Dan Sawatzky's Imagination Corporation Mines His Creativity for Theme-Park Sign

Culmination of traditional, modern craftsmanship

If you’ve read ST regularly over the past 15-20 years – and, in particular, our International Sign Contest issues – you’re quite familiar with Dan Sawatzky’s work. Almost invariably, the proprietor of Imagination Corp. (Chilliwack, BC, Canada) has been a winner in one or more contest categories. Typically, his work involves complex, multi-panel environments for theme parks, miniature-golf courses, restaurants and other environments where whimsy is a welcome attribute for placemaking.
Sawatzky has reached the highly enviable position of being booked with work “months in advance.” He said, “We only build landmarks. For every 10 people who seriously talk to us about a project, only one customer is willing to listen to our suggestions, wait their turn and pay what we ask.”
And, for the pricetag, Sawatzky’s customers receive more than just a sign – his ornate environmental graphics often incorporate well-defined characters crafted with sculpted epoxy, and artful, yet stout, structures made from fiberglass-reinforced concrete that envelop a welded-steel substructure. Routed HDU plays an important role as the directional focal point of his distinctive creations.
“We typically fabricate our signs from 30-lb. [Coastal Enterprises] PrecisionBoard HDU,” Sawatzky said. “We love this substrate because it lacks grain, is highly stable and holds paint very well. It machines easily, yet it’s very durable. I love the look of sandblasted redwood, but I’ve never had much luck with it because it often splits and requires a lot of maintenance.”
Sawatzky begins most of his concept designs with hand sketches; once he deems an idea successful, he scans it into Photoshop and color-corrects and edits the file for production. After customer approval, Sawatzky vectorizes the text and opens the file using EnRoute® Pro 4 to build the file that’s sent to his MultiCam 3000 CNC router. For an intricate project, such as this sign for a British Columbia-based theme park, he also incorporated the background, the trestle and rails, and the mining-cart wheels.
Sawatzky machined the sign’s three HDU layers, which span 4 ft. wide, on his router using a 3/8-in.-diameter, ball-nose bit for most of the process, before switching to a ¼-in., ball-nose bit. To impart detail on the rail timbers, he prepared the surface with an air-powered die-grinder. Fashioning the carts and wheels entailed assembling the routed parts over steel rods. Then, using Abracadabra’s Magic Sculpt epoxy, Sawatzky molded the woodgrain cart sides and the characters.
Decorating each component comprises at least three coats of General Paints exterior-latex paint, and two or three coats of Modern Masters water-based glazes, which add depth and texture to painted surfaces.
Sawatzky installed the sign with an integral, welded-steel frame laminated into its center. Two square-steel tubes protrude behind the sign; he welded angle iron to these tubes, and bolted the apparatus onto the building’s heavy wooden timbers.
“Our challenge on every project is to make the next job better than the last,” Sawatzky said.