Nutmegger Workshop

Signmaker from Portland, Oregon

Peter Vogel specialises in creating very authentic-looking, type-rich signs that look like they’ve been around since the great depression. We’ve already mentioned Pete’s Nutmegger Workshop in an earlier post, but today we have the pleasure of devoting the entire blog post to this unique sign-shop in Portland Oregon.

I’m a New Englander and a Nutmegger is a person who hails from Connecticut, the Nutmeg state. There’s a story that goes back 200 years or so about the spice trade, old clipper ships and the Connecticut Yankee traders who imported barrels of nutmegs so hard that customers thought they were sold wooden nuggets instead of the real spice. Nutmeg is a extremely hard seed from a tropical tree in the islands of Indonesia and India and was new to the colonial states, so no one really knows if these claims had merit or not.  The official name for Connecticut is ‘The Constitution State’, by the way.

Nutmegger Workshop is a part time gig with hopes to go full time. I’m a career graphic designer. Most of my design experience has been with higher-end print collateral, identity design, marketing campaign graphics and everything from invitations to magazines to billboards and even large scale vehicle wraps. I’ve been at it more than 30 years. I currently work as the art director at the Portland Tribune newspaper here in Oregon.

I design my signs on a Mac in Illustrator. I certainly don’t claim to have the freehand skill set that traditional sign writers have.  I do steer clear of printer fonts and have created many of my own hand drawn alphabets based on what I see on old signs and in old lettering books. I intend to learn what I can from other sign painters and I was even offered a few lessons from Ronald Lloyd, a 77 year-old traditional sign writer in England who admires my work. We email and trade photos of our latest work. So I typically cut stencils, but Ron has suggested that I start free-handing drop shadows and other details to start developing my brush skills. It’s a start.

Hand-Painted Sign in England

A Sign by Ronald Lloyd

Hand-painted Sign in England

Another one.

I draw inspiration from turn-of-the-century photographs of city street scenes. Hand-painted signs were everywhere — on windows, in upper-story windows, on fascia boards, sides of buildings, you name it. Sign-writers’ work hung like galleried art back in those days. I recently visited Boston and Portland, Maine and took photos of ghost signs that offered up quite a bit of inspiration. And I’m always inspired by hand letterer Dana Tanamachi of Tanamachi Studio in New York.  She epitomizes ‘brain, hand and eye’.

Tanamachi Studio Book Covers

One of Dana Tanamachi’s recent projects. (image courtesy of Tanamachi Studio)

I get emails from around the world asking about my aging process. It’s a secret, actually, but I’ve learned mostly from a lifetime of  “doing” — refinishing furniture, house painting, collecting antiques and understanding how things age.   I’ve also learned much from online how-to articles and videos. I take what I need from these and create my own processes through trial and error. I’m never totally satisfied with my process and am always looking improve it. One thing I do know for sure is that a sharp chisel and an old chain can add years to a piece better than anything else.

rustic aged sign

A Close-up of one of Peter’s signs (image courtesy of Design Observer)

Not all of my signs are distressed. Many clients don’t want to hang anything in their house or business that looks damaged. The distressed look isn’t for everybody. I have turned down requests for signs with company logos and bright colors because this isn’t what I do. I have no desire to be a full-service commercial sign fabricator.

Most all of my work is commissioned, though I constantly make signs that I post to my site that I think people will want to see and draw inspiration from. I get a lot of “I like that one sign on your site, but can you make it say this.” I’m looking for that magic formula that will capture people, but I’m not sure there is one.  One design shop wanted me to create a series of vintage-looking French signs and others have told me that they would rather have any old sign, regardless of what it said, as if they discovered it hidden in the attic of an old building.

Antique French Sign

One of Peter’s French Signs

A recent, satisfying project was a cover that I painted for Portland Monthly magazine. Their creative director had been following my work and had wanted to get it into the magazine at some point. When he contacted me to design a cover for their Farmers Market issue, we both knew it was the perfect application for my work. I thought it would be a situation where I’d be heavily art directed, but it was quite the opposite. I provided a few layout options, he made a selection and we were good to go. It was great exposure and the cover received national recognition.

