09/19/10 — Cliffs of Neuse makes all signs for N.C. parks

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Cliffs of Neuse makes all signs for N.C. parks

By Catharin Shepard
Published in News on September 19, 2010 1:50 AM

In the old days, otherwise known as the early 1990s, park rangers at North Carolina's state parks had an unusual and sometimes unwelcome job during the slower winter months -- hand-carving slabs of redwood into attractive and legible signs directing park visitors to campsites, announcing hiking paths and warning against breaking the rules.

Carving was a skill all the rangers had to learn because the signs were often damaged, stolen, or outdated and needed to be replaced. The cost in money and man hours was considerable, and the redwood increasingly hard to come by, said Adrian O'Neal, state park district superintendent.

But two years ago, the Cliffs of the Neuse State Park stopped waffling and put an end to the whittling when it bought a $50,000 machine, still in place today, that now produces all of the signs for every park in the state.

From Grandfather Mountain to the Outer Banks, every state park in North Carolina displays signs produced in Wayne County.

The large etching machine, hidden in a building on the Cliffs of the Neuse park grounds, runs eight hours a day, five days a week, producing entrance signs, navigation guides and trail markers for the state's 40 parks.

William Davis, a maintenance mechanic for Cliffs of the Neuse, is the man behind the machine that cuts all of the signs. With different cutting bits in place, Davis can typeset the machine with a computer program, design the look of the sign, set a 10-foot by 4-foot piece of material in place and let the machine go to work.

"They cut different styles and types," he said, displaying some of the sharp-edged bits that can chip out an entire sheet in about four hours.

The end result is a continuous, consistent look at all the state parks, which is more attractive and helps people follow the rules, O'Neal said.

"When somebody goes into a park, they see the same thing and get the same message," he said.

Besides being convenient, the sign maker also saves the state money.

O'Neal was on the state committee addressing the issue, and spoke up when it became necessary to solve the problem two years ago. After looking into the options, "this was gonna be about our cheapest route," he said.

Each sign sheet can cost about $800-$1,000 each, hundreds of dollars less than it would to buy the signs commercially. Smaller signs can be produced at a cost of $30-$50, and larger ones at about $150-$200. The machine paid for itself in the first 50 sheets it cut, and has now gone through about 150 of the sheets, O'Neal said.

At the moment, the machine is only producing orders for the state parks, and can hardly keep up with the demand, Davis said. Although it's not often the rangers have to replace the tough plastic signs for wear and tear, they do sometimes need to be changed as trails change, or after thieves make off with one of the markers.

The Cliffs of the Neuse pioneered a simple way of keeping the hours and fees signs updated without having to replace the entire sign. Certain of the signs are magnetic, and can be slipped in and out to adjust the hours and fees. It was based on Davis' own prototype design, and is starting to catch on at other state parks as a cost-saving measure, he said.

Besides saving money, the signs are also helping save more trees. Using redwood wasn't a very environmentally friendly option, and the new signs are made of a recycled, and recyclable material, and even the scraps cut away during the manufacturing process can be tossed into a barrel and recycled without waste, O'Neal said.

Even though a lot about the signs have changed, one thing hasn't. They're still the same font, the "Blue Ridge" style lettering set out by the park service more than 80 years ago. It helps people recognize the signs, and even though the new signs might be a little strange to the eye, people will get used to the new look, O'Neal said.

"We didn't want to stray so far away from the other state parks. That's what they see when they come in the park," he said.