Sunday, 29 March 2009

Painting Narrowboats - Signwriting

Painting Narrowboats
Confessions of a DIY'er - Signwriting
29th March 2009

Part six of seven

I had planned to have a go at the signwriting myself, and even bought a copy of A J Lewry's Signwritten Art. But the more I read the more I realised that the standard I was looking for was beyond my abilities. As Clint Eastwood once said, "a man's got to know his limitations".

Don't tell Belle, but I do have some limitations. Not many, but they include:

  • Plastering walls to a perfectly smooth finish

  • Bricklaying to a standard good enough for house walls

  • Brain Surgery - but Mortimer Bones may be able to help out here

  • And yes, Sign writing!

I am sure I could do it given time and practice, but alas I have neither. So rather than spoil the job right at the end I decided that prudence was the better part of valour, and recruited some professional help. The safest way of finding a good signwriter is from personal recommendation and an inspection of their past work. I had heard that Jim McCormack was good and liked what he had done on Robber Button, so I gave him a call. I have since discovered that his work graces the sides of none other than the infamous Granny Buttons - so he cant be bad.

Jim is a proper commercial signwriter and canal boats is a preferred sideline. He is particularly interesting in that he integrates technology with the traditional art, using a Computer Genarated mask to achieve the body of the letters quickly, and then applying the artistic shading. I liked the sound of this and sent him the exact measurements plus an outline of what I was looking for.

I had spent several months trying to work out exactly what I wanted , eventually resorting to taking photos of boats with appealing letter work. With the benefit of about 20 photos I defined exactly what I wanted, which I would describe as basically "block letters with a slight serif" (flicky out bits on the corners) divided by bold industrial lines and circles. This is in no way a "best" design, merely one which works for me. Anything goes in this area, so the world is your typographical oyster.

I worked up a detailed plan, allowing for the differences in panel sizes on each side, and demonstrated how I wanted the Wand'ring to arch over the Bark. I also sent him a photo of the boat plus one of another boat which was similar to what I had in mind. A couple of days later he responded with a computer generated image of the boat in its new livery. His interpretation was exactly what I wanted and nothing needed changing. Jim takes the view that he is there to deliver what the customer wants, and isn't at all precious about using a preferred style or anything - very businesslike.

The CGI was then converted into full sized stencils, complete with cut out lettering. This was carefully fixed to the cabin sides and and the basic lettering picked out in special one shot signwriters paint. He went to some trouble to match the main colour with the ceam I had used on the coach lines.
He then cut out the 3d shading with a sharp knife and applied the contrasting paint before removing the mask. This removal was rather like a magicians trick. One moment it at all looked a mess and then, in an instant, the lettering was revealed in all its glory. Jim finished the project off by applying the graduated shading freehand and, as a final touch, inserted his trademark "Jim" tag so discretely that you have to hunt really hard to find it. The whole job on both sides took a mere 5 hours including an hour of downtime as we sheltered from a heavy shower.

Real signwriting is something of a dying art, which happily lives on among the boating community. Even here there is a move towards self adhesive PVC letters which are functional and reasonably priced, but don't quite hit the spot for me. So, how much did all this cost? Well I am not going to tell you! It was more than I wanted to pay but in the end it was worth every penny. I enjoy looking at the back panels every time I see Wand'ring Bark rise up out of a lock - and you cant' put a price on that sort of thing.

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