MONMOUTH — Richard Chapman’s work can be seen all over the Willamette Valley and as far away as Tasmania.
Locally, the distinct carved wood signs identify libraries, city buildings and parks, and businesses, but this enterprise has its roots in Alaska.
“I lived in Alaska in the mid-’70s and wanted a sign for my office building,” Chapman said. “I couldn’t really find one that I liked.”
At the same time, he had a farm in Oregon, so looked here too, “but ended up buying some wood and a router and went back to Juneau and made myself a sign. That was in about 1978, maybe.”
He was doing architectural work in Alaska.
“At some point or another, I decided that I didn’t really know what I was doing,” Chapman laughed. “I had an imagination, I knew what I wanted to do, but I thought I ought to take some time and learn how to build before I started trying to ask carpenters to do some of the things that I wasn’t sure could be done. So that’s what I did, and I never got back to the architectural part of it.”
He bought and remodeled homes, which he then rented out, but never did that type of work commercially.
“I just kind of found I like making signs,” Chapman said. “I like working with wood. I stuck with that and some real estate purchases.”
He moved to his farm in Oregon in 1980.
His first commissioned sign, for a former boutique in Dallas, was shortly after that.
He doesn’t know how many signs he’s done since then, but keeps a portfolio with dozens of photos of his work.
Looking through the photographs, it’s sometimes easy to spot the fonts or color schemes that were popular to a particular era.
One sign, for example featured the typeface Bauhaus, which “was more popular back in the ’80s,” he said.
Now based at his home in Monmouth, Chapman had a shop for his business, The Wood Works, in Dallas in the 1980s. Needless to say, he made his own sign.
“I still have it up in my barn,” he said.
It’s been more than 30 years since he made his first sign, and Chapman still does the work by hand.
“It’s all hand-drawn and hand-cut,” he said. “I don’t have the luxury of a computer plotter or something like that, which is quite a luxury.”
If he can do the work with an electric router, though, he will.
Chapman is nearing the end of what he calls a “lifetime supply” of redwood he bought in the 1990s.
Working with that wood, “you get kind of choosy,” he said.
That’s one of the reasons he takes great care with his work.
“When I do the sculpting, where it’s standing out of the wood, a lot of time I’ll add on some block wood,” he said. “That’s when I use the hand tools, to give the flower their shape (for example).”
Many of Chapman’s signs, such as those for Monmouth’s new Power & Light building and the Dallas Public Library, feature colorful scenes.
His wife Suzanne helps him with the color, he said.
“She’s been interested in painting all of her life,” Chapman said. “We kind of work together on some of these things because I’m basically color blind. It’s a confusing thing to be. I can see the colors but I can’t tell what they are and I can’t match them. She helps me get over that hump.”
Most of his signs are for local establishments.
While he has repeat customers, some of his signs have been replaced when a new owner takes over a location.
“Over the years, the people you get acquainted with retire or quit, so I kind of lose track of who I’m working with,” Chapman said. “They may end up looking in the yellow pages and I’m not there. I don’t advertise. I’ve missed some of the chances to remake the ones I’ve made 30 years ago.”
Some of his clients request ornate designs, while others prefer something basic.
“Dentists seem to be concerned about having their clients know them as a person,” Chapman said. “Doctors want just the basics. They want it to be readable.”
Chapman still enjoys making signs, but has slowed down a bit over the years.
Now he works on a couple of signs a month and tends to his rentals.
“I try to just stick with a one-man show,” he said. “It’s not something I want to quit. I’ll do it as long as I can.”