Magazine Cover Designs

Some of Pete’s original Concepts for the Portland Monthly Cover

And here’s a nice sequence showing the production of the sign:

wooden trim

sign blank

primed sign blank

sign blank with a coat of timber surfacer

Sign Blank with background colours painted

Started Sign

Partially Painted Sign

Hand-Painted Sign, nearly finished

Hand-Painted Sign

Distressed hand-painted sign

Detail of patina sign

Yep. Hand-Painted letters always stand out from the crowd!

Yep. Hand-Painted letters always stand out from the crowd!

magazine blurb on Peter Vogel

Peter gets coverage inside the magazine.

A year ago I saw a short, 2-minute promotional video for a traditional letterpress printer that really impressed me. I approached Parliament, the creative firm that produced the video, and asked if they’d be interested in a trade — a sign for a video. The firm owns The Witherspoon Building, a 1890s-era brick building in downtown Portland and is spending millions for seismic upgrades and renovations. The sign they filmed me making, Witherspoon & Sons, will hang in their new office space to commemorate the building’s history. We just finished shooting and the 2-minute final edit should be posted to my website in a week or so.

Witherspoon Building Antique Sign

Sign Peter Exchanged for a video

The letterpress video that prompted the exchange (for Keegan Meegan Printers):

And the video for Peter:

Nutmegger Workshop: Witherspoon & Sons from Nutmegger Workshop on Vimeo.

How to Carve a Letter – Part 3

Take a look at our third carving video:

Hi. Welcome back. It’s time to carve our first real letter – a capital ‘R’. Tody we’re going to be using a block-cap, sans-serif font for this ‘R’, because it’s nice and chunky.

Now, basically, we’re going to be doing the same steps that we learned in the last video. First, V-Tooling in the lines, then chiseling out from the centre towards the edges…of course, we have a few major differences here between the ‘R’, and the ‘I’ that we carved last time.

Obviously, the ‘R’ has a curve to it, which the ‘I’ didn’t have. And, we also have several place where the grooves intersect. At those places, we just have to be careful to make our carving tidy and precise, but basically the concept is the same as when you carve a simple groove. Just work out from the centre bit-by-bit towards the edge.

On the outside edge of the curve, turn your chisel upside-down, like this, so that the bevel is down. That sort-of helps steer the chisel around the corner, so it doesn’t jump as you go. Of course, the mopre complex the letter, the more time it takes to complete, but with lots of practice you’ll gain contro; over your chisel and be able to carve just about anything. After a while, your hands just sort-of know what to do.

Does this look familiar? That’s right, our little piece of yellow sandpaper will make everything look good. Nice, here’s our beautiful, uppercase hand-carved ‘R’. In the next episode, we’ll get even more complex and carve a nice curvy ampersand. It’ll have varying stroke widths and lots of curves… so, see you next time!

okMitch Studio

Dmitry Pankov okMitch studio

Dmitry Pankov, of okMitch Studio, Brooklyn

A sign shop doesn’t need to have a big crew to have a big reputation. Brooklyn-based okMitch studio is proof of that. Dmitry Pankov (Known as Mitch) and Angel Saemai make up the entire enterprise. Mitch came from Russia, with a background in street art. Angel ‘was slaving away at a large corporate advertising agency’. Now they create everything from giant, hand-painted wall murals to elegant gilded window lettering to rustic hanging signs. Though neither grew up in New York, their work is quickly becoming part of the urban fabric of the city. Today they share their thoughts:

 (Angel) –  Mitch moved to NYC in 2006 from Russia, where he went to art school for photography. In Russia he was also creating commercial murals as well as street art. Once in NYC, his first and second jobs were at commercial sign shops, mainly dealing with vinyl and awnings. Not too interested in creating mainstream kinds of signs and also with a desire to work for himself, he eventually started okMitch.

