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The Future of Traditional Skills

Traditional sign-writing is alive, well, and experiencing something of a revival reports Harry Mottram. But without training and investment, the industry’s future is in doubt

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Signlink Live 2017 provided a platform to showcase traditional skills and was very well received by its thousands of visitors. Pictured: the beaming team from the Craftsman’s Corner had skills which covered sign-writing, pin striping, wood carving, and gold leaf gilding

A brush with the future

If you attend sign exhibitions around the world, you might wonder what happened to the traditional sign-writer, as there is precious little evidence for the core skills of painting signs by hand. This is something Signlink Live 2017 sought to remedy by running the Craftsman’s Corner when it took place at The International Centre in Telford, and to the surprise of the organisers it received more footfall and attention than any other area of the show on average.

Indeed, this should have been no surprise, there is in fact a thriving business in traditional sign-writing across the country with scores of artists making their living from this the most traditional of skills. Almost all of them are sole traders, happy to work on their own, or sometimes with an assistant or a family member. Some sign-makers retain a member of staff or two, who will turn their hand to painting signs by hand, but for the most part signage companies no longer have this skill readily at their disposal in-house.

Despite this fairly happy state of affairs there is a problem and it is one that is likely to get worse in the future.

The fact is most sign-writers are of a certain age, having been trained in the skills at college or as an apprentice when such avenues of education still existed. Colleges no longer offer sign-writing as a course taught by a professional sign-maker. Walsall College has a Level 2 NVQ Sign Making Course, and there is only a passing mention of sign-writing in the course literature.

Courses available

A generation or two ago colleges of further education ran courses that included sign-writing, but these have almost all gone now. In their place some sign-writers have organised their own courses, such as the ones offered by NGS Signsmiths in London, Osborne Signs in Sussex, Scribe Traditional Signwriting in Wolverhampton, and Wayne Tanswell at the Sign Studio in Sussex—who offers training courses through his books and videos.
Many however undertake the courses on a hobby level, so do not hold your breath that the further education courses of old have been fully replaced. In the meantime, the generation who left school in the 1970s and 1980s are making a living out of the trade. This is due in part to a growing market for the skill in a world—over saturated by wide-format, vinyl, and built up plastic signage—that is crying out for something that is original and has a human touch.

This was the opinion of sign-writer Jay Chapman of Walesby in Nottinghamshire, who explains his path to becoming a sign-writer: “I did a sign-writing course after I left school at Westbourne College in Huthwaite in Nottinghamshire. After that I worked in the industry using vinyl in the early 1990s. In about 1995 I left that business and concentrated on traditional sign-writing as there was a call for it in the area. What with the pub chains and the bespoke restaurants and those sorts they wanted individual signs painted by hand. And there were also owners of narrowboats that wanted unique signage painted. It’s like with all things, the high street has fashions and sign-writing goes in and out of favour.”

Jay Chapman studiously works away creating a unique and eye-catching retro-look for a classic tradesman’s van

Core skills

Another sign-writer who took a slightly different path although still finds his sign-writing skills of use is Darren Roughton of Signs of the Times. The firm employs more than 40 staff and was acquired by Astley Signs a couple of years back and today creates the full raft of signage available with modern technology for their high-end clients, but still uses traditional skills for many jobs.

Roughton says: “The skills have kept me in work and I’ve been very fortunate as I started when we had the old Zund’s. Things have progressed since then. The first job in sign-writing was at C Cork and Son in Northampton—I was there for three years and then I moved on to start my own business.

“I wanted to be an illustrator, but there wasn’t an opportunity to do that when I left school. I was quite fortunate as I worked for Volvo Trucks and we were visited by a sign company and I asked was there a chance of being taken on as a sign-writer. I’d done a small sketch of one of the alligator machines on a truck as a child and this chap remembered me and said: ‘I’ll give you a month’s trial, but if you’re not any good we won’t keep you on, so it’s down to you to make the grade’.
“Fortunately, I have a certain talent when it comes to pictorial composition. They showed me what to do and I bought all my own paints and brushes as I wanted to do the job. It’s what I say to those starting out—if you want a career as a sign-writer you have got to put yourself about and to get on and do it.”

Having made a success of his time in Northampton, Roughton set up shop at the back of a printing company in Kettering and built up a business using the latest that technology could offer.

A unique signature

Meanwhile, Chapman says that it was his time at college that built up his understanding of type-faces and the various styles that can be used to decorate anything from an antique mirror to a canal boat. He explains: “At college we worked on typography a lot so we would have the old Letraset catalogues and Microgram catalogues and the teachers would set projects and we would have to produce designs and then scale it up and paint the design full size. A true understanding of typefaces is essential for a sign-writer. You need to draw the typeface and then to paint it but also put your own slant on it as well. It’s nice to round some characters off or to put an extra lick on an R or a Q.

