The Art of the Faux Neon Sign

Arts and Crafts Society Ticket | Danthonia Designs Blog

(Image courtesy of Victoria and Albert Museum)

A hundred years ago, members of the Arts and Crafts Movement professed a philosophy they called ‘truth to materials’. This meant using the most appropriate material for any application, and emphasising the quality of the materials used rather than hiding them. The sentiment is well expressed by Christopher Dresser:

All graining of wood is false, inasmuch as it attempts to deceive; the effort being made at causing one material to look like another, which it is not. All “marbling”, too, is false: a floor-cloth made in imitation of carpet or matting is false; a Brussels carpet that imitates a Turkey carpet is false; so is a jug that imitates wicker-work, a printed fabric that imitates one which is woven, a gas-lamp that imitates an oil-lamp.
I love the beauty of wood, concrete and metal, and I generally agree with the principle of truth to materials, especially in architecture and furniture design. It’s a shame when a beautiful oak floor is covered in synthetic tiles, or when plastic siding tries in vain to imitate wooden boards on a newly built house.The cheap deception is revealed in a few short decades as the elements wear it away.
On the other hand, the sign-making trade has a long history of making one material appear to be another. As soon as you roll a coat of primer onto a wooden panel, you have already begun to hide the innate qualities of the wood (although the sign will last longer). Gilded elements give the false impression of being solid gold. Painted drop-shadows and highlights give an illusion of dimensionality to flat letters. More recently, distressing techniques such as crackle-varnish and stain are used to make a new sign look like a weathered artifact. Dresser would probably take a dim view of such techniques, but just as the fine artist adds paint to a canvas until the canvas itself looks like a landscape or portrait, so the sign-maker applies his skills and tools to make a substrate look like something it is not. This leads me to the subject of neon and ‘faux-neon’ signs.
Faux Rust on Channel Letters | Danthonia Designs Blog

Applying Faux Rust to Channel Letters in our Workshop

When neon first began to shed its glow on the night-time streets of American cities, many of the more conservative set considered it an ugly visual blight – crude, bright and attention-grabbing. Certainly, the glass tube letters had their limitations; the stroke width always had to be uniform, the curves couldn’t be too tight and the colour selection was limited. But neon artists worked within these limitations and the new style of sign spread around the world, not because of beautiful designs or letterforms, but because they glowed!
Neon Sign in San Francisco | Danthonia Designs Blog

A Neon Sign in San Francisco (image courtesy of Thomas Hawk)

In an age where billboards can play movies, it seems quaint to think that these humming glass tubes were once considered modern. Now, there are a hundred cheaper and more efficient options for illuminated signage. Even as neon has largely fallen out of use, it has gained a certain nostalgic respect, with an accompanying surge of interest in preserving old neon signs, and the few remaining neon artists kept busy with new orders. While in the past, customers wanted the ‘glow’ (which could only be obtained with glass tubes), today they are fascinated by the tubes themselves, and the somewhat awkward letterforms which could be made from them. Countless bars, restaurants and even museums are full of old neon signs. Some of them no longer work, but they’re still immensely satisfying to look at.
Buchstabenmuseum | Danthonia Designs Blog

A boy admires neon letters in Berlin’s Buchstabenmuseum (image courtesy of Jane McDevitt)

A fascinating offshoot of this modern-day ‘neon-love’ is the ‘faux-neon sign’. That is, non-illuminated signs which have been made to look like neon. I have seen several such signs, and find them fascinating. Why? because the monoline industrial curves of neon script were born of necessity, not aesthetic taste. A faux-neon sign is more like a painting of a sign than a sign itself. Without the limitations of neon, the sign-painter or designer chooses to emulate the look of tubing, because they find it beautiful. Here are some examples:
Faux Neon Sign | Danthonia Designs Blog

A hand-Painted Faux Neon Sign by Caitlyn Galloway

Faux Neon Sign | Danthonia Designs Blog

…And one by New Bohemia Signs

Sandwich Boards by New Bohemia Signs | Danthonia Designs Blog

Sandwich Boards by New Bohemia Signs

Gilded Window Sign | Danthonia Designs Blog

A slightly subtler faux neon sign, also by New Bohemia

What got me thinking about this very specific category of signage? At our workshop, we also had the opportunity to fabricate what is possibly the world’s only hand-carved faux-neon sign. It was based off the iconic sign for the Buena Vista Cafe in San Francisco and now hangs in a client’s home in Colorado.

Hand Carved 'Neon' Sign | Danthonia Designs Blog

Hand Carved ‘Neon’ Sign

Buena Vista Cafe Sign | Danthonia Designs Blog

The Real Neon Buena Vista Cafe Sign, in San Francisco

We’d be happy to make another for anyone who’s interested.

Sorry, Christopher Dresser.

What’s the Best Paint for Signs?

