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Joby Carter Hand painted letters

Spilling the signwriting secrets – a beginners guide

Hello from me. I’m Joby Carter, a traditional signwriter, decorative artist, signwriting teacher and author. I owned and travelled Carters Steam Fair, the world’s largest travelling vintage funfair and have spent my life surrounded by traditional signwriting and fairground art.

I’ve created this online guide beacuse I’m passionate about keeping the traditional skills of signwriting alive for future generations to enjoy.

These days it’s very rare for you to see a signwriter in action: you don’t often see someone up a ladder replacing shop front signage so the opportunities to ask questions and see how things are done are few and far between.

While there are many talented signwriters across the UK, very few of them have had the time to consider how to teach the skills to others in a meaningful way. This means that the skills and techniques that have been shared through the generations can sometimes feel like they are secrets of the trade.  

I’ve been sharing these secrets with my signwriting course students for years, but in this guide, I’m revealing them for you.

Whether you’re interested in signwriting as a hobby or as a career, these insights and tips will ensure you learn the right way from the very beginning and will ensure you avoid costly mistakes both in terms of time and materials.  

hand painted letters by Joby Carter

What’s included in this guide

In this online guide I’ve included details on the essential tools you need to use to achieve professional signwriting results.

You’ll also discover some of the common mistakes people make when they teach themselves how to signwrite. I’ve met people who have been doing things a particular way for years which has actually made things harder and has prevented their work from looking as good as it could.

To create beautiful decorative lettering you’ll need to understand the formation of letterforms which means truly studying them to see their true shape and style. You’ll be surprised by what you notice when you know where to look!

I teach students on my traditional signwriting course to start with the Roman Alphabet so I’ve included a handy A4 reference sheet for you to download for free.

We all learn differently

We all like to learn in different ways and as someone who has struggled with dyslexia all my life, I know how important it is to have information available in different formats.

So if you need to see written words to help you retain information, I’ve included sections for you to read through.

If you prefer to watch and learn there are some short video clips of me in my workshop talking you through the tools and how to use them.

I mention a range of signwriting materials and tools. Some of these are created bespoke for me to help teach and are only available direct from me, others are available from other specialist art retailers. I also have two signwriting books available which both cover essential information about signwriting and can offer inspiration, whatever part of the signwriting journey you are on.

This is an online guide: you can bookmark this page or create a shortcut to it on your phone or tablet so it’s easy to access when you need it.

Joby Carter helping a student learn how to signwrite
Signwriting supplies from Joby Carter

Traditional skills in a digital age

I’m a traditional signwriter and I learned my trade via apprenticeship with a talented signwriter called Stan Wilkinson who had been taught by a master signwriter, a lineage going back to the 19th century.

I’ve spent a lifetime creating beautiful handpainted lettering which was enjoyed by the millions of people who visited my traditional vintage funfair, Carters Steam Fair.

Since 2006 I’ve been sharing my expertise with thousands of people via my books, online courses and in person signwriting workshops so that more people feel inspired to learn about traditional signwriting in our digital age.

Joby Carter signwriting Open Day. Traditional skills in a. digital age
Joby Carter 5 day signwriting course

Avoid this common signwriting mistake

If you’re new in your journey of discovering signwriting, my advice is to start with good foundations.

Before you can create decorative, fun and flamboyant lettering, you need to start by understanding the form and structure of letters.

In fact, you don’t even need a paintbrush or enamel paints – start with a pencil, paper and ruler.

Use some lettering as a reference and study it closely. Copy it while scaling it up using a ruler to measure every aspect of the letters.

Don’t just randomly draw letters. Try and copy them exactly. You will be amazed at how many measurements you will have to take to accurately draw a single letter.

This approach can seem like a drag but it works. It makes you appreciate letter forms.

If you go straight to painting fancy, decorative lettering you’ll often find that you know something isn’t quite right with your lettering, but you can’t identify what it is.

Roman Alphabet Reference

In my courses I ask my students to start by learning how to draw letters from the Roman Alphabet. In my book Signwriting: Tips Tricks and Inspiration I’ve included a version of the basic Roman alphabet.

In the Roman alphabet the serifs come to a point and there’s often a big contrast in width between the thin strokes and the thick strokes.

If you’d like to experiment scaling up a letter, you can download a reference sheet for free below. These letters are sized at 30mm. Make sure you print at 100% to get the correct size to scale from. 

We also sell full colour versions of this Roman alphabet reference sheet which includes handy design notes. The sheets are A3 which means each letter is 40mm, making it super simple to scale up. If you prefer, you can buy one sheet for £5 or a set of 7 different alphabets for £25.

