Traditional Skills: Signwriting

For apprenticeship Week 2022, discover shop sign signwriting, one of the many wonderful traditional skills that offers a fascinating career.

Apprenticeship Week 2022

There are many opportunities for young people to enter the world of work. Gaining an apprenticeship will be a chance for some to learn skills that will last a lifetime. For those who take up an apprenticeship in a traditional skill such as stonemasonry, joinery, leadworking and slating, the techniques they learn may well be very similar to apprentices from 100 years ago or more. Tried and tested materials and techniques which are still used to repair our older buildings today. Learning a traditional skill offers a fascinating career which can provide the opportunity to work on some incredible buildings such as castles, Royal Palaces and historic monuments as well as houses and tenements. In this blog we're exploring on of these traditional skills, shop sign signwriting.

Shops Signs and Signwriting

Traditional shop signs were originally large, like those you might see today for a public house. However, these huge signs began to clutter the streets and became dangerous through lack of maintenance. As a result, many cities banned their use including London in 1762 and Glasgow in 1772.

From the later 1700’s, signwriters used the narrow fascia above the shop for lettering instead. During the 19th century, these became deeper with room for more elaborate lettering. Styles included shadow lettering to create a three-dimensional effect, or very decorative letters which we might associate with fairgrounds. Gilding was also used to create a high class and stylish finish. By the Edwardian period we see the influence in fonts of the Art Nouveau period with flowing styles but his became more simplified in the 1920s and 1930s as Art Deco influences emerged.

Lettering dating to around 1898 at 53-71 Barnton Street

In the past, every town would have had their own signwriter and, like an artist, they would have developed their own distinctive style. The skills of earlier signwriters are sometimes uncovered with ‘ghost signs’, those from a previous occupier which are hidden but emerge during works to a building or as finishes such as paint start to fade and reveal earlier forms below.

At a project in Barnton Street which Stirling City Heritage Trust funded in 2020, original signs dating to the run of the twentieth century were uncovered during repair works. The gilded letters demonstrated the skill of the signwriter and it is remarkable to think that these are around 120 years old.

These signs were carefully recorded and then covered back up. New signs were then hand-painted by local young signwriter, Ross Hastie. Ross has learned a skill which has been around for hundreds of years but has developed his own unique style and now has a successful business. Signwriting is a traditional skill which is seeing something of a revival as shop owners seek a distinctive style and authentic brand for their premises.

Ross Hastie painting new signs at 53-71 Barnton Street
New hand-painted signs at 53-71 Barnton St
Ross Hastie teaching signwriting techniques at an event for High School pupils in Stirling.

While there is not currently a specific apprenticeship for signwriting, there are many other traditional skills for those interested in learning a craft. Historic Environment Scotland has information about learning and training. Developing Young Workforce (DYW) also provides resources for young people to help them make career choices.

Are you interested in a Modern Apprenticeship? You can find our more here

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