July 1985, a 3 year apprenticeship at www.guildfordsigns.co.uk in signwriting and signmaking ahead of me. I actually started a week before and screenprinted 1000 paperweights in a 5 colour print. In a 1200sqft workshop i felt i had run miles in between prints and it looked like a swarm of paperweights had landed as there was not much room for anything else.
So the week began with the re-signing of Leapale Road Car Park in Guildford. Birch plywood panels with radiused tops. We began with making a jig for the hand router. Then realising there were over 50 boards sized 3′ x 2′ we then made some racks for the boards so we could paint both sides and they would dry. These were soon to be nicknamed Viking ships or something like that. A week later all the boards were painted and the signwriters proceeded to ‘pounce’ the arrow symbols on ready to signwrite.
I remember watching in amazement as they signwrote accurate circles revealing the white arrow, “one day with practice, you’ll be doing this”, said Mark Allen my boss and very good signwriter. A good signwriter indeed since he only had one eye after it became infected whilst swimming as a boy.
And so time went on and i watched the signwriters and then second coated their lettering the next day, not knowing that i was slowly getting better with my brush strokes. Clients would bring in business cards and we would then spend the next hour looking through the Letraset book to find the font. Then once we found the font we would enlarge the letters on a drawing using an epidiascope, similar to an overhead projector. Of course nowadays this would all be typed in and i also believe there is an App for finding fonts. I still have a good knowledge of fonts and have proved this over the last few years.
We worked on shop fascias, and vehicles mainly and spending 2 days on a vehicle; today it would take less than a day. We did laugh though whilst coachlining local motor factors vans; there was great banter in the sign industry and still is although not the same. Perspex fascias were a plenty and we drove over to Slough to pick the letters up, setting them out by eye using the skills we had been taught.
Vinyl lettering arrived and Vynatext was the supplier. You had about 20 fonts and the same amount of colours and some weird formula to work out the length of the line of letters. You ordered it over the phone and it arrived the next day with a squeegee to apply. This really must seem bizarre to any younger sign people of today. Foamex, perspex and plywood continued to dominate with the occasional honour of restoring a church clockface courtesy of Peter Harknett, now the oldest working steeplejack in the country http://www.greenbeltrelay.org.uk/photos11.htm. Peter also got us involved in working on the Angel at the top of Guildford Cathedral. We spent a week spot gilding the angel and were above the clouds in the morning and to be honest i was only 17 and above the clouds all the time as this was a real claim to fame; and still is.
Recession kicked in and i went to work as a labourer/installer for another local sign company of where i met my wife and we have been married for 19 years. So some good things can come out of a recession. After a short tome i went back to Guildford Signs who then had bought a www.grafityp.com vinyl lettering machine which wasnt as good as the ones www.spandex.com used to supply but did the job eventually, so no more ordering over the phone.
Soon to be a father i decided to be self employed and went to work for my self and subcontract my services to other companies, working on installations, vinyl and signwriting jobs. I remember signwriting some large banners for www.signseen.co.uk, 8ft tall x 40ft long. We made a false wall in the building and hung the banner up; in sections of course as now one had a workshop that long. Using www.sericol.co.uk pvc ink and little ventilation other than the doors being open, i spent the next few days signwriting the banners and slowly wrecking my most expensive signwriting brush; my condor. Of course today, this banner would come straight out of a printer and just need hems and eyelets to complete. In fact the same company www.digitalsignservices.co.uk still supply banners both blank and printed.
I spent a few years at Signseen, eventually becoming a full time employee in 1994 and gained experience using their spandex vinyl machines. We then invested in a gerber edge of which was state of the art at the time, although you could buy scotchprint for an arm and a leg! The edge was easy to use but made a terrible ‘droning’ noise i can still hear today. Strange as we used to produce prints 1220 x 2440mm made out of bands of 298mm tall prints with 2mm overlaps. Today of course this can be done in one piece straight out of a printer, or even direct to media if you have the money spare equivalent to the value of a small house to pay for it !
Wanting to move on and learn more, i moved and worked for Signs by Morrell in 1998. Working on contracts for McArthurGlen and Safeway. I was then introduced to Dibond and Foamex fabrication. We vcut both materials and decorated using paints and vinyl. We even rolled the dibond using a MDF jig for use on the Safeway petrol stations. We also using some large automated rollers coated foamex panels in a pvc ink to make them off white for the internal Safeway signage. Aluminium fabrication, or part of, was done in house with components being made locally for us to rivet together. It was my first time i had been involved in a monolith and what a buzz this was. The steel and aluminium was outsourced and we had a couple of trolleys made to fit the steel ladder frame so it could be worked on. All the electrics and digitex box (rolling opening times) were fitted then over the top as was the panels, then we would roll the whole sign down the road to be painted. Vinyls were then applied and a hyab would collect to be installed. “If only the guys could see me now”, i used to think, being surrounded by so many signs and these amazing monoliths.
