Making Signs out of Old Horseshoes

Mark's Workshop

Mark forms the word “Welcome” out of used horseshoes.

For Mark Rees, it takes an effort to form words. A lot of effort. That’s because he forms them out of old horseshoes. Each letter is heated, beaten and welded together in his snug little workshop in Columbia, Kentucky. His business is simply known as Mark’s Custom Horseshoe Art, and his creations are sold across the United States. I first came across Mark’s work when a prospective customer of ours explained that she wouldn’t be able to place her order for a handcrafted sign for her barn. The reason was sensible enough, in the meantime a good friend of hers had presented her with a sign as a gift. She was considerate enough to send us a picture, and what a unique sign it was!

Lynne's Barn Sign

The sign

I had never before seen lettering made entirely of horseshoes. Undoubtedly, it falls squarely into the category of dimensional signage, although Mark has never thought of it that way:

I never really paid much attention to the variety of signage that I see every day, I looked at your blog and seeing the variety in one place is pretty neat. I think a horseshoe sign would fit right in to the mix.

I couldn’t agree more. Hence, today’s blog post. Though more a man of action than of words, Mark took a few minutes of his time to explain, albeit with humour and wit, what made him choose this unique profession:

What started as “I want to learn to weld and I have steel horseshoes to play with” eventually led to taking my ‘creations’ to craft fairs and farmers markets and Facebook and a website. Most of the designs for my early creations were shown to me by a horseshoe artist in Florida and a retired blacksmith in Virginia and the designs used with their permission. Then I started coming up with my own designs for critters and objects that I thought would be fun or neat to make. Some things I do are fun to make but there is no way anyone would pay for the time invested, so they become gifts. When I am feeling creative, my wife, Anita, gets lots of gifts.

I do not want to be accused of stealing someone-else’s idea, so I don’t spend a lot of time looking at what others are making and selling. Anita runs the business and marketing, I do the cutting, welding, forging, bending, and finishing.

 

I asked Mark how he goes about cutting and bending an object as tough as a horseshoe:

I started cutting the shoes with a hand hack saw but that was hard work and I would pretty regularly end up punching the vise which is hard on knuckles. I eventually found a well-used metal cutting band saw for a very reasonable price and have been using it ever since. The easiest way to bend shoes is using a forge to heat them. I have a small propane gas forge that does a pretty good job of heating as long as I can get whatever I want to heat into the fire box. Some shoes I will bend cold if it is a small bend, but you are correct horseshoes are tough. A large hammer, big vise and heavy anvil help though.

Where do the shoes come from?

We have 3 shod horses and get additional used shoes from farriers and horse friends. Most everything I make is from used shoes, or has used shoes incorporated into it. Used horseshoes are a great deal! They are usually full of nails, horse poo and rusted pretty good by the time I get them, but they are usually free. I spend more time pulling nails and cleaning the shoes than it usually takes to weld them.

I have to pay for new shoes and they have mill slag on them and that has to be removed before I can work them, so I guess it works out.On some projects I need a bunch of shoes the same size or shape and it is easier to use new shoes than sort through piles of used ones looking for matches.

How’s business?

As far as how the business is going, It was crazy before Christmas, I was in the shop for a few hours pretty much every day starting in late Oct. As Christmas got closer the days got longer. I think it finally slowed down just after Christmas. I think we did almost twice the business for Christmas 2012 as we did in 2011. Right now we get 1 or 2 orders some weeks, some weeks none, but that is fine, horseshoe art is not our primary income. We make enough to pay for the website, gas for the forge, gas and wire for the welder, and all the other misc. supplies we use. As someone pointed out, my horseshoe art is a great self supporting hobby that I actually make a decent profit from.  Right now most of my orders are for signs made from horseshoes.

How did the “Lynne’s Barn” order come about?

The order for the Lynne’s Barn sign came from my best customer, LeAnne, she apparently likes my work and has ordered a bunch of goodies for herself and friends from me and has the patience of a Saint. One of the signs she ordered was too long for my paint drying box and I fixed a tent with halogen lights to keep the sign warm so the paint would dry, but the weather just didn’t want to cooperate, it was cold and/or wet for 2 weeks after I got the sign made. LeAnne was patient and has continued ordering things, so I guess she understands mother nature doesn’t always work with me. Someday maybe a bigger paint drying booth… For the Lynne’s Barn sign the weather cooperated and I got it made, primed, and painted in a week or so. Letting the primer and paint cure are what drag the time out.

I have had a couple of requests for prices on signs from people in Oz, the world wide web is a great thing, but the shipping charge for 4 or 5 kg of horseshoes was a bit ridiculous and they rethought their purchase. For Lynne’s Sign We shipped the sign, I think it cost about $21 from Ky to Ca. I don’t remember the weight though.

I like customer feedback, so I can try to give people the best product I can for a fair price. I also like other people who see my creations opinions and feedback, I get some really good suggestions on doing things better, easier, or faster (Helps my ego too).

Blacksmith grinding a horseshoe

heating a horseshoe red hot

One of Mark's dogs watches attentively as a horseshoe is cooled in water

drying paint on horseshoe art

Lizard made of old horseshoes

The T-Shirt

Rustic Garden Sign made of old horseshoes

Another typographic creation, for a client’s vegetable garden

Home Sign Gallery

From time to  time, one of our customers will send us a picture of their sign by a door, swinging from a rustic wooden post, or above a mantelpiece. Although we see and handle every sign as it takes shape in our shop, there’s a certain satisfaction and poetic feeling of completeness in seeing our work “at home” –  in homes, on farms, cafes & antique shops, in downtown New York & Outback New South Wales, and a good number of other places too.

