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.”