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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Couple takes license with creativity with Just Plate Crazy

By Cynthia Reugh For The Spokesman-Review

A north Spokane couple is giving new life to thousands of old vehicle license plates, but they don’t have to worry about renewing those expired tabs.

“I kind of like to say that license plates found me,” said Trina Olheiser, who discovered her alphanumeric calling after stumbling upon a handful of metal plates at a Lynnwood, Washington, garage sale 10 years ago. “I had been repurposing other things like old coffee cans and selling them at little craft shows.

“I was like, ‘I wonder what we could do with these license plates?’ ” said Olheiser, who enlisted the assistance of her husband, Steve, to brainstorm product ideas.

“We cut up all of the license plates that she had bought and we had a pile of letters,” Steve Olheiser said. “We got online and I found a Scrabble website. You punch in all of the letters you have and then it tells you what words you can make. Our first signs we made were strange ones like WINE, MOM, BUCK, different things like that, but they sold right away.”

The pair later formed Just Plate Crazy to market their creative signs and began the hunt for additional license plates, the family residence gradually engulfed by colorful piles of aluminum from all 50 states.

“It had taken over our entire house. Every room had license plates just stacked all over,” said Trina Olheiser, whose repurposed inventory expanded to include novel gift items such as heart-shaped wall pockets, ornaments and cylinder lights.

The Olheisers relocated to Spokane a year ago, where demand for their locally produced products has been steady at area farmers markets and craft shows.

“If we make a GONZAGA sign or GO ZAGS (sign) and hang it up … it’s gone right away,” Steve Olheiser said.

Other hot sellers include MAN CAVE signs and custom designs for wedding anniversaries, especially that 10th year, traditionally celebrated with a tin or aluminum gift.

The creation of each personalized sign involves the switching and swapping of license plate pieces to achieve high-low balance and maximum visual appeal. Completed layouts are then mounted onto a repurposed cedar wood plaque and sent home with local buyers.

While generous donations help keep license plate supplies robust, Trina Olheiser said obtaining rare plate styles or popular numbers and letters can prove challenging.

“A lot of times we have to buy 100 plates just to get 10 E’s,” said Trina Olheiser, who handles more consonants and vowels than “Wheel of Fortune” host Vanna White.

The pair frequently taps a nationwide network of license plate sellers.

“We have about five or six sources across the United States that we can contact that have an access to certain states in their region. We purchase them in large quantities from these different people and I would say we’ve probably gone through 25 to 30,000 plates so far,” Steve Olheiser said said.

“We make vintage stars with plates from the ’60s and ’70s that give kind of that Americana look to the plate. Just kind of a rustic, looks like it’s been hanging on a barn for 40 or 50 years.”

A self-proclaimed license plate nerd, Trina Olheiser has relished the opportunity to learn about state designs, alphabetical runs and lettering oddities.

“Every state has their own font on their license plate. Some appear high on the plate, some are low on the plate. You have to kind of embrace the variety,” Trina Olheiser said. “I like the aged, kind of shows the history of where it’s been, little rock dents or things like that, but we have them both ways. We have vintage, scratched up ones and then we have newer ones that haven’t seen much wear.”

Personalized license plate signs are great conversation pieces with words and dates that carry special significance for buyers and recipients. As sellers, the Olheisers feel good knowing their repurposed products are helping to reduce trash in area landfills.

“The supplies that we buy contribute very little waste back into the environment,” said Trina Olheiser, who enjoys handing customers finished artwork knowing she has just made somebody a very meaningful gift. “If people can dream it, we’ll put it on a sign.”