West Fargo sign-makers use state-of-the-art technology to create art of the states
When Laurie Kent asked husband, Allen, to cut out a silhouette of North Dakota to create office decor for her new accounting job, the couple had no idea that this simple wall hanging would mushroom into Made with Love by Laurie, a full-time family business which now sells signs all over the country.
WEST FARGO — The Kents’ trucking business wasn’t stalled, but the “check engine” light was on.
With rising costs and breakdowns, Allen and Laurie Kent were struggling to make a go of it. On top of that, Allen was on the road all week, which was taking its toll on their family, which includes sons Benny and Dayton.
When Benny was about to start pre-K, Laurie decided to get an accounting job to help take some of the burden off her husband.
While searching for decor for her new office, she had an idea. Allen, a race car enthusiast, had bought a plasma-cutting machine years ago which could precisely cut steel for new race car parts. It now sat in the basement, taking up room and gathering dust. Every once in a while, they talked about selling it.
This time, Laurie asked Allen to fire up the machine to cut out a silhouette of the state of North Dakota. She then adorned the shape with the word "home" and they mounted it on wood.
Little did she know then that this simple decoration would mushroom into Made with Love by Laurie, a full-time family business that now sells signs nationwide.
After Laurie displayed the “Home” sign in her office, co-workers and visitors started asking where she found it.
Laurie suggested to Allen they make a few similar pieces depicting North Dakota and Minnesota shapes and try to sell them for the Christmas season of 2018. She figured it would provide “some extra Christmas money.”
That weekend, they built a few plaques and posted them on Facebook.
Almost immediately, the orders took off. They didn't stop — not even after Christmas.
They decided to invest all their efforts into growing their new business. They sold the trucking business and, in April of 2019, Laurie left her accounting job.
“Talk about a scary leap of faith," Laurie says.
Since then, their business has continually expanded in both range of products and volume sold. Number-cruncher Laurie estimated that they could make it work if they sold three to four signs a day at $30 apiece. Since then, rising material costs and refined production methods have increased the retail price to $100 apiece. Even so, they continue selling 10 to 11 signs daily.
So far, Laurie says, they’ve sold more than 12,000 signs.
'Both sides' idea takes off
After making either North Dakota or Minnesota "home" signs, they got a request for a sign that incorporated both states. The signs were ideal for customers who might have been born in one state, but had moved to the other state or still had connections there.
When they began marketing the combined-state sign in the Twin Cities area, a customer suggested they create a Minnesota-Wisconsin one as well. Since then, their border-state signs — part of their “Home is on both sides of the river” series — have grown into the bread-and-butter of their business.
The states don’t have to be side-by-side or even limited to two states. They’ve also created neighboring country signs, such as a US/Canada version, says Laurie, a Saskatchewan native.
Allen cuts out a big batch of states at a time, nesting them together first on a diagram using a software program called CORELDraw. “My Tetris is getting real good,” he says.
Another program converts that rendering into another file, which directs the plasma machine how to cut the silhouettes on a large sheet of steel.
The shapes are sanded and powder-coated, then mounted on woods varying from fine-grained aspen to craggy barnwood from local companies like Hatchet and Co. in Moorhead. Words are applied with a thin vinyl lettering that looks almost like engraving.
Venture outgrows basement
The venture has grown to the point where they’ve moved from their basement to a shop in a West Fargo industrial park.
The relocation not only provided more room for their work, it created a better work-life balance. “I’d be upstairs with the kids and thinking, ‘I should really be downstairs working,’” Laurie says.
Along the way, they’ve learned how to speed up their production without sacrificing quality. Laurie laughs as she demonstrates how she used to cut the wood for the signs, using a small rotary saw to cut the board halfway, then flipping the board over so she could evenly finish the cut.
They now have a giant rotary saw, which does all the cutting with one fell swoop. They’ve also learned it’s faster to burn the edges of the wood as opposed to staining them and produce the same look.
Despite these shortcuts, there is still plenty of manual work in the 12 or so signs they produce each day.
The steel-and-wood signs are well-made and substantial, weighing 15 pounds for the larger sizes.“This isn’t your Hobby Lobby off-the-line, cardboard stuff,” Laurie says. “We both are pretty picky."
Their signs sell for anywhere from $99 to $200 for larger signs on barnwood.
“Like everything, our costs are up,” Allen says. “Our steel tripled, so that was kind of hard to swallow.”
Their custom signs can also be found at the Ball Corporation, True North Church and Duane’s Pizza.
They are about as busy as they can handle right now.
“We’re at such a tricky spot,” Laurie says. “We really could hire a full-time person but at the same time, if we hire a full-time person, that is less food that goes in my boys’ mouths. It’s a lot to try and figure out.”
So for now, they’ll keep it mom-and-pop, cranking out those orders as they roll in.
And feeling grateful that they kept that plasma machine.
"I'm glad he didn't sell it when I told him to," Laurie says, smiling.