The Making of a Pub Sign, Part One

We made this little video a while ago, but only got around to posting it here now. Hope you enjoy it!

Don: Portland is a city known for its many brewpubs, and one of the newest is The Oregon Public House. It’s also establishing a reputation as being one of the best.

Here at Danthonia Designs, we make handcrafted signs from our workshop in Inverell, Australia. We were recently commissioned by The Oregon Public House to make a classic pub sign for them. We’ve made a lot of pub signs over the years, and each one has its own unique character.

Joe: The local public house has always been a place of friendship, community and old-world hospitality, and the handcrafted pub sign over the door plays a big part, not only in the way it’s designed but in the care and craftsmanship that goes into making it. People will come back again and again to a pub where there’s good food, good atmosphere, but it’s the handcrafted pub sign that gets them through the door the first time.

Don: We started off the design process by first of all establishing the look and the feel that the folks at Oregon Public House wanted.Then, we came up with some pencil sketches. We drew our inspiration from the classic old pub signs of England and Ireland, as well as the vernacular hand-painted signs of the American Old West.

Pete, from The Oregon Public House, sent us photos of gilded flourishes off an old fire engine, which he wanted us to incorporate. After a little back and forth, we finally settled on this design, which everyone seemed happy with.

The next videos in the series will follow the sign as it makes its way through the many stages of our shop, from the pencil sketch all the way until it’s hanging. Feel free to leave a comment, sunscribe to our channel, start a conversation with us, but whatever you do, don’t miss the next videos in this series!

Beer Mug

Beer Mugs

Custom Sign Shop

Hand-Lettered Movie Title

Oregon Public House Sign

Sign Design Pencil Sketches

Engine Turned Gold Ornaments

Gilding a Sign

Gilding a Sign

Custom Sign-Making Shop

HDU sign on a scroll saw

Cutting HDU on a Scroll Saw

Designing a Custom Sign

Brush Texture Coat

Painting Accents on Engine-Turned Gold

Hanging up Apron at Custom Sign Shop

Gibbs Connors

Gibbs Connors

Gibbs Connors (image courtesy of Aaron Igler, Greenhouse Media)

Today we catch up with sign-painter & VW bus collector, Gibbs Connors. From an industrial former garage in Philadelphia, Gibbs travels the country like a modern-day traveling-sign-man, putting paint on walls and gold on windows.

I got into sign painting in 1986. I had finished college and was working as a laborer for a high school buddie’s construction company. We were finishing a project when I saw this ‘old guy’, who, when I do the math was about the same age as I am now. I can remember watching him work, he had laid down the black outlines first and was stippling in the colours on the letters so they looked like the stained glass lamps that the store sold. I stood there and watched almost in disbelief and certainly amazement at how the paint flowed off the brush and how clean and straight the outline work was. I wanted to talk to him, I know he knew I was there but I didn’t want to bother him. We spoke briefly, he handed me his card. ‘JOHN DALY SIGN PAINTER’. I went by his shop, showed him my portfolio from art school. He patiently watched me flip through the work I had done and said, ‘I don’t know anything about art but if you can draw and paint like that, you can paint signs…frankly I think you’d be selling yourself short but you could do it’. I asked him how to go about getting work. His response was, ‘It couldn’t be easier…just walk down the street and look for businesses that are opening…or someone who needs a new sign….or someone who you think could be use a better sign”. My response was “Yeah? Then what?’. He told me to give them a price, get a deposit and go over to Paragon Paint, buy a brush and a couple of cans of paint “and you’re in business”. So I did. Not much time later I was in the window of a storefront painting ‘CHINA PAGODA’ on the glass, just like I saw the old guy doing!

China Pagoda Philadelphia

Gibbs’s First Lettering Job

Gibbs Connors & John Daly

Gibbs Connors & John Daly

Last year was an incredible year as far as projects. I was working in Los Angeles at LAX painting a mural for Starbucks. I was working in Chicago for a long time client ‘La Colombe‘ gilding a window, I was working in Washington, DC doing a bunch of gold work, lettering and striping for a fancy restaurant ‘Le Diplomate‘…one of my favourite and probably one of my best projects to date was for ‘Kermit’s Bake Shoppe‘ right here in Philadelphia about ten blocks from my shop. The project is a wall painting project (hard to call it a mural) but it’s designed to look like a vintage wall paper pattern. Aside from the logo in the middle of it, it’s my layout, color selections and design. It measures about twenty-five feet high by fifty feet long and was painted in two days by me and my assistant, Bill Sanders. I made two patterns and planned it out on the wall so those two patterns are stacked alternately and repeat like a true wall paper pattern. It gives the design structure and your eye connects the repeats almost subconsciously to make the eye flow through and explore the pattern.

La Colombe Window

Gibbs works on the La Colombe Window

La Colombe Van

La Colombe Coffee Van

Kermit's Bake Shop

At the moment, I have a wall lined up for ‘La Colombe’ as well as some gold work. I have a wall lined up for a plumber who saw the Kermit’s job. There are a couple brew pubs that want ‘ghost signs’ painted on their facades. I’m also doing the graphics for a Cezanne show at The Barnes Foundation here in Philadelphia.

