Ad-Art is more than art

Published 6:45 pm Saturday, March 6, 2010

Have you ever walked into Ad-Art Inc. down on the southeast edge of Albert Lea? You walk in, and you see a few offices. You keep going down the hallway and notice a few rooms that remind you of high school art rooms, with items such as X-Acto knives, light tables, T-squares and stools.

You walk up a small ramp into a room with a machine that looks like the Octopus carnival ride. Beyond, there are more machines of varying shapes and sizes making noises, flashing lights and giving off heat. And beyond that, there are more machines, and beyond that is an entire warehouse.

You realize that even though from U.S. Highway 69 that Ad-Art seems like a low-slung, quiet and small building, it actually goes really far back, holds a lot of equipment and does work big and small.

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“We get that a lot,” said Scott Ellertson, who owns Ad-Art with his wife, Jody. “It looks small from the road front, but they come in and there’s more equipment than people would think.”

And though you might find a T-shirt printing place or a small press operation in a lot of cities, Ad-Art is unlike most in that it does such a variety of work on a variety of materials, among them vinyls, polycarbonates, plastics, canvas and textiles.

“We do a little bit of everything. Customers can come into one place to get their printing needs,” he said

The Ellertsons bought Ad-Art in 1997 from Darrel and Betty Ellertson — Scott’s parents. The business has been around since 1953, moving to the existing location in 1983. The address is 17486 U.S. Highway 65.

If you buy a Mathews composite bow, the bow limb was painted at Ad-Art. If you buy an automobile, there is a likelihood that the dealer’s ad plate — which you take off when you attach the state license plates — was made at Ad-Art. If you get a T-shirt for a local business, it probably was made at Ad-Art — like those “I’ve Got Issues” T-shirts for the Albert Lea Tribune or the Power 96 T-shirts with the rocker on the front.

That Octopus-looking machine is an ALX-10 T-shirt press, and it actually has 10 heads and can handle up to eight colors. There also is a four-station manual T-shirt press. A textile dryer cures the inks on the shirts.

While most of the T-shirt orders come from the Albert Lea area, most of the rest of the work at Ad-Art comes from across the nation. Ellertson listed among them Ohio and South Carolina.

Ellertson said certication is required for making SPX products. SPX is based in Owatonna and makes high-grade electronic tools such as multimeters and battery load testers for the automobile industry. As an SPX vendor, Ellertson affixes ink to products made from polycarbonate material.

The ad plates require knowledge of how to print the right mixture of ink on high-density polyethylene, a material that doesn’t get too brittle in the cold winters and too pliable in the hot summers. Ellertson learned how to do it successfully in the days before ink companies would give assistance on how to use their inks.

Ad-Art does thousands of decals for product logos, warning statements, special offers and other needs. Many decals are made from polycarbonates.

Spraypainting is one of Ellertson’s favorite tasks. Not only does he spraypaint bow limbs for Mathews, which is based in Sparta, Wis., he also applies graphics.

And for many jobs, such as with medical machines, Ad-Art applies the ink on faceplates. His company, he noted, uses an catalyzed ink when printing ink on metal so it won’t scratch off.

Ad-Art also does large-format textile patterns. The company has a big machine that prints on huge sheets of paper.

Business will be up this summer for Ad-Art because it is an election year. Ad-Art makes political signs for candidates across the state. Ellertson said he orders pallets of 4-foot by 8-foot corrugated plastic and cuts the segments to the ordered sizes. He also buys the wire stands.

Ad-Art’s skills at applying paint and ink correctly on varying material surfaces — which Ellertson calls substrates — come in handy for sign-making. The biggest sign the company made is the 12- by 16-foot aluminum sign at the Albert Lea High School pool room that denotes all the swimming records for the school and for all the Big Nine Conference. High humidity requires knowledge of what works.

Ad-Art makes foam core displays for stores. For instance, foam core can be used to make life-sized cutouts of people.

Ellertson said he learned on the job most of his knowledge about which inks work on which substrates. He said many schools have cut art education without acknowledging there are many industrial needs for the trial-and-error skills learned in art classes.

Among the machines at Ad-Art is a Brausse die cutter, which is where many of the printing jobs end up before being shipped to the customer. Decals, for instance, arrive over e-mail as a design that is prepared and then printed to film and shot with a bright, ultraviolet light to a plate. The plate is inserted in one of the company’s three screen-printing machines. Finally, the item is brought to the die cutter for cutting.

There are machines that shear metal, and there is a Rockford metal punch press.

Ad-Art has a darkroom for image work. Ellertson said he finds images last longer when formed in a darkroom than through modern computer-to-plate machines.

Getting the order to the customer is his favorite part of work.

“I like to see faces when they get a finished product,” Ellertson said. “That has always been fun for me.”

And there is that print-shop smell. It is the odor of the thinner used to wash inks from screens and to clean presses. You can smell it most print shops, though it might be somewhat different depending on the thinner they use or whether they inject citrus into it.

Ellertson said when he switched brands of thinner, the workers complained about the smell — until they got used to it. Then, when he switched back, they didn’t like the smell again.

Usually, Ad-Art employs 11 or 12 people. Presently, with the economy in the tank, there are six, counting Scott. People stopping in meet Jennifer Gilderhus, who is the secretary and handles large-scale textile patterns.

Scott’s mother, Betty, loves to work. She opens the doors at 4:30 a.m., runs any errands into town and can often be found running a screen press. Scott’s sister, Kim Ellertson, is in charge of textiles. She makes the T-shirts people all over Albert Lea wear.

Chad Lamping knows how to every one of the machines at Ad-Art. He’s the jack of all trades. Kristin Gottberg is the graphic designer who is the hub of every project. She handles designs and plots and makes sure deadlines are met.

About Tim Engstrom

Tim Engstrom is the editor of the Albert Lea Tribune. He resides in Albert Lea with his wife, two sons and dog.

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