Sign painting

Art McConnell

"Every sign is a work of Art"


Art McConnell, sign artist in Stirling, Ontario, talked with Margaret Grotek on July 17, 2012. He has painted many of the signs at Farmtown Park. He describes the art of sign painting and his long career as a sign artist.


“I have been painting signs for over 50 years. I started when I was 17 and I took a correspondence course with ICS. It took me three years to complete the course. I could have probably completed it sooner but as a 17 year old boy, I had other interests as well the correspondence course. Both my parents were supportive. My father did quite a bit of sign writing. He was a house decorator and painter and he did signs. There was interest and support for me there.

 “I was interested in cars and wanted to be a body mechanic. The agent from ICS came to the house to interview me, and with my background at school and my natural ability, he directed me to the sign course. I had sent in a notice I found in a magazine. I finished the course and got my diploma. It is interesting to see how they did it. They sent you books and as you progressed they sent you more material. l would send my work in by mail and they would grade it and send back the marks. Most work was done on paper so you could fold it. The course was called Show Card and Sign Production. 

"The first sign I did was when I was still going to high school. The shop teacher needed a sign to display at the fair. Then a friend needed a truck lettered. There are a few of my old signs still around. An interesting thing is in the 60s to letter two doors on a truck was in the $10 - $20 range, now it costs $200 or as high as $400 and $500. 

Use of Gold Leaf

"The method for putting on gold leaf has not changed in 100 years. First, you size the board and then you put on the gold leaf. The materials are harder to find as there are not many people who can gild. Computer cut vinyl looks good for a while, but gold leaf is 23 carat gold and gold is tarnish proof. Some vehicle owners still want lettering gilded with gold and then protected with a clear coat. You brush the clear coat on over the edge a little to seal the edge. It needs to be transparent. The clear coat means the gold looses a bit of the lustre. A house sign doesn’t need a clear coat as it not being washed like a vehicle.

Lettering and spacing


"The correspondence course explained how to use tools. I still have my text books. Styles have changed, there are many more fonts today; Helvetica and Roman types of letter style fonts, and the spacing between words is tighter now. When I took my course, the width was supposed to be the width of letter N in that particular font. I stay with the way I learnt. Words now look like those on a website as they are close together. Being from the old school I find it hard to change. A computer does not do spacing, you do it visually. Computers are based on grids.


"There are wild colours available today that weren’t available before. We had a limited colour range of the primary colours: red, yellow, blue and black and white. If a colour was in between you had to mix it. There are lot more colours in between the primary and secondary colours. Sometimes you have to match a colour you can’t buy. You always try for one shade lighter, because when paint dries it dries one shade darker.

Tools, brushes or lettering quills

Sign artist's quills  are hand made in the same way  they were  hundreds of years ago.

"When one loads a brush with paint it should look like a chisel. It is harder to get sharp corner. Each brush is different. If you had six brushes, all number 6, you would have one pet brush or quill that really works well. Try and take care of all your brushes, cleaning them of all oil based paints. A solvent is used for thinning paint and that's what you use to clean the brush. I then oil them in case any is up in the hair. There is a brass wire to hold the brush in. The handles of all your brushes will pull out of quill. I don’t know why that is but it is the way they are still made. That was the way they were made a hundred years ago, some things really haven’t changed. Each quill is hand made so no two are exactly the same. Each one will be a little different. If you order, say, six number four quills, each one will be a little bit different. One brush holds its shape when you have got paint on them, whereas the next one you pick up, you may not be able to make a chisel edge on it.

Occasionally, almost on every quill, a hair will pull out or break off and it will get to the point where you have to throw it away. Because every stroke you make, there will be a little hair on it. Then you get it on the sign. It is a pain. 

Mahl stick

A mahl stick is used to support your hand and keep it out of the paint.

