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NORTH CAROLINA MAKERS: PIEDMONT BRAND WORKSHOP

North Carolina enjoys a vibrant community of makers, artisans, craftsmen, and artists. At the OUR STATE STORE, we travel the state hunting for local artisans who create special, handcrafted goods, and we’re giving you a behind-the-scenes glimpse at the creators of some of our most popular products. Sit a spell with us as we introduce you to some of our favorite North Carolina makers.


Winston-Salem. Nicknamed "The Dash," this city was built on traditions of innovation and trade. Centuries ago, a group of German Moravians, known for their fine craftsmanship in pottery, tanning, iron works, and other industries, established Salem as a bustling trade center. Their neighbor, Winston, would become a thriving industrial center, leading in tobacco and textile manufacturing. The city’s official unification in 1913 reflected the success of these industries, and years later, following the loss of many of the tobacco and manufacturing jobs, the city struggled. Winston-Salem has since revitalized into a buzzing and diverse city.  Today, you can stroll along Trade Street and feel the palpable energy of this place christened the “City of Arts and Innovation.” With its deep foundation laid by entrepreneurial craftspeople, it’s no wonder that artisans are planting themselves in Winston-Salem.

Inspired by Winston-Salem landmark 'Mickey Coffee PotInspired by Winston-Salem landmark 'Mickey Coffee Pot'

It’s here that you can find Dave Willis of PIEDMONT BRAND WORKSHOP. One of the newer Camel City transplants, Dave grew up in Gastonia, attended Appalachian State University in Boone, and finally settled in Winston-Salem. Dave lives in the historic Ardmore neighborhood, a few blocks from downtown. History influences much of Dave’s work, and he works. When he’s not sanding away in his shop, you may find him editing a video on the computer, or strumming away on his guitar. A jack of all trades, the quality of his work sets him apart.

We chatted with Dave to learn more about his projects and inspiration.

How did you get started?

 

I picked up carpentry out of necessity as I was working on my house and I use the word "carpentry" very loosely. I am no carpenter, but I have picked up some skills here and there in order to accomplish bigger wooden signs. I inherited a couple basic saws from a friend and have been upgrading and adding to my collection ever since. I love working on signs because I get to use some design skills as well.


You work out of your home in Winston-Salem’s historic Ardmore neighborhood. Tell us about your home studio.  What is your typical day like?
 

It's a fairly small space but I can get a lot of work done in there. I tend to work wherever there’s extra space, whether it's in the shop or at the kitchen table. I would eventually like to expand to a larger workshop, but I'm trying to let the business grow as organically as possible and not just try to push out as much as I can. I want to be happy with everything I put out.  Since my daughter was born, I don't have typical days. I'm the most productive and creative early in the morning and late at night.  



What’s your process? Walk us through the creation of a sign, for example.

It starts with an idea. I sketch the idea on a piece of paper and get measurements. Then, I go to the computer where I scan in my drawing or work from an historic photo. From there, I create a workable template. I then shop for joining boards and priming and begin to cut, rout, or hand paint the design. 



Finally, I combine all the parts and then install the sign. In between those steps, there’s sanding… lots of sanding. I don't own a lot of tools but every tool gets used for almost every project. Although I may use a router for certain applications, it's all freehand. I may use a computer-made template to lay out my letters, but I paint them by hand on the wood. Nothing will be perfect because of this, and that's why I like it. Every piece is different.


Motor Co sign from Main Street in Winston-Salem around the 1900s above and his recreation below.

Where do you find inspiration for your projects?

The land and culture of North Carolina provides much of my inspiration. I’ve worked on a series of signs that I recreated from vintage photos I find on the Digital Forsyth website. I love looking at old photos and reading about history. I hope to collaborate with local artists to recreate iconic local signage that’s been lost over the years. I’d love to recreate the sign of the Thunderbird Drive-In Theater which operated in Winston-Salem from the 1960s to 1980s. There seems to have been a Thunderbird Theatre in every state, but their sign sticks out to me. 


Quality Lunch sign from Liberty St in Winston-Salem around the 1940s below and his recreation above.

I enjoy working with clients to create historic signs and recently recreated the sign from a client's grandfather's store that he owned in the 1950s. The family was really moved when they saw the sign and shared their family’s memories and stories with me. Another example is my barn quilt-inspired pieces. I've always liked seeing barn quilts while driving through the mountains, as they remind me of my grandmother who created quilts. Barn quilts are unique because the artist usually has their own signature design or colors. 



We carry your “EAT BBQ” PIG SIGN, which is a favorite with restaurant owners and home cooks alike. What was your inspiration to create this piece?

It was simple; I like to eat barbecue, and I like to make signs. It was bound to happen. I have never refused a barbecue meal no matter the region. It’s a fun piece so I also created a video where you can see how it's made.


 

It’s fascinating to watch you create the  "EAT BBQ" PIG SIGN.  What else are you working on?


I generally jump from project to project. It can be a problem, but I think it helps me not get burned out. I'll look through a book about joinery then walk outside to paint a project, then pick up a guitar and try to write music for a bit. Lately, I've been trying out wood carving and printmaking. Even after everything has settled down for the day, and the baby is asleep, I'll watch tutorials on something new I want to learn and listen to a new album I haven't heard yet. I'm a part-time singer-songwriter and have a new project coming out with vocalist and guitarist Molly McGinn, and I also play with my band Possum Jenkins. Playing music has given me a good opportunity to explore North Carolina and the surrounding states. I also like to work with graphic design, photography, and I am slowly learning more about video production. I still have much to learn in all of those fields.


 

What makes you tick?


I just like to make. I'm a horrible cook but I enjoy the process so I keep doing it (and keep getting better). My sign work was inspired by the revival of handmade marquee, neon and hand-lettered signs and the abundance of DIYers in every field imaginable. Even watching the craft beer explosion in NC has been inspiring, and at its heart, it’s all the same attitude. Build, brew, cook, sew, make, create something, then create some more and get better, then try something new.

 

What advice would you give to yourself five years ago?


Just do the work and keep putting it out there. Whether it's a coffee table or a song, you'll learn something from the process, even if doesn't work out the way you planned.