Joby Carter Roman Alphabet

Free Download: Roman Alphabet

Download a Roman Alphabet reference sheet in PDF format.

Joby Carter alphabet Roman

Purchase: Roman Alphabet

Purchase the full colour version of the Roman Alphabet reference sheet on quality satin paper.

Signwriting supplies from Joby Carter

SIGNWRITING TOOLS OF THE TRADE

Once you’ve practiced drawing letters accurately, you will want to understand the skills of brushwork.

Having the right tools of the trade is the only way to ensure consistent, professional signwriting results.

Joby Carter brush range

1. Professional signwriting brushes

Signwriting brushes come in different widths and are numbered to denote the size.

The bigger the number, the bigger the width of the line you can create with them. If you want thin lines and thinner letters, you’ll need a thinner brush. If you want to add thin outlines around letters you’ll need to use a tiny signwriting brush- I’d recommend  the 00 or 0 size.

If you want to add a border around your sign or if you are coach lining then you’ll need a  lining brush. I’ve had some made to my preferred specification which you can buy online from my website.

Video tips: signwriting brushes

Watch Joby explain how to keep a chisel end on your brush and how to get the paint flowing.

Shop Joby’s range of professional signwriting brushes:

Joby Carter signwriting brushes size 1, 3, 5, 7

Signwriting brushes 1, 3, 5 and 7

Chisel end signwriters brushes in sizes, 1, 3, 5 and 7.

chisel end signwriters brushes.<br />
Sizes, 00, 0, 2 ,4 and 6.

Signwriters brushes 00, 0, 2 ,4 and 6.

Chisel end signwriters brushes. sizes, 00, 0, 2 ,4 and 6.

Lining brushes signwriting

Lining brushes

Exclusive – set of four English liner brushes sizes 1, 3, 4 and 6.

Joby Carter signwriting dipper

2. Signwriting Dippers

These small metal pots are used to decant a small amount of paint that you need for your sign.

Our dippers clip right onto your palette so it’s easy to use when you’re working – much more practical than trying to balance a tin of paint somewhere if you’re up a ladder!

Personally, I always have a second dipper on my palette with white spirit in and then I use this to tweak the thickness of the paint (viscosity) as you go along. I’ll discuss that more in the signwriting paint section.

Video tips: dippers

Watch Joby explain how to add paint in your dipper.

Joby’s Top Tip

Use a wooden stick to transfer paint and hold your dipper over the paint tin rather than trying to pour paint into the dipper. This helps stop excess paint from spilling around the rim which can impact the seal of the tin and mean that the paint is at risk of developing a skin on it.

Joby Carter signwriting dipper

3. Signwriting Palette

Using a palette means that wherever you’re working you’ve got what you need right next to you – you don’t need to keep stopping and starting or climbing up and down a ladder to get more paint.

It is designed for your thumb to fit through the aperture and for you to be able to hold a mahl stick at the same time.

I use a wooden palette which I made by hand when I was a young apprentice. The design is a copy of Stan Wilkinson’s palette. It’s lasted me over 30 years which is something to be celebrated when so many modern day items are single use and disposable!

We have created copies of this original design which are available to buy.

Video tips: palette

Watch Joby explain how to use your palette while you signwrite.

Joby’s Top Tip

The palette is not just for holding your paint. A common mistake is to try and signwrite with a glob of paint on the tip of your brush. I use the palette to ensure my paint is the right viscosity and is flowing correctly before I start signwriting.

Joby Carter Mahl stick for signwriting

4. Mahl Stick

A mahl stick is a wooden pole with a soft end which allows you to have a bit of depth and seperation from whatever you’re painting so you don’t touch the wet paint with your palm or your fingers as you work.

It also allows you to make careful movements as you work.

Ours have a rubber end on them so they fit comfortably in the palm of your hand.

If you paint with your right hand you’ll need to hold the mahl stick in your left hand and you then slide the palette on top on your left hand.

It takes a bit of practice to get used to holding it all but the top end of the mahl stick should stay still when you work and you use your arm holding the palette to move as you paint.

Video tips: mahl stick

Watch Joby explain to to work with a mahl stick and a palette for professional results

Joby Carter signwriting enamel paint

5. Signwriting Paint

I use professional grade enamel paint for signwriting and lining from Craftmaster Paints and I have a custom range of retro inspired colours which were created for our vintage funfair rides and sidestalls.

