Gilding Hand Carved Lettering – Ebonizing Too

two gilded p;aques
Every project is a learning experience. These two carvings are just the experimental part of a different project. Several learnings happened here, but I’ll focus on only two, gilding the carved letters and ebonizing African mahogany. This is my first first-hand gilding experience, an activity that used to be one of the common activities of pre-vinyl sign painters.

A Gilding Story

While this is the first time I’ve applied gold, it’s not my first exposure. That was about 55 years ago when I tagged along with Dad as he painted a big “Monroe County Bank” sign on the front window of the building at Kirkwood and College in Bloomington Indiana. By some coincidence, that building is still a bank today. Back in the 1950s, it was the standard thing for a bank to have big bold gold leaf lettering outlined in black.

I don’t recall being there the whole day, but was certainly there for “the break-in.” (I think the statute of limitations has expired.) I know it was after three o’clock in the afternoon. That was closing time for the bank in those days. All of the front office people, tellers and such, had retired to the back of the bank. Maybe they were counting money?

Dad was just finishing the job, which is painted from the inside of the window, and wanted to step outside for a last inspection. As we went together and stepped down the 2 or 3 steps to the sidewalk, we heard a click. That would be the front door of the bank latching behind us. Yes, locked. Dang! His paint kit, complete with wet brushes was locked inside and he didn’t want to leave them overnight. We knocked on the door, and the windows, and the side windows, and the side door, and the back door, and the panel around the “night deposit” chute. No answer! We went to the soda fountain across the square and called from the pay phone. No answer!

No answers to any of those attempts … and paint brushes were drying. Dad searched his pockets and came up with a paper clip. Straightening it, he knelt down by the front door of the bank and picked the lock. We think, but don’t know, the lock on their safe was better than the one on the front door. It didn’t take long for him to wander to the back of the bank, rustle up a manager to tell him he was done. Then he collected his kit and we calmly left.

My Gilding

Forward to today, I’m working on a project that will have gilded lettering. These two plaques are how I learn. They were to test how much surface prep is needed for decent results. For the mahogany plaque, I left the lettering “straight from the gouges” and applied one coat of shellac. I used “1 Shot” Gold Sizing and 23K “patent” gold for these letters. The actual gilding process looks imposing, but is actually very simple (in principle). Apply the sizing, which is much like a slow drying clear enamel. Wait an hour and a half, or thereabouts, for it to get tacky. Then, apply the gold. “Patent” gold is gold leaf that’s adhered to thin paper sheets. It looked like a good thing to start with, as opposed to the other type of gold leaf which is individual leaves which are picked up by a static charged brush and transported to the tacky surface. Once the gold is applied, I use a soft brush to pat it into place and assure it stays put. The same brush whisks away the excess material. Simple. (Oh yeah, since sizing isn’t painted on perfectly, there’s excess to be carefully scraped away with an X-acto blade.)

My goal was to understand how much surface prep was needed for a smooth job. One coat of shellac isn’t enough! Every bit of grain detail, and carving awkwardness really shows. Makes sense; this gold is about 1/6 the thickness of plastic food wrap, really, really thin.

So for the ebonized piece, I carefully sanded the carving. (Did I ever tell you I hate sanding.) I then applied 4 coats of shellac and rubbed it to a smooth finish. There are still unfilled pores, big long ones, at this point. Yet, it is much smoother than the 1 coat attempt. That’s really hard to see in the photo. Taking good pictures of something glossy is another sort of challenge.

These two experiments show me what I need to do for better gilding. And, I’m sure John can chime in and give some pointers, having done a lot of gilded frames for his wife’s art work.


The sign I’m making is headed to a household where the people favor dark woods. It needs to be on a dark wood, not clear mahogany. Why not ebonize some mahogany and see what happens?

