Written by Derek Halsey | Photos by Anthony Harden (March 2017)
High Country sign maker and potter Bill Dicks is looking for a fresh start—every week, in fact.
It is the classic adage of entrepreneurs and for those seeking to be both productive and happy: “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.”
For Bill Dicks, of The Sign Shop, it is a love for working with his hands and working with wood that has motivated him for most of his life. Dicks is a custom sign maker whose work is found overseas in Australia, England, Israel, and elsewhere, as well as all over the United States. His deluxe signs are easily spotted in his part of Western North Carolina—in particular, Boone and nearby Banner Elk, the mountain resort town where his office studio and wood shop has been located since the ‘70s. The signs are typically handmade and beautiful (useful in an area where governmental restrictions on signage are the norm), and his high-quality gold-leaf work greeting people at the entrances to places such as Lees-McRae College, Sugar Mountain Ski Resort, and Elk River Club Community are familiar and welcome sights in the High Country.
Even though Dicks is now in his seventies and has been working at his craft for many decades, he confesses that he still looks forward to the beginning of each week when there is a new project to plan and a chance to work with his hands to create yet another original piece.
“In business, the answer to the question is always ‘Yes,’” says Dicks, as he shows his guest around his studio. “People don’t like to hear you say ‘No.’ If they ask you, ‘Can you do such and such?’ The answer is, ‘Yes,’ and then you figure out how to do it, even if you don’t have a clue. The other thing that is so important is to give people more than they expect to get concerning your product.”
It is the story of Dicks’ unique career path, however, that is inspiring. As with many entrepreneurs, the road to their destiny can be long, with many turns along the way, and it is not unusual for successful people to have worked multiple jobs and considered various directions before finding their muse.
Thinking Outside the Box
Nowadays we live in the age of digital technology with the ever-present smartphones, tablets, and laptop computers. Dicks grew up in an age when kids worked with their hands a lot more, building things with wood and other materials. (In his standup comedy act, Parks and Recreation star Nick Offerman, himself a well-known master wood furniture builder, often encourages young folks to take up woodworking so they can appreciate the accomplishment of ‘working with your hands,’ a sentiment Dicks can appreciate.) With Dicks, it was his creative and crafty mother who taught him the art of chip carving as a boy.
“My Mom could do anything,” recalls Dicks, originally a Durham, North Carolina, native. “She showed me chip carving when I was 12, which is done with a single-edge razor blade. They have instructional books about chip carving and they do it with gouges, but I learned to do it with a single-edge razor blade. I really thought it was cool, and when I got older and started having girlfriends it gave me a leg up because I’d make these little boxes and give it to them. I would carve a design on the top of it.”
This ability to carve custom boxes came in handy, he adds, especially when he was an undergraduate majoring in math and physics at Florida Southern College in Lakeland, Florida. “I was in a fraternity and I had chip-carved a small jewelry box in my room with the Greek fraternity letters on the top, where I kept my fraternity pin. One of the guys came and looked at it and said, ‘This is cool. How much would you charge me to make one of these for my girlfriend?’ I said, ‘I’ll do it for five bucks.’ By the end of the school year, I had made one for almost everybody in the fraternity and several for some of the guys, because when they changed girlfriends, I got another order. At five bucks a piece, you can’t make a living with that, but it was good for spending money in college. That was the start of my woodworking career.”
It was during college that Dicks’ life became a series of unplanned opportunities that would ultimately put him on his career path.
“I had a fraternity brother who left school—with one semester to go—with a better than a B average in biology saying, ‘I know what I want to do for a living, and it doesn’t take a college education to do it,’” says Dicks. “He was a tiki carver (Polynesian statues) down in the Florida Keys. He went home to the Keys and he started carving coconut palm logs, which fascinated me. I’d spend as much time as I could with him learning how to carve tikis. I’d give him the ones I carved for room and board whenever I could get down to his home.
“I kept carving tikis, and after I graduated, I had a job working at the national headquarters of my fraternity. I traveled all over the United States, so I didn’t have much chance to carve tikis, but I did do a lot of chip carving because I could take that with me. I worked for the fraternity for three years; after that, I went [back] to Lakeland to become a probation and parole officer for the state of Florida. But I found that I was more interested in coming home in the afternoon and carving logs than I was chasing ex-cons! After two years with the parole commission, I knew I didn’t want to do this for the rest of my life, so I started exploring other options. My interest was still in carving, and I found that Appalachian State University (ASU) had one of the best industrial arts departments in the country.” It was 1970, and by this time Dicks had met and married his girlfriend, Donna, who had become an elementary school teacher while they were living in Lakeland. The two found their way to the North Carolina High Country, and Dicks has lived and worked there ever since.