Faux Ghostsign

Bill Sanders paints a Faux Ghostsign

The work seems to go in phases and I’ll do almost anything if I think I can do it successfully. Being a ‘sign-painter’ involves a whole lot more that lettering enamel. One of my old sign painting books by Heberling even shows you how to tie knots! Lately I’ve been really focusing on upping my game in the world of gilding. It’s something I have always done. Right out of the gate on that ‘China Pagoda’ job I wanted to gild. I learned eventually by making myself a gold leaf sample box showing a bunch of different types of techniques, mirror, matte, two tone, mirror with a damar center and so on. Now I’m doing chipping, gold blending, trying different carats, more typefaces. I’ve done about thirty of them in the past few weeks. This is after having the opportunity to take a glass sign workshop with Roderick Treece in Encinitas, California back in February of this year. That really unleashed this monster in me that I can’t, and don’t try to contain.

Gilded Glass Samples

Gibbs’s Gilded Glass Samples

When I moved to Philadelphia in 1989 there were a few guys around still painting signs. Occasionally over the years I’d see signs that local art student had done. They were good but I could tell that they weren’t done by a sign painter. How? The lettering was the worst part and they lacked layout. Or maybe I’d see one that was done by a graphic designer. Maybe the designer painted the sign for some extra money at the end of the project. The sign would be a decent design but the brushwork and paint application was lacking. Now here in Philadelphia there are some young-timers coming up that are very talented. I was driving around one day and saw this great hand painted sign and thought ‘Who did that!?’ Then I saw a gold job one day. I could tell it wasn’t by the other person in Philly that does gold… hmmm, what’s going on here!?. I knew something was up. I was getting a lot of calls for people wanting apprenticeships, so I started getting the people together at my shop for sign painter solidarity meetings, kind of like a guild or trade group. We’d talk some technique but more-so solidarity among ourselves. Namely ‘the code’ that the old-timers that I know would talk about. It happens to all of us from time to time where you really need the work. Situations arise. I like to think long term and never ‘mow another guys lawn’ over a project. If someone calls me on a job and I know one of the other guys work for them, I’ll call the other sign painter and let them know so they don’t think I’m poaching their clients. That’s important because that stuff can get ugly.

Moriarty's Pub Philadelphia

Sculpted & Gilded Letters for Moriarty’s Pub

There are a lot of fresh faces out there doing incredible work. Work like I’ve never seen before. I think certainly the New Bohemia crew and the folks that came up through Damon Styer’s tutelage are second to none. I had the opportunity to stop by LA Trade Tech this past February to do a little guest lecture spot. The Young folks there are absolutely killing it. On an earlier trip to California I met Derek Mcdonald. Derek is incredibly talented. He’s the true definition of a sign painter plus, like me he’s self taught. I met a whole bunch of guys at a ‘Conclave‘ in February, Holy Smokes! Gregg Heger, Sean Glaspy, “Coolhand Ken” Davis, certainly Colt Bowden is a tremendous contributor to the efforts with ‘How to Paint Signs and Influence People‘ , Steve Vigeant‘s work really impressed me, Roderick Treece is absolutely incredible, Sean Starr has an amazing understanding of what’s happening and has been in it forever, James Thomas is a young-timer that’s made tremendous strides. Let’s not forget Dave Smith, Will Lynes and Nathan Pickering…I could go on and on.

Derek MacDonald

Derek MacDonald (image courtesy of Golden West Sign Arts)

Locally in Philadelphia, my old buddy Harry Lowe has been painting signs since he was about 10 years old. He is ‘a natural’ the likes I have never seen. With me the tradition continues, from the guy that got me into sign painting, John Daly, to those that came before him and who he learned from, John Snyder, to the people coming up that I can pass it on to, Bill Sanders, Chriss Russo, Christian Cantiello, Darin Rowland, Jaime Cartagena… these are folks that have only been painting signs a couple years and are coming at it with ‘the fire’.

You collect VW buses. How did that start?

I can’t say exactly how or why but it is the obsession of obsessions. The Japanese use the word ‘Hotaku’ to describe this. There is no end to it. I heard this interview with Bob Dylan one time. He was asked about what the song ‘Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall’ was about. He said he couldn’t begin to explain. He did say that a book could be written about each line in the song, for instance ‘What have you done my blue eyed son?’ Well that’s about John F. Kennedy and many books have been written about him. It’s the same way with me and Volkswagen buses. If I see a part I hadn’t noticed before or an accessory I don’t own, it opens the door on a new chapter of collecting. I’m a freak about roof racks. Nearly every bus I own has one on it. There are more hanging on the walls. I’d buy more buses to put those roof racks on, but I don’t have the room for more. Then I decide from time to time that it’s ridiculous to have all these buses. I decide to unload some… but which ones? They all have their story and fit in my collection. This is nearly thirty years of collecting. So now I am facing all theses quandaries I’ve created for myself. What happens? I end up buying another! Mental!  I guess it started when I was a kid, before I can remember really but I had a yellow beetle Tonka toy that was my favorite toy.  When it was time to drive, even though I was long since done playing with that Tonka toy, I had to have a yellow VW Beetle as my first car. In fact, my second car was a yellow VW Beetle too. Somewhere along the way the buses came into my life. Then more buses, then different models of buses. My first was a “single cab”, after that I think I got a twenty-one-window, then a twenty-three-window, then who knows. I bet I’ve owned seventy or so buses by now, I usually have ten to fifteen at any one time as well as Porsche or two, a couple Beetles, a Syncro DOKA and some daily driver late model cars.