Where do we get ebonizing liquid? Make it. Fill an empty Smuckers jelly jar with white vinegar and stuff in a steel wool pad. Let it ferment for a week or two. Throw away whatever is left of the pad and strain the liquid. The result is a liquid that will stain many varieties of wood (cover your workbench!). Brush on a coat, let dry, repeat until happy. I liked the result after 3 coats.

WARNING: The stuff is NOT toxic, but it smells terrible and tastes worse. Keep it and your food separated and wash your hands after using it.

Once the wood is dry, the stain does not transfer to you, other objects, or fabric. It’s stable. However, the staining action is not deep. It can be scraped off. So, it’s good to finish the wood surface to near its final state before ebonizing.

Other than that, it’s simple. The piece in the photo had 3 coats of ebonizing liquid and was left to dry overnight. At that stage, it appeared very black and flat, like a 1960s hot rod. Four coats of shellac warmed up the color a lot and prepared it for gilding. After gilding, I added one more top coat of shellac.


Hand Lettered – Hand Painted – Hand Carved

Hand carved sign says "plan ahead," but with poor letter spacing. "Plan" is evenly spaced, but "Ahead" barely fits on the sign.

Hand Lettered

Hand lettering is enjoying a resurgence. Decades of vinyl letter signs, “desktop publishing,” computer replicated fonts, and computer generated signs have left us with automated perfection that has become dull and uninteresting. Perfect replication of every line and curve is simply boring. Why? Because something is missing: evidence of a human hand.

thumbnails of hand drawn type on pinterestMy son once asked why I leave facets in my carvings, why I don’t sand them to pristine smoothness. My quick answer was “to differentiate them from cheap Chinese carvings or the stuff that comes from CNC machines.” [It doesn’t hurt that I also hate sanding.] Just as facets left on a carving show us it was carved by a human, so do the little variations in hand drawn lettering make it almost immediately distinctive from computer generated material.

Discerning people are searching for humanity in the things they read, everything from web pages to signs, and a new generation of artists with hand lettering skills are thriving. Witness: these images. Witness:  and these. They’re distinctive, they differentiate, and people are willing to pay handsomely for them.

Witness too the online education available to those wanting to learn hand lettering. One of the best of these is Sean McCabe’s Hand Lettering Course. The mere existence of his course, version 2 at $700 – up from $300 for version 1, shows strength in the resurgence of hand lettering.

Hand Painted – a Tribute to Sign Painters

Until 1982, nearly every sign you saw was hand either painted, or if needed in mass, lithograph printed. Just as today signs were everywhere, on store fronts, inside every kind of store, on churches, concert halls, theaters, hotels, on the sides of trucks, … everywhere.

Sign painters made them, by hand, with paint and brushes, hand lettered from “alphabets” in their heads. Not fonts, alphabets; the printing industry used fonts. Sign painters used alphabets. Sign painters were the ultimate hand letterers.

Dad was a sign painter and a photographer. Sign painting was his mainstay while he built up a solid photography business. He worked for a sign company, C.W. East, in Bloomington Indiana for a couple of decades during the middle of the last century.  His primary work was paint on metal, outdoor advertising signs of all sizes, and signs on trucks. He had all manner of alphabets flowing from his mind through super flexible long bristled brushes. All of it was “hand lettered” before “hand lettering” became the term it is today. For many things, like the hundreds of ICC numbers on trucks, he used a simple chalk layout. For more precise larger work, he sometimes made a paper pattern and “pounced” it before painting. But in the end, it was all hand lettering, by eye, that made up the overwhelming bulk of his work … and fed a family with 4 children!

My introduction to lettering was watching him at work. No, as a child I didn’t get to visit the sign shop much, but he often had showcard work or silkscreen stencil work that he did in his home studio. I recall spending the better part of one summer cutting silkscreen stencils from his drawings, a story for another day. I’ll also save for another day a story about a gold gilded sign on glass.

Dad completed his move from sign painting to photography by the early 1960s. He left sign painting behind except for occasional jobs.


