A Place for Paint: The Demand for Hand-Lettered Signs

Although technology takes a chunk out of the hand-painted sign market, there's still a demand for craftsmanship

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Advances in digital graphics have cut into the hand-painted sign business in the past few years, but there are still some bright spots in the industry that will never go away, including murals, hand lettering on signs and vehicles, and pinstriping.

“Obviously, technology has changed the sign industry dramatically as it has any industry; however, there is strong demand for the highly valued skills that hand-lettering artists perform,” says Tim Lloyd, sales director/business operations for the Matthews division of PPG Industries, which manufactures 1Shot paint specifically formulated for the hand-painted sign industry. “That aspect of signs, I believe, will never go away. The artistry that these craftsmen use at hand lettering any type of sign, vehicle, or mural will always be appreciated by the general public; therefore it will always be in demand.”

But just because individuals tout themselves as hand painters, doesn’t mean they don’t take advantage of the technology that is available.

Brian “The Brush” Briskie, owner of Brian The Brush World Headquarters in Rochester, New York, says he has been hand-painting signs since 1979 and he has a good reputation for hand lettering and gilding. In addition to the sign shop, he also owns a large custom paint shop that also incorporates hand lettering.

“I won’t deny that if I were to try and survive solely on hand lettering, I wouldn’t have had a phone to dial your number with,” he says. “I’ve been doing this in excess of 35 years, so I have a strong well-established clientele base. We’re not getting enough requests from new accounts to shake a stick at. We’ll pick up a few here and there, a couple a month, but most of the new hand lettering work is coming from folks in the hot rod industry because there is this whole distressed lettering, retro thing that is so big in the northeast. They want to make it look like it was lettered 45 years ago.”

And even though he has had a steady stream of drag racers wanting him to hand-letter their cars, he has lost some of that business to the car wraps industry. He still does his fair share of dragster and funny car bodies, though.

“I think there will always be a market for hand lettering,” he says. “There’s something to be said for the non-sterile look of a hand-lettered truck.” If you look closely you can see the occasional brush stroke or you notice that the lower case Es are all slightly different, he adds.

Briskie likens hand lettering to the equestrian industry. While there aren’t nearly as many people participating in it as there were 50 years ago and there aren’t as many buggy whip manufacturers as there used to be, there is still some value in being a good buggy whip manufacturer, he says.

It is hard for hand lettering to compete with vinyl and digital, he says, but there are still markets for it. Briskie does a lot of gilding work with gold leaf, particularly on emergency vehicles like fire trucks.

As an apprentice, Briskie would be asked to practice his hand lettering during downtimes. His boss would unroll white paper across a board and ask him to hand-letter 100 four-inch Qs.

“You would dread the days he would give me 100 ampersands,” he says with a laugh.

Because of that practice, he is very skilled at letter spacing. He used to practice hand painting the word “lawyer” over and over again because it is one of the hardest words to write in upper case block letters and space them correctly, he says.

Many clients don’t realize that hand-lettering is still an option, he says. “It is never bought. It has to be sold.”

When clients come in and say they want a truck lettered in vinyl, he shows them what it could look like in paint and most people are willing to give it a shot. The downside of paint is that it is not as durable as vinyl, he adds.

“It will last as long if you take care of it properly, but it is more prone to day-to-day abuse than is vinyl,” Briskie says.

In 2018, hand-lettering accounted for between 15% and 20% of Briskie’s work annually.

“I’ve got a couple of printers and cut vinyl but it is rare that I don’t employ hand lettering in every commercial job,” he says.

A local plumbing company wanted him to hand-letter and do the graphics on the side of its new van. He designed a mascot for them and did the lion’s share of the work in vinyl, but the name of the company was hand-lettered in light gray vinyl with an airbrushed edge.

Many times he will hand-letter a logo on vellum, scan it and cut it in vinyl. That gives the project a hand-wrought aspect, he says.

He believes that digital printing doesn’t always make perfect signs.

“I see a lot more bad digital prints than I see good digital prints as far as truck lettering goes. Legibility has been lost to some extent. Some of that can be blamed on the fact that the lion’s share of people coming into the trade during the last 15 years are not serving apprenticeships,” he says.

“I’m not a snob about technology or a snob about hand lettering. There is no glory in getting paint out from under your fingernails at the end of the day. A good design can come from the Sharpie market, lettering quill or a mouse but … I think the industry has suffered because of a lack of mentoring and apprenticeship and their use of design and negative space,” Briskie says.

He adds that he probably makes better money throwing vinyl or painting motorcycles but, “I hand letter because I love to hand letter. I’m still fascinated by letterforms.”

Steven Vigeant, owner of Oakland, California-based Berkeley Signs, considers himself more of a wall dog, someone who does wall painting in the industrial style.

“I’ve been thinking of it as technical mural painting because a lot of times the artwork is very determined and it is not about my personal style. My personal style has become exactly what a designer wants. I use the computer a lot. It is a mixture of judgment and computer to get the image onto the wall and I’m very experienced with the actual painting when it comes to that. I’m fast and tight,” he says.

Vigeant says he uses a lot of latex paint whereas in the past he used more oil enamel.

“A lot of times I’m trying to match the designer so I plot the work out off their file, mostly considering my own judgment on how to do it because there are a lot of ways to approach a job,” he says.

He uses many tools to help him hand letter, including paint mask, where the outline of letters are printed in vinyl and used as a stencil, or the tried and true pounce pattern, where a design is cut into paper using specialized tools to make a stencil. He then takes chalk and pounces on the design to leave an outline on the surface that needs to be painted.

Sometimes he has to be creative with his use of paints to more closely match the color scheme of a particular paint job. He has been known to mix house paint, PPG 1Shot, Matthews brush and roll, and Winsor & Newton acrylics on the same job.

Vigeant still sees a demand for hand painting but says the rules have changed a lot. Clients expect hand painters to have insurance and be really professional, he says. You have to be able to work with designers and work through the logistical red tape. You also have to be a good bidder on sign projects. You can’t just pull prices out of your back pocket. You have to have a set price per color or per square foot.

“Sometimes clients want that individual old touch. I make the old touch differently,” he says, by creating the designs using technology and then using old techniques to paint it.

He says there is a new revival out there for hand-painted signs and wall graphics and once people begin to see painted signs again, more of the designers start seeing that as an option.

Gadych Paula

Paula Aven Gladych

Paula Aven Gladych is a freelance writer based in Denver, Colo. She can be reached at [email protected]

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