Gibbs Connors

Gibbs with his vans (image courtesy of Kyle Kielinski)

Have you noticed a growing interest in handcrafted signs, in recent times?

Yes, definitely! I’m not sure why the growing interest is there but it’s certainly a great time to be a sign-painter. I’m going to guess and say that ‘The Sign Painters Movie‘ had a fair amount to do with that, though most people I’ve talked to outside the trade haven’t heard of it. I’ve heard people call sign painting ‘a lost art’. I call it ‘a living history trade’. The way sign painters do things now is much the same way it was done one-hundred years ago except most of us have a computer that we use one way or another. Speaking of the computer, I think of and use the computer as a tool, just like any other tool in my shop. It has a purpose. The main purpose I use it for is making paper patterns. I’ll scale up a design on the computer, whether it’s a client’s logo or something I’ve drawn by hand and scanned in.  The plotter draws out the pattern with a pen, then I’ll perforate it with the electro-pounce. Occasionally I’ll cut vinyl letters for body copy in some of the exhibit work I do in museums. I still prefer and always recommend that we vertical screen print in museum spaces. Vinyl letters on walls can’t come close to the quality of the vertical screen printing. I’ve always said that sign painting has been under-appreciated, overly scrutinized and often disregarded. It’s lived in the shadows of whatever new computers can do, cutting faster, routing, laser, water-jet and digital printing. Computers undeniably do ‘perfect work’. The problem with the ‘perfect work”‘ is that it lacks the character that hand painted work has. The computer also has some very defined limits. It can’t do water-gilding for example. Now the clients are starting to get it. A restaurant for example will market itself as ‘organic’ and ‘farm to table’. They name the farm that raised the beef they serve, where the mushrooms were grown. Hell, I’ve even seen ‘artisanal marshmallows’ on a menu in a restaurant. Nostalgia is a powerful drug and smart marketers know it.  It all looks like a hoax if they hang a vinyl banner across their front window that says ‘LUNCH SPECIAL’. Instead, they want a hand lettered menu board that’s aged to look like it’s been there since 1954 and a hand drawn chalkboard with their lunch specials. I think it’s all about an inverse reaction to technology.  You want the new iPhone? Cool! I wanna find Al Imelli’s ‘Alphabet’s and Letters’!

Gibbs has a website and an extensive Instagram page. Take a look.

Linsi Braith: Some Musings on the Past & Present of Australia’s Sign Industry

Linsi Braith

Linsi Braith

A sign-painter from the 1950’s would surely be baffled by the equipment and terminology of today’s sign-shops, just as many of today’s digital sign-makers would feel useless in a mid-century shop. The trade, here in Australia – as in other developed counties – has changed so drastically that it’s barely recognisable.

Linsi Braith was witness to all this. Today, as a semi-retired sign-painter, she volunteers her time and skills at Katoomba’s Paragon Cafe (the oldest cafe in Australia). Besides that, she loves to document the old handmade signs that can still be found in the streets and shops of the Blue Mountains area. In today’s post, Linsi reflects on the past and present of sign-making:

I was into lettering early. Colour TV and Hollywood had something to do with it. I remember being fascinated by fancy movie title lettering; Pirates, Robin Hood, Sinbad, Cowboys and Indians Disney movies and cartoons of course. There was also the occasional colourful Circus visiting our suburb and the annual Royal Easter Show. I remember the early paper sample-bags with tiny replica goods exactly like the real product in the shops. It wasn’t a family or school influence. An attraction to lettering was just always there. Can skill be in the DNA? There were some fine craftsmen amongst our ancestors.

Royal Easter Show Poster

Royal Easter Show Poster (image Courtesy of Josef Lebovic Gallery)

When I was young, I loved doing school projects where I would put together the story of sugar, iron or The Great Barrier Reef. This was required to be a poster on a sheet of thin cardboard, purchased at the Newsagent. It required writing points of knowledge, drawing and colouring things and sticking on any paraphernalia I had gathered about the topic. I loved making things.

I also relished making my school exercise books neat, covering them accurately with paper and drawing ornate labels on them… Math, English, Science, Home Economics. I remember being taken to see the brand new Roselands Shopping Center and its tall Raindrop Fountain, also the new Bankstown Square at night with endless corridors of bright shops. I kept scrapbooks of illustrations cut from Mum’s magazines. I painted large posters copied from these and some 1960’s LP record covers in my older brothers growing collection.

