A Sign for the Balvenie Craft Bar

scottish distillery

The Balvenie Distillery, Dufftown, Scotland

The distilling of whisky has always been a craft, but The Balvenie claims the title of the most handcrafted of all Scottish whiskys. Everything from the farming of the barley to the making of the barrels is done by hand, in the traditional way. Perhaps that’s reason enough for hosting an event dedicated to craft-work. Earlier this month, six skilled artisans and a select group of whisky aficionados converged for ‘The Balvenie Craft Bar’. It was held at Zenith Interiors, in Melbourne.

We have a natural affinity with artisans who still ply their trade as they have done for decades. We’re extremely excited to be working with these craftspeople who share the same values as The Balvenie.

– Sam ‘Dr Whisky’ Simmons, The Balvenie Global Brand Ambassador


Craft Bar invitation

The official invitation to the event

Of course, an event like this needed a handcrafted sign as well. Andrew Shannon, from The Balvenie contacted us and asked for a sign that was made of wood, traditional in design, and most importantly, was hand-crafted.

Below are a few images of the sign being made.

New Guinea Rosewood Sign Panel

We started by making a panel from two pieces of New Guinea Rosewood, source from our local lumberyard.

sandblasted sign

After applying a rubberised mask, the sign was sandblasted.

sandblasted sign detail

Originally, we had planned to follow-up the sandblasting by texturing the background areas with gouges. After seeing the how beautiful the grain turned out, however, we discussed the options with Andrew Shannon and decided to leave the raw sandblasted texture. The woodgrain had textured so beautifully, it would be a shame to gouge it away!

tablesaw sign

The sign panel was then cut down to size.

sign panel jointer edges

We smoothed the edges with the jointer

bandsaw sign inverse corners

and cut the inverse corners with the band-saw

belt sander sign edges

Geordie finished the edges on the belt sander, to remove any remaining saw marks.

sandblasted sign mask peeling

Next, he peeled back the sandblast mask, revealing the smooth areas beneath.

sanding a sign

A good once-over with a sanding block took care of any small splinters or dents on the raised areas of the sign.

cove edge wood sign

Next, a cove edge was cut into the front.

wood sign chamfer edge

And a chamfer (bevel) into the back edge of the sign

Now that the machining was finished, we embarked on the next step – staining the sign. In keeping with Australian pioneer tradition, we decided to use the natural colour of grass tree resin to give the panel a warm, deep-brown hue.

grass tree northern nsw

Being in rural New South Wales, it didn’t take long to find a grass tree on the property.

grass tree resin

Look on the ground next to any grass tree and you will almost certainly find chunks of resin that have fallen off the trunk. Here is one such piece.

resin in a jar

We collected a few pieces of resin in a jar.

home-made grass tree stain

Next, we added a few drams of pure Balvenie scotch. Just kidding, it was actually isopropyl alcohol.

home-made stain

Immediately, the resin started working its magic.

home-made stain

A good shake helped to accelerate the process.

stain filter

Next, the stain was filtered.


…and applied.

sign stain

Nice & thick!

wiping stain off sign

Finally, we wiped away the excess stain.

wood sign for The Balvenie Craft Bar

And the sign was finished!

We shipped the sign to Melbourne to take its place at the Balvenie Craft Bar. Here are a few photos of the event:

wood sign in melbourne window

Wooden Sign for the Balvenie Craft Bar in Melbourne

(image courtesy of Whisky & Alement)

melbourne whisky bar

(image courtesy of The World Loves Melbourne)

Guitar Parts

Some of Tim Kill‘s craft work

A display of handcrafted guitars

And the finished products in use!

artisan cheese in Melbourne

Homemade Cheese by Nick Haddow (image courtesy of Milk Bar Mag)

Blavenie Craft Bar

(image courtesy of Milk Bar Mag)

The Balvenie Craft Bar

(image courtesy of Whisky & Alement)

Sandblasted Wooden Sign in Melbourne

The sign stands in the window of Zenith Interiors (image courtesy of Milk Bar Mag)

Sandblasted Wood Sign

How to Carve a Letter – Part 4

Here’s our fourth video in the letter-carving series. This time it’s a hand-lettered, casual-style ampersand. Relax and enjoy.