Although Mitch was showing his art in Brooklyn and Miami shows, he was also getting into trouble with the law for his street art. It became a troublesome way to showcase his work and at this time he was also in the middle of transitioning to working for himself. I too always had the desire to be my own boss, so started helping him out.

So, how it really began was with a mural on 4 sides of a trailer at the NYC Water Taxi Beach (no longer exists), a bar and event space along the Hudson River with sand shipped in from Jersey. I heard they were building it and reached out to see if we could paint something. Mitch designed some crazy ideas, including the one he ended up painting –  a colorful  neon mural of geese (the owner’s idea).

Handpainted Mural in New York

Mitch’s first mural in New York, image courtesy of okMitch Studio (all images courtesy of okMitch Studio unless otherwise specified)

Also, when we first started, it was under another name, Unplate Murals, which lasted just a handful of months. The name came from Mitch’s street art handle, but since that was a collaboration with another artist in Russia, he dropped it and renamed it to okMitch Studio — kind of a quick idea that just stuck.

(Mitch) – Unplate began after doing a lot of graffiti that morphed into other media and showcasing of art on the street. It was a collaboration with my partner, Ben Papyan. We mainly worked with wheat-pastes and stencils of black and white images.

Both of us were also making a living by painting murals for different local businesses in our town [Krasnodar, Russia]

Since sign painting and work on glass is really an American thing, besides the art classes I had in school, I’m more or less self taught with this craft. I read books – like Signwork, by Bill Stewart and  Gold Leaf Techniques by Kent Smith – watched YouTube videos, and figured out how other people did it while incorporating my own techniques and experiences. Still, there’s always more to learn.

Initially, I made most of my signs using a stencil, since that’s how I also made some of my street art. These signs end up with the same look and are cleaner & precise. All of our murals are hand painted and within the past couple of years, I have been doing more hand lettering on the glass, because clients want that less than perfect look. I think the final product is the most important part and am not snobby towards using machines or digital techniques, seeing them more as an aid than anything else. However, there is a personal satisfaction to putting hard work and skill into real hand done products. It’s more impressive too.

(Angel) – Our link is up on the The Sign Painters movie site. Through that, a bunch of sign painters from around the country and abroad reached out to us to give us props for our work. We also got the pleasure of meeting a couple of these guys to exchange some tricks of the trade.

ESPO [also known as Steven Powers] is one sign painter and graffiti artist who influenced us from the start. He incorporates his signs with art – something we really appreciate and strive to do. It’s important to us to not to just create signs that are nostalgic or mimic a sign found in the past, so whenever possible it’s our goal to combine contemporary design with this traditional technique.

huge mural in brooklyn

A Mural by Steven Powers, image courtesy of A Love Letter for You

One of our favorite hanging signs was for Silk Road Cycles. The art was designed by a really talented graphic designer, Jon Contino, who reached out to us to make a cool sign for his logo. It was the first time we really customized a hanging bracket to go with a sign. Sometimes, these kinds of things can turn out cheesy, but ours ended up more subtle, thankfully. We drove around the neighborhood looking for rusty unused sign brackets on the side of buildings instead of aging one ourselves and ended finding one thrown out on the corner, half a block from our house. Then we went to a bike shop and asked them for used parts and lucked out with an old sprocket, which was put on the end of the matching hanging bracket. It spins too!

rustic hanging sign for brooklyn bike shop

The Sign for Silk Road Cycles, image courtesy of Design Boom

bike sprocket sign bracket

The Sprocket that spins!

sign logo for bike shop

The sign hanger even made it onto the Silk Road Cycles website and business card, in a somewhat stylised form.


Gold leaf gilding is always fun because it’s so delicate and about precision. The execution is almost like a form of meditation – a nice break from the large scale painting we do through Overall Murals [the name used for the mural side of the business]. Mural projects are a whole other story – they come with a set of different challenges and rewards.