That’s when computer driven plotters started cutting vinyl letters. Sign painting was never the same after that. Dad was gone by then, never learning about how much his former trade changed. Nor, did he see what “digital” did to photography.

Recently, Faythe Levine and Ed Ruscha, exploring “hand made” work of all kinds, settled on sign painters as one genre they wanted to document. One of their results was a film

book cover - Sign PaintersA companion to the film is a book of the same name. It is a collection of vignettes profiling 25 sign painters. The common theme running through the material laments the 1982 arrival of a computer driven plotter that cut vinyl letters. Thousands of sign painters abandoned hand painting for vinyl. Fortunately, for those of us who appreciate hand lettering, many did not.

Wander over to Vimeo, a video publishing service, and search for “Sign Painter.” There are 235 results, short videos about sign painters, many of them quite young and apparently thriving. Here too, there are discerning customers willing to pay more for hand painted signs.

Hand Carved

My interest in hand lettering is enjoying a resurgence too. I’ve hand carved a few signs in recent years, and have enjoyed making them. I’ll be doing more.

Old signs become art.
I want to make signs that turn into art.
Phil Vandervaart – Sign Painters film

To be clear, for me “hand carved” means with chisels and gouges, NOT with routers, sand blasters or CNC machines. And before there’s hand carving, there’s hand lettering. I draw and redraw lettering with good old paper and pencil and drafting tools until I get the look I want. Then, I might scan the last drawing and use the computer to store the pattern that can be used again.

The carving at the top of this page is my rendition of a drawing at the end of the Forward section of the Sign Painters book. My sign is hand drawn and hand carved on mahogany. 4 1/4″ x 10 1/2″. Acrylic paint in the letters and shellac finish.


A “Weekend” Project – Adirondack Chair

Anyone should be able to build an Adirondack chair in a weekend right? Go get some wood, whack out the parts, screw it together, and slap on some paint. Right? Dang! Why build one at all? Down at the nearby garden center, they have some for sale at $39. Of course, those look like they were made from pallet wood and are flat in every dimension. They might not “sit” so well.

Adirondack chair - front viewThis one started with some wood resawing back in April. I finally wrapped it up and moved it outside a couple of weeks ago.

Plans: I’m old enough to like things comfortable. Too many of these chairs have flat seats, flat backs, and look more like torture devices than chairs. I found one with curved seat and back. It’s a Fine Woodworking project. Oh look! It says “An Adirondack chair can be built in a day.” A companion article contains a video with a foolproof assembly sequence. Adirondack chair - side viewPlans are available for order, but by squinting (and imagining) a lot, I found enough detail in the low resolution online drawing. Who needs precise dimensions?

Lumber: 8/4 Mahogany (African) from Steve Wall. One 20 bd. ft. bundle will do if careful when resawing. :)

Process: No electrons (other than for lighting) were murdered in creating this chair. carvings on the chair legsNor were numerous photos taken along the way. It’s a simple one-day project, right? I resawed the 8/4 stuff into boards of two thicknesses, approximating 1″ and 3/4″. From those, I hand sawed all of the parts. I used the saw and chisel technique on all curves, and then faired them with a spokeshave. I drilled the bolt holes with a simple brace and Jennings bit, then the bazillion screw holes with my eggbeater and Fuller bits which drill a tapered hole and countersink all in one go.

Carvings: Carvings on the back of the chairEverything I make these days carries one or more carvings. Carving is what I enjoy most. The rest of woodworking is to make something that supports a carving. This chair has 4 Tudor Roses adapted from Mary May’s Tudor Rose lesson. It’s not that there’s any commonality between Tudor Roses and Adirondacks. It’s just that I like them. Add in a little bit of lettercarving with a year mark on one leg, and I’m delighted.

Finish: Three coats of Minwax Helmsman Semi-gloss spar varnish. I used to hate brushing on a finish … and I have no place where I can use any sort of spray. This was one of the first finishing projects I actually enjoyed. Two reasons: getting the work at a comfortable height (saw benches) and using a very good Purdy 1″ soft bristle angle brush.

