As a youngster, I had a job making signs for a Government contractor. The company needed a lot of signs and a willing student like me to make them, so I took on the work and found out that sign making can be tricky, but fun! The first rule of thumb taught to me by my art director—make sure the lettering will fit before you start painting (or stenciling, or sticking, in the case of vinyl letters).
In my early days of sign making, I worked out my designs on tracing paper first. Sometimes I transferred the art to a sign with the help of an overhead projector, then painted by hand and even airbrushed. As you’ve probably gathered, this was long before computers, software, and the many digital tools that make sign making so much easier!
Fast forward to today, here’s an example of how I made a garden sign. This piece of gingerbread wood shown above, was small enough that I could scan it and place the JPG file into a drawing program. You won’t need to do anything this complicated to design a sign. Using a drawing program with the rulers displayed will give you a good idea if your letters will fit.
Using a font called “Perpetua” with lots of spacing between the letters, I planned out this “Flowers” design. Printed out on white paper, it was easy to transfer to the wood with carbon paper and a pencil. Next, I filled in the letters with brown acrylic paint and sanded them a little when dry …
The finished gingerbread flower sign, photographed by Patty Hicks.
I use lots of software programs now, but if I were just starting out, I’d make my sign pattern in PowerPoint because it has a lot of powerful drawing tools, but is also easy to teach yourself. But really, you can use any drawing program you like to design sign lettering.
Here’s what to do once you have your lettering designed: print out your pattern on plain white paper—you may have to tape a few of the words together to form a long phrase.
Attach your pattern with a piece of tape forming a hinge onto your sign wood. Slip carbon or transfer paper between, with transfer medium facing the wood. Transfer the pattern to the wood using a good pencil point. Sometimes you can skip the carbon paper step and use a pencil alone to trace the letters, because indentations might be pressed into the wood for a pattern you can follow.
Once you have your outlines transferred, use a small paint brush and fill in the letters. If you goof, “erase” the paint with a wet paper towel or baby wipe, and try again!
Once dry, sanding the paint off a bit is great way to make it look distressed and aged. I also paint my signs with crackle paint, varnish, and brown glaze, because I love signs that look old!
Hand painting garden signs is not the easiest craft to do, but nowadays computers can help you make a pattern, or you can always try free style! For lots more inspiration, check out our Facebook album of Shabby Garden Signs