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

Should I Paint a Protective Coating on My Sign?

Hello . . .

Sign arrived this afternoon and is everything we had hoped for.  Great work! Question: Would you recommend using an automotive type wax on the sign? Any other form of applied protection?  I live in the northern part of the U.S. with snow, sleet, freezing rain added to summer sun, etc.

[Customer]

Dear Customer,

Glad you like your new sign! To answer your question about a protective coating:  Unless you are in an area prone to the work of graffiti ‘artists’, we recommend that you do not try to ‘protect’ the sign with wax or any other clear-coat finish.

Your sign looks like wood, but is actually a weatherproof HDU/PVC laminate covered with a coat of Resene Primer and three coats of Dulux Weathershield Acrylic paint. Dulux paint uses color-fast mineral pigments. When cured, it remains very flexible. The rubbery finish stands up well against wind-borne sand, dust, snow, sleet, hail or freezing rain. And – developed and extensively tested here in sunny Australia – the UV resistance is second to none.

Painting a Sign Panel | Danthonia Designs Blog

Applying a coat of Dulux paint to a sign panel

If you happen to live in an area prone to tagging, we do offer a solvent-proof graffiti coating. On the one hand, it gives the whole sign a very glossy finish and it’s not compatible with gilding. On the other, it’s a tough coating, and it does what it’s designed for very well. I’ll also mention that very few of our signs get vandalised. Probably about one-in-a-thousand on average. The ones that do tend to be school signs. That’s why we recommend a graffiti coating on signs for educational institutions. That said, even the vast majority of our school signs remain unharmed.

Palladium-Leafing a Sign | Danthonia Designs Blog

Graffiti coating can’t be applied to a sign with gold, palladium, copper, or any other metal-leaf.

In general, our signs require minimal maintenance. Gently rinse your sign with warm soapy water twice each year or whenever tree sap, bird droppings, dust storms or volcanic eruptions leave their mark. If one side faces south (or north if you’re in Australia) and gets significantly more direct sunlight, you can open the Quick-Links and turn the sign around once a year. If cared for like this, your sign will not show any significant fading or weathering for eight to ten years. The scroll is rust-proof, powder-coated marine-grade aluminium, so it will hold up for decades.

Folk Art House Sign | Danthonia Designs Blog

This sign has lasted for centuries! Just kidding, we made it about twelve years ago.

Hope that helps!

P.S. We’d love to see a nice photo of the sign once it is installed!

Posted in Q&A

Which Direction Should Vertical Text Go?

Hi Danthonia,
I’m freelance designer, and I’ve done plenty of branding and logo work. Sign design is something I’m less familiar with. I have a question for you regarding a current project: On vertical signs, should the text read bottom-to-top, or top-to-bottom? Thanks for taking the time!

[Freelance Designer]

Hi Freelance Designer,

You’ve hit on a hot topic. I’ve seen this one discussed at length on forums such as Typophile. The quick answer is that there is no rule about text orientation on signage. It can go either up or down, so take your pick!

Architectural Sign in France

(image courtesy of Alpolic)

Having said that, I’ve noticed that most vertical signs and banners have the text running from bottom to top. I’m not sure if there’s any reason for that, besides that it looks better (to me, at least). When I’m standing on a busy city street, reading a banner that says ‘Sapphire City Festival’ (or any other message), I tilt my head to the left and run my eyes upwards. When I get to the end of the banner, I am looking at the sky and maybe a few trees. Generally, this is better than running my eyes downwards into the visual clutter of the street. Of course, for a smaller wall-mounted sign, the background would be consistent, so it wouldn’t matter either way.

Vertical Text Sign

(image courtesy of Freshome)

I used to think that downwards was the correct direction, since the text on book spines runs downwards. That was before I visited Germany and noticed that all the book spine text ran bottom-to-top, except on volumes so thick that space allowed for horizontal text (the ones that I wouldn’t attempt to read). Americans justify running the text downwards because that way it’s readable when the book is lying flat with the cover up. Europeans would argue that when a book is lying flat, the cover is plainly visible, so it doesn’t matter that the text on the spine is upside-down.

