Sunday, January 02, 2000

Graphics artists impressive

Trio makes metal dies for special cards

Enquirer contributor

        The work of Three Dimensional Art Co. of Union, Ky., allows greeting card manufacturers to make great impressions.

        Thousands of Christmas cards, valentines and other special-occasion greetings are embossed using metal dies created by Debbie Egolf, Ron Egolf and Rich Riley of Three Dimensional Art. The raised surfaces created by pressing the card stock into an engraved mold have proved popular with card buyers.

  Three Dimensional Art Co. was formed in the fall of 1985 when Debbie Egolf, Ron Egolf and Rich Riley set up shop on Mr. Riley's family farm. The three met at Northern Kentucky University, where they were art majors. They graduated in 1974.
  Before striking out on their own, the three artists worked for a man (now semi-retired) in the Union area who produced embossing dies. Ron and Debbie Egolf, once married to each other, have divorced but maintain a cordial working relationship.
  Since focusing their efforts on creating metal dies for greeting cards, the artists have turned out about 15 dies each week. The dies become the property of the greeting card company, but Three Dimensional Art makes fiberglass copies of each die as backup. Occasionally, they are asked to reproduce a metal plate from the copy.
  Most of the company's work shows up on cards sold in the United States, but some of their dies have proved so popular that the cards sell internationally and are reprinted year after year.
        Since forming their company 14 years ago, the three graphic artists have defined their professional niche, established an impressive track record and developed an interlocking set of skills that allows them to work together efficiently.

        Their job begins when an image on clear plastic film arrives from the card company. Mr. Riley transfers the outlines onto a magnesium or brass plate and sculpts the rough image with a milling machine.

        Ms. Egolf takes over from there. To create details within the sculpted area, she traces them from the film and carves them with a pneumatic grinder.

        A visitor might think that he had stepped into a dentist's office.

        “This is a very high-speed grinder, 85,000 rpm,” she said. “It sounds like ones that dentists use. Some of the burrs we use are dental, and we also get our polishing tools from a dental supply company.”

        The three partners say that Ms. Egolf's speed and accuracy have been essential to the development of their business.

        “My father made surgical instruments,” Ms. Egolf said. “When I was in high school, I used to help him. I've always been good with my hands.”

        Speed, accuracy and a large dose of work ethic helped the three survive in the early days after forming their own company.

        “The first two years we did whatever it took,” Mr. Riley said. “In the beginning, we probably did business with any company in Cincinnati that did embossing. We did a lot of corporate logos, all kinds of models, plastic injection molds used in cake decoration, and ceramic molds for hobby companies.”

        Their goal was to specialize in embossing dies for greeting cards, because the artists thought that would be their most profitable enterprise. They have done occasional work for American Greetings, but that company makes most of its dies in-house. Gibson Greetings, however, sends out all its die-making. The two companies are awaiting completion of their merger, announced earlier this year.

        After the artists established a track record with Gibson, the card maker has kept them busy.

        “They are good people, excellent people,” said Ray Class of Gibson Greetings' digital design department, who serves as the company's liaison with Three Dimensional Art. “They do anything we need quickly, as well as special projects.”

        The special projects have included one of President Reagan's Christmas cards and a card that George Voinovich sent when he was governor of Ohio. The partners also have produced graduation invitations for the U.S. Naval Academy.

        “We can make or break the design,” Mr. Egolf said, explaining why the quality of their dies is so important. He pointed out the subtle textures and three-dimensional gradations that make images eye-catching, even when the design is done without any extra coloring — a technique called blind embossing.

        The three are proud that they've never had a die returned to them because it was unsatisfactory.

        While their current process is very traditional, Mr. Egolf, Ms. Egolf and Mr. Riley say they know that computer technology is nudging its way into their business.

        “We're keenly aware of computer-aided drafting systems,” Mr. Riley said, “but the software is not there yet. And since we have to finish the dies by hand, we might as well do it all by hand.”

        “There will always be a need for hand finishing,” Mr. Egolf said.

        If their artistic specialty is unusual, the company's location is no less so.

        Three Dimensional Art operates from several outbuildings on Mr. Riley's family farm outside Union. Thousands of Mr. Egolf's fiberglass copies of the metal dies are stored in their main workroom. Other buildings contain materials and machinery.

        “We've got more fiberglass in the barn than tobacco,” Mr. Egolf said with a smile.

        The farm, in Mr. Riley's family for 150 years, is under consideration for listing on the National Historic Register. Its 200 acres are leased to farmers who graze sheep and grow corn, soybeans and tobacco.

        “The current farmstead dates from the turn of the century, and the farm looks about like it did during World War I,” Mr. Riley said. “Farms like this used to be a common sight around here, but most are gone now.“

        Locating his company on the farm provided a good way for Mr. Riley to keep the property in his family. The setting also proves an incentive for coming to work.

        “I would hate to be stuck in an industrial park,” Ms. Egolf said. “Here there are birds and deer. If you grew up in the country, you sort of want to stay there.”


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