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The brewery group championing signwriting

We speak with Dave Barber of DB Signs to find out about his long-standing working relationship with Southwold brewery, Adnams Brewery Group, and how he learned his craft from his father

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Photo: Adnams and Anthony Cullen

Dave Barber of DB Signs is the definition of a one-man band, and having learned the ropes from his father, he is now - quite literally - single-handedly responsible for 99% of the signage for the Adnams Brewery Group challenging the old adage that many hands make light work. 

DB Signs was founded in 1968 by Barber’s father, also Dave Barber, who had been a signwriter for most of his life. On leaving school, Barber Senior began working for his father’s painting and decorating business, but what he really wanted to do was sign painting. 

Barber Senior enrolled at art school and met Joe Rouse, another talented signwriter who took him under his wing and became a second father figure to him. In 1969, DB Signs’ relationship with brewery group, Adnams began. 

Based on the coast of Southwold, Suffolk, Adnams crafts premium beers and spirits and the group comprises hotels, pubs, stores, and inns each with its own individual personality and feel. 

A Long-standing Relationship

“Dad did his first swing sign for Adnams for the Plough Inn Wissett in 1969 on a self-employed basis on the understanding that, if Adnams liked it, he could do more, which he did,” explains Barber, adding: “Dad had grown up fishing in Southwold with Jonathan Adnams so there was already a strong connection formed. Plus, my great-granddad and my granddad both worked directly for Adnams back in the day,” Barber adds. 

Barber Senior stepped away from signwriting for a ten-year spell in 1972 where he worked as a fisherman making his way from a 12ft boat in Southwold to an 80ft trawler from Lowestoft. In 1982, he returned to signwriting and Adnams contacted him to see if he would continue to do their work. He did this alongside building up a large local customer base.

[L to R] Dave Barber learned the craft of sign painting from his father, also Dave Barber. Photo: Adnams & Anthony Cullen

Born in Southwold in 1974, Barber lived ten yards from Sole Bay Inn and 25 yards from Adnams’ main office – little did he know that years later he would be producing the signage for this company just as his father did. Moving to Lowestoft at age six, Barber worked weekends with his father from the age of eight to earn pocket money, eventually saving enough to purchase his first good guitar.

Still his primary passion today, Barber learned to play guitar from the age of 11 and was in bands between the ages of 12 and 20. He began studying classical guitar from the age of 15 and still plays most days. 

Leaving school at 16, Barber continued to work with his father where he would clean gear, trace vans and signs for repeat jobs, and prep and paint wooden boards. He later progressed to second coating and shading and then began training for pub sign painting with the Mill Aldeburgh’s signage. 

“It had two almost identical swing signs,” Barber explains. “Dad did one, I did the other. I had to copy him and keep up. By the time they were done and up they both looked pretty much identical. After that, I was on my own!” Working with his father from such a young age, Barber already knew a lot of his customers, Adnams included.

Keeping up with Demand 

Having started out signwriting 100% by hand, the duo got their first PC and cutter when Barber was 22 due to finding it difficult to keep up with the volume of work coming in from Adnams.

“We digitised Dad’s signwriting style that we used on amenity boards and had it made into a typeface so that we could prep boards in batches, have paint masks ready for each sign, and have time applying the masks and painting the text on with a roller. The shading was then done by hand. 

As the company grew, DB Signs had to do the same and at one point there were five people working for the business. However, when Barber’s father and a couple of other members of the team retired, Barber and the remaining team were left to absorb the workload. This was due to struggling to hire new members of staff and is something Barber says has always been his biggest challenge, aside from keeping up with the work itself.

Photo: Adnams & Anthony Cullen

“After a few years, I felt that I really had lost my way, the turnover of work was high and keeping the standard was a priority, but I felt very unfulfilled. I either had to carry on this way, which wasn’t an option, or something had to change. 

"So, I decided to scale down even further and go back to the days when I was happier at work, doing something more creative and different like promoting the signwriting more and hoping I could build that side up to make things work.”

This strategy paid off and having eventually taken over the business Barber describes his relationship with Adnams today as very natural. “I can’t imagine it any other way. I morphed into it so early and gradually that I didn’t really focus on it to any degree. I know 95% of the people in the business including tenants and staff, and I have grown up with most of them. So again, it all feels very natural.”

Champions of Signwriting

To date, 99% of Adnams’ swing signs are still hand painted. Barber explains that some will have cut vinyl for commercial reasons and there are one or two that have been produced in vinyl or printed which are generally the more contemporary signs that have been designed in-house by Adnams. However, the group still very much champions the art of traditional signwriting for its premises.

Some signage such as the amenity boards are painted and then have vinyl applied as this enables DB Signs to prep batches of standard-size boards and apply the vinyl when needed. “Doing things this way still gives a more friendly feel to the signs. They have a more organic and soft look but can still be turned around quickly when needed,” Barber explains.

On what it is about traditional hand-painted signs that Adnams has treasured for the past five decades, Barber says: “I think Adnams can see the difference between getting the details right and wrong. The emphasis is being sympathetic to the situation and the job that their signs have to do. A little more time producing a sign but making sure that it really suits the environment is key. 

Photo: Adnams & Anthony Cullen

“In addition to this, they are a very loyal company that values progress but not at the detriment of quality, tradition, and aesthetics. Each job is taken on a case-by-case basis to make sure that the look and feel complements its surroundings and sometimes that means using period methods, signwriting being the major one for me.”

