When Pamela Tomlin and her husband, John, moved to a little house on the water in Ipswich, they named it the Clambox.
“I grew up on the water,” says Tomlin, “and I love everything nautical.” Including, she explains, nautical flags—each flag represents a different number or letter of the alphabet, allowing ships to communicate with each other.
Even in this age of technology, ships still use nautical flags to send messages quickly and easily. Different letters or combinations of letters convey messages like calls for help or warnings. Tomlin has no shortage of this nautical knowledge—she grew up boating, and even took a Coast Guard class. Last year, she decided to put her boating expertise and her creative streak to use and launched Ipswich River Craft.
Tomlin creates custom handmade wooden signs using the nautical alphabet. She and her husband, a senior producer for This Old House, made their first sign in early 2020. It read, “Clambox,” and they mounted it on the side of their house.
For 25 years, Tomlin worked as a TV producer, traveling the country and the world producing stories for major TV networks. But with the COVID-19 pandemic came the loss of job opportunities for freelancers like Tomlin. So she turned toward a new creative outlet last spring.
A friend loved her Clambox nautical flag sign and suggested she make more. “So that night I put it on Facebook,” says Tomlin, “and I had 10 orders by the next morning.”
Since that night, Tomlin has become a full-time artist, working out of her garage and employing the help of neighborhood friends to crank out handmade nautical signs of all shapes and sizes for adoring customers throughout the country. “In a million years, I would’ve never told you this was going to be my life,” says Tomlin. “But I’m pretty happy with it right now,” she laughs.
While most customers like to order last names, Tomlin can turn any special word into nautical flags, like boat names, street names, and other special words like “love” or “family.” The signs come in four sizes: mini, small, medium, and large, with heights ranging from eight to fifteen inches tall. Tomlin says the large size is great for an outdoor sign, while medium is her most popular size.
Once an order is placed and a word determined, Tomlin and her team get to work painting blocks and trimming the molding she has specially made by a local artisan. Since each sign is handmade, they’re customizable. “Most people go for the traditional look, the gray background with the white frame, but we’ll do anything,” says Tomlin.
Tomlin and her team have learned from the best of the best—“the guys from This Old House came over and taught me all the tricks,” she says. Her signs have become especially popular with newlyweds, and real estate agents will often give them as closing gifts.
For Mother’s Day, Tomlin is created special “I Love U” signs as gifts for moms. She also sells service flag plaques, featuring the service flag and the initials of your beloved Armed Forces veteran. These plaques give back, too—for every plaque sold, Ipswich River Craft will donate $25 to Homes for Our Troops, helping to build accessible homes for severely injured post-9/11 veterans.
Amid the suffering of the past year, Tomlin has found connection with her community through this new creative outlet. “I’m so happy I found this little niche,” she says. “The people of Ipswich put me on the map. I could never have done it without them.”
For more information, visit ipswichrivercraft.com.