Bookshelf

(image courtesy of Frank M. Rafik)

But I digress. Signs aren’t books, and they don’t have covers or spines. What’s more, signs have traditionally followed a slightly different set of rules than printed matter. Many of the old theatre signs, especially in the United States, are vertical. This is for the simple reason that vertical signs are much more practical to build and install on towering urban facades. Traditionally, these signs don’t use vertical text at all, but rather vertically-stacked horizontal letters. Stacked letters have an art and a science of their own.

Roman letters are designed to sit side by side, not on top of one another. Stacks of lowercase letters are especially awkward because the ascenders and descenders make the vertical spacing appear uneven, and the varied width of the characters makes the stacks look precarious. (The letter I is a perennial problem.) Capital letters form more stable stacks than lowercase letters. Centering the column helps to even out the differences in width.

– Ellen Lupton, Thinking with Type

Portland Theatre

(image courtesy of Treye Rice)

I’m not really sure why stacked text was so popular in days gone by. Possibly sign-makers simply couldn’t stand the thought of tipping text ninety degrees. Maybe they felt that rotating text was an affront to the dignity of respectable letterforms. Or they may have believed that stacked text is more readable. It’s not.

Art Deco Sign Miami

(image courtesy of Adam Sherbell)

I would only consider stacking text on a sign that is designed to emulate the Art Deco style of the early twentieth century – or at least a sign with a bit of historic flavour. For anything else, it tends to look bad (unless it’s a skateboard deck that says ‘Gnarly’ in decorative circus-style lettering).

Jessica Hische Skateboard Deck

(image courtesy of Jessica Hische)

Now I’ll digress a little. Since we’ve talked so much about vertical text, I might as well touch on the topic of angled text too. If you ever consider using angled text on a sign design, make sure that it always angles ‘uphill’ (with the right side higher than the left). It just looks better, and ninety-nine percent of angled text angles upwards.

Gilded Window Sign

Matt, of Sign Master Signs, paints a window in Vancouver, Canada (image courtesy of Old Faithful Shop)

As sign designers, our challenge is to fit the appropriate text into the available space, in the most beautiful and effective way possible. Obviously, most signs use horizontal text, since it’s the most readable and the English language is designed to be written in horizontal lines. On the other hand, the world is overloaded with horizontal lines of text. Sometimes, an angled, curved or vertical typographic design can catch people’s attention simply because it’s different.

Hand-Painted Sign | Danthonia Designs Blog

A Hand-Painted Sign by the Author, Demonstrating Angled text

Hope that helps!

Posted in Q&A

Can You Make My Sign Look More Like This?

Hi Danthonia,

As a sign-maker, I’m wondering how I should deal with customers who take my designs and make them look ugly (usually in Photoshop) and then send them back to me, asking if I can ‘make it like this’.  Maybe that never happens to you?

Any advice would be appreciated!

[ A Sign-Maker]

Dear Sign-Maker,

Probably everyone involved in graphic design, commission art or sign design runs into the same problem. So the good news is that you’re not alone! Since the advent of the computer, it’s a fact that clients have had the ability to be more involved in the design process. Sometimes this can be frustrating to the designer, but  more customer involvement can also push us to a better result.

When a client decides to take things into their own hands and ‘have a crack at it’, there are several courses that you, as the designer, can take:

1. You can take offense at the lack of respect for your work, and ask your client why they even hired you in the first place, since they obviously feel able to design it themselves.

2. You can follow the old adage ‘The customer is always right’. Just swallow hard and make the thing exactly how they want it.

3. You can take it in stride and realise that the client enjoys the process of getting a logo or sign designed and wants to ‘be involved’. Motorbike mechanics also have customers who like to hang around the garage and ‘help’. Some get annoyed, others have a blast.

The first option is a good one if you have more work than you can deal with. If the whole world is beating down your door, why waste time with a client that doesn’t appreciate your style? There are ten others that do, so save yourself the heartache!

The second option is what many cheap-and-cheerful vinyl shops do all day every day. After all, it’s certainly the quickest and easiest option. Hence the visual blight of poorly designed signage, squashed and poorly-aligned text, bad kerning, and hideous colour combinations that can be seen in cities around the world.