Welcome back to our fourth and final letter-carving lesson. As I mentioned last time, today we’re going to be carving an ampersand. Now, the ampersand is a very interesting character. It’s actually a letter that’s been around since before the English language was even invented. It dates back to first centruy Rome, and it actually symbolises the letters ‘E’ ‘T’, as in ‘Et’. So, people have been carving ampersands for a long, long time. It’s also a letter that type-designers have always had a lot of fun with. There are many different creative shapes and sizes of ampersand, and there are alot of different styles out there. But, for this exercise, were going to use a style that we invented purely for this lesson, so here we go!

Start off with V-Tooling. You should be getting familiar with this by now.Next, we’ll be using the chisel. And, just remember that on the outside corners, we keep the bevel of the chisel down, so it follows the curve nicely…and here we have our beautiful hand-crafted ampersand!

So, thanks a lot for watching this video, and the whole series. Stay tuned for more videos on three-dimensional sign-making!


From Skater to Sign-Maker: Colt Bowden

Colt Bowden

Colt Bowden at Work (image courtesy of Colt Bowden)

You may remember the name Colt Bowden, from our post about the Pre-Vinylite Society. He is certainly a colourful character and a driving force in the creative sign-making movement, not to mention his other pursuits, such as skateboarding and stop-motion animation. Since then, I was able to catch up with Colt and find out a little more about his sign-painting history and a few other interesting tidbits:

OK, I first got into painting signs after skateboarding. I was already doing a lot of art and the skateboard shop I skated for in high school (Milosport in Salt Lake City) needed some logos painted on the side of their building. So I did it and it was super tough trying to paint with regular paint instead of sign painters’ paint, which I didn’t figure out existed until many years later. That was about 12 years ago. Maybe five years ago I discovered proper sign painting for myself and started painting with the right brushes and paints.

backslip Colt Bowden

His great-grandfather was also an influence on his work.

I did know him personally, but it was long after he retired. After I bought my letterpress my grandma started telling
me all about his career as a printer. Lead must have been running through my veins!

Vintage Letterpress Colt Bowden

Colt with his Letterpress (image courtesy of Artduh)

Regarding Colt’s 3-volume publication ‘How to Paint Signs and Influence People’:

I started getting asked to teach workshops about the basics of sign painting and I decided to make a small pamphlet to supplement the class. After the first one I put it out there to see if people would be into buying it and I have been surprised to see how much popularity it has gained this year. I just released the third issue, about script lettering. The first two are about block lettering and casual lettering, the two fundamental lettering styles for a sign writer to have.

Hand-Lettering Handbook

The first issue of Colt’s zine (image courtesy of Colt Bowden)

The third issue, on script lettering was just released. When I asked which artists were included, he replied,

‘All of them! Frisso, Pierre Tardif, James Cooper, Lonnie Tettaton, Max Middleshaft,  Josh Luke, Kenji Nakiyama, Ken Davis, Jeff Meadows, Christian Cantiello, Brian Kaspr, Chris Sharp, Ross Trimmer, Dave Gunning, Gary Martin, Rod Axtell, Dusty Signs, Bob Dewhurst, Serge Nidegger, Will Lynes, John Lennig, Damon Styer, Derek McDonald and a few more cats that are out there ruling the sign painting universe in their respective ways.’

What about Colt’s short films?

I have always been fascinated with stop motion growing up watching Gumby and Sesame Street. When I learned how to do it myself, it opened up so many possibilities for fun projects. I definitely want to get more into it. I was lucky enough to have some friends that were into high-end stop motion, so I was able to skip a few of the pitfalls in projects I did.

Here’s a video he produced, using stop-motion techniques:

The second film was commissioned by Lost Type Co-Op, a unique font foundry that sells their typefaces for any price the buyer wants to pay!

I used some of their typefaces in a design I did for a company. Also, the owner of Losttype, Riley Cran and one of their Contributors, Dan Gneiding had a font project – Dude – that worked perfect for the way that I make little nerdy stop motion sign painting animations.  I love those guys, and I don’t love too many type designers, but those guys are doing it right!

