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Reflections on the Craft

Despite the constant supply of new and exciting technology, some members of the sign industry are staying true to traditional techniques. Rob Fletcher finds out more

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HNS Signs says traditional sign-making represents 35 percent of its overall business and expects this to grow over the next year. Pictured: Mary Hughes from the firm concentrates as she creates a mural for the Arcadian Centre

Out with the new and in with the old

Despite what the famous saying suggests, you can teach an old dog new tricks. However, while this may be true, what if the old tricks are in fact better and offer more than the new ones?

No matter how much new technology we are treated to here in the sign industry, traditional sign-making will always have a place. The nostalgic, and vintage look and feel that such products offer to the end-user is what makes them so unique, and this is something that has been identified by many companies that still opt for this type of work.

Here, we speak to some of those sign-makers that are keeping with tradition when it comes to production, as well as those that are using older techniques alongside the more modern methods in order to offer a wide range of services and products to their customers.

Bringing value to a business

Founded in 1954, Bournemouth-based Ultrasign offers a range of sign-making services to the market, with experience in both contemporary and traditional aspects of the trade. Lee Jones, manager and sign-writer, whose grandfather started the company, says traditional sign-making can help bring value to a business, adding that such methods prove popular with customers.

HNS Signs has been using traditional methods in a project at the Arcadian Centre in Birmingham. The work involves painting large anamorphic graphics onto floors and walls

“With the advent of vinyl, my dad had to get involved with computer-generated signs and demand for hand-painted work dropped,” Jones says, adding: “But he’s always used those skills, and in recent years there has definitely been an increase in interest.

“I come from a vinyl background, but I’m desperately trying to learn as much as I can from my father before he retires, so I can keep going with that side of the business. I consider it part of the company DNA so it’s important to maintain that.”

When clients see that we practice and can offer traditional, hand-painted methods alongside the more contemporary methods, it adds value and authenticity to our business

Jones adds: “I do think it brings significant value to the business. The work itself fluctuates—sometimes we’re busier with the vinyl work, other times we have a busy run of traditional work. But no matter what work we’re doing, when clients see that we practice and can offer traditional, hand-painted methods alongside the more contemporary methods, it adds value and authenticity to our business. And hopefully our customers can see that they’re in safe, experienced hands, regardless of what methods we use to produce their work.”

Ultrasign was recently involved in a project where it had to line and strip a vintage steam engine for a customer in Dorset

Ultrasign counts hand-painted lettering as its main method of traditional work, although Jones explains that the company sometimes uses freehand methods, which involve setting out and lettering by hand, as well as plotters to set out pounce patterns. In addition, Ultrasign can offer gold leaf and gilding services, as well as pictorial work, pub signs, and, occasionally, murals.

Looking back over the past year, which Jones describes as “very good” for the company, he picks out some of the more standout projects that he is particularly proud of.

Jones comments: “I had to paint large quotes by Albert Einstein and Malcolm X on the corridor walls of a local school earlier this year, then more recently I had an entire school language department to hand-letter—consisting of 16 different quotes in Latin, Spanish, Italian and French.

“We were also involved in lining and striping a vintage steam engine for one of our customers in Dorset. I’ve not done a huge amount of lining work so that was a fun job and a valuable learning experience.”

Sense of pride

Another company fully committed to traditional techniques is Midhurst-based Osborne Signs, which was founded in 1993. Owner Wayne Osborne cites high-end pub signs, as well as heraldry work, as a key source of income for his company.

Osborne Signs recently produced large signboards for The Princess Royal regiment and The Royal Fusiliers

Osborne explains: “Since the computer came along and took all of the boring sign work, I get to do a lot more high-end, quality pub signs and heraldry work. I have made some large signboards with a lot of military heraldry on for The Princess Royal regiment and The Royal Fusiliers; these are great jobs to get your teeth into.

“Also, I was recently asked to gild four clock faces and pennant flags on the historic market Cross at Chichester—our local city—and these will be around for a long time to come.