Roselands Shopping Centre, 1966

Roselands Shopping Centre, 1966 (image courtesy of Glen H)

I liked making things (Dad had a shed full of tools) but my drawing and construction talents were generally disregarded by adults in control and simply did not fit in with the streaming of most schoolgirls into a life of shop assistant, nurse, secretary, or bank clerk. If you were very bright, teaching might have been encouraged, but only work was discussed in my family, not University. That just wasn’t a family tradition or aspiration.

Fortunately in those days, one could get a job, rent a flat, choose from a wide variety of affordable evening classes at the local Tech, gain qualifications and so make one’s way into or through a career. I found a ‘Showcard- & Ticket-writing’ course at my nearby Technical College: 6pm to 9pm, two nights per week for three years, the final six months included screen-printing. It was in nearly every college across the state, a very popular course and I loved it too. I have a crystal clear memory of my teacher demonstrating Old English with nib and ink and putting a quick red shade on it. I think that particular moment was the dawning of an awareness that I could learn all of that wonderful fancy lettering I’d seen. I loved the ways of varying block lettering and putting decorative shading against it. I struggled with a flowing freestyle script because I had not learned a cursive handwriting at school. I only printed, and only in capitals.

Lettering Design by Eric Roberts

A page from ‘Lettering Design’ by Eric Roberts

I loved learning about colour, loved painting tint and shade charts and colour wheels. I still have most of my practice from that course. Other courses such as Fine Art and Graphic Art each had a shorter very good hand lettering subject at that time. Sign-writing was available in only a few colleges.

Journeyman Signpainter Letters

Some of Linsi’s Class Work

Before the three years were up I was working as a full-time Ticket-writer in one of Sydney’s large stores, and soon stepped up to an even better job with a team of ticket-writers in a department store. My showcard and ticket-writing course was immediately followed by the two-year part time sign-writing journeyman’s course at Sydney Technical College in Mary Anne Street, Ultimo. I was one of two females in the class, the other one dropped out and I was alone for a while but I think two or three females enrolled the following year and I was very pleased to see this happen.

Sydney Technical College, Ultimo

Sydney Technical College (now the Sydney Institute of TAFE), Ultimo (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

In sign-writing, I loved the larger and more accurate drawing up of lettering and layouts. I loved the slower enamel paints, long hair brushes and working with a mahlstick. I learned to paint on glass, make a decal and use gold leaf. The department store had a large display section that included screen printing and ticket-writing. I was eventually doing a wide variety of hand work; small tickets, window showcards, large department signs, and finished artwork for the screen-printing section where stencils were hand cut from it. I still have some of that fine art work and guess it needs to be given to an archive one day! More type setting machines were purchased, other early price ticket printing processes were being investigated and computerisation occasionally got a mention. The ticket-writing team reduced and obviously I had caught just the tail end of that era.

Sho-Card Layouts

A Page from ‘Sho-Card Layouts’ by W.L. Mitchell

There followed another step as I became a teacher of show-card and ticket-writing – a long journey that saw many changes to the industry of ticket-writing, window-dressing and sign-writing in New South Wales.

Apprenticeship enrollments in sign-writing plummeted as computer-aided sign production swept in, and franchised small businesses producing fast vinyl signage popped up. Education departments were demanded to show cost savings.

The style of education changed. ‘Modules’, ‘projects’ and ‘units of competency’ arrived. Vocational education course fees increased. Teaching sections were pressured to run very lean and even at a profit by offering ‘fee for service’ courses. ‘The Budget’ became the focus in vocational education and there were cascades of tedious meetings and discussions. Hand-lettering subjects vanished within the other art courses and any small or fading courses were targeted to be chopped out altogether. To reduce risk of losing the sign-writing course, the ticket-writing and sign-writing courses were merged and became ‘Sign Craft’, thus showing up as a larger body of students on the razor gang’s printout of state-wide statistics. It was high time for change anyway, so within this new Sign Craft course, computer signage was added. Also, the many topics of both old courses were carved up into new, separate, very thin slices, with precise delivery hours and a brutal ‘competent’ or ‘not competent’ marking system.

The sign industry demands came first in the carve-up, with some obvious struggle between the old and new guard. The fancy new equipment was slow to be obtained by colleges with a budget too tight to keep up with the evolving industry. ‘Sign Craft’ was a course of mix and match ‘units’. Employers and students could select what they needed and this was often not hand-drawing and painting of lettering. Eventually, when sign-painting fully gave way to computers, the course changed again and became ‘Signage’. A few of the old hand skills once learned and practiced over three years were now being attempted in a few hours and then ticked off the competency list. I think I experienced the tail end of another era. No doubt it will all change again and ‘signs’ will become only a single short unit amongst a broad range of mix-and-match ‘design’ training options.

What’s your connection with The Paragon Cafe, in Katoomba?

