Traditional Signage - November 2017

Wrights of Lymm

Man beating gold with a hammer Examples of traditional signwriting. The Gloriana (boat) for The Queen’s Jubilee
How long has Wrights of Lymm been selling traditional signwriting materials?

Wrights of Lymm Ltd was established in 1840 and has been manufacturing gold leaf and supplying sundries to the traditional signwriting trade for over 170 years.

Which types of brushes have you found traditional signwriters prefer to work with?

In our experience,traditional signwriters prefer to use pure sable brushes in either chisel or pointed form due to the softness and bounce or snap in the hair. They are also great for holding the paint, which allows the artist to create some wonderful lettering. If looked after correctly, these brushes will last for many years. After cleaning, it is important to apply neatsfoot oil or Vaseline, as this will help conserve the hair. These brushes are still made by hand in the UK.

And which paints are generally the most popular?

The paints most commonly used are oil based signwriting enamels, which are available in an array of colours but are also inter mixable allowing you to create your own shades. We supply two different types of enamels. Our own brand, manufactured here in the UK, is called Wright-it. This is a collection of colours that have been replicated from what once were Keeps’ colours, manufactured by J W Bollom. Bolloms were a long standing paint manufacturer here in the UK, well known within the signwriting trade due to their great range of traditional colours, but unfortunately due to a fire in their factory some years ago, they sadly never managed to get back on their feet, so Wrights of Lymm felt it very important to still be able to supply to the trade with these much sort after colours. We also supply One Shot Enamels; again these are very popular in the signwriting industry and are imported from the USA.

When might traditional signwriting be used and, in your opinion, what makes it special?

Although many signwriting jobs are now done by vinyl, there are still a fair few traditional signwriters in the trade. You can still see many pub signs, gypsy caravans and plenty of glass signage, for example, done in the traditional way. We believe it is undoubtedly far superior to the vinyl alternative as the signature of each individual craftsman is presented, highlighting the works’ originality and uniqueness. Traditional signwriters have a great artistic talent as everything is done by hand; many of them also do gilding, adding gold leaf to many of their pieces of work, especially on glass signage and traditional pub signs. It takes great patience… and a steady hand!


J&S Pendred

Man signwriting a canal boat by hand The result of signwriting on a canal boat
Do you use special paint? What makes that paint effective?

I use One Shot Signwriting Enamel. It’s an American, quality product which flows nicely, giving an even coverage. The drying time is good too.

In my experience, these things matter. They all help to make my craft easier. I’ve been running the business, and signwriting, with my brother, Andy, for more than 26 years now so I have tried and tested lots of different signwriting products.

What, would you say, has been your most unusual signwriting job?

I think laying on my back signwriting upside down. The job involved letters and numbers and all this was done under an aeroplane wing.

What are the most important qualities you need to be a traditional signwriter?

A good eye for overall design is absolutely necessary. You also need to be able to work in extreme temperatures – I have worked in some very hot and some particularly cold conditions. Vision is paramount; it’s vital that you are able to turn customers’ ideas into reality. And, of course, last but not least, you need plenty of patience!

“To anyone thinking of becoming a traditional signwriter, my advice is to keep smiling, every time on every job, when a passer-by calls out: "You spelt it wrong." You always look back at your work – just in case – it does happen!”

Carters Steam Fair

Signwriting by hand for an attraction at Carters Steam Fair Rides at Carters Steam Fair.
“I think the most important thing is to remember that you won’t become a signwriter overnight. You have to put a lot of time and patience into it, but when you paint your first good sign, it’s the best feeling!”

Joby Carter isn’t your average traditional signwriter – he is also a showman, and his work can be seen on his spectacular vintage travelling funfair, Carters Steam Fair. The fair travels almost every week for seven months of the year and with rides dating back as far as 1895 – and up to the 1960s – there is always more paintwork to do in the winter.

For the last few years, Joby has been running very popular five-day intensive signwriting courses in his paintshop near Maidenhead, from November to January. The courses cover everything from basic layout to shading and lining and give you a great basis to start from.

How did you learn your craft?

