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Southern Made Signs turns customers’ stories into hand-crafted tokens

SALISBURY — Tears rolled down LaShaye Overman’s cheeks as she cut piece after piece of wood, turning sheets of pine into little rectangles.

The name of a soldier would soon be engraved on each section. Eventually the carved pieces of wood would be hung under a sign bearing a larger name — a tribute to a man’s military career and the people he served with.

“We were cutting a sign for a customer’s husband. He was a commander in the military and we were cutting a sign for him and we cut smaller sizes that would hang underneath it of the people who died under his command,” LaShaye said. “It broke my heart.”

Those signs are one of thousands that LaShaye, her husband and daughters have helped make. Over the past decade, their company Southern Made Signs has grown from a side project to a full-time online retail shop and recently went over 10,000 sales on Etsy.

Not every sign that LaShaye produces brings tears to her eyes, but every one does tell a story, she said.

“I realized that these signs tell people’s stories, in a way,” LaShaye said. “It tells a part of your story, so to me, they’re personal. I love being a part of that. I love being a part of someone’s life and telling a little bit of their story.”

LaShaye Overman measures a plank of wood that will be transformed into a custom sign. Photo submitted.

Southern Made Signs wouldn’t exist if not for the economic downtown in the late 2000s. A victim of the recession, LaShaye’s husband, Donald, was one of millions of Americans who lost their jobs.

“He had a job one day and didn’t the next,” LaShaye said. “When he was at home looking for a job, and of course there wasn’t one that would pay him what he’d been making, he just started working out of a little shop.”

Always the handyman, Donald retreated to the family’s workshop and began crafting wooden toys. Donald and LaShaye peddled the handmade toys at craft shows, but there weren’t enough people at the exhibitions to make it profitable. That’s when LaShaye had an idea.

“The economy wasn’t doing well so people weren’t coming out to the shows, so I said, ‘Why don’t we just try to sell them online?’ I had been on Etsy since it started,” LaShaye said.

Concerned with the regulations and liability that came with selling toys online, Donald focused his attention on turning pieces of premium pine into signs bearing lettering and designs.

“We got a CNC (computer numerical control) machine and we started learning how to make signs and it evolved into this,” LaShaye said. “We learned it on the fly. My husband learned it and he taught it to me.”

Steadily, business began to pick up. At first, Donald worked making signs full-time while LaShaye maintained her day job. Five years ago, LaShaye joined him making signs full-time as the orders started coming in droves.

“It started getting to the point where he needed help,” LaShaye said. “It got to the point where we decided to take the plunge.”

LaShaye cashed in her inheritance and they went all in on the sign business. That gamble paid off as Etsy continued to grow and soon they outgrew their small workshop. Three years ago, they began the process of building a bigger workspace, one that could house another CNC machine with space for a small office. LaShaye and Donald’s two daughters, Amber and Liz, joined the team as well.

LaShaye and Donald Overman’s daughters, Liz and Amber, have helped out with the sign making business, which includes sending out lots of packages. Photo submitted.

As it has for most businesses, the year 2020 has presented the Overmans and Southern Made Signs with challenges. Donald was hospital bound for a week in June, and July brought its own troubles.

“We had a house fire and our kitchen was destroyed and our living room was destroyed,” LaShaye said. “It was horrible.”

Instead of being able to walk just a few feet from their house to their workshop everyday, LaShaye and her family commuted from a motel miles away where they were staying while crews cleaned out the damage. And through it all, LaShaye said, they “couldn’t stop” making signs. 

The pandemic, LaShaye said, actually increased the amount of signs being ordered because people were at home and were doing more online shopping. For the past two years, Southern Made Signs has been a popular vendor at the Cheerwine Festival, both the in-person version held in 2019 and the virtual event held last summer.

“It’s great that LaShaye and Southern Made Signs made Cheerwine signs again this year,” said Vivian Koontz, the city of Salisbury’s event coordinator.

The family still hasn’t stopped producing signs as the holiday shopping season reaches its peak. LaShaye said that they recently received over 40 sign orders in a single day. While most were from Etsy shoppers, a few were from Amazon Handmade. To accommodate the influx of orders and ensure customers will receive their gifts by Christmas, Southern Made Signs stopped taking requests on Friday.

Once Southern Made Signs receives an order, they cut a piece of pine from a larger sheet, engrave it using one of their CNC machines, stain it, clear coat it and paint it. Working at max capacity, LaShaye said they can pump out 40 signs in a day. Anymore than that, and the quality may slip, which is something LaShaye takes very seriously.

“I only send stuff that I know I’d want and I’m picky,” LaShaye said. “I strive for that as much as I do the money. It makes me great to know people appreciate it.”

The company has an average rating of five stars on Etsy with nearly 2,000 customer reviews. Soon, even more customers will receive their signs as Christmas gifts. 

LaShaye said that she is excited to see where the signs they created ended up and to hear about the stories they tell.

“I love when they send pictures of it hanging in its environment at their place,” LaShaye said. “It really touches me.”

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