Firstly, I love old things and old places – the towns, buildings and shops, the awnings, windows, tiles, colour, the overall architecture – just the feel and look of old rather than new. Old is interesting and I don’t want to see it demolished and replaced by identical rows of chain stores, where you can hardly tell the difference between one suburb or one town and the next; same branding, same goods, same fast food, same-same-same-plastic-glass-concrete-metal and same awful large signage everywhere! There is too much sameness happening and – in my opinion – not enough protection or restoration of Australian heritage towns such as those through The Blue Mountains region of New South Wales.

Katoomba Street, circa 1940

Katoomba Street, circa 1940. Note the Paragon Cafe. (image courtesy of Blue Mountains City Library, Local Studies Collection)

For many years as I witnessed the ticket-writing and sign-painting industry vanish, I imagined that when I retired, I would try to find just one old nearby shop that needed an old hand like me and I would just volunteer to do as much as they wanted. Well, I retired slightly early due to hearing loss and sometime afterward received numerous hints that The Paragon Cafe in Katoomba needed me. I now help the owner with visual merchandising in general. In particular, I provide a variety of hand-painted things to boost the feel and awareness of the cafe’s history. I’m just helping by putting some good old fashioned lettering around.

Paragon Cafe Window

The Paragon Cafe, with window full of Linsi’s signs

The Paragon building is from 1909. The Paragon Cafe was opened in 1916 and has remained fairly unchanged since Zac Simos gave it a series of significant art deco makeovers, during the next three decades. As other old Greek cafes were modernized, (including the nearby Niagara unfortunately) the Paragon remained largely untouched inside and out. The Simos family sold it in 2000 and during the occupation by a couple of odd lessees, it’s contents and reputation severely shrank. A new owner since 2011 is putting the love back, The Paragon was recently described as ‘the quintessential Greek cafe’. Efforts to save and protect it are strengthening and it’s gaining fresh attention from the National Trust.

'The Paragon stands alone.'

‘The Paragon stands alone.’

For those blog readers not familiar with your area, could you tell a bit about the Katoomba area?

Katoomba is surrounded by the spectacular landscape and forests of The Blue Mountains National Park which in turn sits high up along the Great Dividing Range in New South Wales. At 3,337 feet above sea level, snow often fell here in winters past. In the 1920’s and 30’s, it became a famous holiday destination for restorative clean healthy air, sightseeing and outdoor activity and a razzmatazz town night life.


Photos by Harry Phillips & Louise Bishop (courtesy of Louise Bishop)

It remains popular for the first two reasons. It is three hours west of Sydney by car and is probably best known for The Three Sisters rock formation that sits just south of the town. Some tourists often stay a night or two and explore the town as well as the surrounds, but bus loads of day tourists are funneled to Echo Point for the view, then to Scenic World nearby for a ride, and they don’t come into the town itself. Some town tourists have actually asked ‘Why is this place promoted as a tourist destination?’. I guess they see the lichen-spotted cracked facades, the faded peeling paint, empty shops, offbeat cafe fronts pasted with ragged notes and odd stickers…they see the general grubbiness and, of course, that everything shuts at 5:00 PM.

Faded Lettering on a Katoomba Window

Faded Lettering on a Katoomba Window

On the other hand, many people – both locals and tourists – see Katoomba as a vintage town that is quaint and I think that’s its future. That vintage quaintness should be worked on. If I had a magic wand, I would bestow Blue Mountains City Council with a debt write off, appropriate funds and much better influence over Katoomba’s landlords. I would bring a spectacular renaissance to Katoomba where its many art nouveau and art deco features were highlighted and the old style resort nature of the place was wonderfully polished up. I would create a new, dynamic night life with Theater, Music, Dance and Penny Arcades of course!

Recently, a new Blue Mountains Cultural Center was opened, but the sameness is arriving by way of Coles, Big W, Target, Liquorland, Dan Murphy’s, et cetera.

Art Deco Facade

One of Katoomba’s Art Deco Facades

At least Katoomba Street has not been destroyed for such big shops, but McDonald’s, Burger King, KFC Gloria Jeans and Wendy’s are yet to infiltrate. There are a number of nearby villages that retain a charming ambiance. Blackheath is lovely, a little higher and colder than Katoomba. Leura sits just to the east of Katoomba and, in my opinion, has succumbed to tourist madness. The ‘sameness’ is inspected and purchased . The traditional street-scape is being ruined by those ugly digital prints along the awnings.

The Victory Theatre, Blackheath

The Victory Theatre, Blackheath (image courtesy of Sandra Arrell)

When did you start taking pictures of ghost-signs & vintage lettering?

I enjoy looking at old packaging, posters & signs and I purchase lots of books about them. I started taking photographs of hand-painted signs decades ago, partly because they are all so unique, with their own place and time and character. Knowing how to paint by hand myself, I would ponder the age, the thought, the time and effort behind the result. I would admire the workmanship and wonder about who painted it – things most people don’t pause and admire, because signs are just the background wallpaper as they move through their busy days. I am a pain to travel with!

