The road less traveled in the sign business right now is definitely hand-painted signs

This was originally posted on Tuesday, May 22, 2012 at my blogspot

There are very few successful sign companies out there that do not offer computer cut graphics and lettering to their customers and fewer still that do not use the computer to assist in even some small way with sign production. I’m not talking about the guy living in a country with a depressed economy and no electricity who eeks out a living painting signs. I’m referring to those in developed lands that choose to do things the old way while perfectly capable of adopting the new way.
Take as an example one of my heroes in the sign painting world, New Bohemia Signs located in San Francisco. They have carved out a niche for themselves by offering only hand-painted signs. If you want vinyl you can’t get it from them. Are they purists who shun the use of computers in any phase of sign production? That doesn’t seem to be the case. Notice this excerpt from the FAQ section of their Ordering page:
If your design is in digital format we’d like the artwork as a vectorized file (.eps or .ai work nicely), to the exact sign dimensions, with all the type “outlined”. But we can work from detailed, scale drawings as well.
The only way I know of to make use of a digital file is with a computer and the reason a vectorized file is useful is that it can be sent to a plotter. Do they then let the plotter cut the letters out of vinyl to apply to the sign? NO! The file is more than likely used to plot drawings that are made into patterns to hand-paint the sign.
Am I exposing New Bohemia Signs as a fraud. Absolutely not! If I’m exposing anything it is their reasonableness. They have to be profitable and competitive to stay in business. If there are phases of production that can be sped up with the use of technology without sacrificing in any way the expected finished product then why not use it. But, they have no desire to do what everyone else is doing, namely vinyl, and further realize that in many instances hand-painted signs are better.A mom and pop run business baking home cooked pies would greatly benefit from a well designed hand-painted sign. Tattoo parlors and barber shops are other trades that by their very hands-on nature beckon the use of hand-painted signs. Really, any shop that has to compete with the franchises would do well to seriously consider hand-painted signs as a way to set themselves apart, be it a bicycle shop, pizzeria, clothing store or whatever. New Bohemia is committed to meeting this need for something different, something unique, something hand-crafted and I applaud them. There are some who constantly bash computer technology saying that the computer vinyl industry ruined it for the rest of us. I don’t know the circumstances of each and every individual that feels this way so am not in a position to offer specific comments in either support or rebuttal. I would only point to the examples of companies like Gary Martin Signs in Austin, TX, David Kynaston in the UK, New Bohemia Signs in San Francisco and so many others that promote hand-lettering through positive rather than negative means. Computers are here to stay and so it seems a fruitless endeavor to complain about the bad that they caused when we could instead be benefiting from some of the good.
I, for one, always had difficulty laying out ellipses and never much enjoyed lettering a bunch of Pool Rules signs in helvetica medium by hand. The computer now does these chores for me and does so perfectly. And when I think back to when I finally bit the bullet and ordered my first computerized vinyl cutter the motive was to keep up with production without having to hire someone. However, I am definitely a promoter as well as a practitioner of hand-crafted, hand-lettered signs, but am finding it a real challenge to sell to customers. The first words out of their mouth is, “I want the cheapest signs you have” and after I give them a quote they ask, “Don’t you have anything cheaper?” Hand-painted signs will never be cheaper than their vinyl counterpart. But where is the real value anyway?
I find that I personally can produce more effective signs by painting them then by using computer cut vinyl. While I am not totally sure of the reason why, I do have some idea. I believe the sign contractor naturally, sometimes even unconsciously designs within the limitations of his sign equipment and skill level. As an example, my plotter can cut up to an 18″ letter in one piece; anything larger has to be tiled. If I am designing a 4′ x 6′ For Sale sign I might opt to give the words FOR and SALE equal billing, keeping them the same height, so that I am sure to stay under the 18″ limit imposed by my plotter. But what is really needed is the word FOR to be relatively small and the word SALE to be huge. The customer doesn’t know the difference. Nine times out of ten they brought me a piece of notebook paper with the words FOR SALE on the first line, bla bla bla on the second and the phone number on the third. They don’t know the difference and most of my vinyl slapping competitors wouldn’t know the difference either, but I should. Below is an example of a job I recently completed that is all 100% paint. In this instance I refused to let my design be governed by my plotter’s limited cutting capacity.

