How to Carve a Letter – Part 2

The next video in our ‘How to Carve a Letter’ sequence. Dust off the chisels and have a go!

Hi again. If you’re watching this video, I’ll assume that you’ve already seen ‘How To Carve a Letter Part 1’. In Part 1, we carved a groove into a piece of SignFoam. Today, we’re going to carve another groove, but this time, it’ll have square ends on it. So, it’s really just the same thing as a sans serif capital ‘I’.

Alright, so here’s our board, all masked and ready to go. And, once again, I’m going to be using the same tools as I used last time; a chisel, a V-Tool, and a small piece of sandpaper. So first, I’m going to make some guide lines with the V-Tool. Now, it’s important to know just where the lines are going to go in every letter that you carve. That’s something that comes with practice, but in this case, it’s very easy.

Now, just like last time, I’m going to start in the centre with my chisel and I’m going to work my way out towards the edges. Notice how I’m keeping the bevel of the chisel up at all times, as I carve. Now, on the ends of the groove, you have to angle the chisel like this and bring it into the corner, nice and gentle, and that’s how we get that nice, square-looking end on there. I do that little trick every time I get to the end of a letter. It just keeps everything crisp and clean. As I carve it’s important not to get overzealous and dig too deep into the bottom of the letter. Just keep it nice and easy. Once again I’ll just finish it off with a bit of a sand, with a piece of sandpaper, and now I’m done. So, in the next episode, we’re going to carve a capital ‘R’ – a bit more complex and challenging, it has a curve in it as well, but I have no doub that you’ll get the hang of that too.

So, until then, all the best!

A Few Minutes with Francis Lestingi

Francis Lestingi, Signs of Gold

Francis Lestingi (All images courtesy of Francis Lestingi unless otherwise specified)

According to Sign & Digital Graphics Magazine, Francis Lestingi is ‘a former physics professor who saw the light and got into the sign business’. They failed to mention, however, that sign-artistry has been a part of Francis’s life ever since he was in high school. Back in those days, he used to ‘borrow’ the hand-lettered signs from shop windows at night, to study them at home – working on his own brush technique – but always returning the signs before morning.

Maybe those memories were lingering in his mind, in 1994, when he made the decision to retire from his position as physics professor at State University College in Buffalo and travel to New England to learn traditional sign-making from Jaye Cooke, Paul White, David Calvo and Dimitrios Klitsas.  From there, he went on to start his own hand-crafted sign shop with his son, Stephen. That’s how Signs of Gold came into being – now a well-respected name in the hand-carving and gilding industry.

Paul White Cape Cod Carver

Sign-carver Paul White & Students (image courtesy of Paul White Woodcarving)

Last month, Francis kindly took the time to tell us a little about his work:

You’ve been crafting hand-carved & gilded wood signs for almost two decades. How did you first get into it?

Back then I was getting close to completing 25 years as a college physics instructor which included extensive work in designing graphics for astronomy and for relativity. This design work was an extension of the work I had previously completed for Harvard University and the US National Science Foundation. I had also ventured into computer animation to elucidate the concepts of Einsteinian Special Relativity. I was using a primitive (pre-Apple Mac) Commodore computer with some success.

What I really wanted was to expand my animation work into General Relativity but needed the recently
introduced Apple computer. Computers were few and far between then, so when I requested that my
academic authorities supply me with a new Mac and the latest animation software (such as it was at the
time), the answer was no.

At that point, I decided to direct my artistic talents to something completely different. I went to New
England, learned how to carve ( I had already learned gilding while I was in elementary school) and in a few months I had started Signs of Gold, Inc.
Commodore Computer Advertisement

Advertisement for a Commodore Computer (1985), courtesy of the Commodore Computer Gallery

Signs of Gold started around the time when the sign industry was just starting to become more computerized. Any thoughts on how the industry has changed?

 Computers, especially the Apple Mac, are miraculous machines that can enhance one’s creative and artistic endeavors. I use a MacPro Tower with Adobe Illustrator to assist me in my design work.Computers can enhance one’s creativity, but they themselves are inherently not creative. I think many members of the sign industry are using computers to such an excessive extent that the inevitable output is prosaic, uninspired, and trite.

Your signs have won numerous awards, what’s your approach to design?

In our 20 year experience, the only time we duplicated a sign design occurred when a customer stubbornly insisted on it. That customer’s sign ironically went on to win two national First Place Awards! Every design we create is sui generis. Our goal is to design the most elegant, unique, and beautiful work of sign artistry we can. We once had an ad in a telephone directory that read, “ If you just want a sign, try the other guys. But if you want sign artistry, give us a call.” That is our design philosophy.

