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Sign-writing Training

With the resurgence of interest in hand painted signage due to its inherent individuality, Brenda Hodgson looks at the options for modern sign-makers to add this traditional skill to their repertoire

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Joby Carter carefully builds up a fairground sign. It takes several years to develop sufficient skills to offer a professional signwriting service

The writing on the wall

The earliest known sign-writing in western civilization is ancient Roman, from the first century AD, with some examples preserved in the ruins of Pompeii. The sign-writers of Pompeii often painted notices on prominent walls for elections and gladiatorial games.

Hand sign-writing is very much a specialist skill and rarely found within the portfolio of a modern sign-maker’s services. The few who do offer traditional sign-writing alongside vinyl/digital signage are generally those who originally trained in the traditional methods and have then diversified.

The significant increase in interest in hand painted signage in the UK over the past few years, together with the fact that there is no longer a formal qualification in traditional sign-writing, raises the question as to how sign-makers can add this skill to their offering?

Martyn King of Vimart Sign-writing comments: “I feel the lack of available training is fairly short-sighted as the popularity of traditional sign-writing, although constantly fluctuating, does seem to undergo a rapid growth at each renaissance.”

This glazed and framed V-cut sign, with inlaid gold leaf and verre eglomise on the reverse of the glass panels, demonstrates the intricate skills that take years of dedication to acquire. Vimart also specialises in traditional narrow boat decoration and (below) using sign-writing to realise modern designs such as this Charles Dickens Museum sign

He continues: “There are currently no official training courses for individuals to attend, or formal qualifications to be obtained for those who want to learn the traditional craft of sign-writing. This makes it very difficult for a modern sign company that mainly works in digital design to become qualified so that they can add traditional skills to their armoury.

“As it is faster, cheaper, and more efficient to train staff in the established mechanical processes used to make digital signs, most sign companies are likely to stick to what they know so as to achieve their targets. This doesn’t encourage the establishment of new training schemes.”

Blending the mix

I asked several well-established and respected traditional sign-writers, who offer their own courses and workshops, how feasible it is to add this skill to a modern sign-making business.

“Unfortunately, learning to sign-write properly is a long and drawn out process,” continues King, who adds: “Modern sign businesses require quick results and a fast turn-around on their jobs. This, subsequently, means that their staff and trainee staff are not necessarily afforded the time, or money, to allow for the proper training and practice. This is problematic as it is training and practice that is needed to encourage a skilled sign-writer/craftsman.”

Temperament also comes into play says Nick Garrett of London-based NGS Signsmith: “Being a sign-writer is a tough dedicated business physically and mentally.

“There is little in common with the character types of sign-printer and artist-writer today in the sign industry. Nearly everyone I know in the sign-making industry has an interest in developing traditional writing business, but few intend spending hours up the ladder learning it. It takes years of dedication, skills, passion, and love to form beautiful letters—it takes far less of that to output from a plotter.”

O Factoid: The earliest known sign-writing in western civilization is ancient Roman, from the first century AD, with some examples preserved in the ruins of Pompeii. The sign-writers of Pompeii often painted notices on prominent walls for elections and gladiatorial games. O

Osborne Signs’ Wayne Osborne also weighs in on this issue: “The complete skill set of a traditional sign-writer would take years to learn and even longer to perfect and master. The skill of hand drawing, painting good lettering by eye, and creating letter-forms that are not predesigned or laid out using computer graphics, is a complete art by itself—not something to be underestimated.”

“However,” he continues, “any sign-maker with the will to practice and some aptitude for drawing and design could learn some hand lettering and sign-writing skills to sell alongside their everyday work—and who knows, they might find it more rewarding than the modern alternative and convert.”

Wayne Tanswell of The Sign Studio in Sudbury, Suffolk further points out that traditional sign-writing is not a service you can simply dip in and out of: “To create hand-painted signs you need to be doing it every day.  You also need to be seeing customers, measuring up, getting the materials, making the boards and fitting them. You need to keep a roll of work going.”

(Above & below) “People want to see that a sign has been hand painted,” says Wayne Tanswell. The evidence doesn’t come any clearer than this

Sign-writer, gilder, and restorer Joby Carter suggests that partnering with a dedicated traditional business might be a practical alternative, certainly in the short-term.

“If you are already a sign-maker you will have a head-start but you still need several years to develop sufficient skills to offer a professional service,” he points out, adding: “Thousands of hours are required. You also need to be really passionate about it in order to make a go of it.”

Courses of action

With no formal courses or qualifications available, it has been left to established sign-writers to offer their own workshops and courses in order to pass on their skills.

Tanswell’s passion for passing on his skills was instilled in him by his father, who told him: “You need to stick at it. The more technology moves on, the more you will become a specialist. Pass on the skill to the next generation.”

Not only does Tanswell share his passion with others, he has written three books on the subject, one of which, Traditional Signwriting Introductory Guide, is now included by a leading London based brush manufacturer in their sign-writing starter kit.  Looking at his one day Traditional Signwriting Introductory Course, it is short but very intensive.

“This is just the start; you can’t learn everything in a day,” he explains, adding: “You need to go away and practice. I teach people how to use the brush and the rest of the tools and equipment. They then spend time practising and subsequently paint a board, a test piece to take home, along with two of my books. They also receive a Course Attendance Certificate.

“I never teach more than four people at any one time. I’m passionate about my work and I like to give students as much one-to-one time as possible.”