The biggest sign i was involved with was for McArthurGlen. It was for their outlet village in Mansfield and was 110ft tall using 1000mm diameter steel posts that bolted together to create the height. The top section was for 2No flex face boxes (1 each side) and was a steel framework with 2 floors, a set of stairs and handrails to enable easy and safe access when maintaining the sign. It reminded me of a couple of balconies from an apartment block. I wasnt there for the install but the guys who made the flex face skins were and had worried looks on their faces as they were tensioned on the boxes. The skins were made using cooleybrite and eradicating the bg to reveal the white behind. Very labour intensive and lots of space is required. Of course nowadays this would be done on a vutek or similar, http://www.efi.com/.
The HB Sign Company was my next employer in 2001. Located on the Kings Road opposite Royal Avenue and above the old Thomas Crapper Building. Who would have thought a sign company was on the Kings Road i thought when i saw the job advert. Having their own products like http://www.mss05.com/, a modular internal sign system and specialising in corporate signage, i ended up working with some real blue chip clients. The artwork for the MSS products was typeset using apple macs and was output to film and then sent to the Corby Factory where the product was made and then screen printed. It was made using this process as vinyl lettering would spole the appearance of the signs and when cleaned would leave ‘duster fluff’ behind. Architects such as Foster and Partners were a well respected client who used these products and invloved us in some nice internal signing projects as did Local Councils with requests for Urban Signage; examples are in Glasgow, Belfast, Edinburgh and Dundee. I was able to use my previous experience with the other companies i had worked for to mine and the companies advantage and was a respected member of the Project Management team. I used to say we were a solutions finder at HB as both architects and designers would come up with ideas and we would work out the best way to implement them.
Moving back to Signseen in 2004 to use my knowledge so far. We were involved in digital printing as well as vinyl graphics and still the use of the gerber edge. The housebuilding industry played a big part of their client base and there was a large requirement for hoardings. 9mm plywood was painted to a gloss finish then full colour digital prints were applied and an anti-graffiti laminate over the top.
In 2006 i ended up at Allsignsgroup, known today as www.octink.com. A fast moving company with a vast client base ranging from national housebuilders, commercial property development companies and events companies. Demanding clients were serviced daily and nothing was ever too much bother. They had invested in some of the most amazing equipment i had ever seen costing the equivalent to the value of a small house. Direct to media was the way forward as we were producing hoardings on a weekly basis. One client in particular ordered their 50m hoarding on friday and was having it installed on the tuesday. Shift operations were a plenty to cope with the demand. 10 plus years ago they would have had to wait at least a week and as for any full colour images, these would have put the cost of the job through the roof! Octink seemed to have a way of making things happen, this was very different to other and previous companies i had worked for as they used to wait for the enquiries; for Octink their proactive approach paid dividends.
In July 2010 after just over a year commuting to Brentford from the Isle of Wight i changed jobs and now work for http://www.ajwells.com who are based on the Island. Famous for their Vitreous enamel signs on the London Underground they have a well run factory that has survived the recession and still to this day provides train station signage throughout the UK. There is a feeling of going back in time when walking around the factory and unlike all other sign companies who make signs in 24 hours, for AJ Wells they are ‘ready when they are ready’; or thereabouts. This is due to the processes involved and the enamel has to be furnaced at a temperature of 800 degrees centigrade. Screen printing is the method for applying the lettering and detail and in some cases ceramic ink transfers are used although the colours are not as dense as they are produced by a laser printer.
Some may say an old fashioned method of producing signs and i agree but it has its benefits. A visit from the http://www.signdesignsociety.co.uk yesterday demonstrated these. Three materials were laid on the bench, a vitreous panel, a printed and powdercoated panel and a white face aluminium panel that was also printed. Spray paint was then sprayed on the three panels and then left for 20 minutes. We returned and wiped them all with cellulose thinners. The only survivor was the vitreous enamel panel, the other 2 had gone dull, the print was removed and the white face was also removed.
An impressed member of the society asked “could this be scratched”? They then all proceeded to coin and key the surface and didnt make a mark at all. At that point i felt the vitreous sign would probably still be around when i meet my maker in heaven!
So to conclude this blog, times have changed and so have the methods and certainly clients are more demanding as they are more aware of what products and equipment are available. Which also makes the industry a lot more competitive and in some cases we have seen the rise and fall of some of the larger companies over the years. I have now been in the industry man and boy and although no one listens to me at home when i talk signs i still get a real buzz when designing something from scratch then seeing it in all its glory.
One last thing, i have just completed the restoration of a 6ft clockface for Christchurch, Sandown. This included paint removal, repainting and gold leaf gilding, together with welding the clockface back together and making a new hand. Peter Harknett the oldest working steeplejack in the country would be proud.
I wonder were the industry will go next and isnt 80′s fashion coming back too? I know one thing though; my brushes and mahl stick are ready for action…
Oh happy days.