Two traditional gilded signs in New England

Francis first produced the sign on the right, which garnered an honourable mention. Later, the sign on the left won two first place awards in national sign contests.

I’ve seen a growing number of typefaces that you designed, for sale from Letterhead Fonts. When did you branch out into type design, and how big of a jump was it from sign lettering and carving to designing complete typefaces?

I have always been enamored with lettering as an art form. I was a calligrapher in elementary school, progressing to brush lettered storefront paper signs when I was in high school. About six years ago I decided to design a calligraphic digital typeface that I could use to produce my son’s wedding invitation. The process is a wonderful blend of art and technology. You have to creatively design each letter form by hand, scan them, and then meticulously and laboriously analyze and adjust every single Bezier anchor point until everyone of the 256 characters is “letter perfect.”

Then comes the spacing and kerning phase. Time and patience are paramount here, but the end result is both rewarding and satisfying, especially when you know others are using your work.

Since my first typeface, “Pierre” I have created “Calileo” and “Verdi” for Letterhead Fonts , and “FranHand” and “Stefano” available on MyFonts. In my sign work, I also use digital typefaces designed by others, but I always customize them to some extent with a flourish or swirl to add a little originality.

A ‘How-To’ Video, Featuring Francis’s Verdi typeface:

Pierre gikded sign

This sign, made by Francis, incorporates the Typeface ‘Pierre’.

Gilded Wall Letters for Hart to Hart

Prism-Carved Wall-Letters (Calileo)

Can you tell us little about the Society of Gilders?

As a member of the Board of Trustees of the Society of Gilders (an association dedicated to the practice and preservation of the art of using gold and metal leaf) I have recently been assigned the task a designing a T-shirt for this international, non-profit organization. I employed one of my own typefaces, “Verdi.” and developed some original scroll work inspired by scrolls in a New Orleans church [Saint Alphonsus Church] where the Society has been doing pro bono restoration work.

Every year members of the Society of Gilders give back to the community by participating in Community Projects. For the past 5 years, we have worked on a volunteer basis, in churches that were affected by the devastation of hurricane Katrina.

T-Shirt with Verdi Font

Francis’s T-Shirt Design for the Society of Gilders, making use of the ‘Verdi’ typeface.

Gilding a chusrch statue in New Orleans

Members of the Society of Gilders restore a statue in St Alphonsus Church, New Orleans (Image courtesy of Society of Gilders)

Is there a project that sticks out in your memory?

All of our projects are a joy to work on especially when we install them  for all the world to see. For us, it is analogous to having an opening at an art gallery. However, currently we are working on a signage system for the De La Salle Christian Brothers Center in Narragansett, Rhode Island. I am particularly proud to be offering this latest work pro bono as a thank you gift to the the religious Order I was a member of for 13 years (long ago).

Sign Ornaments

Molded & Pressed Steel Flourishes for Francis’s Christian Brothers sign project

Sign ornaments gilded

Gilded & Attached

Gilded Sign by Francis Lestingi

The Christian Brothers Sign, from a little farther back

gilded school sign rhode island

Sign Gilder

Francis holds a sign gilding demonstration.

Peeling mask on a gilded sign

More of the same.

Gilded Sign for a Dentist

Gilded sign for a Pizzeria

Gilded Sign for Cafe Bin 620

Thank you, Francis for taking the time to contribute!


How to Carve a Letter – Part 1

Here’s our first “How-To” video, with many more to come. Hope you enjoy it:

Hi, and welcome back to the workshop of Danthonia Designs. Today, we’ll be looking at the basics of how to carve, what tools and equipment are needed, as well as the basics of carving technique and chisel control. So, for starters, it’s important that safety comes first, so just make sure that you’re wearing a pair of safety glasses.

Now, for hand-carving we’ll need a V-Tool, a chisel (these come in a variety of sizes), a depth-checker and a sign, or practice panel. We use a material called High Density Urethane, or HDU for short. I’ll go into more detail about that another time, but it’s basically a waterproof, insect-proof substitute for wood.

At our shop we use stencils to define the edges of the letters. So, in this case, I’ll just stick down a few strips of inch-wide paint stencil and we’ll start our carving lesson with a straight groove –  nice and simple!

First I’ll make a line down the centre, using a V-Tool. It doesn’t need to be deep, but just deep enough to mark the centre of the groove. Now, with the chisel, I’ll just widen out from the centre on both sides, working out towards the edges. I’m aiming for a thirty-degree angle here, and I can also check my angle with one of these depth-checkers. Now. I’ll just keep repeating that process as we work outward toward the edges of the groove.

The trick is just to try and keep it as clean as possible at all times. Now, as I get closer to the stencil edge, I’m going to stay just a little bit away from that edge, so I don’t nick it with the chisel. There’s no need to go right up to the edge, you can leave a few millimeters.

