"I've worked for the bees long enough," said my buddy Bernice. "Now, it's time for the bees to work for me. It's time for me to capitalize on my status as The Bee Lady." Bernice has been keeping bees -- and getting honey out of them -- for a few years now. But she's always consumed all of her product. Now, she wants to start selling it online and at the local farmers' market, and she wants me to come in on the deal. I told her I'd think about it, but in the meantime, I'd look into rustling her up some decent signage. Steve Blake has been making signs at Sign DeSign in La Mesa (619-461-1608) for 15 years. Blake stays away from signs that require a contractor's license; instead, he specializes in smaller signs and vinyl lettering. "Our basic vinyl lettering sign works for windows in vehicles, glass doors, yard signs, and banner graphics. We do four-color process printing." He pointed to a framed sign outside directing foot traffic to a business. "We do signs like that -- a basic metal A-frame with cut-vinyl letters on a PVC board. We use vinyl for letters and graphics because it's more durable and more colorfast than paint. And in some cases, it's changeable. When area codes changed from 714 to 619, and then from 619 to 858 and 760, people didn't have to buy all new signs. People brought in the magnetic signs on their cars and we just peeled off the adhesive vinyl, cleaned them up, and put on the new numbers."

Blake's vinyl comes in over a hundred colors and several styles, but only two grades. "Calendar vinyl," the less expensive of the two, "starts as a ball, and is heated and rolled and heated and rolled until it's about three thousandths of an inch thick. Then an adhesive is put on the back. But like any plastic, vinyl has a memory, and its memory is that original ball. So if you heat it, it will shrink. We usually use that for banners -- temporary signs. It's a little more flexible. Banners usually have an outdoor life of a couple of years, but I've made some that have been around for seven or eight years."

Cast vinyl has no such memory troubles. "It starts in a powder form, and is laid out in a sheet. Then it's heated, and that's its memory. It doesn't shrink much. My cast vinyl has been on my window for 15 years, and there's a tiny haze line that shows where it has shrunk. If a sign is going on a hard surface, I use cast vinyl."

For banners, "people can pick colors and letter styles. We have 2500 letter styles to choose from. When we first opened, we bought a package that had 40 styles; if we wanted to add another, it cost $299 . Now, with the advent of desktop publishing, the Internet, and shareware, we can get them for free. I tell people that if they see a letter style in a newspaper or magazine that they like, they can bring it in and I'll have it. Or at least, I'll find one that's really close."

Blake enters your selections for letter design and graphics into a computer, and the computer feeds the information to either a printer or a plotter. "The plotter is a stationary machine that the vinyl passes through. It's fitted with a blade, and it cuts the letters out of the vinyl. The printer just prints directly onto the vinyl." After the material has been run through the proper machine, "we pull the excess vinyl away from the letters and then use transfer tape to move them to the banner or sign."

Banners start at $60 -- that gives you your "background color of choice, two colors of text, and up to 15 words" -- but can be custom cut to whatever size you like. After you get past the base price, "everything is custom. We give you a quote. If there's going to be additional typesetting, that can mean a lot more vinyl, and we'll charge extra. And graphic prices can vary depending on the complexity. For graphics, we use a lot of clip art. We don't do graphic design here, just graphic reproduction. If someone brings in a graphic, we'll scan it into the computer and cut it with the plotter."

The same letters Blake puts on his signs can be affixed to car windows, glass doors, and magnetic signs. "Well do everybody from people who want their names on the windows -- Bob on one side, Louise on the other -- to the Border Patrol vehicles. A one-inch letter costs $.61 , or $1.23 installed. We'll install them right here at the curb." For magnetic signs, he applies the letters to gloss-white magnetic sheeting. "The base price on that is $75 , which gets you three lines in two colors on the white background."

If the bee biz takes off for Bernice, I might look into one of Blake's sandblasted wooden signs. "We take a piece of wood and mask it with the vinyl lettering and the design. Then a sandblaster takes a gun and shoots sand at the wood under high pressure. It chews the wood away, and you're left with raised letters. Or, we can mask the rest of the wood and blast the space inside the letters, so that they're cut into the wood." Then the wood may be stained or painted. Blake showed me a sign on which he planned to affix a vinyl picture. "I'll place a clear film over that for UV protection." Prices vary with size and with the price of wood, "which changes like gasoline. Right now, we charge $80 to $85 a square foot. Wood signs have a long outdoor life. We've had our wood signs out there for 15 years, and they're still there."

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