How hard is it to paint a boat’s name? Well, there’s more to it than you might re­alise...

How hard can it be to paint the name on the side of a boat? As he adds the fin­ish­ing touches to the bows of a nar­row­boat, sign­writer Jon Leeson cer­tainly makes it look straight­for­ward enough – but then again he would: he’s got sign­writ­ing in his blood.

He started in 1983, served a tra­di­tional seven-year ap­pren­tice­ship, and his fa­ther and grand­fa­ther be­fore him were sign­writ­ers, too. That was back in the days when ev­ery­thing was painted by hand, from shop sign­boards to win­dows, fas­cias, lor­ries and aero­planes.

How prac­ti­ca­ble is it for some­body with no for­mal train­ing to do a de­cent job of sign­writ­ing their own boat? We visit a master sign­writer to find out...

In his cloth cap and leather waist­coat, Jon looks very much the tra­di­tion­al­ist – so it comes as a sur­prise when he men­tions that when he started in the busi­ness, his work cov­ered such state-ofthe-art ve­hi­cles as For­mula One rac­ing cars. There were no trans­fers in those days; it was all still done by hand.

Times were chang­ing, though, as he ex­plains. Soon, the Span­dex com­pany was in­tro­duc­ing the first ma­chines: in the early days you would buy in­di­vid­ual ma­chine-pro­duced letters from them, be­cause the ma­chines them­selves would be too ex­pen­sive for a small com­pany to own. Jon looked at the new tech­nol­ogy and thought: “That’s never go­ing to catch on”; to­day he ad­mits that “I was kind of wrong!” But for a while the two co­ex­isted. The cheaper end of the mar­ket for signs used vinyl but there was al­ways a de­mand for hand-paint­ing. How­ever, the com­pany shrank from half a dozen down to just Jon and his fa­ther. By the time his dad had re­tired and Jon had started his own busi­ness, com­mer­cial

work in the UK was di­min­ish­ing. So he diver­si­fied into other ar­eas, such as logo de­sign, coach­paint­ing and, from the late 1980s, boats.

And that’s what he’s been do­ing ever since. He still does other work – as ever, di­ver­sity is what keeps him go­ing. There’s other spe­cial­ist work for en­thu­si­asts – paint­ing clas­sic scoot­ers, for ex­am­ple – and there’s ac­tu­ally been some­thing of a re­nais­sance in hand­painted com­mer­cial sign­work in re­cent times, es­pe­cially in Lon­don where com­pa­nies are pre­pared to pay for some­thing that looks a bit more ‘be­spoke’, with a lit­tle artis­tic flair. But boats are a main part of his busi­ness – and all by word of mouth: a re­cent ad­vert in this mag­a­zine was his first ever!

While we’ve been talk­ing, Jon’s fin­ished the dec­o­ra­tive work at the bows, and we’ve now moved to the back of the boat, where he’s adding the fi­nal shad­ing to the name. And just watch­ing him, I start to be­come aware of just how much goes into a good let­ter­ing job – and how, per­haps, it isn’t quite as easy as he makes it look.

Jon takes me back through the process, start­ing right at the be­gin­ning. You’ll have re­alised by now that he’s a tra­di­tion­al­ist so there’s no com­puter graph­ics; he meets up with cus­tomers to dis­cuss their ideas, sketches his ini­tial thoughts by hand, and then works some of them up in more de­tail. As he ex­plains, the let­ter­ing is re­ally down to vari­a­tions on a few ba­sic styles: clas­sic Ro­man; more heav­ily ser­ifed; block style with­out ser­ifs; pen-style let­ter­ing and so on.

But there’s a lot more to it than that. Both when choos­ing a type style and adding the ex­tras – scrolls and other em­bel­lish­ments – he likes to go for a par­tic­u­lar style, of­ten a his­toric one. He ad­mits to hav­ing a “wall of books” at home, and he’ll go back to orig­i­nal sources: not nec­es­sar­ily work­ing boat liv­er­ies (which he ad­mits he rarely uses), but per­haps 1930s’ hand­bills, ad­verts, car­riage paint­ing, en­grav­ing or what­ever cre­ates the right feel for the era. He gives re­cent ex­am­ples of go­ing right back into

‘Per­haps 1930s’ hand­bills, car­riage paint­ing, ad­verts, en­grav­ing, or what­ever cre­ates the right feel’

history for a Vik­ing theme boat, and of search­ing through old comics for in­spi­ra­tion to sat­isfy a re­quest for a car­toon frog.

Hav­ing agreed the fi­nal de­sign with the own­ers, he trans­fers it free­hand at full size on to trac­ing pa­per, then makes pin­holes in the trac­ing, chalks through it on to the side of the boat, and starts paint­ing. And this is where I ask him how hard it is to ac­tu­ally try do­ing it your­self.

His re­sponse is “start sim­ple”. As far as tak­ing it up full-time is con­cerned, sadly there are no ap­pren­tice­ships to­day, and he’s not sure where the next gen­er­a­tion of sign­writ­ers will come from. But for a boat-owner want­ing to have a go, if you can paint a semi-cir­cle to the left, one to the right, and a straight line, then you’ve got the ba­sics of Ro­man writ­ing.

Yes, there’s a lot more to it than that – for ex­am­ple, spac­ing the letters (it’s more a case of hav­ing equal ar­eas than equal widths of space be­tween letters). Ideally,

start by touch­ing up ex­ist­ing paint­work (ap­pren­tices would have started by ap­ply­ing the sec­ond coat), and do some prac­tice pieces be­fore any­thing more se­ri­ous. And on the practicalities: use a mahl­stick to lean on; use a chisel-ended brush and use proper sign­writ­ing paints (he uses 1-Shot brand).

And that’s just the ba­sic let­ter­ing: Jon’s ac­tu­ally been adding the fi­nal touches to the shad­ing as we’ve been talk­ing, and he ex­plains how it works. Ba­si­cally it’s a de­vice to make the letters look ‘three di­men­sional’, im­i­tat­ing the old raised wooden block letters from an ear­lier age by adding shad­ing to rep­re­sent the sides of the blocks. But there’s more: the colour of the shad­ing varies slightly in light­ness, im­i­tat­ing the way that day­light shin­ing on the old raised letters from a par­tic­u­lar an­gle would light up some bits more than oth­ers.

And fi­nally, the raised letters would have cast a shadow on the back­ground colour – and that’s what Jon’s do­ing, adding that lit­tle bit of ‘shadow’. It’s not some­thing I’ve ever no­ticed in years of look­ing at boats – but walk­ing around to the other side of the boat which hasn’t had that fi­nal touch, it’s amaz­ing how much dif­fer­ence it makes.

While this is all fas­ci­nat­ing, it’s start­ing to make me won­der whether I dare risk try­ing it my­self with­out the ben­e­fits of a seven-year ap­pren­tice­ship and 30 years in the busi­ness. But that’s where Jon can help: in Oc­to­ber he’s run­ning a course in sign­writ­ing at John Barnard’s train­ing school at Deb­dale Ma­rina. It won’t turn novices into sign­writ­ers in two days, but he hopes to give them the where­withal and con­fi­dence to tackle some work and grad­u­ally try a bit more – and next year, it’s hoped that a fol­low-up five-day course will take it a stage fur­ther.

So to an­swer my orig­i­nal ques­tion: how hard can it be to paint a name on a boat? Clearly it’s not easy to do well, but un­til you try you never know...

To find out about the sign­writ­ing course, see john­

Use a mahl­stick to steady your arm

Fi­nal job: sign­ing his name

Noth­ing high-tech, just pen­cil sketches

It’s not just about the let­ter­ing

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