You Are Invited

A behind-the-scenes look at the 2019 Sign Invitational.
The Sign Invitational

When you play The Sign Invitational, you win or you try – again, the next year. “I began sketching my first ideas [for his 2019 Sign Invitational entry] on the plane ride home from last year’s event,” said 2018 winner Dan Sawatzky of Imagination Corp. (Chilliwack, BC, Canada). “Each week, I have put a few hours into the project. Over the course of the year this adds up to a few hundred hours.” Rarely will you see the evidence of a man so committed to what he loves doing.

And you can see it – Sawatzky’s project will be on display in the Signs of the Times booth (#2135) this month at the International Sign Association’s Sign Expo in Las Vegas’ Mandalay Bay Convention Center. His will be joined by several others, three of whom also share insights into their entries here.


“The Sign Invitational’s primary mission is to foster involvement and creativity in the sign industry. The whole industry wins when we come together for a common goal and partake in a good, healthy competition.” So reads the Invitational’s “About” page on its website. What the site doesn’t say, but which applies after the competition, is that, win or lose, the competitors will have new, elaborate displays for their shop lobbies. Sawatzky’s has more than 150 such works on display – I told you he loves doing this – and there’s a payoff for his relentless production, as described in last month’s Sign Face column. “Those samples have sold millions of dollars’ worth of work, so I’m a huge believer,” he said.

Now in its fourth year, The Sign Invitational issues a call for concepts in the fall. Potential entrants sketch and describe their prospective projects, and submit them to the governing committee (for 2019, Sawatzky and co-founder of the Invitational, Jim Dawson, owner, Synergy Sign & Graphics, Strasburg, OH). Approved submissions give entrants the go-ahead to produce and deliver their projects to the ISA Expo for final judging by the show-going public. Every year a different theme is explored; the theme for 2019 is, simply, “time.”

The 2019 competitors who shared this inside look into their projects have taken that theme and devised some varied and interesting interpretations. Sawatzky’s entry is an old clock factory named “Timekeeper.” Douglas Hancock, owner of Sign Pro of North Florida (Alachua, FL), has entered an 1840 steam-powered clock, complete with a detailed backstory. “My project is an intergalactic time traveler that travels through space and time gathering artifacts,” said Cam Andres, owner of Multiwerks Design Studio (Nevis, AB, Canada). Finally, Shawn Reimer, president of Reimer Graphics Inc. (Beamsville, ON, Canada) has entered a project centered on ancient Mayan culture and its storytelling icons.


Speaking of time, just how long do these projects take, from conception through completion? The answers range considerably. Andres estimated that perhaps 20 to 30 days of part-time work went into his. Hancock put it at 100 total hours. Reimer reported spending about 40-50 hours in concept drawings and research, and anticipated about the same for digitizing his sketches, CNC programming, fabrication and finishing. But, he added, “Let’s be real; it’s going to be double that.”

“Timekeeper” is the title of Dan Sawatzky’s entry to the 2019 Sign Invitational, his fourth of the four competitions.
“Timekeeper” is the title of Dan Sawatzky’s entry to the 2019 Sign Invitational, his fourth of the four competitions.

“I’m glad I put in the hours early,” Sawatzky said. “I knew the time would add up and the total number – four to five hundred hours – doesn’t surprise me. I wanted this to be my most detailed piece ever.” Not surprisingly, a great deal of that time is invested learning new techniques and solving fresh problems, Hancock said. “That can be slow sometimes [though] we also enjoy the process, so we are more willing to take time with it,” he added. Perhaps the attitude toward how long it takes is best summed up by Andres: “I never set time budgets on something where [if] I’m the customer, I’d fire myself.”


“Working to scale has been a challenge… as there are so many pieces that have to come together perfectly for [this project’s] eyepiece to work as planned,” Reimer said. “The gears I have created have also been a huge obstacle to overcome. I planned to have moving pieces, and I still may, but in order to make everything work as planned, the math calculations that have to work are staggering.” Math calculations? Hancock reported a more engineering-related hurdle: having enough air volume for his needs, given the Invitational’s small-build envelope. “The other obstacle [was] making the digital controllers, and making it all work together as it should,” he added.