Everything comes in waves, and over the past two weeks, many such photographs have come in, mainly from all corners of the United States:

Slack Tide House Sign

Copper Fox Lodge Sign

The Fire Escape Bar & Grill

70 Little Mill Road Sign

Larsons Tavern & Inn Sign

Just Between Friends Sign

Mermaid Manor Sign

Murray House Sign

Sapphire Skies Sign

Pond's End Sign

I think The Fire Escape Bar & Grill is my favourite. What a unique slogan for a restaurant – “Not trendy, just friendly”. It sounds like the perfect place for chewing the rag with the locals, over a Detroit Lager. I’ll have to stop in, next time I’m in Metamora.

If you happen to be the owner of one our signs, feel free to send us a nice picture of yours as well!

Sign Painters & Sign Carvers

If you happen to live in Asheville, Austin or Istanbul, or any of the other locations listed here, and – like me – you are fascinated by traditional sign-making, get a few like-minded friends together and go watch The Signpainters, a documentary about hand-lettering in America. It’s a movie by photographer Faythe Levine & filmmaker Sam Macon, that has been a few years in the making, but is now showing in a theatre near (or maybe not so near) you.

Faythe Levine

Faythe Levine

Recently, I had the chance to chat with Faythe about the project. I asked her where the idea of the Sign Painters movie came from.

I had a group of friends who started hanging out in a sign shop in Minneapolis back in the 90’s. It was through them I discovered that being a “sign painter” was actually a job. Now, 15 years later all those friends have full time sign shops and are all involved in some part of this project.

Was one of them our good friend Mike Meyer of Mike Meyer Signs?

No….but Mike is great, we were so glad to have him involved with the final project.

Will the movie help keep the lettering craft alive?

I think our movie will provide an accessible go-to for helping people understand the importance of the role sign painters have played and will continue to play in our lives.

Does she see a revival of traditional sign-making techniques?

There has definitely been a boom of interest from a younger design motivated audience over the course  of our production.

Would she ever make a sequel?

Nope.

 

Poster fo Sign Painters Movie

Hand-painted (well, duh.) poster by Jeff Canham

As with all good things, there’s also a book version:

Sign Painters Book Cover

Cover for the Sign Painters Book

Having said all of that, I must add we’ve done precious little hand-lettering at our shop. That’s because we’re primarily a carving shop. Our signs are three-dimensional. If the sign painters in this movie are fighting the vinyl cutter, we sign-carvers are rebelling against the CNC router. I hope the sign-carving craft gets a documentary too, some day!

Hand-Lettered Sign for Cafe Legato

This is the one of the few signs we’ve made with authentic hand-lettered type. The words “Cafe Legato” just didn’t want to be restricted by a paint mask. The sign hangs in San José, California. Cafe owner Rodelio said “Wow! you guys did a good job…Thank you so much and I will surely recommend you to my friends in business.”

Cafe Legato Hand-Lettered Logo

See what I mean?

And finally, to end with, a little lettering demonstration from Dan Madsen of Dusty’s Signs, (Minneapolis, Minnesota):

No that won’t be in the sign painter movie, that’s a short promo clip my friend Hunter Johnson made for me. – Dan

 

Dard Hunter Lives On

“Art is the Flower. Life is the Green Leaf. Let every artist strive to make his flower a beautiful living thing, something that will convince the world that there may be, there are, things more precious more beautiful – more lasting than life itself.” – Charles Rennie Mackintosh

Past blog posts have discussed Charles Rennie Mackintosh, and his influence on the world of art and architecture, as an influential  member of the Arts and Crafts Movement (an art and design movement of the late nineteenth century and early twentieth). Clover Signs produced more than a few Mackintosh-inspired signs, which were displayed on earlier blog posts. Maybe that’s why we received a request early last month from a customer in New Mexico, USA, who wanted an office sign in the Arts and Crafts style.

We first experimented with a font developed by Mackintosh himself, and later settled on P22 Arts and Crafts, developed by Mackintosh’s well-known contemporary Dard Hunter. Mackintosh was an architect from Glasgow, while Hunter was an expert on printing and traditional papermaking from Ohio, USA. The fact that two men in such diverse professions and locations  were both significant to the Arts and Crafts style, is tribute to the breadth and scope of the movement itself.

Arts and Crafts Book Cover Page

A Printed Page in the Arts & Cafts Style (image courtesy of Vamp & Tramp Booksellers)

The Arts and Crafts style gradually petered out around the time of the Second World War. But since the nineteen-seventies, there has been a noticeable revival of the style, especially in architecture & typography. Countless Arts-and-Crafts fonts continue to be designed and released, Canadian sign-maker Shane Durnford (and many other modern-day craftsmen) could be considered Arts-and-Crafts-inspired, and there will be a Dard Hunter Conference in St. Louis this October, sponsored by the Friends of Dard Hunter.

An Arts-and-Crafts-style house number sign by David Meddings

An “upcycled” Arts-and-Crafts-style house number sign by David Meddings

A Paper-Making Workshop by the Friends of Dard Hunter

A Paper-Making Workshop by the Friends of Dard Hunter

And what about the office sign?

Office Sign Revision 2

The Original Design

Office Sign Revision 3

With the new font & custom-design arrow to match

Office Sign Revision 6

The final design

Dard Hunter Inspired Sign

And the finished sign

So that’s our humble contribution to the Arts and Crafts Revival (hanging on an office door in New Mexico).

“The sign arrived today and I’m more than pleased with its design and quality – really beautiful work.  Thanks to you and your excellent staff! I’m also very impressed with your packaging.  It seems as close to “bulletproof” as one can achieve in a practical sense.” – Chris