In regards to Option Three, I’ve heard it said that amateurs complain about their customers, while professionals educate them. To continue my earlier analogy: Like a mechanic, you can take the client’s suggestions into account while steering the project in a direction you’re happy with. “Sorry sir, I can’t put a ball-hitch on the back of your Harley-Davidson. It won’t work. What about a sidecar?” Remember that although you know more about design, they know their business better than you do. The challenge is to come up with a solution that doesn’t just look good, but works.

Educate them as to why Old English, set in all caps, isn’t readable and why clip art around the edges of the design doesn’t lend an air of artisanal quality to their distressed yoghurt shop shingle sign. In the end, most clients will understand that you know what you’re talking about and will go along with it. When Michelangelo was commissioned by Pope Julius II to paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling, he was unimpressed with the pontiff’s planned design and negotiated until he was allowed to paint his own. In the end, everyone was happy. In other words, learn how to sell your idea to the client and everyone’s a winner.

So, what do you do if the client won’t see reason, and insists on the all caps Old English/clip-art design? You can’t possibly make the ugly thing, can you? We mostly write an email something like this:

Dear Client,

Here is the latest sign design for your yoghurt shop. As you strongly suggested, we’ve used uppercase Old English with clip-art decorations around the edge. From a design point of view, this particular piece won’t be very readable, and may not convey the rustic vintage feel of the yoghurt shop itself. Aside from the readability issue, it is also a fact that when Old English fonts like this one are set in all caps, it calls to mind a tattoo studio or motorbike clubroom rather than a family-friendly yoghurt shop. For all of these reasons, I have also attached an alternate design for you to consider.

All the best!

Don McKernan

You would be amazed how many clients will follow your advice when you give clear reasons for your decisions. It is true that a small minority will doggedly insist on the ugly design. At that point, we would go ahead and make it for them, making a mental note not to post the sign on our website portfolio.

On the topic of portfolios – make sure that you’re proud of every piece of work that you post online, whether on your own site or on social media. As you continue to upload pictures of stunning designs, you’ll get more enquiries from people who have already seen a lot of your work and trust you to make something equally stunning for them. Don’t promote the signs you aren’t proud of, and it’s as if they never existed!

For the record, the vast majority of our clients have a great appreciation for well-designed signs. Often, their branding is very professional and looks classy when rendered as a dimensional sign. And, as I wrote at the beginning, sometimes a picky/discerning client can push you, as a designer, out of your ruts to try something new and better. Meet the challenge!

Hope that helps!

Funny Sign by Ken Davis | Danthonia Designs Blog

A hand-painted sign by Ken Davis

Posted in Q&A

Where Can I Get Good Sign-Carving Chisels?

I tried to buy chisels at a hardware store yesterday here in Sydney, and no luck… just sub-standard ones for sale and no V-groove chisels…any suggestions?

Thanks & keep up the good work!

[a sign-maker]

Dear Sign-Maker,

If you’re serious about making hand-carved signs, chisels are the first investment to make. When we started in 2001, the very first item we ordered was a set of Swiss-made Pfeil chisels. Since then, our collection of chisels and gouges has only grown larger and more eclectic: we’ve acquired tools from other sign shops that closed, had tools given to us as gifts, and bought more here and there for specific projects and purposes. Like any collection, our family of chisels seems to have taken on a life of its own – tools appear that you’ve never seen before, others are gone for a while, only to show up again later…We made good use of that first chisel set, perfecting our techniques and making the shavings fly on some of our first sign projects. But we soon realised that we would need some larger sized chisels, too.

Carving a Sign | Danthonia Designs Blog

Pfeil makes a good range of chisels, gouges, and V-Tools. Here in Australia, they can be purchased online at Carba-Tec. At our local farmers’ market here in Inverell, I’ve also seen some quality English-made chisels and gouges for sale at the vintage hand-tools table. At the Armidale markets, a similar stall exists. I imagine these tools are collected from auction sales at properties around the area. Some of them are of a quality that simply can’t be found anymore, and they’re going for very reasonable prices. I’m sure similar vendors could be found at some of the markets in Sydney, or probably anywhere around the country.