And now I’m getting very close to completion… just giving it a few little finishing touches here, just with a real light feather-touch. Making sure it’s clean and tidy, making sure the bottom of the groove is nice and crisp, no extra little shavings stuck on the bottom there. And the key, when you’re finishing off the groove is that you don’t do anything in a ham-fisted way, you just are very light with the chisel. Paper-thin shavings coming off of there.

So, I’ll just give it a light sand, and now it’s finished. Of course control, like anything, comes with practice, so the more you do of it, the better and quicker you’ll get at it.

In our next video, we’ll look at how to carve the square ends on letters.

So, thanks a lot for your patience, have fun practice-carving and we’ll be back again!

Better Letters!

Sam Roberts in front of a Ghostsign

Sam Roberts

He’s been called the “London authority on hand-painted signs” (Finding the Radio Book) and “ghost signs expert from London” (The Age), but Sam Roberts chuckles at such grandiose titles. He just happens to be a character who especially loves the fading hand-painted signage of yesteryear, and it turns out that he’s far from alone in this regard. His blog, Ghostsigns, has built up a respectable following, and has even been featured by The Guardian, London Glossy Post, and Londonist, to name a few. In today’s post, Sam is kind enough to educate the uninitiated about his past work, as well as introducing us to his newest project – Better Letters.

You’re known as “a ghost signs expert from London”. What is a ghost sign, and how did you first get involved in this area?

‘Expert’ is always a dangerous thing to be known as but it is true that I have been writing about and researching ghost signs since 2006. As to what they are, there is no settled answer, although I use the term to refer to the fading remains of advertising once painted by hand directly onto the brickwork of buildings.

I started to notice these where I live in London and was soon photographing them when I realised that they wouldn’t be around forever. One thing led to another and, in 2009-10, I coordinated a project to document this historic form of advertising. The result was the History of Advertising Trust Ghost Signs Archive, a free searchable photographic archive of hundreds of examples from the UK and Ireland.

I’ve worked in and around the advertising and creative industries for the last 12 years so I guess I was more sensitised to noticing the signs. That said, the remarkable thing I discovered after finding out about them was how much of a chord they strike with everyone. Just mentioning what I was talking about to friends and family often draw responses such as “There’s a great one at the end of my road.” or “There’s one in my home town but I never knew they had a name.”. This suggests they have a resonance beyond just sign aficionados and advertising folk, like ourselves.

I continue to research and write about ghost signs on my blog and am currently thinking of how the archiving project here in the UK could be expanded to cover ghost signs across the world. For example, I was very pleased to find so many in Melbourne on a tour of the city from Stefan Schutt of Finding the Radio Book earlier this year. I’d like to see a global mapping of the signs alongside some of the great research that people do into the locations and businesses being advertised by the fading paint.

Blooms Pianos Ghost Sign, photographed by Ronnie Hackston

The Blooms Pianos Ghost Sign, in Hackney, photographed by Ronnie Hackston

The Bile Beans Ghost Sign in York, photographed by Caroline Dibbs

The Bile Beans Ghost Sign in York, photographed by Caroline Dibbs

One Ghost Sign overlays another, photograph by Sam Roberts

One Ghost Sign overlays another, photograph by Sam Roberts

A Local Ghost Sign, Glen Innes Road, Inverell, photographed by the author

A Local Ghost Sign, Glen Innes Road, Inverell, photographed by the author

Ghost Sign on Auburn Vale Road, Inverell

Another beauty just out of town, on the Auburn Vale Road. I love the three-digit phone number.

I understand you’ve also published a book on Hand-Lettering. What can you tell us about that?

In 2010 my wife and I left London to spend two years volunteering with VSO in Cambodia. This was just after I launched the ghost signs archive and so I was wondering what hand-painted signs might exists in South East Asia. I wasn’t disappointed as Cambodia has a fantastic heritage of painted street signs, something I was to discover in abundance in our home town of Kratie.

A few trips out on the motorbike with a camera led to a collection of images that I collated and researched to create the rather niche title, Hand-Painted Signs of Kratie. I self-published the print book and also the eBook which is available as a free download from the book’s website,

The book was never a commercial venture. It was an opportunity to celebrate the wonderful signs that Cambodia has to offer and for me to learn a bit more about writing, researching and publishing a book. As it progressed it became a bigger project than I set out on and so I printed copies to be distributed in Cambodia. It is now available to buy there as well as direct from me. The eBook was more of an afterthought but was again a positive learning experience for me.