More than just a sign-painter, Colt describes himself as ‘a folk artist of sorts’. Some of his better-known pieces are handcrafted, three-dimensional bearded ‘characters’, that can be hung on the wall.

bearded character wall hanging

‘I grow the saddest beard known to man, and so I feel there is a sort of obsession that has been created in my mind. I also appreciate the way they are able to conjure up more of a mysterious storyline in your head when you see a drawing of a bearded face than a shaven one.’ – Colt Bowden (image courtesy of Artduh)

wooden face

(image courtesy of Artduh)

wodden faces with beards colt bowden

(Image courtesy of Roxy Marj)

How did Colt become involved with the Pre-Vinylite Society?

It started with meeting Josh Luke and Ken Davis at a New Bohemia art show in San Francisco that me and my friend TJ drove out to see from Salt Lake City one winter. After that I kept in touch with Josh Luke and have supported all the great things he and his wife Meredith have done for the sign painters community.

Hand-Painted Art Show Poster

Poster for a PVS art show, featuring Colt Bowden (image courtesy of Colt Bowden)

Colt has been a regular attendee of a prestigious glass-gilding event in Hayward, California:

Deadman [the name of the event – borrowed from the title of a 1995 Western film] is such a great weekend. Old men, young men, and three days straight of watching old westerns and making art on glass. It’s kind of a special, secretive group and activity – invite-only kind of thing – and I’m  stoked every time I think of how I get to be a part of it.

Gilded Glass Art

A Glass Gilding Piece, created by Colt at the ‘Deadman’ gilding weekend. (image courtesy of Colt Bowden)

Does Colt make much use of the computer in his work?

Not so much actually. I try to keep it to a minimum.

A Sign for Cremorne Point Manor

Painting of Sydney Harbour

‘Sydney Harbour from Cremorne Point’, a painting by Fred Marsh (image courtesy of Marsh Studio)

There is nothing regular about the shape of Sydney Harbour. Actually, it hardly seems a harbour at all, but more of a ragged conglomeration of sharp headlands and deep inlets, each with a name and character of its own – Balmain, Drummoyne, Woolwich, Mcmahons Point… One peninsula which lies like a sharp finger, pointing south toward the bustle of the city, is Cremorne Point.

As any Sydneysider knows, the point is a place of grand old mansions and leafy streets that seems undisturbed by the happenings of the past hundred years or so. Along Cremorne Road, sails and water can be seen over the red-tile roofs of the houses below. On the other side of the street, steps lead upward to the large, stately residences above. One such is Cremone Point Manor. Clearly old, yet lovingly restored, this pale blue building has operated a guest house since the late nineteenth century.

The hotel is believed to have been built in the late 1880s, when a coal seam was discovered in Cremorne. Fortunately, the plan to mine the seam was scotched, thanks to stiff opposition from locals. Cremorne Point Manor has been a guesthouse for about 50 years – Lex Hall, Weekend Australian

‘Most delightfully, as night falls we can hear the sound of [Taronga] zoo animals squawking (monkeys, I think). Later I’m sure I hear the roar of a lion settling down for the night.’ – Sydney Morning Herald

Owner, Jean-Claude Branch tells us more about the place:

Jean-Claude Branch

‘Although drinking coffee is a regular part of my job, sitting down is not!’ – Jean-Claude Branch, owner of Cremorne Point Manor

We’ve traced the history of the building and as far as we can work out it was built around 1911, as a guest house. It’s been continually used as one ever since. It was originally called ‘Redcourt’, due to the clay tennis court on the left of the building. Long since having been built onto, it’s now the only commercial premises in Cremorne Point and one of the oldest continually run hotels in Sydney.

Old Ad Sydney

I’ve attached a photo from 1927 showing the building. Note the fancy addition of ‘Electric light’. Something we are proud to say we still have (amongst other improvements). – Jean-Claude Branch

Today, we have twenty-nine rooms and are rated by AAA as a four-star guest house. in 2010 we won the best renovation for New South Wales (HMAA) and for the past three years have achieved a ‘Certificate of Excellence’ from Trip Advisor.

My background is actually in property development and seven years ago I thought I’d see if I could run a hotel. Since then it’s been a labour of love and something that I love to do. A funny thing I noticed when I first started running the hotel which in hindsight seems pretty obvious. We never close. So, it means we need to ensure someone is available for our guests anytime day or night. It’s quite a logistical issue.

