throw off the accuracy of your cut and ruin your work. 1-1/2 horsepower is plenty of power, but more doesn’t hurt. The weight of the router actually helps you control its movement as you follow your pattern during carving.

You say this can be a home-based business. Can I make a living carving signs?

If you are looking for custom woodworking business ideas or a work from home occupation, carving custom signs is certainly a candidate. Running a home woodworking business is like any other business. You have to have a market for your product (in this case a steady stream of people wanting custom carved signs), be able to reliably and economically produce a quality product, have enough business sense to make wise decisions, be able to price and market your product, and be willing to work hard at it. That last point can't be ignored.

For custom carved signs you’ll also have to have enough creative ability to design signs that are appealing and easy to read. There are lots of home business ideas, craft ideas, and other business ideas to consider. However, carving signs as a home-based business doesn't take a big investment in equipment or a large workspace. And the finished product has a high-perceived value in proportion to the amount of work that goes into it. Those are really positive points in favor of sign carving as a successful home based craft business.

But don't quit your day job until you've made and sold enough signs in your spare time to know this will work for you as a home business.

I’m making a 3’ x 4’ sign. Do you suggest any special reinforcement other than the oak stays you use in the video?

The oak stays should do the job. Maybe you should enlarge the holes in the stays and use washers behind the screws to enable wood movement in such a large sign. Before you proceed, check with your local zoning people to see what (if anything) the zoning ordinance says about signs. Sign size and location are regulated where I live and this is an out-of-the-way, rural area. These regulations were recently published in our local paper and took up nearly an entire page. A residential sign can’t exceed 6 square feet here. I had to get a waiver to put up my home business sign.

You show quite a few signs and some other items you’ve carved in the video. What are some other ideas? I’m thinking of doing this as a home-based business and want to think as broadly as possible.

I address some of the plusses and minuses of sign carving as a home based business in answering another question above. Read what I say there before you jump into this with both feet. That said, there are lots of possibilities for the carving techniques I demonstrate, some of which I’ve actually accomplished and others which have occurred to me but I’ve never gotten around to. Here are a few ideas:

  1. Judging from search activity on the internet, there seems to be a lot of interest in custom signs for laundry rooms. A good example would be a laundry room sign with a graphic of a pair of pants that reads, “Drop your drawers here”.
  2. Almost everyone has an address, so wooden house address signs, wood name signs, and other personalized signs for homes and apartments seem to be in high demand.
  3. Quite a few people are looking for personalized bar signs, pub signs, tavern signs, personalized beach signs, cottage signs, reproduction antique signs, and wooden camp signs.
  4. Wood plaques and personalized awards are also possibilities.
  5. I’ve also noticed that lots of people are interested in funny signs – the sky’s the limit there I suppose. I hope this helps. I’m sure once you get rolling you’ll think of lots of other ideas.