Dimensional Letters in Berry, New South Wales

Dimensional Letters in Berry, New South Wales, photographed by Linsi

As I saw vinyl and digital signs creeping in like a slow virus I also realized that ‘hand-painted’ was disappearing under a layer of sameness of fonts, colour and often awful layout design. I realized that many negative changes were happening.There was little effort to design traditional-looking signs, perhaps partly because layering and aligning vinyl is time-consuming and costly, perhaps partly because inexperienced people were diving into the business.

I saw large, raw-edged sheets of tin and aluminium being glued onto walls, the traditional shop verandah fascia obliterated with huge strips pop-riveted on…again often with bad choices of font and colour.

Peeling Vinyl Letters

Peeling Vinyl Letters

I didn’t realize I had some photos of ‘ghost-signs’ until the word and the worldwide enthusiasm for them emerged, and then I started to look more carefully for them while looking for ‘hand-painted’ in general. I became a bigger pain to travel with!

A Ghost Sign at Hill End

A Ghost Sign at Hill End

Are you in touch with any modern-day sign- or lettering-artists?

I haven’t connected with many like-minded lettering enthusiasts lately. There aren’t a lot nearby, but there are a few arts groups I could mix with if I tried. I’m often tempted to stimulate the local possibilities for young and old people to enjoy hand lettering skills together. It tugs at me because I know it’s such an enjoyable and rewarding skill. I’ve got the Certificate IV in Training and Assessment for when I do decide to start teaching. This quote by Gerard Siero is a favorite of mine: ‘There is a body experience to reading, writing, making and drawing that cannot be experienced via electronic media, no matter how good the programs. This body experience is an essential aspect of the learning experience and the development of the mind, skills and unique abilities of each person.’

Sign in Process

One of Linsi’s Signs in Process

Katoomba Sign

The finished Work

I’m very happy to see a new growing interest in hand-lettering and sign-painting across the world. A close-by example is the workshops run at Pocket Design in Newcastle. The popularity of these courses clearly shows that people love sign painting. And of course ‘The Pre-Vinylite Society‘ and ‘The Sign Painters‘ book and movie! How fantastic! I do keep tabs on quite a few typography and lettering points on the web but hate that what feels like twenty minutes on the computer has really been one-hundred-and-twenty minutes of my precious time!

Brett Piva at Work

Brett Piva at Work (image courtesy of Pocket Design)

There are many anonymous artists who produced early Australian labels, packaging, logos and other commercial symbols. Just how many of them were sign painters? Their work presented the business, the brand became recognized and sometimes famous like ‘Arnott’s Biscuits’ or ‘Bushell’s Tea’, but the name of the specific person who actually made the design was lost. They inspire me. So firstly, I’ll honour them with a ‘Thankyou’!

Arnott's Biscuits Ghost Sign

An ‘Arnott’s Biscuits’ Ghost Sign in Portland, New South Wales

For example, I only recently discovered that the person who painted the blue-and-gold signs on the front of the Paragon Cafe, was Richard Beresford Mills, (also known as ‘Berry Mills’) I then found his daughter and we talked. I value the knowledge of him, as here I am in 2014 respecting his work because it’s hand done, good, still right there on the shopfront and a very real part of The Paragon’s history and fame. His work has become precious and protected, his name needs to be included in the history of the place. Presently he is inspiring me. I am taking his design and colour into serious consideration as I paint a new under-awning sign.

Paragon Cafe Sign

One of the Original Paragon Cafe Signs, by Berry Mills

There are many whom I admire. Most certainly the commercial artists who produced the beautiful Australian travel posters, like James Northfield and Percy Trompf. There’s Harold Freedman and Eileen Mayo, there are so many people! There are many famous painters whose work is inspirational: Margaret Preston, Thea Proctor, Grace Cossington Smith and most Australian artists who use very strong line and colour. I’ll add Reg Mombassa and Martin Sharp. Then I could swing to Mike Stevens, or ponder the beautiful legacy of J. C. Leyendecker and Patrick Nagel. My inspirational books include ‘Lettering Design’ by Eric Roberts, a couple by F.H. And G.W. Atkinson, ‘Symbols Signs Letters‘ by Martin Andersch, & the ‘Great Australian Book of Nostalgia‘ by John Larkins and Bruce Howard, to mention only a few.

Reg Mombassa Poster

A Poster by Reg Mombassa (image courtesy of Reg Mombassa)

What’s next?

Next? Well I’ll be lugging the camera everywhere as usual. I have numerous books of sign and typography ‘collections’ but making my own hasn’t tugged at me yet. I’ll continue to paint things for The Paragon Cafe, build my personal collection of signs just as a hobby and post a few things on Facebook that people might find interesting. I’m sometimes tempted to video as I work and upload the result to YouTube, but that would be time consuming. My friends encourage me to do more with my reproductions, other than decorate my home and give them away, but copyright law applies to some of them. So next is just continuing to love, enjoy and explore the art of lettering.

Here are a few more of Linsi’s photos:

Albion Hotel Sign



Metal Letters

Erskineville Hotel

And, yes, even some of our own handiwork has made it into the collection:

Treasured Teapot Sign

Sofala Public School Sign

St Christophers Church Sign

Thankyou Linsi!