Cremorne Point is one of the most exclusive peninsulas in Sydney. houses are generally in the five to ten million range and it’s easy to see why. The view from Cremorne point is spectacular. During the new years fireworks its standing room only on the point. It’s an eight-minute ferry ride into the city, past the Opera House and Harbour Bridge, so it’s the best and cheapest Sydney Harbour tour one can do.

Sailboats in Sydney Harbour

The View over Sydney Harbour from Cremorne Point (image courtesy of Stayz)

Sydney Harbour Ferry

The Sydney Ferry approaches Cremorne Point (image courtesy of Walk Sydney Streets)

The hotel used to have a flat sign, but I noticed the Danthonia signs on another hotel – I think it was the City Crown Hotel on Crown St, Sydney – and asked the owner about the product. I did originally balk at the price, but the quality is superb and it really matches the facade of the building. I actually have three signs. I originally ordered one and then a couple of years later I upgraded with the other two. The people who design and construct the signs are superb at what they do.

Gilded Hotel Sign in Sydney

Carved Signs by Danthonia Designs

‘I wanted to create a hotel from my experiences around the world. somewhere that is both comfortable and homely, and somewhere where we don’t charge for every extra.’ – Jean-Claude


Cremorne Point Manor Sign

The first sign that Jean-Claude purchased from Danthonia Designs

Cremorne Point Manor Sign

Our guests often sit in our front yard. and I didn’t want to have them looking at the plain back of the sign. I also didn’t want to advertise to guests who are already there. So I looked up quotes and found this slightly tongue in cheek quote was a great addition to the sign. We often get comments from the guests how they love the place and it’s like home, hence the quote.

george bernard shaw quote on sign

The back of the sign.

Cremorne Point Manor Sign

The front and back panels of the main sign, photographed in our workshop.

Due to the style of the building being a heritage listed federation building, our guests want to have a lovely homely feeling when they come. We often have guests who have been coming for decades and what we strive to do is ensure that we stay modern and up-to-date with amenities, while still providing a lovely homely atmosphere. The balconies and small courtyard are lovely environments to relax and one of the secrets of Cremorne Point is the spectacular harbour-side gardens that you can walk through while admiring the views of Sydney.

Balcony Cremorne Point

‘A throwback to English country hotels, guests congregate on a large upstairs balcony with peaceful views across the water.’ – CNN Travel (image courtesy of Seana Smith)

There is also Macallum Pool which is a free council pool with views of the opera house and Harbour. Something that is loved so much by the locals it’s not uncommon for the signs to the pool to be taken down to stop people finding the place.

Maccallum Pool

‘Cremorne Point deserves to be walked around every day of your stay; it takes about 90 minutes at a trot…. You can cool off afterwards in MacCallum Pool, which was opened in the 1920s as the Cremorne Bathing Pool and significantly upgraded in the 1980s. You can swim in the Harbour while gazing across at Fort Denison and the Opera House. Isn’t that a Sydneysider’s definition of Heaven?’ – Sydney Morning Herald (image courtesy of Swim Sally Swim)

It was a pleasure to craft the signage for a place with such history and character. Thankyou, Jean-Claude for taking the time to tell a little of the story behind the sign!

Cremorne Point Manor at Night


A Chat with The Pre-Vinylite Society

Meredith, of Best Dressed Signs, Boston

Meredith Kasabian (image courtesy of Rene Dongo)

Maybe you’ve already heard of ‘The Pre-Vinylite Society‘. If not, it’s my pleasure to introduce you to this illustrious and passionate group of craftspeople. Though still in its infancy, the society models itself on the craft guilds of centuries past. As their manifesto states,

[We] are observant of the aesthetic world around us and resistant to traditions that dictate easy, quick, and careless ways of making our art…We care about the aesthetics of our surroundings because we know that artistic vigilance in the face of mass conformity will deliver us from a homogenous existence.

I discussed the finer points of the society with Meredith Kasabian, of Best Dressed Signs in Boston. Meredith is the literary voice of the society, curating the blog, writing and collecting articles for publication, and encouraging Pre-Vinylites to contribute their thoughts on art, lettering, society, beauty and the public space. Meredith tells:

The Pre-Vinylite Society is a loose network of mostly sign enthusiasts who are invested in improving the aesthetics of their local surroundings and public spaces.  It came into being through Best Dressed Signs’ Josh Luke’s desire for a non-judgmental, all-inclusive forum where sign painters of all skill levels could showcase their work and get advice without worrying about being “good enough” yet.

