Hobby Carving to Mass Production,
Sign Making Fame in Minnesota

Article and Photography by Jason Jones, husband of Melissa Jones and part time janitor of Nice Carvings

Hand carved dimensional signs. Sounds sort of peculiar, right? It especially should sound strange for a 5ft-3inch, 110lbs. mother of two! Meet Melissa Jones, who just over four years ago had no idea how to carve a sign. That sure did change fast! Today, she’s really becoming well known in the sign industry, and it’s not by mistake or fate. She truly has an eye for 3D art, and a solid approach to create downright amazing carved signs. From design and color, to production planning and execution, Melissa is a natural. She’s incredibly resilient; rarely will a design intimidate her. I can’t think of single sign or carving concept that she hesitated to commit to, it comes naturally and she makes it all look so easy. I have seen her work for the past four years, and the finished products never, EVER, cease to amaze. Literally, simultaneously, as I type this article I just look up and around my desk to see she’s working on the most amazing sign creation ever. Well, since her last most amazing sign creation, that is!

People have asked “How do you do it, Melissa?” …”You make it seem so easy, is it?” Melissa’s answer to that is, “Heck, NO!” Let’s face it; this is a fairly rough trade and the process as a whole is far from “easy.” There are things that can make this job “easier,” but she’s not going to sugar coat the process of hand carving signs. The best way to describe dimensional sign making would be more like, very challenging, and extremely rewarding. You decide: read the amazing story of how Melissa’s carving business goes from hobby to Hollywood, in just four years.

Melissa’s tool inventory from the early days (back in fall of 2006) consisted of: a scroll saw, a rotary tool, a cheap router, & tons of sand paper! Yes, it’s possible to have a dimensional sign business with just these tools. Of course, it helps to be a little creative and at least somewhat artistic, if you’re neither of those; you could actually still make 3D signs. If you happen to be a budding sign maker and you really want to go for it, but don’t think you have what it takes, don’t give up! Just keep it simple at first, cut letters with a scroll saw then paint them a contrasting color to your substrate, and voila, you have a three dimensional sign. Now that seems pretty easy, doesn’t it? The best part is the experience you would gain from material selection, designing, color coding and possibly working with clients. This type of experience became worth its weight in gold for when Melissa finally did receive her Shopbot® CNC.

No CNC machine? Well, the basic router might be your new best friend. The hand held router is not the easiest thing to control; it sometimes has a mind of its own. If you take your time you can make signs look very nice. Melissa’s goal was to make it look like she had CNC capability and it sure did look like it from the outside. Many people thought she had been using a CNC machine the whole time. It was easy to mistake her work for machined work, in the end her hand carved signs looked the same. The big difference was the time and effort involved. She quickly realized that to truly be competitive, and actually have a shot at making a living she would need some assistance. Melissa realized early on that she wanted to have a CNC machine for making the sign parts. She knew that her sign business would probably take off immediately, and that she would be able to concentrate on making the signs even better, on all levels. She dreamed the big dream, the efficiency that something like that would provide would be amazing! She would be able to give her carving wrists a break from the grueling, carpal tunnel-inducing monotony. But it didn’t come quick, and it didn’t come easy. Melissa had no choice but to hand carve her way to the goal.

The Early Days, Concept to Carving

A unique concept, the Astrup project consisted of a client wanting Melissa to carve and paint the photo of the family lake cabin. Melissa of course accepted the challenge without any hesitation, as usual. It was obviously very challenging to get this one right; it was one massive piece of architecture jammed into about 2.5 square feet of sign substrate. Carve all of this detail by hand, “Are you kidding me Melissa?” “Vroooooom!” That’s the sound of her rotary tool firing up again, and her answer to the question. In the end, it was business as usual. Melissa created yet another draw dropping masterpiece, with nothing more than a scroll saw, rotary tool, sand paper and a paint brush! The client was of course ecstatic with the results.


Pursuit of Efficiency, Perfection


Carving, efficiency, and perfection don’t seem to mix well. Job after job, week after week Melissa continues to push to perfect this art, and the growing desire for a CNC machine continues. Socking money away, pushing to please client after client, the workload continues to grow, but the time-lines seem to shrink. The desire for a CNC machine starts to feel more like a necessity in order to realistically continue in the business. Will the dream of owning a CNC machine ever become reality?

The Evolution, Hello ShopBot!

Fall of 2008, after busting out sign after sign for the past two years, Melissa FINALLY saves enough money to put down on a used 2006 model, Shopbot PRT 48by96. Let the excitement begin, break out the bubbly!! Woo hoo, it really was celebration time.

Having researched the subject of CNC router signmaking for months, Melissa decides the ShopBot is the way to go. There were quite a few reasons for the choice and Shopbot just seemed to be the perfect fit. First off, the company seemed personable; most of their competitors were lacking this. ShopBot Tools also has an extensive website showcasing everything they offer, with easy to understand product descriptions. The website is packed with very useful information on the user forum as well. It really seemed to be a great product all around, but the best part was the price. Their impressive market share for high quality affordable CNC makes it possible to obtain a great used machine. Want to go new? They have awesome machines starting at well under $10k.

Enterprise, Articulate Mass Production

Low and behold, it was merely days, maybe only hours from obtaining the ShopBot and getting it set up that Melissa gets an email from what will soon come to be her largest revenue producing client. A call for about 30 signs featuring a 3D model of an Elk, with varying text on each sign. Text is usually not the strong suit for a hand carver, and Melissa wasn’t devoid of that curse. It’s hard to carve perfectly straight lines, especially this size. However, this would be right up the alley for the ShopBot! Now this seemed a little like fate stepping in. It seems like Melissa is finally catching a much deserved break. Dr. Robert Behar, Director at El Gran Rancho Lindo of Bandera County Texas would go on to order hundreds of these signs from Melissa, in all different sizes over the coming months and now years. The ranch seems to be growing to half the size of the state of Texas. Thank you Dr. Behar! ;)

Possibilities: ENDLESS

Amazing Modeling Software, Aspire™ 2.5

6ft. diameter signs, cut on the Shopbot!


The evolution continues and it’s just as exciting as ever. The anticipation in this business is pretty magical; you never know what will come across the plate next. Just a few weeks after getting the ShopBot, Melissa received an email from an individual needing a few signs for an upcoming “film.” Melissa was able to come to terms, and the project gets under way. She’s excited to know her work might appear in a film, but doesn’t even know the name of it yet! Not until she finished the first round of projects for the film, did she learn the “ship to” address: Columbia Pictures, Culver City, CA, the studio producing “THE GREEN HORNET!” OH..MY..GOD, we were working for Sony Pictures and we didn’t even know it! Melissa and I were both ecstatic. I actually found out the news first as I was handling the shipping that day, I immediately almost fell over from excitement. I was having shortness of breath, tearing up, laughing, FREAKING OUT! I finally reached Melissa to tell her the news. What an amazing thrill that was. This business has been incredible, and it’s all come together in just four short years. I can’t even begin to imagine what the next four years will entail.

Made for Sony Pictures Film, The Green Hornet

To view more of Melissa's work, visit


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