Archive for the ‘Lettercarving’ Category

Gilding Hand Carved Lettering – Ebonizing Too

Tuesday, September 29th, 2015

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

Monday, September 21st, 2015

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.

“Words… ” box

Monday, March 16th, 2015

closeup of lid inscriptionWords are our most inexhaustible source of magic.

My wife, a linguist, lifelong student of many languages and an English pronunciation teacher was immediately enchanted when she first heard these words.

The box is for her, with two inscriptions making it a very special box. The second inscription is the pair of Chinese characters on the front of the box, her Chinese name. closeup of Chinese nameNo, she’s not Chinese. She’s as Western as I am Hoosier. Chinese people sometimes offer non-Chinese friends an honorary Chinese name. This name is a gift from one of her language partners who lives near Beijing. He bestowed this name because it is the pseudonym of a premier Chinese poet he admires, Yi’an Jushi. A reasonable translation is “Amiable Calm.”

The box is intended as a desk box, something of convenient size for everyday use on her desk. It measures 9 inches long by 5 and 5/8 inches wide by 2 inches high. The box is made of mostly cherry. All of the cherry parts are 5/16 inch thick. The floor is 1/8 inch thin walnut. The finish is wax over shellac, several coats of each, with a lot of rubbing and buffing.

box with thilt lid openThis box uses my current favorite box construction. I like dovetailed corners, but I don’t like butt joints showing at the edges. I also like the floors set in grooves, but I don’t want any through grooves showing. Plugging exposed grooves is ugly to my eye. So, I use joinery that features dovetails in the middles of the joins and miters at the tops and bottoms. The technique eliminates butt joins, leaving beautiful miters and by strategically placing the groove, hides the grooves. Miter tip later…

Lastly, the tilt lid, from Peter Lloyd’s “Making Heirloom Boxes,” makes for easy use. The lid opens to just a bit beyond 90° which let’s it stand open nicely. The hinge pins are walnut. The lift tab is shaped to echo the bottom loop of the “g” just above it. The notch is a simple scoop.

Lettering layout

Which brings me back to the lid inscription, the part that took the longest. The cherry parts were prepped almost a year ago, as was the walnut. It wasn’t until last fall that I got serious about the inscription.

I started with a lettering layout that used all Roman capitals, the norm for so many inscriptions. It was too “flat” for my tastes. I wanted something more flowing and more cursive. My lettering design work went through about a dozen iterations, all hand drawn.

Hand drawn lettering is making a come back on the web, as are hand painted signs in the brick and mortar world. After years of computer drawn fonts and plastic lettering, many designers are looking for something different and more human to polish their designs. So, there’s a lot of hand drawn lettering showing up. Some of it is really good. A lot is terrible! In an effort to draw attention to “hand drawn,” many of these designers go to extremes to make “hand drawn” obvious by making the work wildly imperfect. Too often, the result is hand drawn letters that look childish and amateurish.

photo of carving in progressMany decades ago, I watched my father do nearly perfect hand painted lettering. That’s the quality level I wanted, not childish dreck. A dozen or so iterations later, I landed on the design I like, … and she liked it too.

Now, to carve it.  This lettering differs from most of my previous experience in scale. The lower case cursive letters are only about 1/2 inch high. The Roman caps in “Inexhaustible” are about 3/4 inch high. All are very much smaller than I’ve carved before and I’ve learned that difficulty increases as the size shrinks. Those 41 characters were preceded by well over 200 practice characters. I carved some of them over and over and was repeatedly disappointed. It turns out that “the secret” to success is in how the pattern is transferred to the wood. Most of my practice cuts were done by using carbon paper to transfer the design to the wood and then cutting. It was too easy to be inaccurate. Being off by the width of a half-millimeter pencil line was enough to throw off the look of a letter. Over and over, the results were unsatisfactory.

The answer was to scan the design, make it a computer hosted image, print it out and glue it to the wood with rubber cement. Cutting through the paper eliminated the inaccuracy that was based in tracing and immediately led to good results.

Smaller gouges were in order for this smaller work. For the most part, I used full length gouges, but in narrower widths, #1 1/4 in fishtail, #1 3/8 in., #3 1/8 in., #3 3/16 in. fishtail,  #6 1/4 in. and a set of 6 #8 micro gouges that ranged in width from 1/16 ” to 1/4″.  The #3 fishtail did most of the work.