Chisels at Inverell Markets | Danthonia Designs Blog

A nice array of chisels and other hand tools at the Inverell Sunday Markets

Are you looking for chisels to practice you carving skills? Unlike surfing, where the bigger boards are easier to use, carving is easier if you start with a smaller chisel. 8mm & 12mm wide chisels are good for practicing the techniques. That way you won’t go through so much wood, or HDU, or whatever material you’re using. Later, you can try the bigger sizes, which move more material but tend to be less maneuverable.

Carving a Sign | Danthonia Designs Blog

If you’re planning to carve wood, try to get vertical grain (although it’s not essential). You can practice carving into 2×4 planks, which are cheap and generally made of Radiata pine. It’s a nice soft wood, just avoid the knotholes. When you get more serious about it, New Guinea Rosewood is a beautiful carving wood, and Huon Pine is excellent but hard to get. Of course, HDU has the advantage of having no grain, so it’s great for sign-carving practice. It’s also more expensive than most timbers.

Wooden Sign Panel | Danthonia Designs Blog

A Panel of New Guinea Rosewood, Ready to be Made into a Sign in Our Shop.

Once you’ve bought a few chisels, you’ll need to sharpen them regularly. In our shop, we use a Makita electric horizontal wheel sharpener and follow up with a Japanese water-stone and a honing strop. You might already be familiar with the particulars of chisel-sharpening. If not, there’s a plenitude of videos and blog posts out there to help you. I might even write a post on this blog one day. Just make sure the chisel is sharp enough to shave with, or you will be endlessly frustrated in your carving practice.

Sharpening a Chisel | Danthonia Designs Blog

Speaking of practice, you’ll need a lot of it before you start making carved letters, grooves, and flourishes that actually look professional. Don’t get discouraged. Some of us churned out hundreds of shoddy-looking practice letters before starting our first real carved sign for a client. For carving techniques, check out the following blog posts:

Posted in Q&A

I Can Get a Cheaper Sign Somewhere Else!

Your signs are nice but I found a place that can make them cheaper. – Prospective Client

Dear Prospective Client,

There are times when it is good business to choose the cheapest sign. Political posters, for example, get tossed right after an election, and it would be overkill to pay for hand-carving on a label for your fire extinguisher. When a cheaper sign gives you the best value for money, by all means, go with a cheaper sign!

But there are times when wise investment gives you the best value for money. Think of a car purchase: a Ford Ka will cost a lot less than a Rolls Royce. But if you run a prestigious limo service, a fleet of second-hand Kas won’t bring in new customers. It may even turn off your old ones. And signs – like limousines – can earn back the initial investment many times over. Even residential signs can increase a property value far beyond the price of the sign itself. Just like luxury cars, handcrafted signs are all about that all-important first impression.

The vast majority of cars do not need to be Rolls’s. Most folks get around just fine in much humbler vehicles. And the vast majority of signs do not need to be hand carved, either. But in those applications where a fine handcrafted product will improve your ‘brand’, your message, and your return-on-investment – the cheapest option is not the best.

If you’ve decided that you really do want a handcrafted sign but price is a concern, take a careful look at the cost drivers:

Size

All else being equal, a  large sign will cost more than a small sign. But how big is big enough? When we design a sign, we use various formulas to determine reading distance, speed of traffic and other important factors (I plan to write a separate blog post about that). We’ve also been doing this for the past thirteen years, and during that time we’ve accrued a good many awards for our sign designs. We can help you figure out the right size for your sign. There is no sense paying extra for a sign that is too big. Much worse, however, is the mistake of ‘saving money’ on a sign that ends up too small.

Number of Sides

Most signs are one-sided. But sometimes a two-sided sign is installed perpendicular to the road so traffic can read it from both directions. At Danthonia we charge about 50% extra for the second side. This can be a good investment, since it often increases viewer readability by 100%.

Complexity

Sometimes, a highly ornate design is what’s needed (for a five-star Art-Nouveau-inspired ballroom entrance). Other times a clean and simple design is the way to go (Don’t Park Here). Obviously, the sign’s complexity – or lack thereof – affects the price. Many of our clients come to us because they’re after something ‘a bit special’, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t able to make simple signs either. The simpler ones cost less. But we’ll never undercut that flimsy plastic election sign in your front yard.

