custom crafted signs

Shop Visit: Carving Out a Smoky Mountain Living

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“What do you know about 3D printing?” Brother Zank asked, as he escorted us into his design center up the wooden staircase above the large assembly room in his award-winning Tennessee sign shop.

It was a curious question, coming from a man whose claim to fame is pretty well stated in the name of the shop: Custom Craftsman Signs, Gifts & Heirlooms—and the work emerging from the place is top-shelf, hand-crafted, one-of-a-kind signage.

“I like to stay ahead of the curve,” he said, adding that he doesn’t think 3D printing technology is quite ready for prime time in the sign business, but he’s nevertheless interested in how it can be used for prototyping and other one-off sign-related pursuits. So he participates in webinars that teach the technology and continues to learn.

Brother and Vicki Zank have carved (literally) out a signmaking niche from their shop in foothills of the Smoky Mountains in Sevierville, Tennessee, since the early 1990s, with no plans to slow down much.

As they note on their website, the business practices “an artistic discipline rooted in old-world attention to detail and craftsmanship.” Along with custom signage the shop produces more standard commercial signs, signs for municipal projects, monument and electronic signs, as well as unique gifts and heirlooms.

These days, the winds of change blow new muses into every town’s Main Street—where signs point to established eateries, new smoke shops, vintage car restorers and ubiquitous coffee shops—and there are avenues to pursue that don’t always involve “commercial” signage but that do involve all the design experience and expertise a master craftsman brings to the table.

After the devastating Smoky Mountain fires of 2016 that destroyed thousands of acres of pristine forest parkland as well as hundreds of homes and businesses nearby, Brother Zank focused fresh eyes on who and what constitutes a customer base.

Still unapologetic about how to price the shop’s work in order to maintain that level of top quality and creativity while defending its longevity and value for the long haul, he’s lately been moving into markets beyond commercial signage.

One example is a personalized crucifix for a homeowner who’d lost everything in the fire and states simply, “First Things First.”

Like many sign shop owners that have weathered the good and not-so-good changes technology and a fickle economy has brought, Zank remains upbeat about the future. A new addition to the shop is nearing completion and will house a world-class showroom and art gallery.

Meanwhile, every new project—large or small—that comes along is designed and completed with the attention that only a master craftsman can give.