If you are a sign painter JUST starting out or are short on investment cash, I recommend reading this post first 🙂
When I started my sign painting journey, all I wanted was a list. The internet has lists for essentially everything: which cities are the best for young people, 15 greatest life hacks or 50 Things You Didn’t Know About the Harry Potter Franchise. What I wanted was a clear list of supplies I needed to hand paint signs in a traditional manner. There is so much to know about this rad trade, but these are the basics I figured out through trial and error, advice and research. This is what I believe to be the essential materials needed for a beginner’s sign painting kit:
- Lettering Brushes
- Lettering Enamel
- Small Cups
- Paper, Pencil, Eraser and Ruler
- Pounce Pad, Pounce Wheel, and Chalk Powder
- All-surface Pencil
- Brush Cleaner/Paint Thinner
- Mineral Oil
- A Brush Box
You can drop some good money on good brushes. As with anything, you get what you pay for, but a brand new sign painter probably won’t be able to tell much of a difference between a decent brush and a really amazing brush anyway. I invested in good brushes too early and I messed a few of them up, so I would start simple and work your way up to the expensive ones if you’re like me. This is why I can’t have nice things. Siiiiigh.
There are different styles of lettering brushes and they come in various sizes: smaller numbers equate to a thinner maximum width of your brush stroke. These brushes are typically made of natural fibers (animal fur) and have longer hairs to allow the brush to hold more paint for long, solid strokes. Check out the chart at the bottom of the link below to see a quick breakdown of the main styles of sign painter brushes.
But WHICH kinds of lettering brushes do I really need to START? It depends on what you’re doing with those brushes, but let’s assume you are not painting a billboard or a brick wall. I’d grab a brush or two from the Mack Economy Series 2962 for your basic stroke lettering brush. This will work for casual or block style lettering, and even some script lettering. I’d say a 1/8 or a ¼ brush should suit you for most small-ish signs. If you just want to get one, go with the smaller size (1/8) because you can always do two strokes next to each other if you need a wider line (not traditional for some styles of lettering, but some of us are on a budget!). This way you can decide if you want to get a bigger size or a smaller size based on the size of the 1/8.
NOTE: Make sure you clean your new brushes with mild soap and water to rinse off the stiffening agents used during shipping to protect the brush hairs. You also need to oil your brushes before using them with lettering enamel – I will talk more about this in the Mineral Oil section below.
The standard paint brand used by sign painters is 1 Shot (Ronan is another popular brand of lettering enamels). It is an oil based paint which mean you cannot thin it with water or clean your brushes with regular soap like you can with water based paints. It dries glossy and usually covers opaque with one coat (One shot? Get it??). Because it is oil based, it stays tacky for a good while so keep this in mind, procrastinators! Depending on the weather and humidity, it will be dry to the touch in about 3 hours so you can paint your next layer or color and will completely harden in about 24. This stuff is toxic and permanent, so try not to get it on yourself or on your stuff. It’s always recommended to wear a respirator mask and work in a well-ventilated space. Safety first, people.
Where do you get this magical, dangerous paint you ask? Your local sign supply store of course! Just Google it – there is probably one in your area but it might not be next door. Or you can get them on the internet, but you can get anything on the internet. I would advise buying the very small size cans that are a quarter pint (4oz) because a little goes a long way with this kind of paint. Get as many colors or as few colors as your budget allows. I started with black, lettering white, fire red, process blue, and primrose yellow, but you really only need one can of paint to get started.
You can get 3oz disposable cups at your local grocery or drug store in the paper goods section. These are used to mix small amounts of 1 Shot with your thinning agent to get the paint to the right consistency, and you can use the edge of the cup to palate your brush. Palate is the term used for getting your brush full of the right amount of paint (not dripping, but enough paint to pull a long-ish line without whispy breaks in the paint) and squaring off the top to get an even-thickness stroke. It also helps prolong the life of your lettering enamel since you do not need to keep the paint can open. The little cups are also good for mixing small amounts of custom colors.
Paper, Pencil, Eraser and Ruler
These are your basic tools for creating and perfecting your sign’s design. You can also do this step on the computer, but why not go pure analog? A T Square ruler is particularly helpful at this stage if you are writing in a straight line – you can keep those guide lines for your letters perpendicular. I know guide lines seem like some grade school relic, but they are not when it comes to lettering. You will actually use MORE guide lines as you get deeper into the world of custom type.
Something I always stress (especially to myself) is USE REFERENCE for your letters! Just as in drawing from reference versus drawing from memory, you will see a huge improvement in your letters if you look at an example. Letterhead Fonts is the go-to for sign painters and you can even use the typesetter to see the word you are lettering in the font of your choosing. Use those letters as a base since a lot of theories of letterforms went into the design of those fonts and then jump off from there by using custom spacing or connecting letters or adding flourishes. Whatever you like, but I promise reference will make your lettering better in the design phase!
