No one is quite sure when the very first sign was painted- it was probably sometime around the invention of writing itself. But it was in Victorian times that this craft reached its peak, with an explosion of commerce and the advent of advertising as we know it. Since then, it has bestowed interest, colour and pure decorative joy to many an otherwise dull and mundane street, quayside or shopfront.
"Exact incisions into slate, brushstrokes on brickwork, gold leaf on glass, paint on wood, vitreous enamel on iron; tradition and craft combined to give silent voice to the messages of trade, commerce and transport.Everywhere there was pride in a job well done"
Peter Ashley, Letters From England
The 1980s brought the invention of cheap vinyl signage, and many traditional signwriters threw in the towel and hung up their brushes.
"If you're looking at strip mall after strip mall, they've all got the same white rectangles with block letters. People have been conditioned by that uniformity"
Gradually though, with the advent of a renewed respect for the handmade and individual, traditional signwriting has begun to enjoy a renaissance.
Painting beautiful lettering by hand is all about brush control, using special chisel shaped brushes. Most signwriters use a mahl stick to keep their hand steady. The paint used is high pigment signwriting enamel, with its perfect consistency. It used to be even better when it was full of lead, which may be why signwriters traditionally had a reputation for eccentricity!
At Muddy Creek Signs I mostly use exterior plywood for my signs (sometimes I'll use slate, or paint directly onto walls), with four or five coats of oil based paint to provide a long-lasting base for the lettering. This makes for a very durable sign, and you can see work made in this way by signwriters long since retired that's still looking good today.
Part of the joy of hand lettering is forming the perfect letter- each one visually satisfying yet, if you look closely, no two "R"s or "O"s exactly the same.
It's this, and the signwriter's feel for colour combinations and layout "in the flesh", free of the barrier of a computer screen between design and execution, that gives traditional signwriting its warmth and individuality.
"Hand done has a heart; it's got a soul and it has life"
About traditional signwriting
Letters from England- Signs and Lettering, by Peter Ashley. English Heritage Pocket Books 2004
All other quotes are from "Sign Painters" by Faythe Levine & Sam Macon. Princeton Architectural press 2013. This is a great book, and I recommend getting hold of a copy.