It’s also no feat of deduction to reason out the greatest challenge to completing a project is time itself. “Finding time to get after something that doesn’t contribute directly to shop cash flow takes a backseat to regular customers and shop demands,” Andres said. “Finding time in the evening to work on it is difficult, too.” Four-time Invitational entrant Sawatzky knew his submission would be “a massive project, time-wise, so the key to finishing it was to start early, be disciplined each week and make sure I put in a few hours no matter how busy we were in the shop.” After all, he said of his entry, “I had no client to deal with and I could go absolutely crazy.”


Every signmaking job can be, should be, a learning process, but the learning ramps up when you set out to do something you’ve never tried before. “I have needed to have an excuse to start machining in 3D for client pieces, and have taught myself the basics to build this piece,” Reimer said. “I’ve also started producing multiple elevations for each piece, instead of one concept drawing, so that if other team members need to catch the vision, or understand what the finished piece will be as they are working on it, they will have more than one perspective to study.” Hancock and his team have discovered how to “hack” various parts to make their own smoke machine, which they might use in future pieces. “The digital control boards are something we are expanding our knowledge with and will probably be most useful in future signs and thematic pieces,” he said.

Ancient Mayan iconography and that civilization’s obsession with time inspired Shawn Reimer’s project for his first Sign Invitational.
Ancient Mayan iconography and that civilization’s obsession with time inspired Shawn Reimer’s project for his first Sign Invitational.

Like many artists, Sawatzky finds it difficult to be completely pleased with any project – and this is no different. “While I think the ‘Timekeeper’ character works well, I still see plenty of room for improvement in the future,” he said. “I considered having the gears of the clock move… but in the end I decided to rather focus on the design and its execution alone.” Andres suggested that technique-building is not the only skill the Invitational develops. His project taught a lesson in time management for next year: “Maybe be a little less ambitious in the scale and complexity of the project,” he admitted. “Maybe start designing and building six months earlier would be wise,” though he qualified, “It’s been a lot of fun to build.”


Many – if not most – Sign Invitational competitors started their projects by hand-sketching concepts. They then transferred those sketches to either Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator or CorelDRAW for development. To guide the material cutting, our four relied either on SAi’s EnRoute software, or Aspire from Vectric.

Hancock’s team routed his 1840 steam-powered clock on a Stinger 4 x 8-ft. CNC from CAMaster. The Mayan piece created by Reimer was cut on his shop’s Envy Designs 5 x 10-ft. three-axis CNC. Andres used a combination of his MultiCam 3000 router and Trotec Speedy 400 laser. In addition, Andres employed his shop’s Mimaki CJV30-130 printer and Laguna Tools Bandsaw on his time-travelling spaceship. Sawatzky also favored the MultiCam 3000 CNC router and ran his MultiCam CNC plasma cutter to cut, and a Miller Welder to weld the steel for “Timekeeper.”

Cam Andres’ time-traveling spaceship references such disparate influences as a rhinoceros, Art Deco, historical Egypt and Star Trek nemesis, the Borg.
Cam Andres’ time-traveling spaceship references such disparate influences as a rhinoceros, Art Deco, historical Egypt and Star Trek nemesis, the Borg.

Precision Board HDU from Coastal Enterprises was the choice for Sawatzky, Hancock and Andres, who also included CORAFOAM HDU from DUNA USA. Reimer’s HDU came from a local manufacturer of outdoor weather-proof cabinetry. Andres and Reimer used Magic Sculpt epoxy, while Sawatzky carved from Abracadabra Sculpt epoxy. Hancock’s project comprised, in part, Elite PVC foam sheet from Tubelite, while others also included steel and plywood. Sherwin Williams A-100 Exterior Acrylic house paint was the finish for Reimer and Sawatzky. Hancock went with NovaColor and Andres, who will also be adding LED lighting, painted with Modern Masters.


Sawatzky’s influence has spread among his peers and it’s not a coincidence that three of the four sign artists featured here also live and work in Canada. “I met Dan Sawatzky last year, after 20 years of following his work… and dreaming of someday doing work that was a fraction as good as his,” Reimer said. “Attending his workshop was a super highlight for me, and when he challenged me to enter the Sign Invitational, I was both humbled and inspired to finally use some of the creativity I have stuffed into the corner.” And that creativity will be on display – don’t forget – in the Signs of the Times booth (#2135) at the ISA Expo, where your vote will help determine this year’s winner. It will be well worth your time.


Signs of the Times April 2020

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