For those interested in lettercarving, Mary May has several lettercarving lessons at her online school. Albeit, they’re larger, easier to manage letters.

For readers interested in learning really high quality hand learning, take a look at Sean McCabe’s online lettering course.

If your interest is hand painted signs, I’ve found these two links interesting.

Perfecting the mitered corners

Now for the mitered corners. I mark the miters with a standard layout square and cut them by hand with the same fine back-saw that I use for dovetails. I don’t use a miter box for these; just cut freehand, only to the depth needed. I cut just outside the line, leaving about half a kerf-width room to trim. As the dovetail joints come together these miters fail to join because they are “fat.”

Making them fit perfectly is simple. I learned this technique from Doug Stowe’s book, “Simply Beautiful Boxes.” It works like this: When the dovetails are about one saw kerf width from being completely joined, press the miters together (holding square) and then use a very fine Japenese pull saw to cut a simple kerf through the middle of the joint. That effectively trims both pieces. Repeat to narrow the gap. Voila, perfect joint!

Inscription source

Lastly, the quotation for the lid is from Prof. Albus Dumbledore in “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows.”

mitered dovetail joints: Fine Woodworking – Matt Kenney – “Two Ways to Build a Box
fitting the miters: from Doug Stowe’s Simply Beautiful Boxes
tilt lid design: from Peter Lloyd’s Making Heirloom Boxes


Thursday, February 26th, 2015

Work In Progress – (still) in progress. Yes, since October…


Carving Pattern Tip

Tuesday, December 27th, 2011

Some of the best things I’ve learned, whether in my computer geek career, building boats, or other activities, have been those lessons learned from making mistakes. In fact, I believe that becoming a “Master” in anything means accumulating more know-how about fixing mistakes than the basic know-how related to the skill, craft, trade, or profession. The master woodcarver isn’t the one who knows how to carve a beautiful Newport Shell, but the one who knows how to avoid the mistakes in carving that shell.

photo of carving with paper patternSimple carving patterns can be drawn directly onto the carving stock. For more complex patterns, or those requiring some degree of precision, I prefer attaching a paper pattern directly to the material. Transferring by carbon paper (they still make that stuff!?) or some similar method is tedious and error prone. Normally, rubber cement is my preferred bonding agent. Patterns are easy to reproduce on the computer, and to print when needed. I attach one to a block of wood and cut through it. When it is no longer needed, the remnants are easily peeled off and the cement residue rubbed away.

At the start of the recent carving projects, my can of rubber cement was empty. I tried a couple of substitutes. A pattern was attached to one block with liquid hide glue, and to another with yellow glue.

photo of pattern ink smeared on carvingsBIG MISTAKE! Both glues led to the same problem. Moisture dissolved ink from the patterns, letting it wick into the carving’s surface. OUCH! It was OK on the Markus carving because the top surface of all the fish was carved away anyway, and the tops of the letters could be sanded clean (hate sanding!). It was disastrous with the Hannah carving (yellow glue), leaving a dark smear across the finished surface, with leaching too deep to sand away. The problem was discovered after the last step of that carving, the lettering. So, it needed a complete “do over.” The Georg pattern has a lot of ink in it, and not too far into that carving, I removed the pattern by (erroneously) softening the hide glue with water. ARRGH!

Lesson: For patterns that are to be bonded to the carving material, test to see if the bonding agents (or removal agents) will leave undesirable stains. I have a new can of rubber cement. … and am now a slightly wiser carver.

Name Signs for Grandchildren

Sunday, December 25th, 2011

Our grandchildren now have name signs to mark their territory. Each is about 7 inches wide by 5 inches high. They are carved from basswood. Running in order of age, oldest first, we have… (click on images for larger views)

photo of Markus's name boardMarkus – Master of the aquarium. He keeps many colorful varieties well fed and healthy.




photo of Hannah's name boardHannah – Quiet, thinking, studious. The floral motif on her carving is taken from the philosopher’s carving on Giotto’s campanile in Florence.




photo of Ewan's name boardEwan – Transformers, Transformers, Transformers. He has a large collection and knows how to transform each of them.




photo of Georg's name boardGeorg – The builder. He’s always building interesting structures from Lego or from wood blocks. Often, he builds to great heights.