Barber says that as far back as he can remember, signwriting has been part of the Adnams look, even through the introduction of vinyl and print. It is due to this that Barber attributes the company as being solely responsible for continuing with signwriting as a trade. “I have such a varied workload that it keeps me fresh and interested and hopefully that means I will suggest things that may otherwise have been done in an alternative manner”. 

Immense Variety of Work 

So, what is actually involved in producing such a variety of signage for a company with 150 years of history as brewers, distillers, wine merchants, retailers, publicans, and hoteliers?

For all pub work, Barber has worked with Teresa Holman for 32 years and the pair will get their heads together over a coffee and talk through Holman’s vision of how to tie pub work into the overall look of the business. 

For this, Barber will get colour schemes for the range of pubs which he works with as a base, and there will also be a range of typefaces to work with. Once the format is there, it is up to Barber. 

To date, 99% of Adnams' swing signs are still handpainted. Photo: Adnams & Anthony Cullen

For swing signs, Barber says as he works his way through the long list of them, he will often change them to bring them up to date using his father’s sign as a guide. 

“Sometimes I will go in a totally different direction, like The Swan Stallham. Sometimes I will do the same scene but change the style like The Sole Bay. Sometimes there is no need to change and if I did there would be an outcry as signs like The Eels Foot or The Red Lion Southwold have become so recognisable that changing the look would be detrimental to the brand.” 

If he decides that he would like to change a swing sign, Barber says he is usually met with a “do whatever you like, I trust you” from Holman. But out of courtesy, he will always run his ideas by her and notes that sometimes a non-signwriter’s perspective is good!

Barber is responsible for all the research and says he always makes sure that the historical details are as accurate as possible. A current project for The Queens Head Blyford has taken Barber all over East Anglia with the signwriter visiting various churches and “meeting some great people” in the process. “I find the history fascinating,” he says. “I have learned far more about a wide range of topics since doing the signs that I ever learned at school.”

Pubs and hotels that are managed by Adnams all have their own individual identity which are historically designed in-house under the guidance of the head of creative. Barber will meet with the company to discuss materials and the desired look enabling him to produce work that ticks all of Adnams’ boxes and aligns with their overall vision. 

Whilst some jobs lead to Adnams leaving it up to Barber, others require his input in order to achieve signage that stays true to the company’s values, whilst making the installation responsible, timely, individual, and eye-catching.


Barber says The Red Lion Southwold's signage has become so recognisable that changing the look would be detrimental to the brand

To this day, DB Signs still takes care of 99% of Adnams’ pub and shop work which includes signwriting, cut vinyl, wide-format printing, gold, silver, and copper leaf work, as well as other areas of sign-making. 

In addition to working with Holman on the signwriting side of things, Barber deals with a range of different people from all areas of the business, all of whom he describes as great to work with, bringing various skills and visions to the table. These include chairman Jonathan Adnams OBE; chief executive Andy Wood OBE DL; chief operating officer Karen Hester; and Nick Attfield. 

Barber also paid thanks to head of creative Jess Turner; retail business development manager Rosalie Herron; marketing project manager Leanne Adams; contracts manager Tracey Smith; and Victoria Savoury, Manage Inns. Finally, Barber paid big thanks to social and content manager Phoebe Robson for documenting the pub signs and describes her as “a real champion for the traditional stuff”. 

All of these Barber estimates add up to well over 235 years of relationships and despite working with some in more of a regular capacity than others, describes these long-term colleagues as all as important as each other. 

A Labour of Love 

Reflecting over the sheer range and volume of work produced for Adnams, Barber describes the variety of work as “immense”. He continues: “One day I can be prepping boards, then signwriting from a scaffold on a pub, then printing, laminating, and applying vinyl. Then two weeks could be spent installing a rotation in the stores, then building and wrapping five refill bars for stores, removing and installing window graphics, painting a new swing sign, then hanging the sign. Not to mention repairing, prepping, and guilding letters. 

“The nice thing is that there is always something fresh and creative to get into, something that will require thought and pondering time scheming the best way to do something that I have never done before. I really do enjoy that side of the work.”

Despite having been producing signage for Adnams for decades with the company often trusting his judgement, eye, and skill for their signage, Barber says he is rarely very happy with anything he produces. 

“Sometimes I may get 24 hours of blissful contentment, then I start thinking about how it could have been better.” Despite this, some of Barber’s favourite pieces of work include The Red Lion Southwold and The Grenadier in Colchester. His wife’s favourite is The Swan Stallham which Barber describes as “great fun to do”. 

Barber estimates around 100 hours of research went into producing the Sole Bay Inn sign. Photo: Adnams & Anthony Cullen

The Sole Bay Inn is another particularly memorable project due to the amount of research that was involved to make it as historically accurate as possible. This job saw Barber make two trips to the Greenwich Museum and trips to the archives in Southwold Museum. 

Taking into account that the research involved reading around 15 books and time spent on the internet, Barber estimates, all in all, around 100 hours of digging went into this job. 

“I knew that the sign was going to be on display for Adnams’ 150th anniversary of being an independent brewery and the 350th anniversary of the naval Battle of Solebay and would be scrutinised at close quarters. So I had to get it right – plus, Dad had done it previously.”

Barber actually gifted this sign to Adnams in appreciation of the company’s loyalty and to congratulate them on such a wonderful celebration, especially given the challenges faced by the hospitality sector in recent years. 

“For me, being the guy that was able to do that for them was something that I feel truly honoured to have done,” Barber says, adding: “I don’t think that a sign could mean more to me than that one, even if I think it could have been better!”

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