John Bonk created and works out of a 12-foot trailer alongside Minnesota Highway 61 in Two Harbors. He's about to finish his second summer at this location, where he carves wooden custom signs.
It all started a few years ago when Bonk wanted to get back into woodworking. He'd built a log home years before, but since moving to Two Harbors, he didn't have the space to begin his hobby again. His son-in-law volunteered the use of his small trailer. Bonk outfitted the space with some basic equipment, then started to ponder what he would create.
"I found this guy on YouTube, OlDaveSigns100, and he teaches you how to make signs," Bonk said. "I'd never used routers before, but he just took you through step by step. And I just sort of fell in love."
Bonk started creating stock signs with sayings about coffee, quotes from scripture and team mascots. But he said most of his business comes from custom creations.
"Everyone has a sign that they want and that's what makes it fun," Bonk said. "Rarely have I ever created two signs that look the same. People come in with an idea and we play around with it to create something unique."
It doesn't take very long for Bonk to create the sign. He estimates an average sign takes three to four hours. What takes the most time is the preparation. He has to find an appropriate piece of wood and plane it down to size.
Typically, Bonk makes his signs from cedar, but he also carries a variety of oak, walnut and cherry wood. Then he needs to begin the smoothing process.
"You have to get the wood down to where it's like a blank canvas," Bonk said. "You have to smooth all the rough spots and cover the cracks. That takes a while."
Once the canvas is clear, Bonk lays out all his lettering and other stenciling. He adds a layer of spray paint, then brings out the routers. The carving is a careful process where he adds in texture and depth to the sign. If everything goes well, it's time to add a layer of polyurethane to the surface — then three more coats, just to be safe.
If things don't go as planned, Bonk can always place his piece in the "whiteout machine," also known as a small wood stove, and start again.
Bonk works in the small shop all four seasons, though he divides his time between the woodwork and his positions as pastor at Shepherd of the Lake Lutheran church and as a chaplain for Lake County's emergency services. Although he's not at the shop for regular hours, he's almost always available by phone.
"And don't be afraid to call," Bonk said. "Even though I have my number posted all over the trailer and it clearly says to call me, people will pull up and say, 'I’ve been here four to five times and you haven’t been here.' I just point at the sign."