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Signwriters – part one

Signwriters – part one Posted on 19 October 2022

Rachel Millar, signwriter

Painted signs are back. Shops and businesses large and small are returning to traditional techniques and employing signwriters and painters. In part one of our special feature, Editor Neil Braidwood meets two of the hardest working in the business. 

Even though I’ve never met Rachel Millar, I can tell it’s her as I walk towards her. She’s painting her name in hot pink on the side of her new white van – well, she’s a signwriter, so what better way to show the world what you can do? 

Rachel’s from Muirend in Glasgow but went to Edinburgh College of Art to study graphic design. For the first couple of years, she was conflicted with the idea of designing things that might not be seen by that many people – books, magazines and logos tend to be niche items aimed at a specific audience. 

It wasn’t until her third year, when Rachel travelled to Boston to attend Massachusetts College of Art and Design, that she first started thinking about letter painting as a possible career. 

“I went to this class run by a guy called John Cataldo – he was a professor emeritus there, and was 90 years old when he taught the class,” Rachel tells me. “I don’t know what I expected, but it was a five-hour class every week for five months on ‘using type as an expressive medium’. I was just blown away by it all.

“He really opened up my eyes to letter painting, and at last I could see that this was something I wanted to pursue when I got back to Edinburgh for my final year at college.

“In Boston – and most of America at that time (2015) – there was a real culture of signpainting and writing. Loads of shops or restaurants had a hand-painted sign or a chalkboard with fancy lettering. It was just everywhere you looked. I thought, ‘people must be getting paid to do this stuff, so how do I break into it?’”

Back in Scotland, Rachel sought out the renowned signwriter, the late Robin Abbey, to give her some advice on signwriting. “Robin was amazing,” says Rachel. “He showed me how to snap a line using string and chalk and how to draw out lettering onto wood by eye – proper old school stuff.” She then produced her whole degree show project on painted wood in a traditional style.

After gaining her degree in 2016, Rachel moved back to Glasgow to live with her parents. She applied for numerous jobs as a graphic designer, but became disillusioned when she was rejected for them all. She got in touch with Glasgow-based signwriter Ciarán Glöbel to get some advice on how to do jobs on site and be self-employed.

“Ciarán comes from a graffiti background,” she explains, so his work is playful and loose. He does a lot of murals too. I already had some decent skills, otherwise I don’t think he would have given me the time of day,” she laughs. 

“He sent me on a few jobs though, which allowed me to build up my confidence and my skills. He gave me a lot of encouragement. My first job through him was a mural for Babu Kitchen in West Regent Street. But my first paid job in my own right was at the West Brewery which I got through a design agency.” 

She decided to get her own space in 2017 and found one at Mount Florida Studios, where she still works.

Most of Rachel’s work comes via word of mouth or through her Instagram page. “People love a time lapse video,” she laughs. 

“The whole signpainting phenomenon has exploded now,” Rachel says. “There is so much work out there, as smaller, independent shops want to make an impact on the high street. I get a lot of work through female or queer-owned shops and stores. They would rather employ a woman to do the work.

“It’s funny though – I come across a lot of older painters and decorators who tell me, ‘aye, that’s a dying art so it is,’ but I have to reply – ‘actually no it’s not, cos here I am doing it right here, right now, and making a living from it.’ Signpainting crosses that bridge between trade and art,
I think, and it is immensely satisfying to see your work up there for everyone to see.”

Thomas Payne, signpainter

Thomas Payne

Thomas (pictured above), is more difficult to locate when I go to meet him. He is hunkered down behind a wooden wall outside Butta Burger in George Street in Edinburgh, and a bit tricky to see. I can tell he’s here though, as his van is parked nearby. 

Thomas, and his assistant for the day, Duncan Peace (of Peace Signs), are working away at the outside seating area of Butta Burger painting logos on a rough wooden wall.

“That’s the great thing about this job,” says Thomas.
“I was expecting to be painting on a smooth surface but when I got here, I found that this wood is pretty rough. I said to the owner, ‘how about we go for a distressed, kind of dry-brush look?’ And he said: ‘yeah, go for it.’”

Thomas is from Portsmouth but, having Scottish connections, he came to Edinburgh College of Art to study furniture and product design. He then did a postgraduate degree in product design and got a job as a graphic designer in an agency in Edinburgh.

In 2014, his wife bought him some brushes and a book on signpainting so that he could have a hobby that took him away from work. Then, he moved to a different, part-time job which meant he had a Friday off, so he decided to paint signs on Fridays. He started with door names and numbers on glass fanlights and created an Instagram account. 

Eventually, Historic Environment Scotland got in touch as they’d seen his work on Instagram and asked him to do some letter painting in Mary Queen of Scots’ bedroom at Edinburgh Castle. 

“I took two weeks off work to do that job,” he explains. “They wanted a family tree painted all around the room. I was working on delicate lime plaster, and they couldn’t close the room, so I had all these tourists looking over my shoulder every day – it was quite a challenge.

“Once the job was complete, I was at a crossroads,” says Thomas. “I had made enough money to allow me to quit my ‘proper’ job and do signpainting full time. 

“I always say I am a signpainter as opposed to a signwriter,” explains Thomas. “A signwriter can just paint a letter from his head, without any guides, whereas I tend to work to a template design – either one that the client supplies or lettering I have created myself.”

He shows me what he means. The word or logo to be painted is sent to Thomas digitally, and he creates a sheet on a large format plotter that pricks holes where the edges of the letters are. This is taped to the surface to be painted, and chalk is forced through the holes using a pad, creating a guide to paint to.

“In the old days they would have created these by hand,” says Thomas. “They would draw out the letter forms on a sheet of paper, and then, using a ‘pouncing wheel’ (kind of like a ravioli cutter), they would prick the outline of the letters. They used a rabbit’s paw to force the chalk through back then. Things have moved on.”

It’s not all about painting though. Thomas is skilled in glass gilding work too. Recently, he landed one of the biggest glass gilding jobs in the UK – the windows at the new Barclays Bank in Glasgow required more than 575 sheets of 23.5 carat gold leaf (that’s 23 books) and all oversized sheets (100x100mm).

“I got that job through Instagram,” says Thomas. “It’s one of the best routes for me to get work, so I try to post something every day to keep people interested and engaged. Videos, reels and the story behind the sign draw people in. We recently refurbished the hanging sign at the Jinglin’ Geordie pub in Edinburgh. It was in a terrible state, so pretty much needed to be rebuilt over the course of several weeks. I also employed a figurative painter to repaint Geordie in the same style as the old one but bring him up to date a bit. Then the sign needed rehanging – and you want to make a good job of that so that it stays where it should. Those videos and Instagram posts got a lot of views, as people were desperate to see the outcome.”

Thomas is very much in demand and, when he needs help he drafts in assistance from other signpainters. 

“Duncan works with me quite a bit, but he has his own business too,” says Thomas. “It’s also nice to have someone to talk to – it can get quite lonely being a signpainter. It’s quite a solitary existence.”

Thomas still does house numbers and names on Fridays – it’s become a regular thing. “There’s something therapeutic about it,” he says.

Watch out for part two of our special feature on signwriters in the next issue of Decorating Matters.