Salvage Signs, owned by Jeff and Heather Kempka, are works of art handcrafted from rustic old barn wood made to create the feel of history, Montana, Northern Rockies, iconic outdoor places and activities and ranching culture.
Designs include historical signs, trail markers, National Park logos, ski runs and wildlife. The couple creates custom signs for homes, cabins, ranches, bed-and-breakfasts and inns. Each sign is hand-built and hand-painted in the Salvage Signs shop in Hamilton.
The focus of Salvage Signs is on simplicity and nature.
Heather Kempka started the business in 2012 as an outlet for her artistic abilities and love of nature.
“I set out to create reproduction and original signs of beloved, natural places close to our hearts,” she said. “As an avid hiker, I have always had a love for the time-worn trail and park signs my husband and I encountered on our many adventures. This was my inspiration behind creating reproduction and original signs of beloved, natural places close to my heart.”
She started this business as a part-time job while attending nursing school, in 2011. Jeff joined part-time in 2012 and took the business on full time in 2014.
Salvage Signs uses salvaged, reclaimed, Montana barnwood taken from ranches and buildings as a base then designs and hand-builds each sign in their shop in Hamilton.
“We focus on the character of the wood,” Jeff Kempka said. “I’ll hand paint each one and I think about what I’m painting and how it contrasts with the natural colors and markings in the wood. The main colors for wood are brown and gray with various shades of darkness. This one is the inside of the barn with brands — marks from practicing branding, this one has some graffiti and I’ve had some with math on them.”
The wood is lightly sanded and the attention to detail includes rounding the corners and treating the edges with a special recipe to avoid the just-cut look.
Gray is the most popular color for wood and white is the best paint for contrasting. The design is created, painted, hand-perfected, distressed then lightly waxed.
“Our designs are really simple too, it’s our thing,” Jeff Kempka said. “We don’t do NFL team helmets or sayings. We don’t do it unless someone asks.”
Metal is a recent addition to production at Salvage Signs.
“It fits in perfectly because it is rustic, it’s old and it’s repurposed,” Jeff said. “It adds a new medium and another dimension as it sticks out a little bit.”
Salvage Signs hopes to expand its custom artwork — whether it is making small changes to existing work or an original piece or creating an original piece using the client’s design ideas and business logos. The duo work closely with clients to select the right size, colors and wood choices to best suit the project.
Salvage Signs products are sold on Etsy (www.salvagesigns.etsy.com with free shipping from now to Feb. 16) and at the Distinctly Montana Magazine’s online gift shop.
Jeff Kempka ships the signs to retail partners in Whitefish at The Walking Man Gallery and Frame Shop; Electric Avenue Gifts in Bigfork; The Wine Cave and River Rising in Hamilton; Grizzly Claw Trading Company in Seely Lake; Montana Supply in Big Sky; Northwest Handmade Furniture and Gallery in Sand Point, Idaho; and Made in and Jackson Hole, Wyoming.
The average sign price is $100 to $200 and the business is gift and tourism based with the big months being July and August then November and December.
Salvage Signs received a $12,000 grant from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) working through the Small Business Development Council (SBDC) in Missoula. The grant money was used for branding and website development.
Jennifer Stevens, with SBCD, helped the Kemkas apply for the USDA grant and selected the couple as “Model Grant Recipient” and example of a “USDA Grant Success Story.”
Salvage Signs is applying for another grant for marketing.
“Specifically, for identifying my target markets and how to get out there,” Jeff Kempka said. “I want more lodges and interior design firms. I’ll work with Windfall a Montana ad agency who works with small businesses and five of the seven regions in Montana.”
The Kempkas said they hope that Salvage Signs bring a sense of history, outdoors and inspiration.