FINKSBURG - For many years, local residents went to Mann's Mill when they wanted tangy, fresh-squeezed cider.
The cider press no longer operates in the rambling building at 708 Old Westminster Pike -- these days the mill is home to a unique sign-making business.
Mark Cheyne, the proprietor of Woodland Signs, has always loved working with wood. He has been a logger, a builder, a furniture-maker and a wildlife artist. Now he combines all those skills to create custom-made signs, many of them decorated with wildlife themes.
At Cheyne's shop, customers may choose for their custom-made sign any size or design they prefer and any style of lettering. Ducks and geese in flight, horses, songbirds and dogs are among the most popular motifs.
The clientele for Woodland Signs includes both business and residential customers. The signs are particularly popular with farmers and land-owners who wish to give the entrance to their property a special touch. Developers and builders also have found that a sign from Woodland contributes much to the style of their project.
Currently, Cheyne, 32, is supplying signs for several law offices and other businesses in Westminster. He particularly enjoys the opportunity to create designs that enhance the town's unique character.
"It's a shame that in a beautiful historic town like Westminster there isn't more use of signs that carry out the historic theme," he says.
After graduating as an arts major from St. Mary's College in Southern Maryland, Cheyne spent a year as a logger in Washington state.
"I really enjoyed it out there -- the country was beautiful," he says.
"But when I came home for Christmas, my mother felt I should be making better use of my college degree. She had already arranged an interview for me with a local outdoor advertising firm."
Cheyne worked with that company for 5 years. He left to start his own business because he wanted a more creative challenge.
"Many signs nowadays are made of plastic and artificial materials, and that is not as satisfying to me," he explains. "I'm a frustrated wildlife artist and I love working in wood."
At first, Cheyne operated from the garage of his home near Hampstead, but the business quickly outgrew the available space. When he located the old cider mill, he recognized that it offered ideal work space for his needs; its large, open spaces would allow plenty of room for laying out, sandblasting, painting and finishing, as well as office space for design and record-keeping.
At that time, the building still contained the original presses and cider-making machinery. With the landlord's help, he removed the machinery and began the task of remodeling. Later, Cheyne hopes to complete the loft area as a space where he can meet with customers.
Nowadays, visitors to the mill are greeted not by the odor of fresh-squeezed apple cider, but by the equally enticing scent of fresh-sawed redwood. One concern Cheyne expresses is the possibility that redwood -- his preferred sign material -- may soon become unavailable because of ecological concerns.
The first step in the sign-making process is to laminate 2-by-12-inch boards of clear, hard redwood to the desired size; these are then cut to shape and sanded smooth.
Sandblasting is used to remove excess wood from the sign's background. A 10-horsepower compressor forces a fine abrasive through a nozzle that Cheyne controls from a specially constructed booth; long rubber gloves extend through the room's wall so he can operate the sandblaster without inhaling any of the fine dust that is generated.
During the sandblasting process, rubber masking protects the lettering and graphic areas. After the background is painted, the rubber masking is removed. Lettering and graphics are finished with a double coat of paint applied by hand.
Often, a client wants a three-dimensional figure, such as a fox or a mallard, to stand out from the design. Cheyne carves these figures separately and attaches them to the sign during the final process.
Although the artwork on Cheyne's signs all is original, he uses a computerized machine to cut the rubber masking used for lettering. The machine can create lettering of various typefaces and sizes. Any special typefaces beyond the machine's capabilities are cut by hand, as are logos and special designs.
In the competitive sign market, one drawback to the cider mill location has been its lack of visibility.
"Lots of people don't even know I'm here," Cheyne says. "My advertising has been mainly by word of mouth and through the Yellow Pages."
Cheyne has generated additional business through displaying his work at wildlife shows and at the annual Home Builders Association Builders' Mart.
He hopes at some point to be able to have a salesman represent his work.
Cheyne credits his wife, Meg, with much of his success. She handles the bookkeeping and billing for the business. His brother and other family members also help out with larger installations.
"My family has been really great, really supportive," he says.
Cheyne observes that while he hopes to expand his business, he wants to avoid the problems many other small entrepreneurial businesses have encountered.
"My main goal is to make a living, not get too big too fast," he says.
"When I started out, I was working seven days a week, 12- and 14-hour days.
Now I'm able to work just six days."
While the fresh cider Mann's Mill once produced will undoubtedly be missed, those who have seen Cheyne's handsome, creative signs will vouch that the old cider mill is still being put to good use.