Pamela & John Tomlin’s handcrafted nautical signs are a hit.
The North Shore of Massachusetts is all about the water – for centuries home to sailors, fishermen, lighthouse keepers and sea captains. In 2020 as the world hunkered down, creativity was sparked in thousands of homes across the country. One was on the North Shore. Pamela Tomlin is an award-winning freelance television producer, and was experiencing the seasonal lull between projects. That’s when she decided to make a nautical flag sign for her house – she and her husband John had nicknamed their cottage “Clambox.”
Stuck at home watching back episodes of “Gray’s Anatomy,” Pamela asked John to help make the sign, based on the international code flag alphabet. John Tomlin is the senior producer of the PBS television show “This Old House.” He was happy to help.
One night, early in the COVID shutdown, the Tomlins were sitting around the fire pit admiring the sign hanging on the house, when a friend suggested she make more. That night, Pamela put a post on Facebook and got ten orders. In less than a year she made close to one thousand.
Creativity is in Pamela’s blood. Her great-grandfather came to America from Italy as a sculptor. He turned that artistic skill to the theater, opening vaudeville palaces, forty in all, up and down the East Coast. Many survive today as cultural landmarks.
Pamela’s grandmother also had the creative gene, creating a business out of her love for puzzles. Pamela turned her creative energy to the small screen, producing television for over twenty years. So, how do you get from television to nautical signs?
“I’ve always loved the water having grown up on the Connecticut shore,” she says. “Nautical flags, beachy attire and boating designs attract my attention. They’re bright and colorful and always brighten my mood.” For her the nautical alphabet signs were a natural evolution.
It started as a hobby out of her one-car garage with a fantastic view of the Ipswich River. That was the inspiration for the company name, Ipswich River Craft. Throughout the spring and summer, people would walk by the garage and check out what Pamela was making and the orders started coming in.
Most people ordered last names, boat names, kids’ initials, dog names, or special words like “Welcome,” “Love” and “Home.” From the beginning everything was made from scratch, and only the best materials were used. The goal was an authentic looking New England sign. The design is simple yet elegant. Painted flag blocks sit on a gray background surrounded by a white frame cut specifically by a local woodworking artisan.
“I’ve learned a lot along the way, and thank God for connections,” says Pamela. “The pros from “This Old House” have taught me everything I know. Tom Silva taught me to use MDO (Medium Density Overlay plywood) and make jigs for consistent sizes. Mauro Henriquez taught me about Frog Tape and told me the best paint products to use.”
After much trial and error, Pamela settled on four sign sizes. Large is best for outdoor and cavernous indoor spaces. Medium is the most popular and is good for inside and out. Small and Mini sizes are nice choices for inside.
Not only are custom last names popular, Ipswich River Craft now creates home address plaques using nautical number pennants. As the pandemic year dragged on there was another inspiration. “My husband thought we should do a Whiskey Tango Foxtrot sign, which has been a major hit,” says Pamela. “Wink, wink…WTF…where the fish. We’ve made over 200.” Whiskey Tango Foxtrot became so successful that she’s made hats, tees and hoodies to fill the demand.
In the beginning, Pamela and John made everything, but then Fathers Day hit and she asked her neighbors to help. “If you drive around the island we live on here in Ipswich, there are over forty signs hanging on houses,” she says, smiling. “In Ipswich we went viral.”
“Never in a million years did I think I’d be the sign lady wearing paint clothes everyday and hanging out in my garage, but I love making people happy and that’s what happens when customers pick up their signs. The only downfall is I haven’t had a manicure in over a year!” ■
Ipswich River Craft has a website at IpswichRiverCraft.com.