– Angel

Here’s some more of their work:

red hanging sign brooklyn

A Hanging Sign for a Brooklyn Shop

gilded window sign brooklyn

Gilded Window Sign for The Brooklyn Circus, Brooklyn

painted wooden coffee sign

Painted Sign for Jack’s Coffee, Amagansett, NY

burger wall mural NYC

Hand-Painted Wall Mural for Mikey’s Burger, Ludlow St. OkMitch also designed the logo for Mikey’s.

wooden hanging sign new york

A Rustic Wooden Hanging Sign for a Shop called Top Hat, on Broome St.

Thanks, okMitch!

How to Carve a Letter – Part 2

The next video in our ‘How to Carve a Letter’ sequence. Dust off the chisels and have a go!

Hi again. If you’re watching this video, I’ll assume that you’ve already seen ‘How To Carve a Letter Part 1’. In Part 1, we carved a groove into a piece of SignFoam. Today, we’re going to carve another groove, but this time, it’ll have square ends on it. So, it’s really just the same thing as a sans serif capital ‘I’.

Alright, so here’s our board, all masked and ready to go. And, once again, I’m going to be using the same tools as I used last time; a chisel, a V-Tool, and a small piece of sandpaper. So first, I’m going to make some guide lines with the V-Tool. Now, it’s important to know just where the lines are going to go in every letter that you carve. That’s something that comes with practice, but in this case, it’s very easy.

Now, just like last time, I’m going to start in the centre with my chisel and I’m going to work my way out towards the edges. Notice how I’m keeping the bevel of the chisel up at all times, as I carve. Now, on the ends of the groove, you have to angle the chisel like this and bring it into the corner, nice and gentle, and that’s how we get that nice, square-looking end on there. I do that little trick every time I get to the end of a letter. It just keeps everything crisp and clean. As I carve it’s important not to get overzealous and dig too deep into the bottom of the letter. Just keep it nice and easy. Once again I’ll just finish it off with a bit of a sand, with a piece of sandpaper, and now I’m done. So, in the next episode, we’re going to carve a capital ‘R’ – a bit more complex and challenging, it has a curve in it as well, but I have no doub that you’ll get the hang of that too.

So, until then, all the best!

A Few Minutes with Francis Lestingi

Francis Lestingi, Signs of Gold

Francis Lestingi (All images courtesy of Francis Lestingi unless otherwise specified)

According to Sign & Digital Graphics Magazine, Francis Lestingi is ‘a former physics professor who saw the light and got into the sign business’. They failed to mention, however, that sign-artistry has been a part of Francis’s life ever since he was in high school. Back in those days, he used to ‘borrow’ the hand-lettered signs from shop windows at night, to study them at home – working on his own brush technique – but always returning the signs before morning.

Maybe those memories were lingering in his mind, in 1994, when he made the decision to retire from his position as physics professor at State University College in Buffalo and travel to New England to learn traditional sign-making from Jaye Cooke, Paul White, David Calvo and Dimitrios Klitsas.  From there, he went on to start his own hand-crafted sign shop with his son, Stephen. That’s how Signs of Gold came into being – now a well-respected name in the hand-carving and gilding industry.

Paul White Cape Cod Carver

Sign-carver Paul White & Students (image courtesy of Paul White Woodcarving)

Last month, Francis kindly took the time to tell us a little about his work:

You’ve been crafting hand-carved & gilded wood signs for almost two decades. How did you first get into it?

Back then I was getting close to completing 25 years as a college physics instructor which included extensive work in designing graphics for astronomy and for relativity. This design work was an extension of the work I had previously completed for Harvard University and the US National Science Foundation. I had also ventured into computer animation to elucidate the concepts of Einsteinian Special Relativity. I was using a primitive (pre-Apple Mac) Commodore computer with some success.

