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Dylan Neal's Steps For Building Vintage Wooden Signs

Dylan Neal's Steps For Building Vintage Wooden Signs


  1. Create or find the look you’re after. This will determine the type and size of board you need for creating the sign. If you want to create an authentic aged look, start with recycled or aged wood. Even better if it has old paint still on it.
  2. If starting with fresh unpainted wood, paint the background color first. At this stage, you may also want to add a little molding or trim around the perimeter of the sign to dress it up a little.
  3. Once the background color is applied, then start with the lettering and or images for your sign. If you’re copying something you’ve found in a magazine or online, you might be able to use a simple table projector to superimpose the image onto your sign. Then trace the design with a pencil onto your sign and paint as desired. If you’re painting freehand, be careful to not choose a design too intricate as you’re edges will not be terribly crisp. Small designs can be copied using a Sharpie or other marker, which allow for greater control. Many older signs were hand painted which adds to the rustic charm and with practice you may be able to achieve this look yourself. My ‘laundry’ sign was done by projecting an image I found online (I printed it up first), tracing it in pencil and then using a blue sharpie to color it in. My ‘cigar’ sign was also projected onto the wooden sign I made first, but in this case I just carefully painted the lettering using a small artists brush.
  4. If you choose a very detailed design and want it too look very professional, you may opt to have a mask made at a professional sign/banner store. Take your image and sign measurements to the store and they will use their computer to cut out the image in a sticky vinyl sheet, which you lay over top of your sign. When you peel off the top layer of the vinyl, the mask acts like a stencil where you simply paint over the relief of your lettering. When the cut out areas have been fully covered in the color of your choice, you just peel off the mask and your painted lettering will remain on your sign, looking very precise. I used this process with the my larger signs (Southwell & Company, and Oakville Yacht Club).
  5. Once all the lettering and design work has been painted on, you may want to distress the piece afterward to make it look really old. You could literally add dents and small cuts to the wood using a variety of tools – one of the tricks of the trade is to tie a large number of metal keys on a wire ring and attach the ring to a wooden handle and then hit the wood with the keys. The keys will create small random gouges and depressions along the woods surface without doing too much damage.
  6. Another way to age the piece is to sand off areas of the sign to give the impression of the colors fading over time. This takes a little skill but if you look at real vintage signs, you’ll get an idea how best to sand your piece.
  7. After sanding, I often add stain or glaze to the piece to add another layer of age. If you’ve sanded any edges down to raw wood, then you’ll want to age those areas so they don’t look like new wood. Light brown stain, which you quickly wipe off or a glaze tinted with umber can also create a great aged look. Apply sparingly over the whole piece and add layers as needed.
  8. Remember to never apply polyurethane (oil based) finish coats over your painted projects. Polyurethane eats away at paint and will destroy your finish. If you feel you must apply a protective finish over your finished project, you must use a polyacrylic (water based) finish. Keep in mind, any shiny finish coat will detract from a vintage look where truly old wooden signs have a matte, very worn feeling from many years of exposure to the elements.

Make sure you watch Dylan on "Debbie Macomber's Cedar Cove," Saturdays at 8/7c!

And you can follow Dylan online at @dylannealstudio and facebook.com/actordylanneal.

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