When Dave Uddman was 16, his dad bought him an engraving machine.
“He was a traveling salesmen who dealt with lots of jewelers,” Uddman recalled, “and they all needed engraving. Dad had managed a jewelry store, so he taught me the basics.
“I practiced in my bedroom for about six months until I was proficient.”
One of Uddman’s first commissions was a silver plate on which a customer wanted a poem carved.
“There were so many words, it took me days trying to figure it all out.”
Perhaps you could call it poetic justice, then, that Uddman has spent the past 38 years further perfecting his engraving skills.
“I rarely screw up anymore.”
Together with his sister Donna Scheidt, Uddman operates The Engraver shop at Monroe Street and Garland Avenue.
During a recent interview, they discussed sport trophies, sentimentality and sibling rivalry.
S-R: Did you two get along as kids?
Donna: We’re nine years apart — I’m the oldest and Dave’s the youngest, with two more sisters in between. And I left home when I was 18, so we didn’t really know each other well.
S-R: How did the business evolve?
Dave: Two years after working out of our home, my mom and I opened a little cubbyhole shop on Division in 1983. She’d get there in the morning, and I’d leave Shadle Park (High School) at noon and come in. My dad later quit his job and joined us, and it was the three of us until Donna arrived in ’95.
Donna: I worked 10 years for GMAC car financing. When they restructured and moved to Seattle, I was jobless. So my mom invited me to come handle the office, and I’ve been here ever since.
Dave: Our parents, Don and Sue Uddman, are still active in the business. Mom is the owner, and they both come in several days a week to help out.
Donna: All seven of their grandkids have worked here.
S-R: Do you remember how that first commission — the engraved plate — turned out?
Dave: No. But I’ve screwed up a few things over the years, and we’d run around town trying to replace a silver tray or a Cross pen.
Donna: If people come in with something antique or highly sentimental — something that can’t be replaced — we discourage engraving it. If they insist, they accept liability.
S-R: Have metal trophies pretty much disappeared?
Dave: Yes. We had a ton of pot-metal figures back in the early ’80s.
Donna: Now everything’s plastic and made in China.
Dave: We have a box of miscellaneous metal figures, and if someone comes in with a broken one, we can sometimes find a replacement.
S-R: What’s your most popular engraved item?
Donna: We do lots of name tags. You can get them cheaper online, but if they’re wrong, it’s a hassle. And we’re quicker.
Dave: Sometimes we can engrave something while the customer waits.
S-R: How about unusual requests?
Dave: We’ve added names to pocket watches that have been handed down from generation to generation.
Donna: One customer whose baby died brought in a plaster replica of the child’s hand and had my dad mount it beneath a glass dome, with an engraved plaque next to it.
S-R: Did you earn trophies growing up?
Dave: I got a few for sports — mostly baseball. I finally got rid of them a few years ago.
S-R: What do people do with trophies they no longer want?
Donna: They ask us to take them. We explain we don’t sell used parts, and they say, “But they’re so nice, and my dad won them.” I think secretly they want us to throw them away because they can’t bring themselves to do it.
S-R: What were your interests in high school, Donna?
Donna: Computers. And I’m kind of artistic. This job fills both niches, because I’m on a computer designing, doing logos, things like that.
S-R: Did you bring any skills learned at GMAC?
Donna: Good customer service. And when I arrived, mom was still using a ledger, so I set up a QuickBooks accounting system.
S-R: Which one of you runs the business today?
Dave: We both do.
Donna: I do laser and sandblasting, payroll and accounts payable.
Dave: And I do mostly production, maintenance and computer engraving.
S-R: What lessons did your parents instill that helped you succeed these past 38 years?
Dave: Definitely hard work. We’re here nights and come in on weekends until we get it done. My dad is about to turn 87, my mom is 83, and they still love to work.
Donna: They also taught us to be punctual, and do what we say we’ll do.
S-R: How has the business evolved?
Dave: Technology has changed. We started out engraving trophies by hand. Computerized engravers greatly increased productivity. Then lasers came along and are 10 times faster.
S-R: How has the competition changed?
Dave: There used to be 10 or 12 local engraving shops, all mom-and-pop. Now there are three, and one of those is for sale. Many closed because their owners got older and had no one to take over the business. Luckily, our parents had us. But we wonder about what we’re going to do with it in 10 years.
S-R: Did your parents one day say, “That’s it”?
Donna: No, and they haven’t said it yet. This is their baby. We make most decisions, but we still say, “Hey mom, this is what we’re going to do,” and she’s real agreeable.
S-R: How has demand changed?
Donna: We’re finding that the generation coming up is less sentimental. Some use plastic Champagne flutes at their weddings and don’t engrave their rings, so we have only a fraction of the wedding market we used to.
S-R: How about sport trophies?
Dave: Back in the day, darts were huge, pool was huge, and youth sports.
Donna: We’d hire our kids and their friends during trophy season, and our entire backshop would be packed with orders. A decade ago, every kid on the team got a little trophy. This generation doesn’t give feel-good trophies. Or they buy online, and we can’t compete with that.
Dave: But we get a lot of people who bring those trophies to us because they were engraved wrong.
S-R: What do you like most about your job?
Dave: Being our own boss, and the variety of work each day.
S-R: What do you like least?
Dave: In 36 years, I’ve never had more than 12 days off.
Donna: We have to force ourselves to take vacations, because when one of us is gone, that work doesn’t get done and we’re scrambling.
S-R: What’s your busiest time of year?
Dave: March to June.
Donna: That’s when we do colleges, high schools, retirements, births, marriages, deaths.
Dave: And as construction picks up, we do a lot of electrical tags.
S-R: What challenges lie ahead?
Donna: Ownership transition. If something were to happen to one of us, half our business would disappear.
Dave: Donna is in her 60s, I’m in my 50s. Our main thing is what are we going to do down the road. My son has worked here a couple of times. He likes it, but I don’t think it’s something he wants to do the rest of his life.
S-R: You’ve worked side by side in cramped quarters for almost a quarter-century. Can things occasionally get tense?
Dave: We have disagreements, but no knock-down, drag-outs. In fact, along with our salesperson, Jenna, we have a lot of fun.
Donna: (laugh) People sometimes say, “That must be awesome working in a family business!” And I say, “Do you want to have Thanksgiving and Christmas and birthdays and barbecues with your co-workers?”
Writer Michael Guilfoil can be contacted at email@example.com.
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