Materials

This is an important consideration when comparing sign prices. Many signs look great when they are new, but the paints, hardware and substrates used will determine how your sign holds up to the elements. When looking at price, compare apples to apples. Carefully evaluate materials when choosing who will make your sign. Vinyl letters will fade and peel, long before painted ones. The longer your sign looks great, the better your return-on-investment.

We once had a client who took our sign design to another shop. They made the sign out of a lightweight HDU, which was the wrong material for such a large panel. Not long after the sign was installed, it came down again in a strong wind (luckily no-one was injured), and our phone was ringing once again.

Turnaround Time

True hand-carved and hand-painted signage is an art form. Although there has been a resurgence of interest in the craft, shops making quality handcrafted signs are still an elite circle. Most of these modern-day craftspeople have a backlog of work and waiting lists of up to several months. If you need a sign in time for a birthday, grand opening or any other deadline, there is always the risk it will not get to you on time. At our shop, we use a team approach. Often, various crew members will be working on different components of the same sign, at the same time, almost like mechanics at a car race pit stop. Our normal turn around is a 21 day delivery. For a modest rush fee we can promise a 15 day delivery. Dependable delivery adds value to your purchase. Our quoted prices include free delivery to any address in the USA or Australia.

As you can see, not all signs are created equal. Cheapest is not always best. Our shop excels on those projects where fine design, a long-lasting handcrafted product and fast, dependable turnaround are important enough to invest in. If these factors are not crucial for your sign, go to somebody cheaper!

T-Shirt

(image courtesy of Lorraine Purcell)

Posted in Q&A

Thoughts on Wooden Signs

A sign-maker recently emailed us with this question:

Hi Danthonia,

How are you? I was wondering if I could ask you some advice about timber. I have a client that wants a plywood sign that is cleared/varnished with their logo painted on it. The idea is to have the colour and grain of the wood as the background. I know that Plywood isn’t very resistant to the elements and I was wondering what timber and varnish you would use in this case? The size of the sign is 600 by 900mm. Any advice would be a great help.

– Sign-maker

Dear Sign-Maker,

If your client is convinced the sign should be plywood, get a ‘marine plywood’ and ask the supplier for his advice on the best outdoor clear coat for the wood that he is selling. The coating should be both waterproof and UV resistant. Apply many coats. The trick is to keep the water away from the wood for as long as possible. Any scratches or punctures during installation will give the water a place to get into the wood and the deterioration process will begin.

With our own clients, we encourage them towards a HDU sign with a faux-woodgrain finish, rather than a plywood sign. Admittedly, the materials are more expensive, but they are also so much longer lasting. Wood signs are beautiful, but will require maintenance every year if not more often.

Rotten Wood Sign

Here’s a photo I recently took of a local redwood sign we made about twelve years ago. It certainly showing it’s age.

About ten years ago, we made a whole system of signs out of Jarrah-wood for a resort in the Blue Mountains. They still look beautiful today. I asked the groundskeeper about how the signs are holding up, and he told me that he sands and re-varnishes the top edge of all the signs every year.

Another local customer walked into our shop one day with a piece of Huon pine he had bought while holidaying in Tasmania. He wanted his property name carved and gilded into it. A faux-wood panel simply wouldn’t have had the same emotional connection.

So, some clients really do want the authenticity of wood, and are willing to put in the necessary effort. In such cases, we’ve found this treatment to be the best:

Step 1: a coat of Intergrain Reviva Timber Cleaner
Step 2: one or two coats of Intergrain Dimension 4 Primer
Step 3: two to three coats of Intergrain DWD (this comes in a variety of shades)

We’ve written more of our thoughts about sign materials in these two articles:
www.danthoniadesigns.com/products/wood-vs-hdu.html
www.danthoniadesigns.com/evaluating-hdu-signage.html

Hopefully that helps!

Danthonia

Ramshackle Farm Sign

A Faux-Wood Sign in rural Victoria

Scots Hut Wooden Sign

A wooden property sign, with ‘chipped’ and patinaed edges

Brennans Wood Sign

A faux-wood bar sign in St. Louis, Missouri. Click here to read a blog post about the project.

Posted in Q&A