Sign Company’s Work Can Be Seen All Over Monterey County

Phil VanderKraats is a man who believes in signs. Big signs, small signs, bright signs, blue signs. Just no simple signs – those, he leaves for more commercial sign-making companies. VanderKraats, is the owner of Signs by Van, a company he founded 33 years ago that fuses sign-making with sculpture and innovation. Wood, steel, sign foam, bronze and marble can be incorporated into one of VanderKraats’ signs, not to mention stuff like Bondo, rope, car paint, old nails and cow skulls. To achieve an effect, there’s little the Prunedale businessman won’t do, from sandblasting a sign in progress to taking a blowtorch to his work. For the past week, VanderKraats and his employees – master sculptor Dick Schulte and graphic designer Ronny McCollom – have installed a sign for Willy’s Smokehouse Barbecue and All-American Grill. The restaurant, a block off Cannery Row, was recently opened by Bill Cox and Tony Tollner, also owners of Montrio Bistro, Rio Grill and Tarpy’s Roadhouse restaurants. Tollner hired VanderKraats based on recommendations from other businessmen. The restaurant owners knew they wanted the tall, narrow shape know as a blade sign. What they ended up with is a 16-by-4-foot double-sided piece of suspended sign art accented with hemp rope, two cow skulls and Mexican hammered-top nails. Bright flame-hued letters spell out the Willy’s name in raised relief.

Turning an idea into a sign

“This is my first sign venture with Phil, but he’s been super creative,” said Tollner. “He did a terrific job of interpreting and turning an idea into a sign.” VanderKraats worked closely with Cox to style a sign that suited the business. “He’s really got an artsy thread running through him that really translates to incredible design and imagination,” said Tollner. “It’s one thing to put decals on a flat piece of wood; it’s another to do three-dimensional work.” Tollner admits it’s an expensive proposition, but it’s a worthwhile investment for a new business that needs to let people know “who you are and where you are.” The square brick structure benefits from the added visual impact, he said. To make the sign, VanderKraats hand-selected cedar planks for their knotty appeal, bordered it with redwood, then sandblasted the wood. For an aged, rustic look, he took a torch to its borders, followed by a wire brush and linseed oil. The Willy’s logo is sculpted from sign foam, a high-density urethane. Bolting a 300-pound sign to the building required that 20-inch holes be drilled through the wall, and equal care was taken with the cow skulls, which were bolted, glued and screwed onto the sign. The Willy’s Smokehouse sign took six weeks to create, in a thousand little tasks. “Doing a sign like this is like having a baby,” said VanderKraats.

Every Custom Sign is Unique

It’s no typical sign. But then, Signs by Van isn’t your typical company. Through a set of iron double grates, the long driveway to VanderKraats’ office meanders past fields and weathered corrals, the occasional scurrying flock of quail. At the top of the drive is a long red barn shadowed by tall pines. Behind heavy wooden doors and a draped woolen blanket are instruments of art and trade: foam blocks and molded shapes, a foosball table. Computers, sculpting and shaping tools, a drum set. One worktable holds paint cans, the dribbles of a thousand paint jobs, a rainbow jumble of paint stirrers strewn like over-sized Pick-up Stix. This rustic barn is VanderKraats’ workshop, his creative playground and his inspiration. These days, he can’t imagine working anywhere else. But it didn’t start out this way. His first year in business, VanderKraats worked out of his Marina garage and made $7,000. He doubled his income the next year, and it kept growing. Six years later, he hired Schulte and, more recently, McCollom. VanderKraats has no idea how many signs he’s made over the years, but after 25 years and a growing recognition, they’re everywhere. There’s the iconic 30-foot Cannery Row sign stretched across the pedestrian overpass. The Fish Hopper, The Sardine Factory, the Barnyard, The Blue Fin, The Inn at Spanish Bay, the Monterey Plaza Hotel, The Duck Club and Waystation Comfort Inn all boast signs by VanderKraats. He teamed with another sign company for a Portola Plaza job, and his company and it’s signs have outlasted many of the businesses they were made for; a giant pizza-and-wine-themed sign for the now-defunct Shnarley’s on Cannery Row, the sculpted cowboy boot for the former Monterey Boot Co. At the moment, he’s holding on to the bright two-piece sign for Chicken Scratch Flats in Salinas, which closed late last year and may eventually reopen in a new location. One of VanderKraats’ most memorable projects was a 30-by-8-foot seascape rising out of the roofline of the Fishwife Seafood Café in Seaside. There, VanderKraats and his team sculpted squid and fish swimming through kelp fashioned from steel pipe and hammered copper, finishing in late 2005. VanderKraats said he doesn’t have a specific sign style. The challenge – and the fun, he says – is catering to what the client needs. “We’re probably one of the most creative sign places,” said VanderKraats “The more artsy and creative, the better for us.” The business has yet to make him wealthy, but VanderKraats says he looks forward to every workday. “I don’t think we’ll ever make a killing doing what we’re doing,” he said, “but it’s just fun coming up with ideas.”

Serving All Of Northern California . . . And Beyond

Specialized business signage produced by the company can be seen all over coastal Northern California. Our service area is from Monterey/Carmel, to Salinas, Santa Cruz, Morgan Hill and Hollister. Signs By Van even manufactures custom signs for clients in other parts of the country as well as overseas. If you want the very best signage made from top-quality, long-lasting materials, check out Sign’s By Vans portfolio or by visiting

Visit in person:

16130 Highway 156, Salinas CA 93907

Call 663-2663

Article from The Herald, January 2007