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.
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.”
Clearly, Palan is the type of person that makes lemonade from lemons, as evidenced from her ability to survive some serious setbacks.
Top, after flexing aluminum over a roller, Palan bends it around a flat shape to add dimension. Bottom, satisfied the edges meet exactly, she slot welds the pieces together.
For example, a work accident at a previous health care job resulted in severe burns to her right (dominant) hand that required a one-month stay at UW Hospital’s burn unit followed by three skin graft surgeries.
Then, in 2014, her family’s homestead south of Dodgeville was devastated by a tornado. Thankfully, Palan was working in Middleton that night and her parents, who escaped to the basement, survived and have since rebuilt.
Photos of the family farm taken three days prior to the tornado are now memorialized on her arm, thanks to her tattoo-artist brother.
In fact, if it weren’t for him, she explains, she may never have discovered her love of metal art.
She worked in home health care for years when the accident occurred. “I loved it and loved working with the people, but it was just exhausting,” she admits.
The accident was a life-changing event.
With her career on hold during recuperation, Palan visited her brother in Las Vegas and became enamored with metal art displayed around the city. She had never before considered art or welding as a career, but knew she had an artistic eye and enjoyed working with her hands.
A riveting future
Upon her return to Wisconsin in 2015, Palan enrolled in an accelerated welding program at Southwest Wisconsin Technical College in Fennimore and graduated at the top of her class.
If anything has surprised her, it was how long it took to find a job afterward because she didn’t have experience — or so she was told. “I can’t tell you how many times I was asked in interviews if I could lift at least 50 pounds. I grew up as a farm kid lifting bales of hay! Fifty pounds isn’t a lot for me.”
She ended up working on tractors for a friend’s tractor-pull business until Yoder hired her at Sign Art Studio about a year ago.
Now fully healed with seven-year-old skin on her right hand, Palan is always mindful and appreciative of the physicians and surgeons who made her second career possible.
Shortly after graduating from the tech school, she was asked to speak to a couple of high school career classes. “Girls asked me if I was scared to go into welding,” she recounts. “I told them that yes, I was, until I started doing it.” Her leave-behind message: Don’t be intimidated.
“You know,” she says, “statistically, women are better at welding than men. Our hands are sturdier. Look at Rosie the Riveter and all the women who went to work in factories during World War II. In my opinion, we need to get some of that back.”
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