You can buy a set of these signwriting paints from my website (black, cardinal red, French blue, mid chrome yellow and white) or students can access the full range of colours when they attend my courses.

Enamel paint is ideal for signwriting because of its durability and the way it flows on the surfaces I am painting on. The paint is highly pigmented which means you might only need to use one coat on some of your lettering, although this varies with which colours you are using and the colour of the surface you are painting on.

It is quite common to need to paint a second coat on your lettering the following day. Yellows and whites will often need a second coat and if you’re trying to paint yellow onto a black surface it might even need 3 or 4 coats!

These paints have strong chemicals in them and you’ll need white spirit to clean your brushes so I advise people to paint in a well ventilated area.

If you are practicing painting or want to avoid exposure to spirit based paints, you could perhaps experiment with other paints such as acrylic.

I’ve not personally used any paint other than enamel paint. If you are practicing using other paint to help you refine your brushwork then be sure to use the right brushes.

Video tips: Correct brush work for straight edge lines

Watch Joby explain how to get your paintbrush to keep a chisel edge for lovely lines.

Video tips: Using signwriting paint

Watch Joby explain how to get your paint flowing correctly on the brush and why viscosity is so important.

Joby’s Top Tip

If your paint is too thick you can use an additive to help it flow better. We use PPA paint adjuster or white spirit. You can mix a small amount into your dipper of paint before you begin and I also have some in a dipper next to my paint on my palette.

Joby Carter pre prepped signwriting boards

6. Signwriting Surfaces

You can signwrite on virtually any surface including glass, wood, plywood or aluminium (providing it’s been etched or painted properly).

To have a perfectly smooth prepped surface is another skill in itself so if you’re starting out, I encourage my students to use pre prepared signwriting boards.

A bit like icing a pre-baked cake, this means you have more time to focus on the actual signwriting techniques. Plus, the added advantage is that if you just want to practice you can wipe the paint off the board before it dries and re-use.

For my professional work and on my courses I recommend using aluminium composite boards. They come in a variety of different colours and can be varnished after which gives them a vibrant, glossy finish.

Video tips: Choosing the right surface for signwriting

Watch Joby explain which surfaces are best to signwrite on.

Signwriting supplies from Joby Carter

Are you ready to learn more?

I’ve shared a lot of insider secrets in this guide which I hope will encourage you to get started.

Here are a few other resources you might find useful.

Joby Carter Signwriting books

I’ve published two books about signwriting which are useful wherever you are on your signwriting journey.

Signwriting: Tips, Tricks and Inspiration’ is a great starting point for anyone with an interest in signwriting (or signpainting as it is known in America). The book includes lots of practical tips and seven reference alphabets.

All the Fonts of the Fair’ shines a light on the flamboyant lettering styles found at British fairgrounds and includes 26 fairground inspired alphabets as reference.

These books are not available on Amazon.

Joby Carter signwriting Open Day

Video tips: Which signwriting book is right for you?

Wondering which of Joby’s signwriting books is right for you? In this video which was originally created for his Instagram page, Joby talks about the key differences.

You can buy either of Joby’s books or David Kynaston’s book about the Roman alphabet in our Signwriting books section.

10% Discount Code

You can save 10% off your first order of books, signwriting supplies (excluding paint) and any of my wall art range.

Check your inbox for a welcome email from me. If you’re not yet subscribed, use the box below. 

Joby Carter signwriting courses

I’ve been teaching workshop based courses for 18 years and learning in person with me is by far the best way to master the skills of signwriting.

My tried and tested five day course takes you through the basics of drawing and scaling letters, layout and design, shading, lining and brushwork.

I teach using the traditional methods that were taught 100 years ago without modern shortcuts such as using masking tape or computers. You start the week using pencil and paper and by the end of the week you’ll leave with your own handpainted sign which you will have drawn, laid out and painted using skills you perfect and practice throughout the week.

You’ll see real life restoration projects being worked on and how signwriting is used on these projects.

As if that wasn’t enough, you’ll be learning in a group of 15 likeminded students who all share a love of lettering.

Students on a course

Learn in person with Joby

See a real course in action in Joby’s workshop.

Find out more about Joby’s traditional signwriitng courses in our signwriting course section.

You might also like

If you share my love of lettering and typography then you might also like to check out my signwriting supplies, my wall art range or my hand painted lettering.

Remember to use your welcome discount code at checkout for a 10% discount.

Joby Carter prints

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Joby Carter hand painted alphabet letter next to Lightning skid ride

Hand painted lettering

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