The height of the word Sale exceeded the capabilities of my plotter which would pose a problem if I didn’t possess hand lettering skills.

If a sign contractor cannot draw and cannot airbrush do you think he is going to suggest to the customer that this is what is needed to make their sign pop! Absolutely not! Many vinyl only shops are also limited by their freebie computer clipart collection. That is why you sometimes see a vinyl lettered sign that says Pit Bull’s Pizza but has clipart of a bulldog with a spiked collar or it says Seagull Travel Agency with clipart of a flying eagle. I on the other hand can draw, airbrush, carve and am accomplished at gold leaf and yet I sometimes found myself turning out the same kind of sterile, boring work as everyone else. Why? I believe my attempts to up-sell to a better product were rejected so many times that I simply gave up trying and resigned myself to producing mediocrity.
But then, unexpectedly my life would take a change, not drastic and certainly not sudden but change all the same. One evening I was home alone looking at past issues of SignCraft magazine, the trade magazine for commercial sign contractors, when I noticed an article by Rob Cooper, a regular contributor whose work I greatly admired, on prismatic lettering in the Nov/Dec 2001 issue. The article started out with Rob relating how he was lettering this sign in New Zealand when a fellow signwriter (that’s what they call sign painters overseas) working in the same sign shop walked up to him and asked, “So, Rob, where’s the prism?” They both then laughed as Rob began to add a painted bevel effect (prism) to the letters. Next, he relates why he uses the effect so often and what sort of lettering jobs look especially good prismed. He then starts off the third paragraph in the article: “One of the first prism lettering jobs I ever saw that really blew me away was featured years ago in SignCraft. It was on a boat job that Rodney Vicik of Virginia had lettered; I think it said Bluewater. I couldn’t get over the depth of the lettering and how it really looked like it was raised. I’ve never been the same since.”
I was stunned. I had submitted a few photos of a boat I lettered named Bluewater that were published way back in the Jan/Feb 1992 issue. Rob referred to the lettering as blowing him away in 2001 and I’m just reading this for the first time in early 2011. What could I do? I couldn’t exactly call him and thank him 10 years after the fact. So I waited patiently (paced the floor anxiously) for my wife and daughter to get home from the gym and had each of them sit down and read it for themselves as I excitedly reenacted my own actions upon my reading it. After the shock wore off and the calm set in, probably a couple of days later, I began to reflect on my career as a sign painter. While not exactly turning out garbage I also wasn’t producing the same level of work as I did when featured in the magazine. At least not consistently. Sure, I thought of a few impressive jobs done of late that could easily make the pages of SignCraft, but there just weren’t enough of them. Why so few? What had happened?
It was then that I remembered all my failed attempts to sell a customer something better than the most basic of signs. My business was slowly turning into a quickie vinyl shop. I was getting fewer and fewer of the larger, involved jobs and more and more of the simple one-color vinyl jobs. My well equipped woodworking shop contained enough stationary power tools to make a cabinetmaker envious and yet it was sitting idle gathering dust while I was weeding line after line of 2” vinyl letters. I reached the point where enough was enough.
I’m a graphic artist. I can airbrush, hand-letter, pinstripe, carve and reverse gild gold leaf on glass. Why was I weeding vinyl instead of using skills that took me years to learn? As I mulled over the situation I found myself in, I realized that as long as I offer a cheap product, it will be the one that the majority will choose. If I don’t want to do a certain job then I need to stop offering it. Could it really be that simple? There would be only one way to find out. I decided that I was getting out of the vinyl by the pound business for good. I was going back to my roots, hand-crafting and hand-lettering signs. And that is exactly what I did.  Oh, I still have a computer and plotter and still cut vinyl when it is obviously the correct media to use.  But, I am always thinking hand-lettering and will bid jobs to be hand-painted instead of using vinyl. And when someone comes in and wants the cheapest job possible, done with vinyl, I send them somewhere else. Now, I better understand why other sign artists have made the decision to go back to traditional hand-lettering. At the end of the day, they just want to be proud of who they are and of what they produced. That’s all I want.

Leave a Reply