I was taught the old fashioned way, as an apprentice to the fair’s signwriter, Stan Wilkinson; who in turn was taught by a jobbing signwriter; who was taught by a man who worked for Hovis in the 19th century. This unbroken line of technique and skill is unusual these days, and I am keen to continue it.

I taught Aaron Stephens, who first came on one of my courses; he is now painting full time for the fair. Fairground painting generally gives the artist much more creative freedom than standard signwriting, and there are many techniques and materials that are particular to the craft.

I believe we are now amongst the foremost fairground artists in the country with an unsurpassed background of knowledge and experience.

What equipment do you work with?

I prefer chisel-tipped brushes which I buy from Wrights of Lymm, David Jackson and Habberley Meadows. I’m not particularly fussy and will try anything once. I had a vegan on one of my courses who didn’t want to use a sable brush, and he gave me his synthetic brush to try. It was surprisingly lovely! I keep all my old favourites. I find I have a collection of about 50 brushes at any one time, and I probably only actively use about three of them. As they begin to lose hairs, they get relegated into the drawer full of tired brushes, which I can’t bring myself to throw away. On occasions, I’ve had special brushes made for particular jobs, like extra-long lining brushes for working on large scale panelling, such as box trucks or wagons.

I use Craftmaster and my now dwindling supply of Keeps’ signwriting enamels. I use One Shot occasionally for gold size, for example. Craftmaster’s great to deal with; they have the closest colour palette to the original Keeps’ colours, which the fair was painted in when I was a child. They are very amenable, working with me to mix special colours for restoration work.

I love signwriting, and I’m always happiest when painting. I don’t use tape, or vinyl masking, because I was taught the original skills of painting with just a brush and a mahl. These skills are fast dying out, and I think it would be a crying shame if every signwriter relied on computers to work and were unable to do basic layouts freehand. A good signwriter is noticeable from the layout and crisp finish, and I really enjoy seeing the work of people who add a bit of artistic flair so their character stands out.

I’m now taking bookings for my five day course which runs from January 15th to the 19th, 2018, and I’m holding a two-day Letterheads event at the fairground yard from November 18th to the 19th, 2017. More information can be found at:

A.S Handover

What hair is used in signwriting brushes?

The ideal fill for a signwriting brush would be a fine hair with a sharp point and plenty of spring so that it responds to the writer’s touch. It is also important that the hair is available in sufficient length (up to 60mm), holds together well and does not stick out at all angles like a bad hair day. The hair would ideally be tough to resist the effects of oil based paints and the associated solvents, and ideally would not cost the earth.

This does not seem too much to ask but unfortunately there is no single hair that meets all these criteria. Readily available and inexpensive hairs (around £25 per kilo) include bristle (from pigs) which is long and tough but does not have a point which would make it impossible for the signwriter to obtain a sharp edge to his or her letters. Pony hair will not come to a point or hold together and has very little strength or spring. Ox hair is also relatively cheap at around £200 per kilogram and was widely used until the 1990s for rougher or larger work as it represents a halfway house between bristle and the fine hairs such as squirrel and sable.

These latter two hairs have been the mainstay of signwriting brushes since the craft first developed. Squirrel hair is widely used in North America. It holds together nicely and comes to a fine point and at around £1,500 per kilo is not too expensive. It does, however, have little or no spring so will not follow the hand nicely when painting, for example, an ‘S’. Most British signwriting brushes have been made with sable over the years. This hair has all the wished-for characteristics noted above but it is very expensive, currently selling at over £6,000 a kilogram, a cost that is currently increasing by the month. It also needs to be cleaned and cared for religiously if the hair is not to become brittle and break off.

In recent years, synthetic “hairs” have improved to the extent that they now offer a reasonable alternative for many applications.

How long does it take to make a signwriting brush?

This varies with shape and size but, with hair that has already been dressed and cleaned, it should be possible to make around 24 in an hour.

How long does it take to learn how to make a brush?

Apprenticeships for artist brushmaking used to last five years and it certainly takes that long to be able to make a top quality brush at a commercial rate.

How long have A. S. Handover Ltd. been making brushes?

Mr. Handover started the business around 70 years ago. The daughter of his first brushmaker still works with us and we have other brushmakers who have been with us for well over 30 of those 70 years.

A used wooden paint brush Gold leaf signage
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