Through her hands
After a home health care career that ended in near disaster, Callie Palan has discovered her creative calling — welding and wiring metal signs.
At Sign Art Studio in Mount Horeb, Callie Palan enjoys working on metal signs.
Photographs by M.O.D. Media Productions
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From the pages of In Business magazine.
Look around. How many signs do you see — exit signs, store signs, directional signs, bar neons?
At Sign Art Studio in Mount Horeb, President Dan Yoder — a self-described sign geek — and his 11-person staff make signs for businesses needing to send a message. He started the business in 2005 as a one-man-band and now the UL (Underwriter’s Laboratory)-certified company fabricates about 200 projects a year. Each project might involve between one and several hundred signs.
In fact, the company created the 4,500-pound, 55-foot tall New Orpheum Theater sign on State Street, which Yoder says required about 2,000 light bulbs connected to numerous circuits.
Measure thrice, cut once
Twenty-nine-year-old Callie Palan wasn’t around when the Orpheum’s new sign was erected in July 2016. “I’m super jealous that I wasn’t able to work on that,” she laments. Palan is the only woman in the company’s fabrication shop. After just a year, her skills so impressed Yoder that she was promoted to lead fabricator.
Top, Callie Palan bends a strip of aluminum over a roller to create the flexibility needed to shape the side wall of a Duluth Trading Co. “Angry Beaver” sign. Middle, on another project, Palan smiles when light bulbs she wired for an arrow-shaped sign blink in proper succession. Bottom, Palan wires a neon sign.
On this visit, she’s creating a 3-D “Angry Beaver” for Duluth Trading Company. It’s not often that she gets to work on something that doesn’t involve letters or numbers, she notes, so this is a unique and exciting project.
Her job as lead fabricator means she assembles the materials, measures (“measure three times, cut once,” she reminds), welds, and cuts. If a sign requires lighting, she’ll gather the necessary light bulbs and wires. “I haven’t yet seen how neon is made, but I’ve learned to install and wire neon signs,” she notes.
She approaches a work table where an aluminum cutout of the beaver lays idle. Wearing gloves, Palan grabs a long strip of aluminum about three inches wide and flexes it by hand to make it more pliable as she begins to form it around the animal’s shape.
Forming is Palan’s favorite part. “It challenges me,” she says. “If I have a circle the size of a pencil and have to make a bend in a piece of metal that small, how do I do that without creasing the metal?”
The answer is in bending metal around large cylinders or items as narrow as a pencil, she explains. “You have to bend metal around something else,” Palan explains, “otherwise it might crease or the bend might be crooked, which causes more problems. It’s my work, and it’s what everyone sees.”
She bends the aluminum until satisfied that the first vertical section is aligned, then dons a welder’s mask and makes an initial slot weld to affix the flat panel to the vertical sidewall. Green sparks fly. Later she’ll return to weld all the seams.
Depending on the project, bending and forming can take as much as a day, she says, and welding might take another half day.
When complete, the welded edges will be filed smooth and the whole piece sanded before heading to the Sign Art paint booth. This particular sign does not require electricity, she notes, but after painting, a vinyl graphic with the beaver’s artistic detail will be applied.
At another table, LED bulbs are ready to be installed inside an arrow-shaped metal sign casing. The lights, she explains, need to blink in succession from top to bottom — 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. Palan connects the color-coded wires, black to black and white to white, twisting the exposed copper ends together and joining them with connector caps. Then she flips on a power source and smiles as the lights blink accordingly. “This is the first time I’ve done something like this,” she smiles. “It’s really cool.”