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Spring Forward

(August 2006) posted on Sat Aug 26, 2006

Spring Valley Signs' unorthodox business model gains a unique niche.


By Steve Aust

click an image below to view slideshow

Many in the industry bemoan signage's accelerating homogeneity. As big-box stores increasingly dominate the commercial landscape, companies increasingly tend to adopt a "follow the herd" mentality. Thus, competition often kills originality in the development of environmental graphics.

However, as with any type of commerce, some motivated, individualistic signmakers buck the trends (skeptics would say at their own peril) and pursue niche markets with clientele who appreciate traditional, handcrafted fabrication and decoration methods.

Farmington, PA-based Spring Valley Signs embodies a low-tech philosophy of manual fabrication and a refreshingly old-school dedication to craftsmanship. Bob Burnett, the company's production manager (no one can truly be called an owner of the company — the Bruderhof community, a Christian-based religious group that communally shares property, ultimately operates the shop), described how Spring Valley Signs uses abundant talent to fabricate distinctive signage.

International beginnings

Spring Valley Signs is closely linked to Danthonia Designs, another Bruderhof-based signshop that was founded in Minnesota in 1992, but moved to Australia a few years later. Danthonia — which is located in New South Wales, Australia, and operated by Joe McKernan — has earned several awards in past ST contests and, according to Burnett, is the only handcarving signshop Down Under.

In 2002, Danthonia opened a sales office in upstate New York, but Burnett opted the following year to branch out and open a signshop due to delivery costs from Australia, as well as the sign-code disparity between the two nations.

"Australia, by nature, is a more wide-open country," Burnett said. "They have relatively few restrictions on sign codes. Here, it's not very often we can fabricate an HDU sign panel larger than 20 sq. ft., so we thought it was more practical to assume sign production here, because we're more familiar with the market, and to reduce shipping costs."

The daily grind

Most of the company's work comprises one- or two-piece, custom jobs. At the time of the interview, Burnett said there were 53 projects on the shop floor. HDU comprises more than 90% of the shop's projects.

He doesn't intend to slight signmakers who use wood, but he's received many complaints from business owners who've criticized its inability to withstand the elements (not to mention, wood's integral grain and potential knots, which pose major fabrication roadblocks).


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