What I really wanted was to expand my animation work into General Relativity but needed the recently
introduced Apple computer. Computers were few and far between then, so when I requested that my
academic authorities supply me with a new Mac and the latest animation software (such as it was at the
time), the answer was no.

At that point, I decided to direct my artistic talents to something completely different. I went to New
England, learned how to carve ( I had already learned gilding while I was in elementary school) and in a few months I had started Signs of Gold, Inc.
Commodore Computer Advertisement

Advertisement for a Commodore Computer (1985), courtesy of the Commodore Computer Gallery

Signs of Gold started around the time when the sign industry was just starting to become more computerized. Any thoughts on how the industry has changed?

 Computers, especially the Apple Mac, are miraculous machines that can enhance one’s creative and artistic endeavors. I use a MacPro Tower with Adobe Illustrator to assist me in my design work.Computers can enhance one’s creativity, but they themselves are inherently not creative. I think many members of the sign industry are using computers to such an excessive extent that the inevitable output is prosaic, uninspired, and trite.

Your signs have won numerous awards, what’s your approach to design?

In our 20 year experience, the only time we duplicated a sign design occurred when a customer stubbornly insisted on it. That customer’s sign ironically went on to win two national First Place Awards! Every design we create is sui generis. Our goal is to design the most elegant, unique, and beautiful work of sign artistry we can. We once had an ad in a telephone directory that read, “ If you just want a sign, try the other guys. But if you want sign artistry, give us a call.” That is our design philosophy.

Two traditional gilded signs in New England

Francis first produced the sign on the right, which garnered an honourable mention. Later, the sign on the left won two first place awards in national sign contests.

I’ve seen a growing number of typefaces that you designed, for sale from Letterhead Fonts. When did you branch out into type design, and how big of a jump was it from sign lettering and carving to designing complete typefaces?

I have always been enamored with lettering as an art form. I was a calligrapher in elementary school, progressing to brush lettered storefront paper signs when I was in high school. About six years ago I decided to design a calligraphic digital typeface that I could use to produce my son’s wedding invitation. The process is a wonderful blend of art and technology. You have to creatively design each letter form by hand, scan them, and then meticulously and laboriously analyze and adjust every single Bezier anchor point until everyone of the 256 characters is “letter perfect.”

Then comes the spacing and kerning phase. Time and patience are paramount here, but the end result is both rewarding and satisfying, especially when you know others are using your work.

Since my first typeface, “Pierre” I have created “Calileo” and “Verdi” for Letterhead Fonts , and “FranHand” and “Stefano” available on MyFonts. In my sign work, I also use digital typefaces designed by others, but I always customize them to some extent with a flourish or swirl to add a little originality.

A ‘How-To’ Video, Featuring Francis’s Verdi typeface:

Pierre gikded sign

This sign, made by Francis, incorporates the Typeface ‘Pierre’.

Gilded Wall Letters for Hart to Hart

Prism-Carved Wall-Letters (Calileo)

Can you tell us little about the Society of Gilders?

As a member of the Board of Trustees of the Society of Gilders (an association dedicated to the practice and preservation of the art of using gold and metal leaf) I have recently been assigned the task a designing a T-shirt for this international, non-profit organization. I employed one of my own typefaces, “Verdi.” and developed some original scroll work inspired by scrolls in a New Orleans church [Saint Alphonsus Church] where the Society has been doing pro bono restoration work.

Every year members of the Society of Gilders give back to the community by participating in Community Projects. For the past 5 years, we have worked on a volunteer basis, in churches that were affected by the devastation of hurricane Katrina.

T-Shirt with Verdi Font

Francis’s T-Shirt Design for the Society of Gilders, making use of the ‘Verdi’ typeface.

Gilding a chusrch statue in New Orleans

Members of the Society of Gilders restore a statue in St Alphonsus Church, New Orleans (Image courtesy of Society of Gilders)

Is there a project that sticks out in your memory?

