A painter's paletteAt one time, mixing lead with pigment and linseed oil made paint. Turpentine was used as a thinner. Sign enamels came into use as a specialty product so they would flow from the brush. Today we have synthetic acrylic paints that are formulated for signs and artwork. They clean up with water.

The Mahl Stick

The mahl stick is a tool for assisting a sign painterThe Mahl Stick is a very popular tool with most sign painters, myself included. It is a stick with a soft leather or padded round head used by sign painters to support the hand that holds the brush.


A brush making a beautiful lineSign writing brushes are unique and difficult to find, but not impossible in this day of computer generated signs. Show card writing brushes, made of sable are not manufactured anymore. Sign Writing Brushes are unique in that the hair is chiseled or squared at the tip, the ferrule made of quill and the handle of wood.

Sign painters refer to their lettering brushes as quills or Camel Hair Brushes. Originally made in France they were referred to as French Camel Hair brushes. Camel Hair has a ‘very high gloss, and is quite springy, which makes it very useful for lettering on glass and other smooth surfaces with oils, japans or enamels’.

Show card Writing required a different type of brush called a Sable. These brushes were made from tails of the Kolinsky, or Red Tartar Marten. They have a unique ‘spring’ and are used with tempera for card writing. The hair is set in a metal ferrule with a wood handle attached.

The Fitch is a brush primarily used by sign painters for wall signs and murals. These brushes are made of Ox Hair. It has ‘great tensile strength and does not break off under strenuous use in any kind of color’. The hair is ‘light, rather blond in color’. This hair is set in a metal ferrule with a long wooden handle attached and is excellent for chiseled Cutters, Sign Writers and Sash Tools.

The Pencil

A pencil at workThere are many ‘tools of the trade’ and I guess the first to consider would be the pencil. It is with this tool that most sketches are started and concepts made a reality.

The first pencil utilizing a wooden holder was said to be created by an Italian couple for marking their carpentry. Two centuries later an Austrian named Joseph Hardmuth founded the Koh-i-Noor company and discovered a method to combine powdered graphite with clay to create the modern artificial pencil lead. By varying the ratio of graphite to clay, the hardness of the graphite lead could also be varied.

As a draftsman I have used a mechanical and the varied lead weight mechanical pencils to create basic drawings and as a woodworker I use the flat carpenter pencil. When I was a young and aspiring artist I used to go down to the art store and for 25 cents purchase the ‘Paradise Pencils’ in all their colored glory. I still use charcoal pencils and the Berol Draughtsman 314 for sketches and such. As a sign painter I use the Stabillo 8014 for layout.