Traditional Signwriting - November 2015

Modern trends in traditional signwriting - Vimart Signwriting

Waltons of Chester goldleaf signBell and Sons goldleaf traditional sign

Traditionally a trained coach painter, Martyn Vimart founded Vimart Signwriting in 1978 to cope with the workload and provide clients with the original vehicle livery.

His offerings extended into canal boats and eventually general signage, which he still offers today. “Personally, still I’m very busy,” he says. “I’ve been working in the industry for over 40 years, and I still receive a number of requests for heritage vehicles, pin striping on motorbikes and similar jobs.”

Martyn’s techniques include traditional gold leaf work (“very popular with high-end establishments in London”), lettering, heraldry, and scumbling. The latter he carries out alongside partner Sally, who paints narrow boats. With this technique, paint is applied over existing paint, enabling the layer below to show through what is almost a speckled effect. Signwriting on narrow boats is one of the key areas in which Martyn finds business, along with restaurants and large retailers such as J Crew.

Martyn is among many signwriters who are of the belief that the eradication of lead in the paints makes the hand-painted art better for the environment than digital signage, for example. “I believe that traditional signwriting itself is a lot greener, as when digital material is used, it cannot be recycled. Even if you do a small sign, let’s say on a door for example, you use materials that will ultimately end up in landfill. We only use a very small amount of paint, and it tends to have to be an oil-based paint as it lasts longer. With paint, you’re not replacing signage on a regular basis, which reduces wastage.”

Picking up the right paint

Martyn’s paint of choice is 1Shot, an American product. There are primarily two types of signwriting enamels available today, gloss and matt. “Lead used to provide good flow coverage and good density to the paint, which of course you don’t get now. But because you’re using enamel, you don’t need to put a lacquer over the top, which saves time,” says Martyn. In terms of styles or emerging “trends” in the sector, he has noticed that there’s been an uptick in end-users asking for satin finishes. “This seems to be a modern trend, and we’ve done a number of signs like this recently, and have another one to do in Marble Arch shortly.”

In addition to carrying out a wide variety of work, which includes everything from the odd village sign to completing the Emma Bridgewater factory signs, Martyn also teaches courses as well. He also has an apprentice, but mourns the lack of similar apprenticeships elsewhere in the industry.

“There’s just not much out there for traditional signwriting at the moment. For now I just have my own apprentice who has just finished Art College. It’s no longer really recognized by the government as a trade, which is a real shame.”

Martyn plans to put his own apprenticeship scheme in place in the near future in a bid to combat waning support and opportunities, and keep the traditional signwriting sector alive.

Wall art or traditional sign? - HNS Signs

Handpainted sign The Bay Tree RestaurantOutdoor handpainted sign on restaurantIndoor wallart traditional signage

For Michelle Healy and the team at HNS Signs, keeping the interest in traditional signwriting alive comes down to adapting the way it’s marketed.

“Other signwriters may not be looking at what it’s called today; people don’t phone and ask for a traditional sign, they ask for wall art, which is what we call it,” she explains. “We are inundated with requests, and use this contemporary twist on what it’s called as a USP to help us get sales.”

Another way sign writers can increase the demand for traditional signwriting is to offer it alongside other products, and put them together as a package. “The chances of people wanting just that on it’s own is quite low, but it seems it’s becoming more fashionable to mix the two.”

Michelle notes they are seeing a great deal of demand from bars and restaurants, and that there’s a keen interest from clients watching the team in action as they do the hand-painted traditional sign writing. A recent job includes a sign for a French restaurant in London, and the brief specified they wanted a hand painted sign. For clients, there are many benefits to choosing this traditional method – for example, it’s ideal for busy environments as it is heavy duty, and perfect for permanent signage as it’s long lasting and eye catching. Paint is much more hardwearing compared to things you could put up like a wallpaper or vinyl decal. You still see signwriting on the sides ofbuildings dating back to 1800s, the paint just lasts and lasts,” says Michelle, adding that substrates will normally give before the paint.

Part of prolonging the shelf life of wellfinished traditional signage lies with correct preparation and finishing. HNS Signs recently did a job for a restaurant in London, where they applied paint onto Marine Plywood, sealed all edges, and went over the design with Ronseal wood protect. “We’d expect that to last about ten years,” she says.

The Preservation Market - Whittaker Signs

Gerald Whittaker handpainting signHandpainted double decker busHandpainted coachtraditional signwriting on bus

Following a seven year apprenticeship, Gerald Whittaker worked at Lintott Signs Guildford until 1983, after which he launched Whittaker Signs in Hollycombe, Hampshire.

Gerald specialised in coach painting, traditional signage and vehicle restoration, and although he offers modern services like digital vinyl, he still provides traditional sign writing to clients today.

