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For Fans Who Should Know Better

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Mudville: April 20, 2024 9:58 am PDT
BY KEVIN CZERWINSKI

Lee Johnson’s journey to becoming one of the more popular custom card artists sounds similar to many others who began creating one-of-a-kinds during the pandemic. His trip, however, didn’t begin like that of so many others.

Johnson, 27, a former college pitcher, was a card collector as youngster but school and life ultimately forced him to put the hobby aside. It wasn’t until the pandemic hit that he rediscovered his love of cards. Instead of making them, though, he started buying them.

“I probably spent too much money right away,” said Johnson, who is a middle school special education teacher in Louisville [Ky.].

It wasn’t until he realized that he had more cards “laying around” than he knew what to do with that he decided that he could create something with them. So, he headed to Walmart, picked up an X-Acto knife and used all the free time he had – he was still teaching from home via Zoom – to begin putting together some of the genre’s most unique and substantial cards. Three years later, LJ’s Custom Cards are among the most sought after in the industry. He can also be found on X [Twitter] and Instagram.

“It’s continuing to grow year-by-year,” said Johnson, who pitched at the NAIA and Division III level before a shoulder injury and the desire to be at a larger school ended his playing career. He ultimately graduated from Western Kentucky. “I enjoy the creativity [of it] and being able to piece a lot of things together.  When it comes to art, I am very illiterate. I can’t draw stuff. But I saw stuff on Instagram like Donny B and Card Killer and thought I could probably do something like that and put my own spin on it.

“I tried all kinds of things like epoxy resin and now I’ve found my niche building up 3-D cards. I’ll put patches and stuff in there and add the 3-D effect for that extra shine.”

That extra shine can be found on nearly 1,000 of Johnson’s creations. His creations can range in price between $100 and $125 depending on the complexity and additions such as autographs, patches etc. All are standard card size, but each is 130-point thick [about six or seven cards thick]. The patch pieces are cut up iron-on patches depicting a team’s colors and or logos. Johnson says around half of his cards are baseball, but football remains his biggest seller.

“The only thing that varies in prices is if I add autographs and the borders can cost more,” Johnson said. “I normally pull the autographs off other cards and I have done a few off jerseys. Recently, I recently did a Ronald Acuna and cut up a baseball and used the autograph from the baseball. I also recently did a gold vinyl Elly De La Cruz. That’s probably my favorite.”

Johnson said he has gotten the process for making each card down to about two hours. He likened it to muscle memory and the years of experience have provided him with the knowledge of which blades to use when and which cards would present the right image.

“They are all one-of-ones,” he said. “I try to add some color to match the team colors and try to make it look like something someone would collect as a one-of-one. You can find a one-of-one Patrick Mahomes that can cost thousands of dollars and I can make one that costs much less than that. I like to find something that will catch the eye so there is a lot of scrolling through eBay to find the right cards to cut up.”

Once Johnson has the cards he ordered, he will cut up four 1990 Upper Deck baseball cards to create the filler needed for the 3-D effect. He glues them together, cuts out a border and sizes up the patch to make sure it fits. He’ll then cut out the player from another card in addition to a nameplate from yet another card before putting some “shiny vinyl on it for effect”. He then places a weight on top of the card to provide pressure as the glue sets and dries.

“When I first started, I just used any cards I had laying around,” said Johnson, who is a Cincinnati Reds fan. “Now I am very tailored in what I buy and what I use. I use eBay and buy one card at a time and that can make it difficult because of the time. I have to wait for everything that gets mailed to you. Sometimes, though, I’ll go to the card shop and go through the dollar bin to see if there is anything there.”

“Once I put it together, it doesn’t take too long to dry. Gorilla Glue is pretty instant; it’s like liquid concrete. I’ll put a [rectangular storage] box of cards on it as a weight and use fans to speed up the drying process.”

Johnson said he follows the card market closely to stay current with the trends in the industry, adding that Arizona’s Corbin Carroll, De La Cruz and Acuna have been hot cards this year and that Shohei Ohtani has been “huge” the last two years. He is looking to work on some of the late-season call-ups that he may have missed – though he has done promising Yankees slugger Jasson Dominguez.

“I’ve done some older players, maybe one or two Barry Bonds or a Pedro Martinez,” he said. “The stuff from when I was growing up would be cool but there is not much of a market for it. Following the card market is like following the stock market, you have to see who is hot. Certain retired players like Ken Griffey, Jr. are hot, but because of the steroids, there are not a lot of collectors of that era. They’ve shied away and not collected them as much.”

Collectors, however, haven’t shied away from Johnson. While he isn’t at a point where he can make this a full-time business, it is something about which he is thinking. Currently, though, he says teaching remains a passion and field in which he would like to experience more professional growth. Throw in the fact that the job provides benefits and the decision to stick with it is an easy one.

“I just want to see where life takes me and I’d like to see this [creating cards] grow,” he said.

Covered a Mets-Astros doubleheader in 1987 and never looked back. Spent eight years at MLB.com, more than half of that as the Mets beat writer. Had one beat writer from another newspaper threaten to kill him in an elevator at the winter meetings. The other half was as MiLB.com’s staff historian. Worked three years in Philly at Comcast covering the Phillies’ minor leagues and doing weekly TV spots. Author of the popular blog The Bobblist, which covers everything A to Z in the world of bobbleheads. Really.

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