Punching the Clock: Time of the signs

Chances are, if you’ve been living in the Chenango County area for any length of time – or even if you were just passing through, for that matter – you’ve seen some of Bob Wightman’s work, whether it’s a sign for a local business or agency, some customized decal work on a car or truck, or even something as simple as an “Employees Entrance Only” or “Push for Elevator” sign.

Owner of Signs by Wightman, Bob has been in the business of signs for more than 35 years, first working out of his basement before relocating his workshop to 29 Plymouth St., where he’s been for approximately 20 years now. So when our esteemed editor informed me Mr. Wightman was interested in our “Punching the Clock” series, let’s just say I jumped at the chance to join him for a quick lesson in sign design and assembly.

A paid firefighter with the Norwich Fire Department for 28 years, Wightman attended college with a focus on advertising and design. And for more than three decades he’s been working as his own boss, designing hundreds of signs – in all shapes and sizes – from small, postcard-sized signs to the large, storefront variety, and everything in between. He’s even done custom work for colleges across the state, designing footballs (not for games, but as trophies), basketballs and even relay batons. From oil-based to vinyl graphics, the medium doesn’t matter, it’s a job that Wightman was seemingly born to do.

After a quick turn about the workshop, Bob showed me his latest project, a total of four signs for The Place, taking me through the paces of a typical order. Technology, of course, has had a huge impact on the way Wightman works, and nowadays he utilizes a computer for the majority of his vinyl-based work. He does, however, try to paint by hand at least one day a week to keep in practice. And it pays to have a carpenter’s skills, as well, he added, particularly when it comes to measuring.

Said Wightman, “When I was in high school, I remember thinking, ‘Why algebra and geometry?’ yet I use it all the time here.”

First off, Bob showed me the original design for the largest of the four signs currently in progress, before inserting a piece of vinyl into a special cutting machine, one that’s connected to his workshop computer and – with extreme accuracy – scores the vinyl. Said Wightman of the machine, with a laugh, “This is my employee with no benefits.” Seconds later, Bob had me “weeding” the scored piece, removing the excess vinyl from its backing, kind of like peeling a sticker. The scored letters – in this case the word “Place,” as in The Place – however, remained attached to the backing, although not without a little persuasion. Once the “weeding” was complete, I watched as Bob applied what he called application tape, which allowed him to remove the word from its original backing and place in its carefully measured spot on the sign. And while Mr. Wightman made the entire process look easy, I had a feeling that in this case, like so many others, practice makes perfect. Once placed, the secret is to keep any air out, said Wightman, as he used a special tool to force any bubbles to the edge of the vinyl decal. Once completed, the sign is actually waterproof (one of the benefits of using vinyl), the same as a vinyl decal on a car or truck. Wightman said he only uses the highest quality vinyl, one that carries with it a nine-year guarantee for outdoor signs such as those he’s assembling for The Place.

Once the large sign had been completed, Wightman again took me around the shop, showing me a number of signs he’d designed in the past that he’d re-acquired years later. At one point in time, he said, he used to throw such keepsakes away, yet no longer. Nowadays, the workshop features dozens of the signs Bob has created over the decades, again in all shapes and sizes. And it goes without saying that Wightman, like any true craftsman, cares deeply about his work.

“It’s a fun job, it really is,” said Wightman. “I try to make all my customers my friends, if I can, and I try to give everybody a quality product at a fair price in a timely manner. I think that’s what has made my business a success.”

It’s a philosophy that’s worked well for the Norwich resident, who admitted it’s the design portion of his craft that he enjoys the most, adding “it’s fun to create all the time.”

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