Cover, Features

Putting Heart and Soul Into A Masterpiece : Cathy Heidt

story by Kelly Harley      photos by Shelia Scott

Tucked behind her house in Effingham County sits Cathy Heidt’s shop; you could even call it her little piece of paradise. The big red shed is filled with all of the tools she needs to create what many call unique masterpieces. The walls are lined with sheets of tin, aluminum, old shovels, gas cans, saws, big oil drum lids and pretty much any other metal you can cut. Some may look at these items as rusted or worn out tools, but to Cathy they are her canvases. Eight years ago, Cathy learned to run a handheld plasma cutter machine. That’s when she discovered her passion for making handmade creations and hasn’t stopped since. While she doesn’t call her hobby a business, Tin Signs & Backyard Creations has definitely grown over the years, and despite her humble demeanor, her products are in demand.

How She Creates 

     Cathy’s approach to plasma cutting is one she has down to a science. Self-taught by reading the tricks of the trade and making plenty of mistakes, it’s safe to call her an expert. She’s very disciplined in her approach and is adamant that safety comes first. Before she even begins cutting any piece of metal, she spends nearly a half hour doing maintenance on her equipment to ensure it is properly working. The plasma cutter runs on 220 volts of electricity and the heat coming out is 20,000 degrees. She has to check for any moisture in the compressor and air lines because if there is any, she could stand the chance of being electrocuted.

     She also dresses the part when she begins cutting. “My clothes can’t have any frays. I have to wear heavy work pants and pants with no cuffs,” says Cathy. “I also wear leather shoes, a mask and eye protection.”

     Cathy, who describes herself as a simple person, exudes simplicity while she works. The table she cuts on is actually an old cabinet that she added wheels and blocks to make it the height she needed. It’s only about 3 feet by 2 feet; however, Cathy insists that’s all she needs. Offers to make her a new, bigger table have come, but Cathy’s mentality is if it isn’t broke, why fix it. If you watch her work, you’ll see has everything she needs to make beautiful pieces of art. Fancy isn’t a necessity.

An Artistic Eye from the Beginning  

     During her younger years, Cathy recalls the love she had working with her hands. As a child, she had very few toys and spent most of her time in her father’s shop playing with tools. Her father, who was a machinist, always let her and her brothers learn how to do things. “My dad placed no restrictions on the fact that I was female,” says Cathy. “He believed in equal opportunity and instilled a great work ethic in us. I never heard him say you can’t do something.”

     Cathy says she was also given a gift by God and that gift is to draw. “If I can see it in my head, I can transpose it on paper,” says Cathy. When Cathy creates a sign or a design on a shovel or saw, she hand draws it. Her drawing tool of choice is white chalk. If she messes up, she simply uses her hand to erase it and starts over. While many other sign cutters use computers to map out their designs, Cathy won’t ever go that route. “Lines don’t have to be perfectly straight, that is what makes my creations unique,” says Cathy. “With computer-based drawings, everyone gets the same design. With my hand-drawn creations, even if I draw the same thing, no two are alike. Something is always different.”

A Passion for Creativity 

     Cathy proudly displays the very first sign she created on her barn wall; it’s a smiling sunshine. Her daughter later asked her to cut a friend’s monogram in a piece of old tin for a bridal shower decoration. From that creation, people quickly started asking her to make signs for them. Every sign she creates is done in her free time. She works full time as a Registered Respiratory Therapist at Effingham Hospital, where she’s been for 20 years. She works in the emergency room and admits some days are stressful and sad. While she loves her job, there are days when she needs to come home and decompress; that’s when she retreats to her red shed and cranks up her machine. “The machine gives me the time and solitude and I feel like I’m in a whole other world.”

     In 2014, Cathy was diagnosed with breast cancer and used her creations to get her through the treatments. After beating cancer, Cathy made a sign for herself. It reads, “Lord let me live every day as the gift that it is.” It’s one sign that Cathy says she “retired,” meaning she won’t ever make another one like it.

Design with Meaning 

     Like her sign she made for herself after beating breast cancer, there are plenty of other creations Cathy won’t recreate. These particular signs or creations are ones she makes for people and ones that have meaning behind them. People will call her and say I have an old saw or piece of tin I found in my grandfather’s shed and I would like for you to create a design on it. To Cathy, those are the ones that matter most. “When I can find those people and they get to save a piece of their history, they almost get tearful. That’s what it is all about,” says Cathy.

     Cathy also uses her talent to help local organizations. One in particular is the organization CURE Childhood Cancer. Each year she donates a sign to the Savannah, Statesboro and Springfield banquets to be auctioned off. One sign raised over $400 dollars for the organization. She also donates signs to Faith Equestrian Therapeutic Center and The Lowcountry Down Syndrome Society. “My God-given gift to draw and cut these signs is a blessing,” says Cathy. “A Higher Power gave me this ability and this is a way I can pay it forward.”

Always a Hobby, Never a Business 

     Cathy says business has really picked up in the past two years, mostly by word of mouth and people seeing her work. She does very little advertising and she doesn’t care to attend craft shows and festivals. She doesn’t want it to be about the money and she definitely doesn’t want it to feel like work. While she said it’s not like work, Cathy definitely pours her heart and soul into her passion. When she gets a day to cut, she will spend all day in her red shed, bringing her ideas (and those of others) to life. Her shed has no air conditioner and she uses several fans to keep cool and ventilate her space, yet she never complains. The joy she can bring to others and to herself beats having a fancy shop filled with the latest and greatest technologies.

     Over the years, it would be hard to estimate how many hours she’s devoted to her hobby. She has photo albums filled with all of the wonderful pieces she has created. If you flip through the pages of each album, you’ll notice one thing; each of Cathy’s creation is unique and each one has meaning, especially for those they are made for. “I love being able to take something that doesn’t look very nice and make it look pretty. I like to try everything I can,” says Cathy.

     And try she does. Each creation is an inspiration. It proves that using what God gave you and putting it to good use can make a difference. Cathy’s passion is certainly a driving force behind her own happiness and the happiness she brings to others.

     To see some of Cathy’s creations, you can visit her Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/customtinsigns/.

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