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As I drove to the Studio this morning I passed a donut shop.  Now this donut shop is in a nice, new area of shops from cleaners to barbers to a fitness club.  I don’t do donuts.  Ever!  But, I notice signs wherever I am.  Big signs.  Little signs.  Some handsome, some ho-hum, some downright butt-ugly.  

This donut shop didn’t have a big professional sign above the door, or on the door, or on the building’s masthead above this little den of iniquity.  It had a sign in the front window  D O N U T S surely scrawled by a little kid on summer break between 2nd and 3rd grade.  The letters were a foot tall, uneven, going downhill, and done with a red ballpoint.  Red must have seemed like an attention-getter.  If the attention paid to crafting their donuts was no more than was given to the lousy ‘sign’ advertising their wares, I’d think the donuts must have been about as tasteless as the end of a shoebox.  

Those of you who have read my stuff for a while, know my story but I repeat parts for the newbies here.  

When I was in the second grade, my parents hired some shadetree architect in Hugo, Oklahoma, to hatch up some houseplans.  The guy probably did the work on his kitchen table with a ruler, accurately trimmed pieces of butcher paper from the Corner Grocery, and a couple of sharp pencils.  The rooms on the plans were where my parents wanted them, with appropriate traffic flow and the necessary rooms in the necessary places.  I didn’t see any of that.  What I saw was the old boy’s descriptions and dimensions. They were done in beautiful, slanted block letters with his pencil.  It was pristine.  It was the alphabet by-hand at its finest, in my young eyes.  I was knocked off my training wheels at the sight of his printing.  I have no idea why. 

My third grade teacher, Virginia Baines, ruined my 1948 Christmas vacation with an assignment during the Santa Claus time to fill up a thick workbook with cursive letters that matched those on the green cards running above the blackboard behind her desk.  Terrible timing.  Thoughtless of the old gal to dump that on us.  I did it and maybe it was a building block instead of a nasty trick she had up her Victorian sleeve.

Next thing relating to letters that charmed my innards was Gene Prater, an old sign-painter at the Peoples Store where I worked as a high school kid selling shoes and overalls and sox and underwear.  His signs marking the prices over each batch of different stuff were works of art.  Flat, worn out brushes.  Rusty, paint-encrusted Folger’s coffee cans holding his brushes, and Gerber’s Baby Food jars filled with red paint he’d brewed to put on 14″ x 18″ heavy pieces of white card stock.  Those were Gene’s tools of the trade.  He sold shoes, etc., too, but he was the resident sign writer.  Remarkable, the impression his work made on me.  

Jump forward about 6 years and I’m in an architectural design class at Oklahoma State University.  This ancient old professor with thinning white hair, rumpled corduroy pants, a chambray shirt with a crooked wool tie and a bad knot, wore a tweed jacket with leather elbow patches and frayed cuffs.  He was right out of the handbook for what an old college professor should look like.  I estimate at that time he was about 15 years younger than my present age.  He spent an hour on the blackboard talking about letters.  Roman letters.  Gothic letters.  Chancery letters.  Did it all with a 2″ piece of chalk making tall letters so the 50 of us in the room could see his giving us the virtues of a well-bred alphabet.  

Eleven years after that, my shingle was hung out touting my work as a full-time professional Calligrapher.  The chapters in between had little to do with my leaving a job in television production in September, 1972.  Other than getting the pink slip at OSU, the rest was rather ordinary.  What made that 11 years extraordinary was that every spare minute I had, I had a pen in my hand.   Talent?  Nope.  Just dedication to what I thought was a really cool skill that everybody cooed about when they saw it.  

My ‘talent’ is made up of the blessing of good hand-eye coordination and steady nerves.  Not eating donuts, ground meat, pork, or anything with a face, other than fish, may have something to do with it.  Good Norwegian genes probably account for much of the good in my DNA.  The rest of it is passion.  

You gotta have passion whether you’re planting petunias, selling widgets, or learning to make pretty letters with whatever tool you can get your hand on.  Right OR left.  This stuff I do and teach isn’t magic, rocket science, or building a ship in a bottle.  It’s logical.  It’s doable.  It’s proven.  It’s not a piece of cake or a walk in the park but it’s the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow when you do your part.

As I puttered on past the donut shop this morning I thought of the lady from Flatbush who contacted me recently saying she just couldn’t get the hang of the letters.  She took the class and has had the tools for over a year.  When I asked her if she was practicing, her answer was a litany of excuses why she hasn’t been.  Now, she wonders what it will take to get her work looking good.  The answer is patently obvious.  

All those thoughts about the donut shop, and the lady stuck in the mud of inactivity with her tools, reminded me how really amazing it is that the simplicity of giving someone something with their name nicely lettered or engraved on it can change the course of matters dramatically.  I could write volumes….and probably should…about this best-kept secret, though I’m busting my chops 19/7 to spread the word and communicate to the ones who’d love to have this be a part of their life.  