Learning a Craft—or Two
Forty-seven years ago, Appalachian State and the town of Boone were quite different compared to now. “I came to ASU in August of 1970, and Boone was unbelievable,” says Dicks. “There were two lanes of road into it, one fast food restaurant, one apartment complex, and the Appalachian Theatre was the only act in town. It cost 75 cents to go to a movie, and the neat thing about the theatre was if there was something in the movie that the proprietors felt was inappropriate that was about to come on, you could see the hand come down over the lens until it was gone. People would try to look through the fingers to see what they were missing. Boone was great, as was Blowing Rock. We loved it. It was awesome to be in the mountain air after living in Florida.”
As nice as the nature and the weather was in Boone, however, Dicks came to the area specifically to learn carving at the University. He also decided he wanted to try his hand at earning a living by making crafts while going to school, so he started by referencing his tiki-making days.
“When we moved to Boone,” says Dicks, “the first thing I did was to find a craft shop that would let me sit out front and carve tikis and totem poles. I asked people, ‘What is the best craft shop around here?’ They would say it was Creative Crafts, found between Boone and Blowing Rock. I asked the owners, ‘Would you let me sit out front and carve?’ They said, ‘Yes, if you will give us a little percentage.’ I agreed and started carving, and it went wild. I had people jump out of cars while they were still moving saying, ‘Here is a mountain craftsman!’—and I’m sitting there carving Polynesian tikis.”
During this time, Dicks also turned his skills to sign making. Initially creating one as a favor to a friend, he quickly learned that in addition to wood-crafted items, there was always a demand for well-designed signs. Carving and woodworking wouldn’t be the only talents he developed before graduating from ASU in 1972, either.
“At the industrial arts program at ASU,” recalls Dicks, “I’d go in at seven in the morning and go home at 11 o’clock at night because I enjoyed it so much. ASU had about 6,000 students then, and they pumped a lot of money into the industrial arts department. It was incredible. They were turning out furniture from their woodworking department that was second to none. Any department that you went into, whether it was electronics, graphic design, metal working, or the crafts department, it was unbelievable. My first semester there, I was introduced to the world of making pottery when I took my first ceramics course. The instructor, Slim Owens, had made some candle lanterns, and when I walked in and saw them, I said, ‘That’s what I want to do.’ By the end of that semester, I was selling candle lanterns.”
Dicks, it turns out, is known for his original pottery as much as his sign work. In fact, a search of the internet will yield an early newspaper article, originally published in 1972 in the Sumter (South Carolina) Daily Item newspaper, that speaks glowingly of Dicks’ pottery making abilities: “‘He is on his way to becoming one of the best-known design craftsmen in the nation,’ according to Jim Weaver, director of the Blue Ridge Hearthside Crafts Association.” (Read the full story online: tinyurl.com/hx6kvjm.)
In that article of four decades ago, Dicks himself is quoted as saying, “I decided on crafts as my vocation because this is the first time in my life I have been able to work at my profession for 10 to 14 hours a day, seven days a week, without tiring of it and completely enjoying it.” It’s an attitude that still informs his work.
Building a Business
After Dicks graduated from ASU, he worked for five years at the Blue Ridge Hearthside Crafts shop on Beech Mountain, selling wooden routed signs and pottery, including his candle lanterns. He also set up at regional craft fairs, and his reputation steadily grew. Eventually, he bought some land at the base of the mountain in Banner Elk. There, Dicks and some friends built an unusually-designed three-story building by hand.
“After five years of renting shop space, it was time to build my own studio/shop. Three of us built a three-story, 4,000-sq.-ft. shop in three months, and none of us had any construction experience,” says Dicks. “I called my friend who taught me how to carve tikis and I said, ‘Marlin, how about helping me build a shop?’ He was the kind of guy that could do anything. He said, ‘I’d be glad to, but I’ve never done anything like that before.’ I said, ‘Well, we’ve got a couple of chain saws and a sledge hammer. How hard can it be?’”
Dicks moved into the workshop in 1977. It’s where, to this day, he continues to create his pottery, signs, and carvings. He has also adapted with the changing times; for example, he learned how to sandblast signs in addition to routing and hand carving them. (“Routing” refers to the process of hollowing out an area of a piece of wood.) He also employs computer software to help him design some of his signs. Along the way, Dicks developed a loyal clientele that now stretches across the country and beyond. How loyal? The Sign Shop doesn’t have a website, and its only online presence appears to be an unofficial Facebook page and unclaimed Yelp and Manta listings, each displaying the address/phone and not much more. Dicks’ customers, though, already know how to find him.
