There’s a lot going on at Natalie Chochrek’s house.
There are kids running around, a half-finished batting cage in the back yard and a full-fledged sign making, wood carving business in the carriage house out back. And, despite the chaos that seems never ending, Chochrek says she’s finally hitting her grove.
With her trusty laser cutter, pallets of wood and acrylic and a little creativity, Chochrek runs 1620 Designs out of the carriage house behind her Plymouth home. What started out as a small side project selling custom cutting boards and coasters online has turned into a full-time job that has her creating custom signs for local restaurants and businesses.
“It was a lot of trail and error. I gave up a couple of times, but I’m glad they didn’t stick because now I’ve found my little niche and my market and am doing well,” she said. “This was born out of a lot of late night brainstorming over whiskey.”
Chochrek, who’s 32, worked her entire adult life in the restaurant industry. She was a bar manager and bar tender until this summer, when 1620 Designs finally grew into something she could sustain full time. She knew she didn’t want to be in restaurants forever, but she also didn’t have any grand plans to be a wood carver or sign maker.
It wasn’t until four years ago, when her boyfriend bought a laser engraver to spruce up Jenga blocks he was making that she first caught the bug. She starting engraving cutting boards, making custom gift items and home decor, and ultimately found herself getting more and more creative with the pieces she was designing.
“I’ve always been very artistic. My mom wanted me to be an artist, but I told her artists don’t make any money,” she said. “But here we are.”
In her workshop space, Chochrek does everything herself. She designs orders on her computer, loads them into a laser cutter, stains wood, paints product and packages and ships pieces.
“It’s like an assembly line, but I’m the only one in it,” she said with a laugh. “I’ve always liked working with my hands, I’ve just always been like that.”
It’s selling directly to other businesses that has allowed Chochrek to fully dive into her own venture. In addition to generic things like “we’re open” signs and bathroom markers she sells on Amazon and Etsy, Chochrek has also started to work closely with local businesses to make signs directing customers and labeling product. It’s those custom jobs that allow her design instincts to shine.
“I’m always hoping and waiting for someone to order something fun and unique,” she said. “There are a lot of design options that are so fun for me, and I love creating a custom order and having someone love it.”
The most popular pieces are wood on wood – signs that look high-end and stand out thanks to various staining techniques. Mixes of acrylic and wood are also popular, and Chochrek is now selling 20 to 30 pieces per day — her sales are up 1,000 percent over this time last year.
“There comes a time in your business when you can say no to things, and I’m finally there,” she said. “It’s where I’ve always wanted to be and I love it.”
Photos in this post were taken by the wonderfully talented Greg Derr. They were originally published in The Patriot Ledger.