Another thing some of you already know about is the story behind my walking out the door with an armload of brand new 5-irons in the photo above.  I had this idea that, collectively, golf pros were a fertile audience.  Individually, they are in the midst of untold money at most of the country clubs in these zip codes….AND your zip codes.  I’ve been to the parties.  I’ve been to their tournaments engraving their golf clubs.  I’ve seen the golfers drive up in their Ferraris  and take out their $2000. bag of clubs to romance around the links for an afternoon.  

These guys are great candidates and prospects for when we engravers have something different and classy to offer them and their painted and well-coiffed wives.  Those ladies think nothing of paying $300. for a crystal vase as a wedding gift.  When they know they can get it personalized for the charming couple, they don’t hesitate in whipping out their Amex card for the work.  They also love to give booze with bottles dolled up with pretty Calligraphy.  It sets them apart and shows they took special care to give a thoughtful, personalized gift.  

My $5. apiece 5-irons were bought at a place that can replace almost any club in a set when the golfer, elated from a 60′ birdie putt, does cartwheels back to the cart with putter in hand and leaving the pitching wedge in the frog hair after chipping up for the long putt.  Most of the time those lost clubs never find their way home.  With a name engraved on it, the finders-keepers rhyme usually doesn’t apply.

I did the Google thing and found the names of 20 golf pros at 20 high-profile clubs in the metroplex.  I engraved the guy’s name on the shaft of the club and signed my name down on the hosel. I put a cable tie in each of 3 holes punched in a PRIORITY MAIL envelope containing my cover letter and business card.  The letter had some nonsensical, but effective little rhyme to sweeten the effect.  Each cable tie ran through the hole in the envelope and cinched up on the golf club. The letter told the receiving golf pro we needed to meet.  On the outside of the envelope was taped my business envelope complete with my kenbrown feather logo and address along with his name and address in the Edwardian font out of my Mac and laser printer.  I did that for each of the 20 golf pros.  Then I set up my tripod to capture the moment I was out the door for the post office.  

I strolled up to the second window where the female clerk gave me this ‘what the h-e- double ll is that?? look.’  

“Golf clubs,” I said.  “These are all going Priority Mail.”  Of course there is no rule that says ‘Thou shalt not mail unwrapped golf clubs through the U.S. Postal System.’  She put the right amount of postage on each large envelope, I paid, and left.  Within a few days my phone began to ring.  The golf pros loved the mailing.  I got several events out of the deal and STILL get events from that afternoon effort.  No great and expensive advertising campaign.  Just an off-the-wall idea combined with some pretty lettering on something unexpected that was a part of the recipient’s work, arriving in his mailbox.  Pow!  What an impact it made on each.

Bottom line:  Beautiful letters….wherever they are…communicate professionalism, pride, confidence, and the message that your message is important.  

The ability to make beautiful letters…that can be learned quicker than you’d probably imagine…can set you apart and set you up quite nicely in the extra revenue column at your house.

But you gotta have the passion.  


July August September Seminars


  1. Donna Rowley July 15, 2013 at 9:23 pm #

    Great story! So when are you gifting the donut shop with a sign?? Donuts for life!! 🙂

  2. Ken Brown July 16, 2013 at 7:38 am #

    Thanks, Donna. Never liked the taste of shoe boxes.

  3. Tony July 16, 2013 at 4:15 pm #

    Thank you for all that you do to point us in the right direction.
    Best Regards,

  4. Ken Brown July 16, 2013 at 4:34 pm #

    You’re welcome! Glad you’re making your Seminar experience here pay off. Always good to hear from you.

  5. clint appelt July 17, 2013 at 12:40 am #

    Hi Ken,
    Thanks for the continued E-Mails. All helpful. The one about the Rub-an-Buff for lining works well.
    The lady that has had her tools for a year or so and no practice. The more u practice the more u become passionate about your work and the more u want to practice. But I think this only comes about when u see improvement in your work. I don’t practice just to put time doing words.I look for my faults. I have to be my worst critic. When I practice which I do every day I study my script. I look at my up and down lines for consistency of depth and width of line. I look for proper spacing between letters and words, slant of letters all the same, same length and slant of tails below base line, etc. When I find imperfections I practice that imperfection right then until I get what I want. It can be a challenge. When I get what I want (improvement) I get excited and want to practice more because my work looks better.
    When people tell me how nice it looks and mean what they say and the bank roll gets rounder and more events are booked it is easy to be compassionate about my work because I have built a business from nothing and it keeps getting better every month. The more I practice with a goal in my practice session the better I feel when i accomplish it and I want to keep going.
    It is about me. PRACTICE PEOPLE. or it WON’T happen.! It is a great feeling and only gets better. Having a four figure month so far this month.
    Thanks Ken


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