Carved Signs in Massachussetts | Danthonia Designs Blog

Question for you guys. This is a sign for a print shop I work with. I want to offer to repaint their carved signs. I believe the gilding is in good shape, but what paint would you suggest for the background? I have One-shot, but I’ve seen it fade on other outdoor signs I’ve worked on. Thanks for any help.

– Sign-maker

Dear Sign-Maker,

First of all, nice signs! Very classic in style. Did you make them?

Regarding paint…we’re based in Australia and we use a paint called Dulux Weathershield. It’s a water-based acrylic house paint, the best on the market. We’ve been using it since 2001, with almost zero problems. Fading is minimal, and we’ve had no problems with peeling or blistering. In short, it holds up magnificently, and we’re very happy with it. So far, it has always outlasted the gilding (unlike the paint used on the signs shown above).

Refurbishing an Old Sign | Danthonia Designs Blog

Refurbishing an Old Sign with Dulux Paint

The only problem for you is that Dulux isn’t available in the USA. Having almost no experience with American paint brands, I’m not in a position to make a good recommendation.

New Bohemia Sign Shop | Danthonia Designs

We think that New Bohemia Signs might have the only can of Dulux Weathershield paint in the United States. Can you spot it in this photo?

You could ask Francis Lestingi. He’s been making this style of sign since 1994. I’m sure he’d have a suggestion.

[In the meantime, I forwarded the question to Francis. Here’s his reply]:

When we do a restoration on our Signs, we generally coat the entire panel, including the gold, with black Ronan Bulletin oil-based enamel. (This, of course, is after repairing any failures). We then coat the entire panel with our custom-mixed One-Shot oil-based enamel. We then dust the letters with Kaolin, size, and gild.

A Sign by Francis Lestingi | Danthonia Designs Blog

A Sign by Francis Lestingi

We use only five colours which we have custom-mixed with One-Shot. Our colours are deep and rich and beautifully contrast with gold. We never use ‘out-of-the-can’ colors. They are too “cartoonish.”

– Francis Lestingi, Signs of Gold

OneShot and Dulux Paints | Danthonia Designs Blog

OneShot and Dulux Paints on the paint shelf at Danthonia Designs

Hope that helps!

Posted in Q&A

Scott Biersack

Scott Biersack | Danthonia Designs Blog

Scott Biersack (image courtesy of The State Press)

Early every Saturday morning, university student Scott Biersack faithfully made his way to a public chalkboard on the Arizona State University campus and spent the next several hours decorating it with an intricate original typographic work. While the works themselves often lasted only a few hours, Scott’s perseverance earned him a growing reputation among those fascinated with hand-drawn letterforms. Today, Scott shares some of his experiences, inspirations and hopes for the future:

I love lettering and everything it entails. Just about a year and a half ago I had no clue what ‘lettering’ really was. Then one day I jumped onto the Instagram bandwagon with some friends and decided to use it for good instead of shooting photos of my food or random other things. I stumbled across a few pieces from Zachary Smith and instantly fell in love with the style and execution. From that point forward, I knew I wanted to practice it myself. So I forced myself to draw a new lettering piece every single day for an entire year to continually practice and get better at it.

Hand-Lettering by Scott Biersack | Danthonia Designs Blog

Hand-Lettering by Scott Biersack

Every week I used to hand-letter a motivational message onto a public chalkboard at Arizona State University, every week. I wish I still had time to create more of these, but sadly schoolwork is consuming all my time! That project was to inspire and motivate others as well as myself. So I woke up at 5am every Satirday morning to practice my lettering by writing some inspirational or motivational quotes and phrases for the students to see the following Monday when they returned to class. Each piece took five to seven hours to complete and were occasionally destroyed a just few hours after completion (since it is in fact a public chalkboard for all to use). A lot of people asked me, ‘Don’t you get upset when people erase your work that you spend hours on?’ My response is, not really because it just gives me a reason to create another piece.

Chalkboard Lettering | Danthonia Designs Blog

What was project 365?

Project365 was the name I gave to the self-initiated goal to draw lettering every single day for an entire year, never missed a day, and constantly shared every piece via Instagram to show my process and progress.


One of the pieces for Project 365

There are sooooo many people that inspire the heck out of me. I can’t name them all because there are so many. I learned and grew the most by viewing works from very well known letterers and sign-writers such as David Smith, Ged Palmer, Neil Secretario, Drew Melton, Jessica Hische, Dana Tanamachi and many more. Viewing their works allowed me to understand how they are constructing their letterforms and the methodology behind their compositions.

Ged Palmer's Sketchbook

Ged Palmer’s Sketchbook (image courtesy of Ged Palmer)

I absolutely love working on branding/logotype projects. I developed a logo/logotype for a cider business called Craftycider. Sadly, it seems the owner has gone MIA and I haven’t talked to him in months… I’m not sure where the project stands, but the logo is complete and ready to be shared with the world if the owner wants to progress further! (Either way, I plan on sharing the project in my portfolio someday soon).