Gerald has worked on highprofile jobs, such as the London bus commemorating the 100th anniversary of World War I, and Winston Churchill’s funeral train. However, while there is a demand for classic hand painted signs, he has noticed a decline in the number of people who can genuinely call themselves a traditional signwriter. “The younger generation now probably doesn’t really understand what a signwriter is,” he says. “It used to be that a signmaker was a man who could show with his box and his paints, discuss the job with the customer, and get on and do it. I think it’s something of a lost art because now with everyone using a computer, they want to see artwork and approve things first, so we’re finding we have to do a lot more artwork and send sketches back and forwards with respect to colours and ideas before we can win the job.”

Today, Gerald finds a lot of work from the preservation market, with demand for painting on vintage vehicles, traction engines and railway engines. “Pubs and golf courses are still demanding gold leaf,” he adds. Gerald also uses 1Shot, but while the paints may have changed, he notes that most of the other products such as brushes have stayed the same. What has changed, however, are the substrates. As signwriting materials have “completely changed” over the past ten years, Gerald has noticed different trends emerging with regards to application. “We’re seeing a lot more flat colour or eggshell painting. It covers easier and produces a good effect, we recently did a restaurant in Guildford with it.”

Facing the future

While Gerald still offers and sees demand for traditional signwriting, he does lament the future of the art.

“When you actually look at it, it isn’t really viable to be a full-time traditional sign writer,” he says. “The computer’s a fantastic thing, but I do think it’s killed the workshop side of things, and it’s meant we’re having less youngsters come through to learn what was an extremely good trade.” Gerald’s training involved a seven-year apprenticeship, far longer than the preparation available today. He also notes that the decline in the amount of work has contributed to less people moving into the sector. “We are seeing more week-long courses and things to spark up interest, but you need to have a fair volume of work to put an apprentice into a workshop.”

John Coats talks about brushes and tradition

John Coats has worked as a traditional signwriter for decades, and although technically retired, he still works on the occasional sign.

“I always joke that I’m an international signwriter – my Gold Leaf is English, my brushes are Russian, and my paint is American,” he says. John has been buying books of Gold Leaf from the same supplier since 1959, and in addition to being a loyal customer himself, he has a number of them too. “A lot of my work comes from the restoration market, with people wanting to recreate looks from the 1960s and 1970s. I was working in that time and remember the originals, so it’s easy for me to help them achieve that look.”

John notes that despite the rise in popularity of decals and graphics, there are certain jobs for which only traditional hand painted signs will do. For example, small villages with independent shops tend to require only hand painted signs, as do older buildings onto which a graphic application would not hold. John found this to be the case when he worked on the interior of Burns Cottage, childhood home of Robert Burns, in Ayrshire. “I lettered old Burns sayings on the inside of it on the walls, which were clay; under no circumstance could you possibly stick a graphic to it, so it had to be hand lettered.” Although John does a great deal with old buildings and jobs, more recent projects include working on American-style restaurants and movie themed signs.

The signwriter’s “pencils”

John has been using the same brushes, or pencils as they were traditionally called, for many years.

These pencils can help signmakers achieve things that simply aren’t possible with a machine. “If you put a letter “e” through the computer, it’ll be exactly the same size as the rest of the copy every time,” says John. “But you might not need the same size – if I’ve got to go around a light switch or vent or an obstruction for example, I can condense that letter to make it fit without anyone actually noticing it. Of course you can measure it up close and see it’s not the same, but you’ve got the option to condense it by hand.”

For John, the brushes are integral to getting the right finish. He chooses extra length, as when the hair is slightly longer, it gives sign writers a better sweep for letters like O, S or Q. John can tell from the touch if the brushes will get the job done - or if there’s something wrong. “There was one set of brushes I got from my supplier in London, and I noticed straight away there was something wrong with them,” he says. “I couldn’t do letters like an O and they were stringing out. Now my brushes are pure sable hair, and the sable comes from Russia. The hair is usually soft and springy which allows you to do circular shapes. It turns out that particular year, there was an exceptionally cold winter in Russia, so the Sable toughened up and grew an extra layer for it’s coat which made the hair coarser!”

Looking forward, John still sees the value in being able to offer traditional signwriting. “I’m not saying there’s a resurgence, but there’s certainly not the fall-off you’d expect because of modern trends,” he says. Although digital advances and improvements to software and technology have rendered some forms of it almost obsolete (the rise in vehicle livery has all but replaced painted vans, for example), others will always stay alive and well. “We live in an era of instant gratification, everybody wants something yesterday. Things might seem like the easier or cheaper option, like gold vinyl for example, but you can’t always see it from certain angles or in certain lighting. I use 23 ½ carat gold leaf so you can always see it. You’ve got to pay for the quality, and people still are prepared to do that.”

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