Just off Interstate 90 on Betts Road, in a small, unassuming building, a young business is making its mark on the world of metal artwork.
The Metal Shack, a Mitchell-based business owned and operated by Grant and Andrea Johnson, has been designing, fabricating and shipping its own brand of metal artwork to people all over the world since 2015, when Grant decided he wanted something different to fill his time when his landscaping business slowed down in the winter.
“I owned a landscaping business called The Curbing Edge, and it was seasonal work, so in the winter I’d do construction work,” Grant, 32, said. “We were on vacation in the Black Hills and saw some metal art in a store and thought it was cool.”
The seed for a new venture had been planted. The couple discussed his winter plans for that season on the drive home to Mitchell, and Grant stated he wanted to cut metal signs instead of working outside in the cold South Dakota winter.
“And about a week later, we got a plasma cutter,” Grant said.
The Johnsons design and create metal signs that display inspirational and faith-based messages that customers can hang on their walls or otherwise display. And while the business has grown to serve customers around the world, the two started out with no experience in the field and had to learn on the fly to establish themselves.
“We had never welded or messed with metal. I’m not very handy,” Grant said.
They figured if they could create their own designs and sell a sign a day, Grant wouldn’t have to work construction full-time in the off season, so they began to learn their craft. Grant, a self-proclaimed perfectionist, set out to master the art of cutting and finishing the metal signs that Andrea, 31, would design.
It was a lot of trial and error, Grant said.
“We probably cut $1,000 worth of metal before we actually sold anything. I’m a person where it has to be perfect. If you put out one thing that’s bad, you get a reputation,” Grant said.
The couple made contacts in the metal art world from near and far, including a designer in Orlando, Florida that helped them with their design style while the Johnsons offered social media marketing tips in exchange. They ordered art from existing companies to see how they shipped their product. They attended art shows around South Dakota to display their work and see the work of others.
Then, after about a year in business, the larger public began to notice their work.
“Andrea had a design she wanted me to cut but I was in landscaping mode, so we waited until the end of October, and then I posted a picture of it on Facebook, and it reached 7 million people. Then we put another one on and it reached 3 million people,” Grant said. “That’s where we found our style.”
“That’s when he finally listened to his wife,” she said.
Today, the business has over 300,000 likes on Facebook.
The business headquarters west of Mitchell — where the Johnsons moved the operation after it was located in a smaller space — houses the upgraded laser cutter they now use, stacks of packaging materials and racks upon racks of finished signs ready for shipping. They said they do relatively little custom design work compared to their pre-designed items, but can and will do it when requested.
They said their signs are a little more expensive than some of the similar products on the market, but they say that cost goes into quality. On their website, signs range in price from $35 to $115, depending on the design and the size of the art. The Metal Shack uses a thicker metal than many of its competitors, and the small business nature of their operation allows them to have a high level of quality control.
While Grant puts his focus on producing a quality sign, Andrea said she takes care to create designs that are unique and exclusive to the Metal Shack.
“I try really hard to not look at other metal companies. Others steal (design ideas) from us all the time and it drives me crazy,” she said. “I want these to be 100 percent original.”
That original work has traveled around the globe. Grant said they have shipped orders to Japan and Guam, as well as all over the continental United States. Large organizations have placed orders to give away as gifts for special donors and realtors have purchased signs to give to new homeowners on the closing of a new house purchase.
Grant estimates they have shipped 60,000 signs since 2015, and though he doesn’t pay as much attention to the shipping destinations as he used to, he got a kick out of seeing one name on the mailing list a while back. As an Oakland Raiders fan, he was excited to see the name Derek Carr, quarterback for the Raiders, pop up on the shipping labels.
“As far as we know, (the sign) went to Derek Carr’s mom,” Grant said. “I was doing backflips.”
The Johnsons said they are currently catching up after the Christmas rush and are preparing for a new season of serving customers with their brand of inspirational art. The business is now back at operating with just the two of them after a small group of family and friends helped out with shipping during the holidays.
Grant said they hope to continue to improve their products and produce more designs that their customers will like. They’ve come a long way in five years, and they are focusing their future plans on expanding and improving what they do and even branching out into new territory.
But they’re grateful for the success they’ve already found, and the pleasure they’ve brought their customers with signs that beautify and inspire.
“Our plan is to keep going. I think this year we’re going to focus on coming up with a lot more designs and to keep selling,” he said. “We’ve been fortunate to work in metal because it’s allowed us to do a lot of good.”