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Sign, sign ... everywhere a sign

Kenny Stoner perfects 'a dying profession'

Published: Thursday, Jan. 17, 2013 9:00 a.m. CDT

Kenny Stoner hasn't attended very many quilting bees in his time ... and chances are, he won't be going to many in the future.

The well-known owner of Princeton's Stoner Signs said whenever he didn't really want to tackle a job, he'd jokingly tell the potential customer, "I'm busy. I'm going to a quilting bee."

Stoner smiles sheepishly as he tells that story, but in reality, it doesn't appear he's had to use that line very often. Stoner's signs and other pieces of artwork canvas the countryside ... and the country. Working out of his West Peru Street shop with his wife, Gail, and his greeting committee — chocolate lab Mocha and Frosty the cat, Stoner's artwork has become legendary to countless customers who appreciate the local artist's expertise, his artistic eye and his tireless work ethic.

Stoner, who was born in Princeton and attended Wyanet schools, began his career in 1959 as a commercial jewelry designer at Jostens (now MTM), when the company was located on West Peru Street in Princeton. During that time, Stoner said he started working part-time at night as a sign painter; his first sign job was painting on his best friend's race car. In 1966, Stoner took a leave of absence from Jostens, and with a brush in his hand, he never looked back ... Thus, Stoner Signs was born.

"I was very aggressive," Stoner remembered. "I was very eager. I peddled my wares."

Stoner's aggressive and eager attitude quickly developed into multiple customers, who knew a good thing when they saw it ... and when others saw it too. Before long, Stoner's signs were popping up all around the county and all around the country.

From tiny signs to billboards, Stoner has created them all. One of his first big jobs years ago was for the Imperial Oil Co., where he created the company's billboards that could be seen from Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico. Another one of his early jobs was the big signs for Hubbard Milling, which were erected in front of their elevators — the first one in Wyanet.

Self-taught, Stoner said he's done a lot of reading and studying throughout the years to enable him to continue to create signs that will appeal to his customers. Initially all of Stoner's signs were hand-brushed, sandblasted and/or carved. While he still uses those three techniques, he does create signs that are made with plastic or aluminum letters, as well as those that are computer-aided, however, his favorite place in his shop is to be in front of his drawing board with a brush in hand.

"The good work is still done by hand," he said. "It's a dying profession. I learned it all with a brush; I had to be persistent."

Earlier in his career, Stoner was also the guy who hand-painted the farmers' names on the sides of their trucks. He estimated at one time, he probably painted names on more than 500 trucks a year, which equals thousands throughout his career. He also painted three-sided murals on 140 vehicles, mentioning those jobs were good ones to keep him busy in the winter.

As Stoner related some of his projects/jobs throughout the years, his wife reminded him of another one of his endeavors.

"Don't forget the watertowers you painted," Gail shouted from the office inside the shop.

"I've done a lot of dumb stuff," Stoner said with a grin.

Stoner can't remember all the signs he's created throughout the years, but he does remember the customers. Behind every sign, there is a face ... and behind every face is a story. Stoner enjoys the memories, and he and Gail like going out and about to track some of his older signs to see how they've weathered throughout the years. They aren't hard to find. Around nearly every corner, a one-of-a-kind Stoner sign appears.

But Stoner doesn't seem too concerned about how many signs he's painted. He almost appears embarrassed with compliments, noting he just wants to be conscientious with his customers and deliver the types of signs they want.

"It's no good unless they like it," he said. "You really just have to take the time to find out what they want."

So how much does one of Stoner's signs cost? He said he can hit nearly anyone's budget, but his answer to how much a sign will cost is far more colorful.

"People will ask me how much a sign costs, and I'll say, 'How much does a dress cost? You can go to Walmart or you can go to Saks. They are both dresses.'"

Besides his sign work, Stoner has also become well-known for his carving and woodworking. His shop is his playground of tools that helps him create some fantastic pieces. He speaks easily of different periods — Renaissance, Federal, Victorian ... — again, all self-taught. He's well-read on a variety of subjects and studies a variety of passions, including landscaping, carving, period decor and more.

"I'm a sucker for a book," he said.

Those passions, perhaps, are most evident in his private country home, where he and Gail can appreciate their handiwork — both outdoors and in. One of Stoner's favorite pieces is a carousel horse he carved using gouges and a mallet while he recuperated from a knee surgery, estimating he has about 530 hours of work in this piece. A hand-carved bar and fireplace, as well as custom-made and carved trim throughout their home is a sight to behold.

While Gail is busy in the office, Stoner quietly speaks of his wife — the fun they have had and the adventures that await. That grin leaves his face and he suddenly gets very serious.

"I am blessed with a wonderful wife. We go off together. We work together. She's a good, good woman, a good wife ... I took a vow to love and cherish her, and that's what I try to do," Stoner said.

Quick with a story, Stoner has as many stories as he does signs. He appears to be the type of fellow who has strong convictions, yet who understands those who are different from him. He's humble. He enjoys people, the outdoors and using his hands to create one-of-a-kind masterpieces.

"I'm a simple country boy — nothing more than that. There are no complexities," he said. "Gail and I are happy. We love to be busy.

"I guess I'll keep doing this until God tells me I can't. I enjoy the customer base, and I enjoy the work. I might as well come here," he said, referring to his workshop.

Unless, of course, he has a quilting bee to go to ...

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