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Traditional sign-writing

After saturation of the high street with print and vinyl, some businesses are turning back the clock. Summer Brooks asks: “why is traditional sign-writing experiencing a resurgence at the moment?”

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Adrian Geach, sign-writer, Fresh Graphics

A love for the craft

A hand-painted sign with all its imperfections has so much more character and soul than a machine-generated sign. I could walk down the high street in the early 1980s and be able to tell which sign-writer had worked on the shop fronts from all the individual font styles and quirks in the lettering. There was one local sign-writer who just couldn’t do the number eight or ampersands, and his work stood out a mile.

I’m confident that this isn’t a fad and that sign-writing is definitely here for a long time to come. I left school at 16 and started a five-year apprenticeship with a local firm in 1980 that had been trading for nearly 100 years, looking back now it was so old fashioned and archaic, but I was lucky enough to be trained by three master craftsmen. I loved every minute of it – even though I was the works skivvy and had to sweep up, go to the shops, make tea, be the butt of everyone’s jokes and clean the brushes at the end of the day.

I started my own business when I was 23, but quickly noticed the decline in hand-painted work with the ascendance of the vinyl plotter around the early 90s and reluctantly bought one to remain competitive. I very rarely picked up a brush over the next 20 years using mainly vinyl and large-format printers in the business.

Somebody sent me a link to a short film about Joby Carter’s sign-writing around six years ago, so myself and another lapsed sign-writer signed up for his five-day course. Although very rusty for the first couple of days, the muscle memory started to come back as well as the realisation that I was sick of vinyl and computers and my love for the craft was fully back.

It’s a trade nobody reaches perfection in, which is another thing I love about it

I now concentrate on mainly hand-painted work and am very busy and enjoying learning all over again. It’s a trade nobody reaches perfection in, which is another thing I love about it. I went to the Better Letters’ Letterheads meet in London last year and was really pleased to see so many young men and women practising the craft and the standard was very high.

It’s a great trade – you’ll never be rich, but once learned it’s something that you can take anywhere with you.

Human connection

Sam Roberts, founder, Better Letters

In the DVD extras for Sign Painters (2013), there is footage of tutors at the Butera School of Art (Boston) closing down their sign-painting programme. Had they been able to carry on for another year or two, they would surely have found themselves oversubscribed with students, such is the dramatic turnaround in the fortunes of the trade since that film’s release.

Many have attributed this shift in demand for, and interest in, hand-painted signs to the film itself, but I see its role as that of catalyst, accelerating what was already happening. What was, and is happening, is a renewed valuing of all things done by hand.

What was, and is happening, is a renewed valuing of all things done by hand

As the digital revolution drives forward, there is an underlying sense of something being lost along the way. I have always talked about painted signs acting as a medium between the hand that painted it, and the eyes that view it. That human connection doesn’t usually exist in the many texts that are relayed to us through printed and digital signs and messages.

Companies, especially small and independent firms, understand the importance of establishing authenticity in how they present themselves. When your values include making things by hand, providing a personal service, or just being friendly, then these are well-represented through the use of hand-painted signs. As a result, demand for this type of work is higher than it has been in over 30 years.

In parallel, there is renewed energy behind the international Letterheads movement whose ranks are swilling with newbies to the trade, learning however they can in the absence of long-term courses and apprenticeships. I’m optimistic for the future of the business, and hope that more programmes like the one at the Butera School of Art can be established again in the future.

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