Baker Sign adjusts to industry changes
IRON MOUNTAIN — Ben Baker started Baker Sign Company in 1999, just three years after graduating from Iron Mountain High School.
“I was working out of a small garage shop out by Lake Antoine,” Baker said.
At that time, the business specialized in neon signs. Baker had taken classes on making neon glass, where he learned to shape glass tubing, burn impurities and fill glass with neon or argon gas, among other things.
“It’s involved,” Baker said, adding a sign can be made in anywhere between four to eight hours — ideally in a space about 1,000 square feet or larger. “‘Open’ signs were bread and butter.”
Baker pivoted to printing when the market for neon shrank. He attributed dwindling sales to a combination of factors: neon signs made abroad at lower prices were sold at big box stores for a third of the price of a custom piece and LED signs rapidly grew in popularity.
“If somebody’s got a broken sign, we’ll still fix it,” Baker said, noting he still has the equipment.
Looking for more business, Baker bought a small printer and discovered the market for vinyl graphics fit his business profile.
“Previous to wide-format (printing), everything was cut vinyl,” Baker said. “You’d buy a solid color of vinyl and have a computer-controlled cutter that would make all the shapes. If you wanted something that was four colors, you’d have to have four colors of material, cut each color, lay each one on top of the other.”
But before long, Baker had difficulty maintaining business.
“That work started to dry up as well because it’s not efficient. You lose out on being able to have colors,” Baker said.
In 2011, Baker moved from the garage shop to a larger building at 632 Circle Drive in Iron Mountain and invested in large-format printers capable of a range of colors on a single medium.
“You end up with a superior product that takes less time to make. It sells itself,” Baker said.
Now, Baker Sign Company services include graphic design, banners, signs, vehicle wraps, stickers, bucket truck services, sign installation and maintenance.
“We’ll get a phone call and the person will say, ‘I’ve got a project that I’m working on,'” Baker said.
“We’ll interview them, find out what their needs are, if they have logos or not. Then, we’ll have the customer come in, we’ll sit down, do a design session with them.”
If the customer has an established business, Baker often will visit the establishment and conduct a site survey, he said.
“From that point, we find out what’s going to work best for them,” Baker said. “With 20-plus years of experience, we usually have a pretty good idea on what’s going to help this person in the most cost-effective manner.”
“Once we figure out what they want, we’ll do design work. We’ll send them proofs. We’ll make changes,” Baker said. “They’ll sign off on the proof, then we’ll go into production. We’ll choose the appropriate vinyl. If they want something to go on their wall or something to go on their truck, the outside of a window, you have to choose an appropriate material.”
If the material is expected to weather the elements, it can be laminated with an ultraviolet resistant layer to ensure its longevity.
For large-scale signs like the 12-foot-tall, 600-pound foam boot outside Step Ahead Boots and Clothing on Stephenson Avenue in Iron Mountain, Baker subcontracts with trusted companies, as such signs must be UL-approved.
UL, LLC — formerly Underwriters Laboratories — is a safety certification company founded in 1894 and among a number of organizations the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has approved to conduct safety testing.
Baker also consults with local engineering firms to make certain signs have proper support.
“We tell them the sign is going to be this many square feet and it’s going to weigh approximately this amount,” Baker said. “They’ll send us a blueprint back. They’ll tell us what size structural steel we need, how big a foundation we need, what length bolts, what grade bolts.”
In addition to engineers, Baker works with electricians to supply illuminated signs with electricity.
“We’re not electricians,” Baker said. “We’re sign guys.”
The work allows Baker to be creative and hands-on.
“I’m definitely more of an artist than a sitting-behind-a-computer-typing-all-day guy,” Baker said.
In the future, Baker plans to purchase a computer-controlled router for three-dimensional signs. He also means to move into a more spacious building, which would allow him to work on larger projects in-house.
“A little tough right now, with the unpredictability of the market, but we definitely have plans for a future expansion,” Baker said.
The coronavirus pandemic slowed business for months in 2020 as outdoor work was impossible for the company. Baker and his employees were able to print stickers and signs relaying information about the virus but little else.
“Now that it’s starting to get back to normalcy, we’re busy,” Baker said. “I think there’s a lot of pent-up demand.”
“Everybody needs a sign of some sort, whether they know it or not. From house letters to that sticker that pays tribute to a family member, we do all that,” Baker said.