THE WRITING ON THE (CABIN) WALL
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 johnbarnard.biz
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