How it Works: The Sewah Process
Marietta factory turns out markers seen along highways
Sewah Studios is one company with many moving parts.
“It’s like having four or five different companies all together,” said owner Brad Smith. “Each of these jobs is so specialized to a part of the process that it takes different skill sets to bring it all together.”
Smith is the third generation of his family that has owned and operated Sewah Studios, a street marker minting business founded in Marietta in 1927 by E. M. Hawes.
The studio’s name is Hawes reversed.
“It started with the advent of the interstate highway system with (Dwight D.) Eisenhower,” he explained. “Suddenly all these small communities were about to become stops on these interstates and that’s where the road sign historical marker business came from.”
Smith’s grandfather joined the studio after World War II and built the structure on Millcreek Road in Marietta where the signs are made today by the 24 employees there.
And it’s still the same process that was used 90 years ago, with more than 100,000 markers dotting not only many historic and significant attributes of Marietta, but also parks, museums, homes, historic sites and movements across the nation.
“And because we use the same process and materials that were used in the 1930s we can guarantee the life of the product,” says Smith. “We call it an heirloom work of art.”
When a customer, whether it be a state, club or individual, begins an order, the studio first identifies the characteristics to be included. That includes size and general style to detailed embellishments like crests, maps, handwritten notes, photographs and logos.
“We have our new website basically as a tool during that call to walk them through the specifics of what they want,” said Smith.
Once the order is placed, the first department of the studio gets a hard copy and gets to work typesetting.
“That’s what Holly’s doing here,” he said on Wednesday, gesturing to the specialty fonts, cases and sizing used for the studio’s type. “She uses the copy and hand-sets the type line by line.”
Then those lines, placed neatly on small metal slats, are brought to a large table in the next room, where they’re glued to the ordered marker pattern by hand.
“I adjust them so they fit right,” said Andrew Nunn, of Marietta, as he attached letters to the sixth line of type on a marker destined for Michigan.
With each sign differing from the others, the type must be justified to exact measurements to fill the sign and be evenly spaced.
“I go to the computer with the text and it puts out all the measurements so it fits,” explained Nunn.
Once all the letters and any insignia or special casts are glued onto the marker pattern, the sign is ready for sand.
“It’s like a solo cup sand-castle, only with type and aluminum,” said Smith as he moved into the next stage of the sign process, sand casting an impression of the pattern, called the flask.
The sand is needed to form the reverse of the pattern but also because it can withstand the 1,350-degree molten aluminum alloy.
First the pattern is placed on the floor of the foundry and sand is dispersed over the top.
Next the pattern and sand is set inside a frame and more sand is packed atop it to create the impression of the pattern.
Once sand is packed into every pocket, filling each seam so that the molten metal won’t escape or distort the design, the molten aluminum is poured in through two channels in the sand to fill the voids between the impressions of the front and back of the sign.
“They only have a short window of time once the aluminum leaves the pot because it cools in about seven minutes,” said Smith, having to raise his voice above the whine of the fans keeping the hot foundry from unbearable temperatures.
In tandem, four people pour the molten aluminum into two holes in each cast, watching for two blowholes on the other end to bubble up with the metal before stopping.
“Then while it’s still liquid they’ll scoop out the excess aluminum as it’s cooling to keep the sand clear so we can reuse it again,” Smith pointed out as his workers in the foundry used a shovel and metal dust pan to collect the excess cooling metal.
Less than 10 minutes later that same frame, now filled with the structure of the sign, is emptied of sand and the remaining metal is carried to the finishing room where imperfections in the metal are ferreted out with sandpaper and chisel.
“You have to wear your earplugs in here,” Smith shouted over the din in the finishing room. “And be careful because these are still hot.”
He explained that hot aluminum shrinks as it cools, and so the newly minted signs must be clamped to a flat surface so the metal doesn’t warp as its temperature drops.
Then once the flaws are removed and the sign has cooled, it’s ready for color.
“No one else in the world applies color the way we do,” said Smith as the ambient noise level dampens leaving the finishing room.
He describes the process as a “sandwich” of a blasted coating of colored powder, then heat, then wet gilding, then another coat of powder all sealed with another round of heat.
The gilding is where intricate and detailed colors come to life, from the differentiation between lettering and the background color, to the filigree, multi-colored crests, maps or stenciling that set these signs apart.
Angie Felton rolled on a yellow coat over the letters on a sign that’s part of a large order from New York, making sure not to let the blue from the powdered coat show through the bright shade.
“Then I’ll go back in with a fine line brush for those small letters beneath the crest,” she said.
Once the coloring is done and the signs are cooled a final time and checked for quality, it’s time for shipping.
But the signs aren’t packed in standard cardboard boxes with bubble wrap or cloth. Even the shipping is customized and is on a queued schedule with color-coded alerts.
“We build our own crates based on the size of the marker,” Smith said as he picked up custom pads that keep the markers lodged in place, never touching the plywood of the crates. “And I designed this after many decades of having damaged product.”
To keep on track, he said they try to ship at least six orders per day, only holding orders when they’re large and all going to the same locations like the order for New York the studio is working on.
“We try to get the markers out a week or two before the client’s opening ceremony so that they can get it and check if we need to fix anything or completely redo it,” notes Smith. “That’s not often but it keeps us on task.”
From start to finish, say for a rush order, the fastest a sign could be made to the quality Sewah stands by is one work week.
That includes letting glue dry from the typesetting, letting the marker cool after it leaves the foundry, letting it cool after each powder coat and heating and dry in between after the wet gilding.
To see the variety of work produced over the past 90 years by the Marietta-based studio, visit their website at sewahstudios.com.
Or traipse around Marietta, where markers made by Sewah denote historic sites, church locations and even the map at Lookout Point on Harmar Hill, overlooking the city.
¯ Founded in 1927 by E.M. Hawes.
¯ The studio’s name is Hawes, spelled in reverse.
¯ Brad Smith is the third in his family to own the company, following his father and grandfather, Gerald E. Smith, who worked with Hawes in the studio after World War II and purchased the business in 1953.
¯ The company has had three locations in Marietta since its inception, the first in an old organ factory on the west side, the second on Millgate Road near what is now the Broughton Nature Preserve and its current location on Millcreek Road off of Colegate Drive in Marietta.
¯ To view an audio slideshow with more photos from the Sewah process visit our mariettatimes.com and click on this story.
Source: Brad Smith, president of Sewah Studios.