Sign-painter Josh Luke

Sign-Painter, Josh Luke, documents a finished work of art. ‘At Streetcar we believe that the best wines and beers are fundamentally hand crafted by hardworking, conscientious winemakers and brewers. We made aesthetic choices in designing our shop to signify and reflect the truly human processes of making wine and beer.’ – Owner Michael Dupuy (Image courtesy of Streetcar Wines)

It started as, and mostly still is, just a Facebook page (though I’ve recently started a Tumblr page called the Pre-Vinylite Society blog for more literary inclined Pre-Vinylites to share their thoughts and stories as well) but we hope to spread the word and have it develop into a movement towards a more visually conscious populace who demand that their urban environments be aesthetically improved—mostly through quality signage but also through historical preservation efforts, etc. Membership is self-ordained. Anyone that wants to be involved is more than welcome!

(for a list of members, click here.)

painting a window sign

Josh Luke paints ‘PVS’ on a window. (image courtesy of Flickr)

Right now the Pre-Vinylite Society—as a society—is kind of nebulous. As I mentioned, it’s really just a Facebook page and a Tumblr site at the moment but judging from people’s responses on those venues, it seems to strike a chord.

Back in 2010, when Josh and I were sitting around the kitchen talking about how we’d like to develop an inclusive community dedicated to the improvement of our urban landscapes, we came up with the idea and wrote this blog post called The Pre-Vinylites: Notes on a Manifesto. The first and only person to comment on that blog post was Colt Bowden. He’s a sign painter, illustrator, and letterpress printer in southern California and he’s just a very motivated, smart guy. Josh suggested a PVS zine and Colt made it happen, and in a really awesome way! All three of Colt’s artistic pursuits are showcased really well in the zine! The first volume, Egyptian Lettering, was just his work (with excerpts from sign painting books, etc.), while the second volume, Casual Lettering, and the third volume, Script Lettering, are compilations of the work of many sign painters around the world. You can purchase Colt’s ‘zines’ from Etsy

How to Paint Signs and Influrnce People

‘How to Paint Signs & Influence People’, Volume 2, a Magazine by Colt Bowden (image courtesy of Colt Bowden)

Colt was also kind enough to send a few images from the third issue:

Colt Bowden's 'Zine'


Hand-Lettered Words

At this early stage it seems that most people who associate with the PVS do so because their standards are high. But I can see how it may eventually get beyond our control and we may start witnessing people doing things in the name of the PVS that don’t meet our standards. But that’s why I’m trying to develop the PVS blog and promote Colt’s zine. These products provide  a kind of anchor for the PVS and record its original standards.

PVS Lettering

‘The Pre-Vinylite Society’, by Sean Gallagher, of Working Class Creative, Philadelphia (image courtesy of Dribbble)

We hope that the PVS will continue to grow and that people who associate with it will continue to uphold the basic tenets of the society—to improve our aesthetic environments by producing quality work that doesn’t conform to traditions that dictate an easy or cheap way of producing art.

PVS Sign North Carolina

A PVS Sign by Suzanne Martin Bircher, of Hand-Painted Signs, Dunn, North Carolina (image coutesy of Hand-Painted Signs)

I studied Romantic and Victorian literature and found out about the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood through Christina Rossetti’s poetry. She was the sister of Gabriel Dante Rosetti who was one of the founding members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Christina was never technically a member—probably because she was a woman—but she was a critical part of the movement.

Christina Rosetti

Christina Rosetti (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

I was immediately attracted to the Pre-Raphaelites’ art and its relation to poetry and as I read more about their mission to defy academic art that taught a strict, almost rote manner of producing paintings (from a tradition started by Raphael), I became more attracted to their Romantic and rebellious attitude. I also like that they incorporated a writing component into their mission—they had a very short lived publication called The Germ that accompanied their work and sought to express their ideals in both written and visual mediums. As a writer who explores visual art, that obviously appeals to me. The PRB incited many conversations about how Josh and I could borrow this rebellious attitude and incorporate it into an art/sign painting community.

