The design and production of signs by drawing and painting onto various materials.
|Historic area of significance||UK|
|Area currently practised||UK|
|Origin in the UK||Roman|
|Current no. of professionals (main income)||c. 200|
|Current no. of professionals (sideline to main income)
|Current no. of trainees|
|Current total no. serious amateur makers
|Current total no. of leisure makers
|Minimum no. of craftspeople required||Unknown|
The craft of painting signs, originally using pictures or symbols as very few people could read, is an ancient craft with examples in western civilisation dating back to Roman times. Painting lettering on signs became common in eighteenth-century England when literacy rates increased. The development of the craft was effectively complete by the start of the Victorian era, at which point signwriters were in high demand when each shop fascia was hand-painted. The craft declined significantly with the introduction of computer cut plastic signs in the 1980s, and most plastic shopfronts and leasing vehicles moved to plastic signs. However, there were a number of traditional signwriters who refused to abandon the craft.
Today about 300 signwriters can be found across the country, and the market for hand-painted signs is strong – for historic buildings, ‘traditional’ pubs and restaurants, vintage vehicles, horse drawn vehicles etc.
A detailed history of the craft can be found on the website of Richard Gregory.
The techniques of signwriting are quite simple, but the craft requires a lot of practise. There are three principle ways to hold a brush (45 degrees, flat or italic), and there are six key brushstrokes, each with two versions. The techniques have been well documented in many publications and tutorials.
Canal boat painting
Traditional fairground decoration – there are about 20 across the UK
Issues affecting the viability of the craft
Training issues: Historically, signwriting was a skill acquired through the family or as an apprentice. Since the mid-1980s people have stopped training as there is no place to learn the craft. Although the basic skills of signwriting are relatively quick and simple to learn, it takes years of commercial experience to perfect the skills and truly master the craft. About four signwriters run short courses but there is no official qualification. There are hundreds of people interested in the craft and who do the courses, but most don’t continue with it.
Training issues: Traditional signwriters tend to be sole operators. Training someone takes time and money and usually once trained, the trainee will set up in direct competition, having a ready knowledge of the signwriter’s clientele and prices charged etc. For that reason, the signwriter has not trained anyone for about the last 40 years. Prior to that when signwriters were in greater demand, bigger companies existed doing the work who could have several trainees.
Ageing workforce: The fact that most professional signwriters are either retired or dead has created a greater demand on those remaining.
- A signwriter needs commercial experience in order to develop their skills.
- Some people are putting themselves forward as signwriters when what they are doing is producing a lettering layout on a computer printout, tracing this onto the required object and filling it in with paint. Traditional signwriting is set out and painted by hand and it is the slight irregularites of hand craft that give the work its character. That is completely lost with the machine-made look of computer work, even when painted.
Craftspeople currently known