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Brenda: my love for the art of sign-writing

The world of sign-making has changed completely in the last few decades with the advent of wide-format, LED and video screens.

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Brenda Hodgson is a freelance feature writer for SignLink magazine

Despite all the high-tech innovations there is still one sector of the trade that remains unchanged. Everyone in the business has a certain love for traditional sign-writing. It’s a craft that SignLink feature writer Brenda Hodgson has a particular affection for as she explained when I caught up with her at The Print Show in September.

“It’s a ‘touchy-feely’ thing,” she says, “I think it’s the hand craft/art aspects that appeal to me. The expertise and precision that goes into it, whether it’s decorative work, lettering, reverse mirror gilding, from small signs and chalk boards up to whole sides of buildings. I also like the fact that it’s a continuing of a centuries’ old skill, passed down through generations. I don’t like to see the old skills die out.”

When she says centuries, Brenda is not being flippant as sign-writing certainly date back to Classical times with the advent of writing. The Greeks, Romans and Egyptians used various forms of signage and due to a lack of universal literacy signs depicting symbols and pictures to describe a business kept many a sign-maker in business throughout the Middle Ages and Medieval Britain. Hand skills coupled with a typographic eye are what makes a sign-writer. That and a certain passion for the craft.

Osborne Signs created this striking image

“Talking to the craftsmen is always a joy,” says Brenda, “They are so passionate about their draft and not a bit ‘secretive’; they readily recommend/refer me to others to talk to, and they also spend time learning different skills from each other. Something that you rarely see in other sign-making disciplines.

“My first awareness of sign-writing was at the age of 16 when a friend at college mentioned that her father was a sign-writer. At that point, however, I didn’t fully appreciate just what this meant. Of course, being ‘of a certain age’, sign-writing was all around me as I grew up, from bakers’ vans and brewery drays, to shop signs and the well-known ‘castles and roses’ work on canal barges and their accessories. So, I suppose you could say it has always been with me.”

One of the issues of sign-making in general is that of a lack of industry training courses, a subject close to Brenda’s heart as it is to many in the industry.

Sign and Design are behind this neatly painted sign

“There is certainly a case for a national or regional training centres, or courses at FOE colleges,” she comments, “Sadly, at present there is little on offer and sign-making/graphics courses barely skim the subject. As with neon, there is now a growing interest among young people for whom the ‘hands-on’ element of traditional sign-writing holds an appeal as it offers a different kind of creativity and skill from that which can be achieved by computer generation.

“I think there is definitely a future for the craft as businesses and individuals seek out and are willing to pay for that special individuality that comes with a hand created piece, whether a pub sign, shop fascia or quotations on the wall of a restaurant. There’s also a market for private commissions for domestic applications. And barge work, of course, will continue along with the love of barges themselves.”

With the advent of vinyl signage and later computer driven printers in the late 20th century traditional sign-writing was hit

With the advent of vinyl signage and later computer driven printers in the late 20th century traditional sign-writing was hit. Once every shop front, van livery and business signage was hand-painted. The courses for sign-writing disappeared with the Level NVQ Sign Making Course giving only a passing mention to the skills. Many sign-writers are of a certain age and were either student sign-makers, apprentices to existing sign-writers or self-taught.

Sign-writer David Smith at work

There is however a new generation of enthusiasts who attend short sign-writing courses often set up by enterprising sign-writers at their studios with some going on to join the ranks of the self-employed artisans. With around 200 largely self-employed sign-writers in the UK there is obviously still a demand. Traditional shop signs and canal barges are one opportunity but also bespoke sign-writing for businesses, restaurants and bars seeking a unique décor are another.

Should there be a new full-time course for sign-writing or a national apprenticeship scheme to train the next generation? Email your thoughts to harry@linkpublishing.co.uk or call me on Tel: 0117 9805 040 – or follow me on Twitter and join in the debate.

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