Once we decided on the name,  Josh made his Pre-Vinylite Society  painting. It’s an homage to the PRB, manipulating an image of Jane Morris from Dante Gabriel Rosetti’s 1874 painting Proserpine into a kind of muse for sign painting (instead of the pomegranate that condemned Proserpine to spend half her year in Hades, she’s holding a lettering quill—a sign of the light to come).

Pre-Vinylite Society

The Pre-Vinylite Society, painted by Josh Luke (image courtesy of Signblanks)

Art-Nouveau Painting

Painting Detail – Jane Morris holds a lettering quill, rather than a pomegranate (image courtesy of PVS)

Proserpine Painting

And the painting that inspired Josh’s work – Proserpine (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

As I mention in the Pre-Vinylite Society Manifesto: “Much like the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood from whom we derive our name, the Pre-Vinylite Society is made up of members who are observant of the aesthetic world around us and resistant to traditions that dictate easy, quick, and careless ways of making our art. Also like the Pre-Raphaelites, we Pre-Vinylites are writers and artists, striving to make our mission heard as well as seen.”
As for the future of the sign industry in general, we feel very positive that quality work will continue to be produced—but personally I think the message of the society needs to get out to more than just the sign painters themselves. Business owners, graphic designers, and the general population need to be shown what quality work is so that they can judge it against less quality work and make more informed decisions about the options available to them. Personally, I don’t think the mainstream will ever value quality over quantity. But maybe I’m just a cynic!

Although we take inspiration from a pre-internet age, without the internet, the Pre-Vinylite Society would just be me and Josh sitting around our kitchen talking about how we wish more people appreciated hand painted signs!

I think a major misconception about the Society is that people take “Pre-“ to mean “Anti.” We are NOT Anti-Vinyl—we are PRO-commemorating a time BEFORE (or PRE-) vinyl. We’re not nostalgic for times past but we are historians and we think those times should be honored and certainly not forgotten. But we also know that history only has as much to teach us as we’re willing to take into the future and make new.

We consider the computer to be a tool like any other. We’re committed to making signs by hand, but that doesn’t mean we need to buy stock in erasers when we can fix a small kerning issue on a hand drawn sketch with a few clicks on Photoshop.

If you’re interested in learning hand-lettering, the best advice is to seek out a sign painter in your community and learn from them–nothing compares to learning from a master. If an apprenticeship is not available to you, scour the internet for sign painting forums and ask questions, read every sign painting book you can get your hands on, and practice lettering every day, even when you don’t feel like it. Also, remember that hand lettering, like every skilled trade, requires patience and a lot of practice before you’ll even feel comfortable with the brush. It also requires a fine balance between confidence and humility–as do most honest endeavors.

I would like to push the PVS into areas that reach beyond signage and lettering like architecture or even public art. I think the PVS is about caring what your environment looks like and valuing art done well, more so than just hand painted signage. But hand painted signs are the root of the society and will always anchor its philosophy.

Pre-Vinylite Society Ring

Sign-Painter Ken Davis sports a PVS ring. (image courtesy of PVS)

Here are some images from a PVS art show, held last year at the Extension Gallery at Orchard Skateshop (Allston, Massachusetts):

Sign Painting

(image courtesy of Colt Bowden)

Painted Saws

Hand-Lettered Saws by Kenji Nakayama (image courtesy of Colt Bowden)

Signs as art

(image courtesy of Colt Bowden)

Sign Painters do it in 1 Shot

A Sign by Jeff Canham of San Francisco (image courtesy of Colt Bowden)

Sign-painter Kenji Nakayama

Kenji Nakayama stand in front of his saw paintings (image courtesy of Orchard Skateshop)

PVS Painted Saw

One of Kenji’s Saws, promoting PVS (image courtesy of Kenji Nakayama)

Pre-Vinylite Society

Painted Sign Show

Art Enthusiasts debate the merits of Hand-Lettering (image courtesy of Mouseizm)

Painted SIgns

(image courtesy of The Phoenix)

And now, since Meredith was kind enough to share her thoughts with us here, I’ve finally taken up her request to put together a guest post for the PVS blog. The piece is entitled ‘A History of Creative Sign-making: A Sign-Carver’s Perspective‘. If you still have some time, please read it on The Pre-Vinylite’s Tumblr page!