Keystone Sign & Company

Christian Cantiello

Christian Cantiello describes himself as ‘a full-time, self-taught sign-painter from Philadelphia.’ He is also one of the sign-painters featured in Colt Bowden‘s How to Paint Signs and Influence People, Vol. 3 – which is how we first found out about him and his Keystone Sign & Company. Although he’s only been a serious sign-painter for the past two years, Christian is a passionate advocate of traditional hand-lettering. But, enough said, let’s hear from the man himself:

I studied graphic design in college and also took classes from everything from screen printing to photography and figure drawing to air brush classes. I’ve always been attracted to letters from a young age and enjoyed looking at and writing graffiti as a teenager. Graphic design, for me, was never a way to really pay the bills. The field is so competitive, I never held a full-time design job and was only doing freelance here and there while bar-tending to support myself. Ever since I first became aware of sign painting as a trade and a craft I thought it was something that I could do well. It appealed to me because it was a way to be creative and express myself and at the same time I could study an old craft, help people or businesses get a point across and to make money. I know it’s been said a lot before but the fact that you can study for a lifetime and still never learn it also was appealing. Always something new to learn and challenge myself with. I starting sign painting about three to four years ago but only got serious about two years ago. Last July I quit my job as a bar-tender and have been sign painting full time for almost one year now. It’s been the best thing that’s ever happened to me and I feel so lucky that I am now able to support myself and pay my bills as a sign-painter. It’s truly a dream come true.

Christian Cantiello Promo Badge

I love participating in art shows. It really gives me a chance to try something new or something I’ve been thinking about doing but haven’t had the opportunity to do for a client. All of the work on my site under the “shows” page was done for particular sign/art shows, everything else was done for clients. I’d say it’s probably split about 80 percent vs. 20 percent client work compared to self initiated.

Virtue Script by Christian Cantiello

A piece Christian painted for an art show called ‘Its Virtue is Immense’ (image courtesy of Best Dressed Signs)

Gibbs Connors and Darren Rowland are both good friends of mine and great at what they do. Gibbs has been a great resource and source of inspiration for me. His shop is only a short walk from my house/studio so that is great for me. He’s been so kind to answer any question I have or let me come by to use his electro-pounce. Most recently I borrowed a twelve-foot A-frame ladder from him that made a job go so much smoother than it would have without it. Darren and I met a little over a year ago. I was hired to paint an exterior of a new store (Jinxed) and the owner had known Darren for some time and asked if I would like a hand with the job. I said yes and he introduced me to Darren. Since then we’ve worked on quite a few jobs together. We both pretty much work alone but if there is a job that requires more than one painter that Darren is my go-to guy and vice-versa.

Gibbs Connors's Studio

Gibbs Connors’s Studio

Jinxed Philadelphia

Christian and Darren paint a sign at Jinxed.

I enjoy doing all types of work but sign painting is definitely my favorite. When I was making my old website I kinda wanted to be able to advertise a bunch of stuff that I could do. After doing that for a while I decided that I really wanted to concentrate mainly on sign painting and promote myself as just a sign-painter. I still do a lot of designing on the computer like when a client wants a sign but doesn’t have a design. I will usually start with a round of sketches and refine them and they usually end up in the computer being vectorized or something. I don’t enjoy working on the computer nearly as much as I do with a pencil or a paint brush. Something about clicking the mouse or choosing filters in Photoshop and Illustrator isn’t nearly as gratifying as pulling a line of paint with a brush. Especially knowing that it’s been done the same way for over one hundred years. It’s great to be able to be a part of that history and keep those techniques alive. Gibbs calls sign painting “blue collar graphic design” and I totally agree. The touch of the human hand in painting is so much nicer that a printed out font. No matter how nice the font is, it never has that human feel.

Christian's Drawing Table

Christian’s Drawing Table

I enjoy almost all of the sign painting jobs that come around. I do love being able to create a design from scratch and then make it come alive on a wall or something. And when the client is happy it makes it even that much better. Sometimes a generic design or a boring font isn’t the most fun to paint but in my opinion it still beats anything else I would be doing.

Lettering Brushes

Right now I’m working on a few jobs. The spring has been off to a great start for me and my new company. I just received a sign blank in the mail that I will be finishing up today. I was contacted by Bailey Robinson (a tattooer based out of Brooklyn) who asked if I would paint a sign for his parents property in Daphne Alabama. I was told the original sign was from 1910 and has been on the property ever since. It’s a black metal sign cut into a shape of a scroll. The previous lettering was rusted so bad that you couldn’t read it. It was sandblasted and re-coated with black paint. I felt really privileged to get a project like this and be apart of that history. I can only hope that my lettering will remain on it years after I’m gone and that another sign-painter will get to repaint it another 100 years from now.

