July 30, 2012
Custom sign-maker and architectural ironwork fabricator Blackout Signs & Metalworks, San Marcos, Texas, is a shining example of how a little bit of good luck mixed with confidence, fearless creativity, tireless work ethic, and a penchant for true old-school craftsmanship can create extraordinary opportunities.
When the opportunity presented itself to design a trophy for a car show held in conjunction with the Orion Music + More festival hosted by legendary band Metallica, Jay Gordon, owner of Blackout Signs & Metalworks, San Marcos, Texas, knew it was right in his wheelhouse.
He was confident that he could design and fabricate something that captured the essence of Metallica while also honoring the intended recipients. After all, he and his small five-man shop have come through for high-profile clients like Red Bull, Lollapalooza, and Whole Foods before. Why should this be any different?
Turns out Gordon’s confidence was warranted. His trophy, with a design inspired by the Flying V guitar and elements from 1950s automobile hood ornaments, won the favor of the band. But it’s really not that surprising. When someone takes the time to delve beneath the layers and get to the root as Gordon and his shop do, the success and the resulting loyal client base just seem to make sense.
This, in a nutshell, is the story behind the little sign shop that could, of how a little bit of good luck mixed with confidence, fearless creativity, tireless work ethic, and penchant for true old-school craftsmanship have allowed Blackout to carve a niche for itself in the world of specialty signs.
Gordon will be the first to tell you that his shop and vision for signs isn’t for everyone. He and wife Darcy Hanna, Shay Miller, Zach Forester, and intern Jonathen Whittaker want to push the limits of creativity in the art of sign fabricating and painting, opting for big and bold over bland and boring. The inspiration goes back to Gordon’s affinity for artists like Von Dutch, Ed Roth, and Robert Williams.
After apprenticing under a sign-maker, where he overqualified himself to get hired, Gordon lost touch with the trade for a while, taking jobs at a print shop and a machine shop before staring a construction company with a friend.
“We were doing some commercial project and I was asked to weld up some metal brackets. So I welded up the brackets and the railings and the contractor told me that I was a way better welder and fabricator than I was a carpenter. I agreed. But at the time, construction was what was putting food on the table,” Gordon explained.
That got his gears grinding to the point that the company started offering welding services and sign painting on top of construction. When he realized he was having more fun with the add-on business than he was with construction, Gordon left and formed Blackout Signs & Metalworks.
It’s been a stand-alone company for five years that specializes in custom signage, architectural ironwork, event site enhancements, and prototype work.
You won’t find any high-tech, fancy equipment at Blackout. Their most prized possessions include a Scotchman ironworker, a couple of Miller Electric welding power sources, a manual plasma cutting unit, drills, hammers, shears, brakes, and jigsaws. Gordon tried incorporating a CNC cutting machine but realized he can get the job done by hand faster. Plus, fabricating by hand lends a subtle imperfection to each piece that Gordon said gives their work a swing and a pop that can’t be duplicated with CNC machines.
Working with paper patterns and building things by hand gives the fabrications more of an organic feel, Gordon added.
“Computers make things so perfect and spot-on, which is great if you’re doing 500 of something, but I don’t believe it makes it better.”
And doing things the old-fashioned way is what makes it fun. They like to think of themselves as an art studio as much as a sign shop. When the shop first opened, Gordon and his team sometimes found it difficult to reel themselves in once they got going on a project. Too often Gordon found himself including spontaneous add-ons, and in the end they’d lose money on the project. They’ve discovered their boundaries since then, but it was a learning experience that Gordon doesn’t seem to regret, explaining that going overboard on a few projects “might have been bad business, but it was good for the heart and soul.”
Blackout’s loyal clientele has grown because when it becomes evident that each project is handled with care, that word travels fast. Blackout’s goal is to exceed expectations, and it does more often than not. That’s why a 5-year-old company has been able to acquire and retain high-profile clients and secure smaller, local clientele that wants signage that doubles as a work of art.
“Signage is such a cool way to support the love of metalworking, the love of painting, and the love of art. We’re making a living out of combining all of those into one thing. There are very few artistic endeavors that allow you to make a decent living, but signage for me has done well in providing for me and my family and everyone else in the shop.”
The FABRICATOR® is North America's leading magazine for the metal forming and fabricating industry. The magazine delivers the news, technical articles, and case histories that enable fabricators to do their jobs more efficiently. The FABRICATOR has served the industry since 1971. Print subscriptions are free to qualified persons in North America involved in metal forming and fabricating.