Tanswell backs up the one day course with bespoke one-to-one training/tuition sessions for those who are serious about developing their skills, some of whom do take them into a sign-making environment: “I always recommend that they do some practice before coming back for individual tuition to fine-tune their skills. And I also advise them not to practice brush-strokes, but to make an actual sign and then be self-critical about what they’ve done.”

Osborne agrees that to teach everything to a commercially saleable skill level would take years: “The workshops I run are simple taster days to provide some basic grounding in brushwork and hand lettering techniques. This is enough to hopefully enthuse and give participants the will, methods, skills and, more importantly, the passion for the craft. This is vital if they want to carry on and practice and develop their skills further.”

Wayne Osborne says that a sign-maker with the will to practice and some aptitude for drawing and design could learn some hand lettering and sign-writing skills to sell alongside their everyday work

Osborne continues: “I also run a more advanced workshop for returning students and those with basic sign-writer’s skills, where participants can develop their style and techniques further. In these courses, a pre-designed panel sign is created by each student. This includes things like shaded and shadowed lettering, as well as heraldry/pictorial work and gold leaf within the one sign, which students can take away as a sample of their work.”

Garrett’s NGS Signsmith workshop is vocational and teach students from the perspective of being a professional sign-writer.  It covers how to specify a job, font structure and general rules, practical sign-writing skills, the best materials, fine-tuning mixtures, colour mixing and brush care, as well as focused practice and live work experience.
“It is designed to give you all the skills to go out, set up a job professionally and make immediate short-term headway,” says Garrett.

NGS Signsmith runs a series of courses and also gives students tours of historic examples of the craft that have survived

Carter’s five day Intensive Sign-writing Course covers all the basics of traditional sign-writing, from layout and design to shading, lining and brush-work, and participants have their own painted sign to take home with them at the end of the week.

“This will help to establish the discipline and basic understanding of sign-writing. You then need to go away and practice and develop the skill,” emphasises Carter, before adding: “A lot of graphic designers come on the courses so they have a head-start but it is a very specific skill and discipline.”

“I teach the subject ‘classically’, using techniques I was taught by a man who had been taught by a skilled sign-writer from the Victorian era.”

Students planning sign work before executing their ideas during Vimart’s comprehensive five day sign-writing course

Vimart’s King has also introduced a five day Comprehensive Signwriting Course: “I decided to set-up my courses because I am constantly frustrated at the lack of opportunity for training in the wider educational community. I was very pleased that the participants of the first course found it a positive experience because I, too, enjoyed running the course and passing on my years of experience, albeit to a limited number.”

Students putting their skills to the test during Joby Carter’s five day Intensive Signwriting Course

The course covers most aspects of the trade from materials to layout to the final sign, whether it be on a boat, signboard, shop front or glass. Gold leaf work and decorative work is also covered thereby giving the potential sign-writer a thorough grounding in the skills needed.

Wayne Osborne’s students come from a variety of backgrounds, including graphic designers, hobbyists and model makers, and sign-makers who want to advance their skillset

Making the transition

Given the time, passion, and dedication required to develop the skilled craft of traditional sign-writing, I wondered whether any of our experts’ course participants had made the transition to professional sign-writer and if they had taken the skill into a modern sign-making environment.

Osborne shares his experience: “Students attend from varied back-grounds. Some are teams of graphic designers who want to get away from the computer and get back to basics in their typography, others are hobbyists or model makers, and quite a few are sign-makers who want to advance their skillset, or perhaps have had some formal hand sign-writing training and want to get back into it again.

Those who do follow up their training by going into business generally set up as specialist signwriters

Tanswell likewise confirms: “Those who do follow up their training by going into business generally set up as specialist sign-writers. Occasionally a graphic designer will add it to his skills.”

Examples of those who have set up professionally after tuition with Tanswell are an art teacher who set up in business after developing his skills through doing work for an amateur dramatic society, and a taxi driver in Cornwall who wanted an additional source of income during the quiet winter season.

Carter has found a similar trend: “I taught two guys who had trained originally as sign-writers and then gone into vinyl. They came back to the five day course as a refresher in order to go back to traditional sign-writing.”

Garrett also weighs in on this issue: “I have had only one young art-worker from a vinyl sign company join us in training out of 200 students this year. Most NGS Signsmith students come from graphic design backgrounds and are relatively new into the workplace; and most of these want to taste and develop handskills for their graphics practice. Very few are seriously considering ‘going up the ladder’.

“To my knowledge, only one sign man in USA has made the transition and that’s Steve Savant of Savant Signs.  I have supported Steve all the way.  I am trying to encourage another here in UK but it’s proving to be hard for him to make the change.”

King ends with a more positive note on combining traditional skills with modern sign-making: “On my first course there were five participants, two of whom came from digital sign companies. They were both self-motivated and interested in adding to what their companies could offer to the sign world. For one, the traditional skills were completely new.”

He concludes: “However, the second had started his career as a traditional sign-writer before moving into the digital sign world, which he now deemed too simplistic. He hoped my course would give him the refresher he needed to get back to his roots and to start generating more traditional sign-writing opportunities for his company.”

He hoped my course would give him the refresher he needed to get back to his roots

Overall, the verdict is that traditional sign-writing is not a service that can be simply ‘bolted on’ to a modern sign-making business. It requires passion, dedication and, most of all, time to hone your skills to a professional level—and probably, therefore, a dedicated member of staff to carry out hand pain-ted work.

Dependent on the level of customer demand for hand painted signage, the solution for sign-makers looking to add this service to their portfolio is perhaps a simple one. For those without the essential ‘luxury’ of time and cost to train a member of staff, it might well be worth their while to either employ an already experienced sign-writer, or to partner with an established professional.

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