The Sign for Bailey Robinson

The Sign for Bailey Robinson

I’m also currently working on a logo and sign for a reclaimed timber yard which has pieces of wood that are from all over the country and some dating back to over 100 years ago so that is really exciting as well. I love the old aesthetic of these job and am really happy that these people are seeking me out to do this kind of work. I am constantly looking at other artist’s work and nowadays with the internet and Instagram you can spend forever just looking at stuff. I think these resources are great for networking and pulling inspiration. It’s hard to just name a few people who I like because there really are so many out there. The two most recent books from Steven Heller and Louise Fili are amazing and jam packed with tons of inspiration. David Smith is a beast and in my opinion probably the best glass artist alive today. Right up there with him is Roderick Treece. I love the look of Dave Gunning‘s paper signs. He makes everything look so easy and effortless. I just really look up to the guys who were doing this stuff before I was even born. They are constant reminders that I can do this for the rest of my life.

Logo Sketches

Concept Sketches for the Lumberyard logo

The “Carina Tea & Waffles” video was all the customer’s idea and I’m happy they did it. It’s the best video I have of myself painting. That was a design that I did from scratch. I was looking at a lot of old beer label designs around that time and sorta based that sign off of that. I would have never chosen those colors (hot pink and baby blue) but the customer really wanted them to match some of the other things they had going on design wise. That design took a while to nail down because the customer wanted a lot of revisions but in the end it all came together and turned out pretty nice.

Keystone Sign & Co. – Carina from Christian Canteillo on Vimeo.

A Sign for Glenferrie Lodge

Jean-Claude Branch & Lapu Lapu

Jean-Claude Branch & Lapu Lapu

Since our last chat with Jean Claude Branch, he’s been busy with another guesthouse on the other side of Sydney Harbour. Naturally, we made a sign for this one too! Today, Jean-Claude tells us about his latest venture:

I’ve run Cremorne Point Manor since  2005 and in that time have learned a great deal about the hotel industry. I always keep an eye on my competitors and always knew about Glenferrie Lodge and their amazing statue which you can’t miss. It’s a three-meter high Phillipino warrior with a deer on his shoulders. Last year the opportunity came to buy the hotel and I managed to convince my bank manager to lend me the money. With seventy rooms, Glenferrie is much larger than Cremorne Point. It also serves a full cooked breakfast so it has a much larger staff. It’s been quite a challenge getting used to operating Glenferrie while still keeping up the standard at Cremorne.

Glenferrie Lodge Sign

The lot for Glenferrie was purchased in 1908 by Mr John Brannelly. It had been a part of the Clifton estate which was a large estate in Kirribilli. I’ve attached a lot map and a brochure from the auction. Mr Brannelly then erected a house and named it Glenferrie, which we believe is a Scottish word, although no place in Scotland is named this. Extensions occurred in 1923 when it became a guest house and has been one ever since. The building has essentially remained the same since that time.

Clifton Estate

Glenferrie Lodge, 1910

Glenferrie Lodge, 1910

Glenferrie Lodge

Glenferrie Lodge, 1980

My first vision was to remove the awful plastic sign and put up a Danthonia sign. I actually started working on the design of the sign with Danthonia as soon as I had contracts exchanged and the sign was up the same month as I bought the Lodge. It’s a unique property in that is has seventy rooms but no en-suites (well a couple). Originally I wanted to put en-suites in the property, however it fits in the market as a nice but economical place to stay in a wonderful part of Sydney. It’s literally three doors down from Kirribilli House and Admiralty House where both Tony Abbott reside and where Prince William and Catherine stayed when they were here in Sydney. I did offer to one of the police escorts that Prince William and Catherine could come for breakfast and Prince George could play in our kids playground. For some reason they did not take up my offer!

Kirribilli House

Kirribilli House (image courtesy of Frankeeg)

Kirribilli is a wonderful part of Sydney. It is literally five minutes to the city by either driving or ferry. However it is full of lovely historic homes, beautiful views of the harbour and has a wonderful cafe and restaurant selection that makes staying and living in Kirribilli extremely popular. We have limited (and popular) parking spots so for under a hundred dollars you can stay next door to (future)  Kings, Prime Ministers and have your breakfast cooked for you. That is also one of the key features of Glenferrie. We have a famous cooked breakfast. It’s always included in the price and is what is generally referred to as ‘The Full English’.

As far as I can gather, it was a prior manager who spotted our statue for sale at an auction and decided it would look good in its location. While it is a little strange, it’s extremely memorable, being almost three meters high and it is going to remain there. I have noticed, though, he does tend to attract little additions and I think we will give him decorations for Christmas.

Glenferrie Lodge

Glenferrie has great bones, it’s got a lovely garden and beautiful views. It is extremely popular. However it was a little tired and needed some freshening up. So, while the changes are not drastic, they are many. I’m re-carpeting the whole place. I’ve already painted the facade and within the next few months the furniture will all be changed. Already the beds have been done which is great as it’s the most important part of the hotel. One aspect that people do love about the hotel is that we are pet-friendly. We are one of the very few hotels in Sydney that is, and unlike the others, we don’t ask huge amounts of money to bring one’s pet along with you. All our pet-friendly rooms either have direct access to the garden or private balconies. This is something we are definitely going to keep as it’s a really unique option for Sydney.

Glenferrie Lodge