Book Cover - Hand-Painted Signs of Kratie

Book Cover – Hand-Painted Signs of Kratie

An Inside Spread from the Book

An Inside Spread from the Book

A Hand-Painted Sign in Kratie, Cambodia

A Hand-Painted Sign in Kratie, Cambodia

A Hand-Painted Sign in Kratie, Cambodia

Wayne Tanswell, Sign-writer

British Sign-Painting Legend, Wayne Tanswell, holding his copy of Sam’s Book. Wayne is also a member of Better Letters.

In this clip, Cambodian Sign-painter Chouk Rachana paints the cover for Sam’s book:

And now the big question; please fill us in on your latest project – “Better Letters” – What’s the aim with that?

Better Letters has a very simple purpose: to promote hand-crafted lettering of all forms and in all places. My work on ghost signs and the book led me to realise that there are hundreds of people around the world producing outstanding pieces of hand-crafted lettering every day. The recent release of The Sign Painter Movie and accompanying book shows just how vibrant the sign painting business is in the USA.

I wanted to do something to profile lettering artists and their work and so Better Letters does this as a directory and portfolio. It also lists events and other things of interest to those involved in creating or buying hand-crafted lettering. Lettering artists and event organisers can add their details via the links on the site’s home page.

As the ghost signs blog evolved over time I found myself writing more and more about current practice in sign-writing/painting. Better Letters provides an opportunity to give greater focus to this strand of my work and for ghost signs to regain its focus on the fascinating and ever-changing world of historic painted signs.

I’m also aware that many people offer more than just sign painting and so the idea for Better Letters is to embrace hand-crafted lettering in the broadest sense. This includes gilding, wood carving, calligraphy and even those who create lettering with quilling techniques. I think the common feature of all these lettering forms is the manual aspect of their creation, as opposed to those arising through purely digital or mechanical means. That said, I’m open to ideas from those who know far more about this stuff than me. Ultimately the platform belongs to those on it and so I’m keen to be guided by yours and their advice.

I will let the demand for each aspect of the site determine how it evolves in the future. For now I see it primarily as a forum for lettering artists to showcase their work to potential buyers but there is no doubt that people always like to check out new work from friends and competitors. This is something that The Pre-Vinylite Society is doing a great job on for sign painters so learning from their work and broadening its reach to other disciplines is definitely a direction that Better Letters could take in the future. As above, the idea is still a new one and offers flexibility for those involved to determine its direction. I’m keen to hear from anyone with ideas and feedback so that the site has value for everyone involved.

Better Letters World Map

At this early stage, there are only a handful of sign shops listed in the Better Letters directory, but soon the map will be riddled with them!

Some of the artists who have joined the project, to date:

Best Dressed Signs (Boston, Massachussets)

Best Dressed Signs (Boston, Massachussets)

Michel D'anastasio

Michel D’anastasio, Calligrapher (Paris)

Sign Painter Chouk Rachana (Kratie, Cambodia)

Chouk Rachana (Kratie, Cambodia)

Nutmegger Workshop (Portland, Oregon)

Nutmegger Workshop (Portland, Oregon)

Osborne Signs

Osborne Signs (West Sussex, England)

Right Way Signs (Chicago)

Right Way Signs (Chicago)

Starr Studios (Denton, Texas)

Starr Studios (Denton, Texas)

Wayne Tanswell (Sudbury, Suffolk, UK)

Wayne Tanswell (Sudbury, Suffolk, UK)

and us, of course!

and, of course, Danthonia Designs (Inverell)! So far, we’re the only carving shop, but that certainly won’t last.

If you want to be a part of Better Letters, Sam would love to hear from you! You can email him ( or tweet him (@better_letters). If you do it today, wish him a happy birthday!


Painting a Faux Wood Panel

I took this photo series in early July, when we were making a sign with a faux wood grain panel – one of my favourite jobs in the workshop.

Mixing Paint with a Brush

Here I’m dipping a four-inch house-painting brush into two shades of brown Dulux paint.

Applying Paint to Sign Panel with House-painting Brush

Now comes the fun! I’m slathering the paint onto a sign panel. The panel already has three coats of a darker brown, as a background colour.

Woodgraing a Sign Panel with a Wide Brush

The paint coat is far from even, but that is intentional. It doesn’t look like wood grain yet, but hang in there…

Rubbing with a Paper Towel, to make woodgrain effect

After five minutes of blowing a fan on the panel, I vigorously wipe away the paint I just applied. The areas where it was thicker come off easily, but the thinner parts have already dried, making a great weathered wood effect. Stubborn areas that are too light can be softened up by misting on water with a spray bottle. The whole procedure may have to be repeated more than once, to create the authentic wooden look.

Woodgrain Sign Panel

Here’s a detail shot of the finished panel, ready to be made into a handcrafted, dimensional sign!

The Fox and Fifer Sign

A few weeks later…the finished sign.