“I continue to see a definite upsurge in the demand for traditional painted sign work. Also, here in the south, we are seeing a lot more new start up businesses and our region is bucking the trend of the recession years that created so many empty shops—which of course leads to new work for the sign-writer especially here, where we have such a lot of lovely old buildings and pubs where a painted sign is just what’s needed.”

As to why Osborne Signs has remained true to traditional methods and resisted the temptation of investing in more modern technology, Osborne says producing a sign or similar product by hand gives him not only a lot of freedom, but also a real sense of pride.

Osborne comments: “I have always been 100 percent paint and brush, and offer no vinyl or digital at all, so have always been that sort of specialist. I pride myself that the work we send out is always of the highest quality in terms of materials and fit and finish, as well as effective and good design that my customers really seem to appreciate.

Osborne Signs produces a lot of high-end, quality pub signs for customers, citing such products as one of its main sources of income

“The nature of the type of work I do also allows me lots of freedom with lettering and design, and I get to develop and use my own styles of lettering and graphics without having to use set typefaces and clipart graphics, so I feel I really get to enjoy the process a lot more.”

Osborne goes on to say that he is keen to pass his knowledge on to youngsters, and plans to host a number of classes this year to enable the next generation keep traditional methods alive.

Osborne says: “While I would love to be able take a couple of proper apprentices on here to carry on the trade, it’s not really viable anymore with my workload, so this is a lovely way to introduce the craft to young people, and hopefully there will be someone else around doing this type of work when we are all dead and gone!”

Satisfying customer demand

Despite the advantages of traditional methods, there is the option to combine such techniques with modern practices. A company that enjoys the best of both worlds is HNS Signs, which, based in Birmingham, offers modern solutions to signs as well as more traditional signs. Manager Andreea Lake says this diversified service offering is what sets the firm apart from its rivals.

HNS Signs has been using traditional methods in a project at the Arcadian Centre in Birmingham. The work involves painting large anamorphic graphics onto floors and walls

Lake explains: “Most of our work consists of modern signs, and by this I mean illuminated trays, fabricated letters, and even digital prints. However, around 35 percent of work is more traditional, and we are seeing an increase in this area, with more than £14,000 worth of traditional sign painting booked for January and £13,000 for February.
“We offer it because there is a demand for it, and with so few being able to do it, it helps us to get a foot in the door with many marketing agencies and other sign companies.”

With HNS Signs’ main traditional method being sign painting, Lake pays tribute to the company’s staff for being so creative in their work, which includes a host of applications such as shopfronts, honours boards, wall art, and gold leaf gilding.

Lake says: “All of us at HNS are creative. We find being able to mix traditional methods with modern allows us to be more creative and offer something truly unique. Interestingly, we tend to find that the profit margins on traditional methods, such as sign painting, can be more profitable.”

Citing one example of traditional sign work, Lake highlights an ongoing project for Birmingham’s Arcadian Centre, which involves painting large anamorphic graphics onto the floors and walls of the centre.

Lake explains that the work is a far cry away from some of the more modern techniques used today: “Some of the images are so large that it could be classed more as decorating than sign painting, but we have had the sables out on many occasions to paint way-finding directories onto the walls. We have also been using paper traces to draw out symbols and typography for the smaller images, free hand drawing large numerals, and using projectors for the anamorphic ones.”

While modern technologies undoubtedly open the door to new opportunities and often ease the stress on sign-makers, there is something about traditional methods that makes them so special. The sense of achievement after creating a sign by hand must beat that of one made on a machine, and in a fast-paced world where everyone seems to be in a hurry, the time it takes to produce a quality sign has to be appreciated.

O Factoid: Sign-making and its methods go back thousands of years. In 2013, researchers discovered what they believed to be one of the world’s earliest warning signs in the ancient Turkish settlement of Catalhoyuk. The 9,000-year-old wall painting appears to show a village in front of an erupting volcano.  O

For members of the industry keen to learn more about traditional methods and see some in action, this year’s debut edition of SignLink Live at the International Centre in Telford will feature a special area dedicated to just this. ‘Craftsman’s Corner’ will host champions of traditional sign-making from across the UK, and promises to be one of the most popular areas of the new event, which will run from October 11th to 13th alongside co-located commercial print focused event, The Print Show.

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