A Lasting Memorial
Perhaps the most special project that Dicks has been a part of has been the carving of the names of fallen soldiers on rocks used in memorial gardens on military bases.
“Our son joined the Army right out of high school and after two years, Dave qualified to be a part of the Army parachute team, the Golden Knights. During Dave’s second year on the team, a Special Forces Staff Sergeant named Pedro Munoz joined the Golden Knights. After 17 years of service, Pedro felt he needed a change of pace. After a year on the team, two days after 9/11, Pedro was hiking on the Appalachian Trail with a teammate and learned what had happened. That night he stood up, sang the National Anthem by firelight, and said that he was going back to his Special Forces team: ‘We’re going to war, and they are going to need me.’ He was deployed to Afghanistan in 2004 and was the first Special Forces soldier killed there in January, 2005.”
After Sgt. First Class Munoz was killed overseas—the first soldier in the Army 7th Special Forces Airborne Group to die in action since the Vietnam War—his daughter Dalia Munoz, then a 17-year-old in high school, decided to do a special project in honor of her father. As her Senior Project, she collected rocks from a river in the Blue Ridge Mountains with the intent of engraving them with the names of her dad and his dead comrades for a memorial garden at Fort Bragg.
“After his death, Dalia visited my shop and she described what she wanted to do,” says Dicks. “By that time, there were five additional soldiers from her father’s unit who had been killed in battle. She wanted to get a river rock for each of the fallen men to sandblast the soldier’s name on it, along with his team designation, where he was killed, and when he was killed. She asked me if that was something that could be done. I said yes, and that I’d be glad to do it. She said, ‘No. I want you to teach me how to do it, so I can do the work myself.’ She came up here two or three times over a year and we went through the whole process. One Friday in March, she came to Banner Elk and we went to a nearby river and gathered some rocks. On Saturday, she spent the whole day laying them out, sandblasting, and painting them.
When Dalia began to load the rocks in her dad’s truck that night, she realized that half of the rocks had the soldier’s name spelled with upper case letters and half in lower case letters. “Neither one of us had picked up on the mistake,” continues Dicks. “I said, ‘Dalia, they are fine. Nobody is going to care about that.’ She looked at me and said, ‘I care.’ So, Sunday morning, we went back in the river to get more rocks, corrected the mistake, and she went back to Fort Bragg to build the memorial garden.”
“Two years later, I got a call from a major of the 1st Battalion 7th Special Forces Group, and I knew immediately what he wanted. He needed another rocwk. Four days later, they ordered another rock, and two weeks later, they ordered yet another rock. When 1st Battalion 7th Group pulled out of Afghanistan in 2008, there were 17 rocks in the memorial garden.” This is the only memorial like it in the United States Army, and it was so well-received that upon 1st Battalion’s return home, they added four more rocks to honor the four soldiers from their unit who were killed in Vietnam. The garden was moved from Ft. Bragg to Elgin Air Force Base, along with their headquarters, about five years ago. Dicks was also honored with an official certificate of appreciation and an American flag that had been flown in Afghanistan.
“The best day of the week is Monday”
Bill Dicks is a sought-after craftsman whose quality of work has only gotten better over the years. His love-hate relationship with technology is amusing, especially when you walk into his shop and see an ancient piece of proto-computing technology from the 1980s that still works. It is the GSP SuperSprint Series III machine made by Gerber Scientific Products Company.
“Technology drives me nuts,” says Dicks. “You can’t live with it, and you sure don’t want to live without it. But it changed me from being a backyard craft shop to being a commercial sign shop when I started using computers in 1985 or so. Pre-computer, I laid out everything free hand on grid paper, and I usually had to do it two or three times to get the sign laid out the way I wanted it. Then, I’d transfer the design with carbon paper to sandblast stencil and cut the design with an X-acto knife. Now, you can do the whole thing with computers and a plotter.
When asked what he does when not working with wood or clay or gold leaf, when he is in a recreational mood, Dicks’ answer is, “I do this. I have people come to my shop regularly, and they look around and say, ‘This is cool. This is what I want to do when I retire.’ So, I figure I retired 45 years ago and this is just my hobby. People ask me when I am going to retire and my answer is, ‘The day before the funeral.’
“I feel for people who are just living to retire, or they can’t wait for the weekends. To me, the best day of the week is Monday because you have the whole week ahead of you and you haven’t had the chance to screw anything up yet. You’ve got another fresh start.”
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