All of our projects are a joy to work on especially when we install them  for all the world to see. For us, it is analogous to having an opening at an art gallery. However, currently we are working on a signage system for the De La Salle Christian Brothers Center in Narragansett, Rhode Island. I am particularly proud to be offering this latest work pro bono as a thank you gift to the the religious Order I was a member of for 13 years (long ago).

Sign Ornaments

Molded & Pressed Steel Flourishes for Francis’s Christian Brothers sign project

Sign ornaments gilded

Gilded & Attached

Gilded Sign by Francis Lestingi

The Christian Brothers Sign, from a little farther back

gilded school sign rhode island

Sign Gilder

Francis holds a sign gilding demonstration.

Peeling mask on a gilded sign

More of the same.

Gilded Sign for a Dentist

Gilded sign for a Pizzeria

Gilded Sign for Cafe Bin 620

Thank you, Francis for taking the time to contribute!


How to Carve a Letter – Part 1

Here’s our first “How-To” video, with many more to come. Hope you enjoy it:

Hi, and welcome back to the workshop of Danthonia Designs. Today, we’ll be looking at the basics of how to carve, what tools and equipment are needed, as well as the basics of carving technique and chisel control. So, for starters, it’s important that safety comes first, so just make sure that you’re wearing a pair of safety glasses.

Now, for hand-carving we’ll need a V-Tool, a chisel (these come in a variety of sizes), a depth-checker and a sign, or practice panel. We use a material called High Density Urethane, or HDU for short. I’ll go into more detail about that another time, but it’s basically a waterproof, insect-proof substitute for wood.

At our shop we use stencils to define the edges of the letters. So, in this case, I’ll just stick down a few strips of inch-wide paint stencil and we’ll start our carving lesson with a straight groove –  nice and simple!

First I’ll make a line down the centre, using a V-Tool. It doesn’t need to be deep, but just deep enough to mark the centre of the groove. Now, with the chisel, I’ll just widen out from the centre on both sides, working out towards the edges. I’m aiming for a thirty-degree angle here, and I can also check my angle with one of these depth-checkers. Now. I’ll just keep repeating that process as we work outward toward the edges of the groove.

The trick is just to try and keep it as clean as possible at all times. Now, as I get closer to the stencil edge, I’m going to stay just a little bit away from that edge, so I don’t nick it with the chisel. There’s no need to go right up to the edge, you can leave a few millimeters.

And now I’m getting very close to completion… just giving it a few little finishing touches here, just with a real light feather-touch. Making sure it’s clean and tidy, making sure the bottom of the groove is nice and crisp, no extra little shavings stuck on the bottom there. And the key, when you’re finishing off the groove is that you don’t do anything in a ham-fisted way, you just are very light with the chisel. Paper-thin shavings coming off of there.

So, I’ll just give it a light sand, and now it’s finished. Of course control, like anything, comes with practice, so the more you do of it, the better and quicker you’ll get at it.

In our next video, we’ll look at how to carve the square ends on letters.

So, thanks a lot for your patience, have fun practice-carving and we’ll be back again!

Better Letters!

Sam Roberts in front of a Ghostsign

Sam Roberts

He’s been called the “London authority on hand-painted signs” (Finding the Radio Book) and “ghost signs expert from London” (The Age), but Sam Roberts chuckles at such grandiose titles. He just happens to be a character who especially loves the fading hand-painted signage of yesteryear, and it turns out that he’s far from alone in this regard. His blog, Ghostsigns, has built up a respectable following, and has even been featured by The Guardian, London Glossy Post, and Londonist, to name a few. In today’s post, Sam is kind enough to educate the uninitiated about his past work, as well as introducing us to his newest project – Better Letters.

You’re known as “a ghost signs expert from London”. What is a ghost sign, and how did you first get involved in this area?

‘Expert’ is always a dangerous thing to be known as but it is true that I have been writing about and researching ghost signs since 2006. As to what they are, there is no settled answer, although I use the term to refer to the fading remains of advertising once painted by hand directly onto the brickwork of buildings.

