In a quiet corner of a State Highway Administration shop in Anne Arundel County, Theodric Clark painstakingly applies black paint to the raised metal letters of the historical sign identifying Deep Falls, the ancestral St. Mary's County estate of Gov. James Thomas (1833-1836).
The cast-iron sign bears dents from bullets that scarred this memorial to the state's first Whig chief executive, but sandblasting has restored the decades-old marker to its original luster and the newly repainted letters pop out from the silvery surface. Soon the sign will return to the tiny town of Chaptico, where it will inform passers-by with a clarity it hasn't exhibited in decades.
Restoring historic signs is just one of the tasks undertaken at the highway administration shop off Dorsey Road in Hanover. Housed in a low-slung, nondescript brown brick building near BWI Marshall Airport, the 11-worker operation turned out 22,707 highway signs totaling 170,000 square feet last year - ranging from standard-issue stop signs to one-of-a-kind interstate exit markers.
When a tractor-trailer leaves the highway and plows through a sign, it is the sign shop that gets the call. And when a new governor is elected, as happened with Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. in 2002 and Martin O'Malley in 2006, this is where about 20 new signs are fabricated that make sure that the current chief executive welcomes those who cross into Maryland.
"We had to scramble [with] this last one for O'Malley," said Eugene "Sonny" Bailey, the sign operations manager, because the agency had to pull together an inventory of the signs that needed to be changed. Now, inventory accomplished, he feels better prepared in the event of another change. "It'll be an easier transition for the next governor who comes in," he said.
Bailey said he's seen a lot of changes in the world of road signs since he came to the office 26 years ago as an entry-level sign fabricator. Back then, the state was still making some wooden road signs.
During a tour of the sign fabrication area, Bailey pointed out noticeable differences between the reflectivity of new signs and older models that have been sent back to the shop.
In an outside storage area lays a retired sign that once directed motorists onto Route 65 to reach Sharpsburg. Like many older signs, it had metal letters riveted to the sign's surface. No more. Bailey pointed out newer signs in which the lettering is applied directly to the sign using an adhesive material made by 3M. According to Bailey, the new lettering is more reflective and will last far longer.
For those who think of silk-screening as a form of arts and crafts, it might come as a surprise that the highway agency operates a large silk-screening shop for producing items in large quantities.
During a recent visit, sign shop worker Jeff Wilderson was operating a silk-screening machine so large a door once had to be broken down to get the contraption into the building. He was cranking out "Speed Limit 30" signs in quantities of 20 - each good for 10 to 12 years of highway use. Bailey said one screen can produce as many as 300 to 400 stop signs.
According to Bailey and sign operations supervisor Damonnen (pronounced Damien) Taylor Sr., the state of the art in road signs is continuously advancing. They said Maryland is now moving to a font called Clearview, designed to make signs easier to read for older drivers. The men periodically travel to other sign shops in the region to keep up with advances.
With no small amount of pride, they boast that Maryland's highway agency purchases materials only from top manufacturers such as 3M. "Here at State Highway, we use the best," Bailey said.
In addition to providing signs for the state's 27 highway districts, the shop also produces custom work for sister agencies such as the Maryland Transit Administration, the Motor Vehicle Administration and the Maryland Port Administration.
Bailey said it pays to keep the work in-house, rather than depending on an outside supplier, because the Hanover shop - operating on a budget of $1.7 million to $1.9 million a year - can turn around an order much more quickly than a private company. In an emergency such as a flood, the shop could produce specialized warning signs in a matter of hours, he said. A large knocked-down sign that's needed for safety purposes can be replaced in a day or two.
Of course, with all those signs going out on the street, someone needs to make sure it's all spelled properly. Bailey said each fabricator checks his own work, and then a stock person rechecks the spelling.
Bailey, 56, said only a few errors have slipped out over the years. But even after 20 years, he remembers one of his own.
"Years ago I did a Westminster sign, I think I spelled it Westminister," he said. "I heard about that one."