“I use a mahl stick. This is a stick, 24 - 30 inches long, with a rubber ball 3/4 inches diameter at one end. The mahl stick is probably twice the size and the thickness of the pencil. The purpose of the mahl stick is like a third hand. Since I am right handed I hold the brush in my right hand. I hold the mahl stick in my left hand and I rest my right hand holding the brush on the mahl. It keeps your right hand out of the wet paint. I use the mahl stick for making straight lines or you can use it like a compass for doing curves. The rubber ball is stationary. If you want to do a circle or a perfect arc you can do it with the mahl stick

Other tools

Other tools include special cleaners and wax removers. If you are doing vehicles, you have to get all the wax off; if not the paint won’t dry. A new sign board will have some type of film on it and if you start painting before it has been cleaned properly, you get fish eyes. Sometimes with a vehicle, even though they are cleaned, you still get fish eyes in the paint. A fish eye is a little spot in the middle of letter that the paint seems to pull away from the back ground. There is a solution you can put in your paint. Adding one drop of solvent to half cup of paint will eliminate this problem. It makes it more flexible and will flow better.” 

Margaret Grotek said, “With acrylic paint I have a little solution that I use when painting on plastic. You would put a few drops in and the paint would stick to the plastic. You know how paint crawls, so with this it won’t crawl on the plastic and it will dry.”

“It is probably the same stuff,” said Art McConnell. “Creeping paint is a good way of describing fish eyes. The paint crawls away from where you want it to be.

Pounce patterns

“Art McConnell spoke about making pounce patterns. These are a layout of a sign, with the letters just sketched with a pencil. All the lettering is perforated. Then you stick that pattern and tape to the door of the truck or whatever, rub it with a bag of chalk, talc or charcoal depending on the colour of the vehicle. The powder goes through the little perforations then you have an outline on one door of the lettering and you go on the other side of truck and do the same on the other side. Both doors will be identical for layout spacing. So If you have fleet of trucks you save yourself time and save problems occurring. I have hundreds of pounce patterns. Some are 30 years old, but I am still using them. One incidence is a big company of school buses. I have had to replace the pattern because it got worn out. I have done hundreds over the years.

A pounce wheel is used to make a template or stencil.

A pounce wheel is used to make a template or stencil.

“So to make that you can take a tracing off what ever you want to do. If you have one vehicle that is already done you can put the paper over it and trace on to the paper. There is a little wheel, a pounce wheel, It looks like a little sewing wheel. The diameter of wheel is maybe only a quarter of inch. You put a soft pad under the paper and run over all the lines end up with a pounce paper. You then sand the paper and that opens the holes and removes the little tabs of paper.


“The paints have changed some what. I am still using the same manufacturer of sign paints as I did when I started. The only change is they have taken the lead out of paint. When I started, all sign paints had lead. It was important to keep your nails clean with a nail brush because the poison can stay in the cuticles around nail. Eliminating the lead meant that some paints don’t cover as well as they used to.

“It is getting harder and harder to get one shot letter enamel plant. Now, there is nobody in Belleville that has that paint. Nobody who sells it. I have to get it in Toronto or Scarborough. I get it shipped. I can order it today and have it in two days. Also I can’t buy quills locally, they are very expensive. This is because signs are being done by computers. It is supply and demand. Even though the quality isn’t so good, people want it quick and they want it cheap. A lot of people don’t care about quality. This is fine if you want a temporary sign. Then there are the people who don’t want anything but paint. They want the traditional sign. I have a lot of customers who still want paint as they think it looks better. They do recognize the difference in quality.

Art McConnell painted this sign for the first time 50 years ago.

Art McConnell painted this sign for the first time 50 years ago.

“I have many customers that I have had for 20 and 30 years and they are still coming back. If you scratch something on a vehicle that has been hand painted you can easily touch it up. With vinyl you can’t. With vinyl if it tears or peels there is no way of fixing that. You have to replace it.

Please contact Margaret Grotek at if you are interested in learning more about sign painting.