I started to notice these where I live in London and was soon photographing them when I realised that they wouldn’t be around forever. One thing led to another and, in 2009-10, I coordinated a project to document this historic form of advertising. The result was the History of Advertising Trust Ghost Signs Archive, a free searchable photographic archive of hundreds of examples from the UK and Ireland.

I’ve worked in and around the advertising and creative industries for the last 12 years so I guess I was more sensitised to noticing the signs. That said, the remarkable thing I discovered after finding out about them was how much of a chord they strike with everyone. Just mentioning what I was talking about to friends and family often draw responses such as “There’s a great one at the end of my road.” or “There’s one in my home town but I never knew they had a name.”. This suggests they have a resonance beyond just sign aficionados and advertising folk, like ourselves.

I continue to research and write about ghost signs on my blog and am currently thinking of how the archiving project here in the UK could be expanded to cover ghost signs across the world. For example, I was very pleased to find so many in Melbourne on a tour of the city from Stefan Schutt of Finding the Radio Book earlier this year. I’d like to see a global mapping of the signs alongside some of the great research that people do into the locations and businesses being advertised by the fading paint.

Blooms Pianos Ghost Sign, photographed by Ronnie Hackston

The Blooms Pianos Ghost Sign, in Hackney, photographed by Ronnie Hackston

The Bile Beans Ghost Sign in York, photographed by Caroline Dibbs

The Bile Beans Ghost Sign in York, photographed by Caroline Dibbs

One Ghost Sign overlays another, photograph by Sam Roberts

One Ghost Sign overlays another, photograph by Sam Roberts

A Local Ghost Sign, Glen Innes Road, Inverell, photographed by the author

A Local Ghost Sign, Glen Innes Road, Inverell, photographed by the author

Ghost Sign on Auburn Vale Road, Inverell

Another beauty just out of town, on the Auburn Vale Road. I love the three-digit phone number.

I understand you’ve also published a book on Hand-Lettering. What can you tell us about that?

In 2010 my wife and I left London to spend two years volunteering with VSO in Cambodia. This was just after I launched the ghost signs archive and so I was wondering what hand-painted signs might exists in South East Asia. I wasn’t disappointed as Cambodia has a fantastic heritage of painted street signs, something I was to discover in abundance in our home town of Kratie.

A few trips out on the motorbike with a camera led to a collection of images that I collated and researched to create the rather niche title, Hand-Painted Signs of Kratie. I self-published the print book and also the eBook which is available as a free download from the book’s website,

The book was never a commercial venture. It was an opportunity to celebrate the wonderful signs that Cambodia has to offer and for me to learn a bit more about writing, researching and publishing a book. As it progressed it became a bigger project than I set out on and so I printed copies to be distributed in Cambodia. It is now available to buy there as well as direct from me. The eBook was more of an afterthought but was again a positive learning experience for me.

Book Cover - Hand-Painted Signs of Kratie

Book Cover – Hand-Painted Signs of Kratie

An Inside Spread from the Book

An Inside Spread from the Book

A Hand-Painted Sign in Kratie, Cambodia

A Hand-Painted Sign in Kratie, Cambodia

A Hand-Painted Sign in Kratie, Cambodia

Wayne Tanswell, Sign-writer

British Sign-Painting Legend, Wayne Tanswell, holding his copy of Sam’s Book. Wayne is also a member of Better Letters.

In this clip, Cambodian Sign-painter Chouk Rachana paints the cover for Sam’s book:

And now the big question; please fill us in on your latest project – “Better Letters” – What’s the aim with that?

Better Letters has a very simple purpose: to promote hand-crafted lettering of all forms and in all places. My work on ghost signs and the book led me to realise that there are hundreds of people around the world producing outstanding pieces of hand-crafted lettering every day. The recent release of The Sign Painter Movie and accompanying book shows just how vibrant the sign painting business is in the USA.