Crafty Cider Logo | Danthonia Designs Blog

Currently I’m working on a deck for Girl Skateboards. It’s nearly complete, just needs to be tweaked a bit more before it heads into production. So I’m excited for the world to see it sometime – this spring I believe!

Skateboard Deck Designs | Danthonia Designs Blog

Skateboard Deck Designs by Scott

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

Definitely! Hand lettering has risen from the grave, it appears. The computers and other forms of technology these days have made “lettering” into an art form and something almost every company wants because of its uniqueness and how custom it can be. I feel like it’s something every designer wants to do (at some level) nowadays since nearly everyone likes it.

Laser-Cut Letters | Danthonia Designs Blog

Scott had one of his designs laser-cut to make this dimensional ‘sign’.

As for my future? I love lettering/typography so much that I think I’m going to move to New York City to further my education in the Cooper Type design program. First, I’ve got to get accepted, then somehow manage to pay for housing in that super-expensive city! I’m not worried about it though; if there’s a will, there’s a way. It’ll happen and work out somehow!

Handpainted Showcard by Scott Biersack | Danthonia Designs Blog

A Quarterboard for Madaket Millie

Madaket Millie | Danthonia Designs

Madaket Millie (image courtesy of NPR)

This is Madaket Millie, a folk heroine well-known to the people of Nantucket, and more specifically, the town of Madaket. Her real name was Millie Jewett.

‘No one visiting Madaket could miss Millie Jewett. She was a powerfully built woman in her fifties with stringy gray hair and a light brown complexion…Of her many feats, she had beaten the head of the YMCA at Indian wrestling, had harpooned a shark with a pitchfork…and so faithfully volunteered for the coast guard that in later years she was made an honorary warrant officer…She ran a small store to which we would often go for ice cream.’ -Bill Hoadley Please Walk Your Horses Up This Hill

She lived on Nantucket from 1907 until her death in 1990, and has been immortalised as a local legend. Although she was never one to brag about her accomplishments, she didn’t mind confirming or denying the many wild and humourous tales that surrounded her. Since her death, a children’s book has been written about her, and a bridge and a restaurant have been named in her honour.

View from Millie's Bridge, Madaket | Danthonia Designs Blog

View from Millie’s Bridge, Madaket (image courtesy of Greg Hinson)

The tourist trap of the northeastern USA, Nantucket is filled with eateries of every price range and description. Millie’s restaurant is unpretentious and proudly local, like its namesake.

Millie's Restaurant, Madaket | Danthonia Designs Blog

Millie’s Restaurant, Madaket (image courtesy of Timothy Valentine)

Although Millie’s Restaurant is not the same building as Millie’s house (sometimes a source of confusion to tourists), it certainly shares some similarities. Both are wooden weatherboard structures at the water’s edge. Both have beautiful views of beach and ocean. One notable difference had been that Millie’s house was adorned with a carved and gilded quarterboard sign while the restaurant had none. Now, the restaurant has a quarterboard, too – actually two of them: One hanging above the entrance, the other hanging from the ceiling above the bar.

Madaket Millie's House | Danthonia Designs Blog

Madaket Millie’s House (image courtesy of knockdown7400)

Millie's House with Quarterboard | Danthonia Designs Blog

..with a quarterboard on the wall (image courtesy of Nick)

The restaurant quarterboards were made in our workshop. It does seem a little strange to be carving quarterboards in Inverell and shipping them to Nantucket (a bit like selling coal to Newcastle). But it was a fun project, taking us back to the roots of the sign-carving tradition. Furthermore, several members of our crew grew up in the Northeastern USA and enjoy making signs for ‘the old country’ from our shop in New England, Australia.

Gilded Stars | Danthonia Designs Blog

Gilded Stars, ready to mount on the quarterboard

For Millie’s quarterboards, we used the typeface Aviano, which has a gracious classical elegance that goes well between the two gilded barn-stars. The combination of black and gold showed up well against the light weathered wood of the restaurant.Millie's Restaurant | Danthonia Designs Blog

Millie's Restaurant Sign (Danthonia Designs)

The quarterboards have now been hanging for more than a year and have even resulted in further enquiries. One gentleman from Florida, after enjoying a meal at Millie’s, bought a similar sign for his own house – ‘Dovey’s Nest’.

Gilded Quarterboard | Danthonia Designs Blog

So, next time you’re in Madaket, be sure to turn your sandy bare feet towards Millie’s Restaurant for a New England Lobster roll and a mug of Whale’s Tail Pale Ale!

Millies Nantucket T-Shirt | Danthonia Designs Blog

Our sign even found it’s way onto a T-Shirt (image courtesy of cyn4)