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.