I wanted to do something to profile lettering artists and their work and so Better Letters does this as a directory and portfolio. It also lists events and other things of interest to those involved in creating or buying hand-crafted lettering. Lettering artists and event organisers can add their details via the links on the site’s home page.

As the ghost signs blog evolved over time I found myself writing more and more about current practice in sign-writing/painting. Better Letters provides an opportunity to give greater focus to this strand of my work and for ghost signs to regain its focus on the fascinating and ever-changing world of historic painted signs.

I’m also aware that many people offer more than just sign painting and so the idea for Better Letters is to embrace hand-crafted lettering in the broadest sense. This includes gilding, wood carving, calligraphy and even those who create lettering with quilling techniques. I think the common feature of all these lettering forms is the manual aspect of their creation, as opposed to those arising through purely digital or mechanical means. That said, I’m open to ideas from those who know far more about this stuff than me. Ultimately the platform belongs to those on it and so I’m keen to be guided by yours and their advice.

I will let the demand for each aspect of the site determine how it evolves in the future. For now I see it primarily as a forum for lettering artists to showcase their work to potential buyers but there is no doubt that people always like to check out new work from friends and competitors. This is something that The Pre-Vinylite Society is doing a great job on for sign painters so learning from their work and broadening its reach to other disciplines is definitely a direction that Better Letters could take in the future. As above, the idea is still a new one and offers flexibility for those involved to determine its direction. I’m keen to hear from anyone with ideas and feedback so that the site has value for everyone involved.

Better Letters World Map

At this early stage, there are only a handful of sign shops listed in the Better Letters directory, but soon the map will be riddled with them!

Some of the artists who have joined the project, to date:

Best Dressed Signs (Boston, Massachussets)

Best Dressed Signs (Boston, Massachussets)

Michel D'anastasio

Michel D’anastasio, Calligrapher (Paris)

Sign Painter Chouk Rachana (Kratie, Cambodia)

Chouk Rachana (Kratie, Cambodia)

Nutmegger Workshop (Portland, Oregon)

Nutmegger Workshop (Portland, Oregon)

Osborne Signs

Osborne Signs (West Sussex, England)

Right Way Signs (Chicago)

Right Way Signs (Chicago)

Starr Studios (Denton, Texas)

Starr Studios (Denton, Texas)

Wayne Tanswell (Sudbury, Suffolk, UK)

Wayne Tanswell (Sudbury, Suffolk, UK)

and us, of course!

and, of course, Danthonia Designs (Inverell)! So far, we’re the only carving shop, but that certainly won’t last.

If you want to be a part of Better Letters, Sam would love to hear from you! You can email him ( or tweet him (@better_letters). If you do it today, wish him a happy birthday!


Painting a Faux Wood Panel

I took this photo series in early July, when we were making a sign with a faux wood grain panel – one of my favourite jobs in the workshop.

Mixing Paint with a Brush

Here I’m dipping a four-inch house-painting brush into two shades of brown Dulux paint.

Applying Paint to Sign Panel with House-painting Brush

Now comes the fun! I’m slathering the paint onto a sign panel. The panel already has three coats of a darker brown, as a background colour.

Woodgraing a Sign Panel with a Wide Brush

The paint coat is far from even, but that is intentional. It doesn’t look like wood grain yet, but hang in there…

Rubbing with a Paper Towel, to make woodgrain effect

After five minutes of blowing a fan on the panel, I vigorously wipe away the paint I just applied. The areas where it was thicker come off easily, but the thinner parts have already dried, making a great weathered wood effect. Stubborn areas that are too light can be softened up by misting on water with a spray bottle. The whole procedure may have to be repeated more than once, to create the authentic wooden look.

Woodgrain Sign Panel

Here’s a detail shot of the finished panel, ready to be made into a handcrafted, dimensional sign!

The Fox and Fifer Sign

A few weeks later…the finished sign.