The sign man

Published 10:15 am Monday, April 12, 2010

Many signs at businesses around Albert Lea have been painted by hand and most people wouldn’t even know it by looking at them. The man who makes these signs is still painting even after most sign-making shops have switched to vinyl lettering.

“I take pride in my work,” Tim Karn said. “I grew up watching my dad paint signs.”

Karn has had his shop, Gray Area Sign Shop, on Pearl Street in Albert Lea for three years, but has been making signs for many years. He has had shops in Rochester, Austin and Minneapolis.

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“I was just looking for more opportunities,” Karn said.

He’s back in Albert Lea and partly retired. He paints signs to make extra income, which he has done for much of his life.

“A lot of times I had another job,” Karn said. “I would paint signs before and after work.”

Though he has held other jobs, he’s always been painting signs.

“It’s almost a habit for me,” Karn said. “I’ve never quit for very long.”

Karn considers himself an artist as well as a tradesman. He has been starting to make artwork on the side for friends and acquaintances.

“Those are good winter projects,” Karn said.

His job is seasonal because he can’t do outdoor signs or vehicles painting during the winter. Karn does many projects including painting vehicles, windows, walls as well as other things.

“I have thousands of pictures of things I’ve painted over the years,” Karn said.

Karn said painting signs take time and planning and sometimes customers think the signs are expensive.

“They don’t know what goes into it,” Karn said. “They think it’s easy.”

Karn is currently working on a 56-foot sign for Sanderson Auto Repair in Albert Lea. He said the sign will take him about two weeks.

The first step in a project is to talk with a customer and draw a sketch. After the sketch is looked over Karn makes a more detailed sketch for himself.

“I don’t like to spend a lot of time on sketches,” Karn said.

When the sign is finished, Karn most times helps to install it. He gets new customers through word of mouth and many customers have used his services before.

His main tool is a large drawing board. He also buys paint and brushes from local stores. Lettering brushes he has to buy online and most people have probably never seen one because they’re not a common item.

“My drawing board is my main tool,” Karn said.

As well as painting signs, Karn can buy vinyl letters and attach them to vehicles or windows. Gray Area Sign Shop is the only place in town that can do both.

“There are several places that do vinyl, but nobody else does hand-painted signs,” Karn said.

Vinyl letters can come in any shape, size or color and are replacing painting. They’re quick to install, and there’s no drying time.

Mark Sanderson of Sanderson Auto Repair is one of Karn’s repeat customers. He’s had a couple of signs painted by Karn, and Karn did the vinyl work on his service van.

“He’s very creative, and it’s fun to work with him,” Sanderson said.

For the next project, Karn will replace block letters on the building with a painting so that the logo will be on the front of the building.

“He’s an artist, basically,” Sanderson said. “I’ve had some great comments with how the building looks.”

Karn is modest and said he likes to think of himself as a tradesman unless he’s making artwork.

“Signs are different from art,” Karn said.

Sanderson is impressed by Karn’s work. He said that he had the original ideas but Karn helped come up with the designs.

“He’s got some good ideas,” Sanderson said.

Another customer of Karn’s is Bob Cotton at Budget Blinds. Cotton has known Karn for many years.

“He’s a very talented fellow,” Cotton said. “I love his work.”

Cotton likes that Karn’s work is different than just buying a sign. Cotton also said that he used to work with Karn’s father.

“It’s a neat way to support someone in our community,” Cotton said.