KC Maker Finds a Profitable Hobby in Vintage Sign-Making



Sign maker, Mike Hammond

Jeremey Theron Kirby

   By day, Mike Hammond makes orthopedic braces. By night, he’s crafting signs that light up the sky.

   The walls, shelves, and tables of Mike and Liz Hammond’s Overland Park home are practically dripping with a vast array of vintage pieces, from artworks to advertisements and typewriters. While some might make that decorating decision to impress their Pinterest users, for the Hammonds it reflects a genuine and well-developed preference for the retro — a taste that is strongly reflected in Mike’s artwork. 

   Hammond is a producer of lighted signs, the precursors to neon that once graced America’s main streets but are now largely a staple of fairgrounds. Spurred by the same nostalgia and yen for analog warmth that brought vinyl back, the lighted sign is experiencing a resurgence among small-business owners, especially restaurateurs. Hammond’s signature glowing ice cream cone has found its way into sweet shops as far away as Port-au-Prince, Haiti. 

   While the originals might have been factory made, recreating them today (as well as creating new designs altogether) is custom, artisanal work. Usually, customers commission a sign with only a picture of a vintage sign to work from — no plans, no measurements. Hammond is up to this challenge from a small workshop in his backyard.

   “My hand skills are from my dad, teaching me carpentry. I’ve always been able to build things without plans.”

   It can, however, be daunting when a client commissions a sign he isn’t familiar with. “When someone gives you $2,000 to build something you’ve never built, you want to make sure you’re producing what’s in their head and that’s very difficult sometimes.”

   Hammond’s process is as analog as his signs. “I draw a pattern on paper; then I transfer that to boards or metal or whatever I’m making the sign out of and then I hand cut that pattern out. Then I start assembling it. I make a frame for it, I make sides, I do all the painting. All the lettering and any shapes you see is all by hand.” 

   

   He considers the signs works of art and wants them to have an effect beyond advertising: “When you look at my stuff I want it to bring back memories or I want you to smile. I don’t want you to have to figure out what it’s supposed to do to you; I want you to smile and feel the emotion.” 

   The lighting is what makes the signs special, “If you go to a carnival at night without the bulbs, it’s nothing, nobody would go to it. But you know what brings people to it? The same bulbs I’ve got on my signs.” 

   When not working from a design specified by a customer, Hammond takes inspiration from prior art, such as the signs in Las Vegas. 

 

 “I’ve got a huge file of pictures of signs. I’ve always liked taking someone else’s idea and making it better. That’s how we got where we are today, somebody has taken someone else’s idea and made it better and then someone has taken their idea and made it better.” 

   Collectors and businesses make up most of Hammond’s client base. For collectors, the opportunity to have a new sign built in the classic style allows them to fill a hole in their collection when an original sign is impossible to find or prohibitively expensive. During the winter, orders for ice cream cones signs pile up, as shops prepare for the busy spring and summer seasons. 

   Hammond’s signs are handmade, and no two are alike. He says he’s proud of that fact citing that many Etsy sellers have turned to more generic production.

  “When they take a picture of one sign, there’s 20 more right behind it that are the exact same thing. When that customer buys that sign, there is nothing special about it. When they buy mine, it’s something special because each one’s painted different, each one’s handcrafted. I’d like to think my signs are one of a kind.”