Pounce Pad, Pounce Wheel, and Chalk Powder
These are the materials you need to make a pounce pattern. A pounce pattern is a full-sized pattern made from your design that is perforated on the lines of the image. This allows for chalk to pass through the paper only on the perforated lines so when you remove the paper, your image in chalk remains. How do you perforate the pages? You can do it with a pin, but that takes forever so I recommend investing in a pounce wheel, which looks like a tiny pizza cutter with sharp teeth. They are easily obtained at fabric stores as they are generally used for sewing. Roll the wheel along your lines to create you pounce pattern. If you do this on a piece of cork board or Styrofoam it is much easier to get complete holes.
A pounce pad is a tool that holds chalk power so you can tap it against your pattern to push the chalk through. You can buy these online or at a fabric store. I made my own by grinding a few pieces of sidewalk chalk in the blender then sticking them in an old sock and tying it with a string I found. Maybe you are too classy for that, I don’t know. Anyhow, they are usually under 15 dollars with the pad and chalk included.
This is a wonderful tool to have! It writes on all-surfaces (go figure), including glass. I use it to go over the chalk lines of my pounced design in case I rub my arm across it while painting. I’d go with the Stabilo brand because it makes a nice sharp line and is easy to remove with any mild household cleaner or water after your 1 Shot is completely dry.
Brush Cleaner/Paint Thinner
Paint thinner, mineral spirits and odorless mineral spirits are all solvents: they will all clean your brushes and thin your paints. The difference is that they are in varying stages of refinement so some are better for thinning paints (paint thinner is the least refined, odorless mineral spirits are the most). The sign painters I have met seem to go with the odorless mineral spirits that are readily available at any hardware store. I got a hot tip from a very talented oil portrait artist that the brand Gamsol is a less toxic and less smelly version of odorless mineral spirits. I use that for cleaning my brushes and thinning my paint and you can get it at most art supply stores. It’s probably not necessary to use the more expensive stuff for cleaning brushes but I paint in my house so I try to reduce fumes where I can.
Why do you need to thin 1 shot? 1 Shot is a little too thick straight out of the can for lettering. You want to add just a little thinner at a time and mix well to get the right consistency. What’s the right consistency? After palating your brush, you should be able to pull a line that doesn’t skip on the edges (too thick, or you are not connecting both sides of the brush to the surface) and isn’t watery or translucent in places (like watercolors). After working with the paint a few times it will make sense. Promise.
This is what I use to oil my brushes, although some sign artists use clean motor oil or transmission fluid. When I first started I didn’t really understand why one needed to oil brushes other than perhaps make the hairs softer. That’s part of it, but the main reason is that with lettering brushes you really do not want lettering enamel to get into the heel of your brush and dry. The heel of your brush is where the hairs bundle up inside the feral, which is the part that holds the hairs to the handle of the brush. If paint gets inside there and dries, it will most likely mess up the shape of the brush, which will in turn mess up your ability to paint letters properly. Try making a solid stroke when your brush keeps parting like the red sea in the middle. Actually don’t try that. It’s super frustrating. Just jam your brush into a cup of one of these oils to get the oil inside before you paint (this article by Best Dressed Signs recommends a product called Marvel Mystery Oil for your brush’s first oiling). After that you can swirl your brush in mineral spirits to remove the oil from the hairs of the brush while leaving the oil in the heel. Hold the brush between your palms with the hair facing towards the ground and move your hands back and forth as if you were trying to warm them by creating friction. This will spin your brush to remove the excess mineral spirits before you start painting.
To store your brush, clean it thoroughly in the mineral spirit or thinner of choice (use a few separate cups to get the brush progressively cleaner as you move on down the line until the spirits are clear) then oil as you did before. This brings me to my last essential item…
A Brush Box
You gotta have a place to store those oily brushes! Any box that’s long enough will do, just make sure its something that won’t soak up oil or leak it all over the place. When you place your brush in the box, set the hairs down first and slide the brush until the hairs lay flat and in the natural shape of the brush. Now you have completed your beginner’s sign painting kit!
I know this is a lot of information and if you are feeling overwhelmed, look at the post I linked to at the beginning of this one. It’s about how I started sign painting like a noob and worked my way up to a noob that uses 1 Shot paint. I am no expert sign painter, and I am mostly self and internet taught so make sure to read/watch/try many things when it comes to sign painting! The best option is to learn from an old pro. This wasn’t available to me personally so I wanted to post some beginners information if it isn’t available to you either.
In future posts I will go into all the useful additional stuff you can add to your kit to improve your signs and make your life easier.
Katy Amber Willis