Once done, it “sits” well, very comfortable indeed.


It took globes…

…to satisfy the building code.  You gotta love living in NY!

Last fall, I rebuilt the crumbling front entry steps and thought the rest would be easy.  Hire the making of a set of iron railings and be happy. … Silly me!

Railings have to meet building codes, usually pertaining to rail height and spaces between vertical bars (4 3/8 inches). (Can’t have all the wandering infants getting their heads stuck, can we?) And yes, you guessed it. Anything carrying a code also requires acquiring a building permit, and paying a fee.

I researched the local code and thought I knew everything I needed to know, ordered the railings, and watched with great satisfaction as they were impeccably installed. Those folks used an epoxy cement that will never leak and allow the water incursion that caused previous masonry failure. OK. Done! … Silly me!

Except… in addition to the local code, there’s a NY State code that has one further restriction: on the triangular space between the bottom rail and the tread below. This restriction keeps a wandering infant with a slightly larger head (6 inches) from getting stuck!

Inspection failed…

We gritted our teeth, gnashed and grumbled lots of gnasty words. Then, we explored many options. One of the simpler was to bolt on more iron pieces to the bottom rails. But those would mean drilling into finished materials and risk yet more water incursion, rust etc. My second choice was to have this sign made to actual size and post it at the bottom of the walkway.

danger sign for small heads

In the end, we decided on concrete “garden globes.” They were simple to make. Cast some concrete mix into glass globes (think electric light shades), and then break off the glass.

photo of garden globes under the railing  photo of garden globes on steps

They are attached to the blue-stone treads with an epoxy product called “PC-Concrete.” An early trial with simple mortar was not strong enough. The epoxy is many times stronger.

BTW, like all epoxies, this is a 2 part product. It is packaged in a “caulk tube” and very nicely mixes the two parts by forcing the materials through a multitude of baffles in the square portion of the attached plastic nozzle. Clever!

photo of PC-Concrete product

Now, we’re debating whether or not to decorate the globes with the faces of anguished children who got their heads stuck.

drawings of crying babies


Woodcarving Templates – repeated small motifs

There are lots of ways to make woodcarving templates, probably as many as there are carvers. Rarely does one need a reusable template for a one-off, but when the occasion calls for multiples of the same motif, a template really helps. Mary May often mentions templates and frequently suggest getting various materials (such as Mylar sheets) from craft stores. I have Scotch ancestry, and am, shall we say, thrifty about some things.

I find template materials in things that follow me home from the grocery store, such as the plastic lids on many products. Usually these are things in paper or cardboard tubes topped with plastic: oatmeal, dried fruits, etc. In this example, I slightly reduced the scale of Mary May’s Tudor Rose (computers are wonderful), printed out 3 copies and made 3 templates. Simple rubber cement attaches the paper to the plastic, and the templates are cut easily with scissors. Other glue sticks would probably work. Draw around them as many times as you want.  Even simpler still are pasteboard cartons from an even wider variety of foodstuffs; maybe not as durable, but easily at hand.

Simple, easy, and no extra stops at other stores for special materials…
BTW, most of these are of a plastic type that many recyclers won’t recycle.

photo of plastic lids  photo of plastic templates


Resawn lumber – Work in progress

Did you know that mahogany, like Cherry and I’m sure other wood types, darkens when exposed to light? That if you stack up a bunch of pieces and come back to them 2 months later, you’ll find lighter silhouettes of the smaller pieces that were placed atop others?

Yeah, that’s what I get for doing other things… More sunlight will fix them.

All the parts for the project were cut, shaped, and had their surfaces smoothed long ago. I deferred assembly of this “you can do it in a weekend” project until the carvings were done. Now, what’s my excuse?

photo of project parts - carved with tudor roses

The carvings are Tudor Roses. Mary May has a lesson that shows how to carve them.