Jay Chapman is watched closely by a budding sign-writer as he puts the finishing touches to a narrowboat

“That unique personal signature to sign-writing is probably my favourite aspect of the job. A lot of people are quite prepared to pay for something that is bespoke. You can walk down any canal towpath and see canal boats with vinyl signs, it depends on the individual owner and their taste, and also their budget. But some of these individuals will be paying up to £90,000 to £120,000 for a decent boat, and so may stretch to an extra couple of grand to have it hand painted with elaborate typestyles with lines and shading which you can’t achieve as well with vinyl. To be honest a hand painted sign can be quite competitive with vinyl, so there’s not much difference in the price.”

The subtle emotive effect and visual impact of a truly-hand written sign is impossible to replicate through any other means. Pictured: the skilled work of Jay Chapman

Traditional look

Although Roughton usually works on more contemporary jobs, his skills are still needed. He explains that it is indeed the uniqueness of every hand written sign that is keeping this medium ‘in vogue’: “We have moved into what I call art-based pieces, but you still get heavily involved with it as they still want traditional methods to produce the work. Down in London now there are all of these new specialist shops and they want the old traditional look.”

Indeed, this is something that has kept sign-writer Mark Hill in business down in Devon for the last 28 years. He says: “With our high streets looking increasingly similar there has never been a better time for one-off hand produced individual signs to really stand out. Using traditional methods and high quality materials, such as sign-writing enamels and gold leaf, a well laid out sign can not only be attractive but also long lasting. I will provide a competitive and very often economic alternative sign that will project quality and uniqueness.”

Mark Hill’s handiwork on the vast canvas of a pub in Devon showcases beautifully the atmosphere when signs are created using a human touch

He continues: “I went on a sign-writing course in Plymouth, but there’s nothing like that there now. However the suppliers of my equipment run lettering courses in London, as creatives and those with nostalgic interest in it are taking up sign-writing, not just as a business, but often as a hobby.”

Wayne Osborne in West Sussex agrees with Hill that the hobby interest in sign-writing has helped to raise its profile once again, and the spread of such work over social media has helped ironically to further drive demand from brand and business owners. In addition, he cites a rejection of digitally generated imagery and printed graphics from those who’s ambition is to create a warm and cosy atmosphere. One recent example was of a pub where he painted its name right across the front wall above the door. The pub had been earmarked for closure by the brewery in Hampshire, but a group of residents decided to save the hostelry and kept it as a community asset.

“The rescuers of the Fox and Hounds at Denmead, Hampshire, who raised all the funds to save it from local subscribers, wanted the sign painted directly to the front wall to complete the re-birth of their much-loved boozer, and I was more than happy to be part of it,” explains Osborne.

A proud history
The rise and fall of sign-writing and sign-making dates back before the age of literacy, with signs used by traders and city states to indicate pubs, houses of ill-repute, and army barracks. And over the centuries there have been some rather unexpected and quirky stories to tell. Such as the sign-writers employed by ITV in the 1960s, whose job it was to quickly paint boards showing the racing results, which could be flashed up on black and white television screens. And there was even the spoof Society of Sign Painters in 1762, which set up by the artist, engraver, wit and sign-writer William Hogarth in London as a poke at the newly formed Society of Artists.

O Factoid: In 1762 English painter William Hogarth ran a spoof exhibition by the fictional Society of Sign Painters as an act of defiance against the snobbish Society of Artists. O

Hogarth was the man who illustrated the famous scenes of Gin Lane and Beer Street showing the gin craze in the capital, which also depicts a sign-writer up a ladder with his brush and pot of paint. In the ruins of Pompei in Italy, there are the remains of signs painted on the walls of the Roman city depicting adverts for local elections and gladiator contests. Centuries later in London, The Worshipful Company of Painters was founded in the 13th century. By the 1860s the first official courses in sign-writing were started in London, which led to them becoming eventually City and Guilds certificates, which are sadly no longer run.

Looking to the future

So, with the sector still ticking along for the moment due to a sustained renaissance in demand, and with its illustrious past increasingly becoming a subject of interest for cultural curators and artistic historians alike, what of the future?

If there is something the Government and the industry could do, it is to establish a sign-writing element to existing sector courses and create active pathways for budding young creatives to explore this skill as part of a wider apprenticeship. The City and Guilds has a number of creative qualifications for arts and hand skills, from sugar craft to balloon artistry, but no sign-writing. The British Sign and Graphics Association (BSGA) also promotes training within the sign industry, but this is aimed at the modern techniques rather than traditional sign-writing.
For a skill and industry that has been part of our cultural heritage as a nation for thousands of years, it would seem a crying shame that there is currently not one formalised training scheme or apprenticeship support programme available to help it thrive for the years to come. So, perhaps it is time for us to raise our brushes and easels in protest and lobby Anne Milton MP, the current Government Minister for Apprenticeships and Skills, to give this issue the attention it deserves. Surely it would be worth it on PR value alone to our Government. So, if you feel strongly about this issue and would like to lend your support, please e-mail editor@signlink.co.uk.

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