Posted on Tuesday, December 31st, 2019
Studio size: 1200 sq. ft.
Summa 610 cutter
Gerber Omega software
Most creative sign makers see signs as art, just as SignCraft does. Granted they are commercial art, but art just the same. Art doesn’t have to be an exquisitely beautiful object—a line of well-executed gothic lettering or a well-designed wrap is art. It’s highly functional, appealing to look at, purposeful art.
Some sign work, of course, does fall into the exquisitely beautiful, as does Dave Smith’s. It combines incredible design with traditional craftsmanship and great discipline to produce something that is stunning. More than just looking at it, you marvel at it. You look at it overall, then in detail, then for the detail in the detail. It’s hard to believe that it was all done by hand while at the same time, you know that it could be done no other way.
Dave’s sign writing roots opened the door to the magic of glass and gold and a host of other techniques and effects. His work and his story is inspiring even if you never get the opportunity to lay a single leaf of gold leaf. It shows where passion and a lot of hard work can take you.
Learning the craft My family lives in a very nice part of England that some call the English Riviera. It’s in the southwest corner on the UK down on the coast. As a kid, I always had a pen in my hand and was always fooling around with drawing.
Torquay is a resort town so there are a lot of hotels. A friend of my dad’s asked him if I might be interested in lettering a sign for his hotel. I’ll never forget it. The signboard was chocolate brown, and they wanted cream lettering on it. I didn’t have a clue how to do it. I had a go at it, though, and it turned out okay. That’s how it all started.
From there came a few more signs, a few coaches and big buses. I was only about 15. I didn’t know about sign writing brushes or 1 Shot or other sign enamels. I just got by with what I could find.
About a year later my dad got me an apprenticeship with a local sign writing company. There were six older gentlemen there, all amazing signwriters and ticketwriters—fantastic people, all with great character. They trained me as a sign writer, and along the way, we became great friends. I’m 51 now, and looking back they were all about that same age back then. And I thought they were all such old blokes! [Laughing.]
One of them, Gordon Farr, was so slick with a brush, and his pictorial and lettering work was brilliant. His ticketwriting was world class. I learned a lot from Gordon in those early days, and I’m still in touch with him. When I see Bob Behounek’s work I think of Gordon, as he had that same understanding of beautiful layouts and type—slick, bouncy type coming right from the hand.
The magic of gold leaf I used to watch Jeff Skinner do gold leaf on glass. Over here, it was almost always a basic black outline with a water gilded letter back then. I was fascinated by gilding, more so than general sign writing. In fact, I remember seeing this beautiful storefront of an arcade in a small town when I was 9 or 10. It was all done up with silver and gold lettering and designs. I didn’t know what it was, but it stuck with me.
I did my first gold leaf on glass at 16 or 17. Nothing fancy, but I was learning how to do it. I made some samples and some gifts with it. When I was about 21 I went to London to visit Handover Brushes. The beautiful gold leaf work in the pubs and on the storefronts there amazed me.
About that time a copy of Signs of the Times arrived at the shop with a feature on the late Rick Glawson. It really got me. The others thought it was interesting, but it really sparked me.
About a year or two later, Mel, now my wife, and I decided to go to New Zealand for a holiday. We stopped off in Los Angeles and that stopover changed my career.
We went to Disneyland, where I saw these popcorn stands with all the beautiful gold leaf lettering and glue-chipped glass work. I asked to go inside so I could feel the back of the lettering. I had no idea how they did it.
Back at the shop, another magazine arrived with an ad in it for Glue-Chipped Glass Signs by Bob Mitchell [published by SignCraft in 1989]. I realized that must have been what I saw on the popcorn stands, and I ordered the book. The book was fantastic, and I still refer to it.
In the book I learned about Rick Glawson and his work. I rang him up—there was no Internet back then—and we had a lovely conversation for almost two hours. He invited me to the 1991 California Conclave. That was my first real stay in America and firsthand experience with glass signs of that kind. I met Noel Weber and so many others there who helped me along.
A changing industry The first sign computer arrived at the shop where I was working in 1985. It was a Gerber Signmaker IVB. It was used mostly for secondary lettering and making silkscreen stencils. That gradually changed as computer systems improved. By the early 1990s the work was changing, and I left Harmony Signs to open my own shop.
We were starting a family and I had a mortgage payment, so I needed to make a living. I was doing a combination of the hand lettering and hand-painted pictorials along with quite a lot of computer-cut lettering on vans and whatnot. That’s what paid the bills.
Today, as much as lettering is enjoying a comeback, I know that it will never be the way it used to be. I teach a lot of young people who come to learn hand lettering and glasswork, and everything I teach is done by hand and screen printing. But I always tell students to get a plotter because it will help them survive. It’s like having a helper who will do the mundane sorts of work that comes in so that you can do that nice pub sign.
They sometimes can’t believe that I’m saying that, but this is about survival as much as it is the love of the craft. If you don’t take a business-like approach to it, your hand lettering will always be just a hobby.
Switching gears The shop grew and I added staff. When that happens, you spend more time managing people than you do actually making the signs. You become a pen pusher in a way, telling everyone else what to do. It was a good business, though, and I sold it in 2003 to pursue the work I enjoy the most.
I scaled down and work from a studio in my home doing glass work, design and teaching. Most of my work is fairly elaborate glass work and illustration. I like to use a combination of hand done brush work with fine details created by screen printing. Sometimes I use computer-generated masks for those knockout jobs—they still look great.
Keeping the craft alive Teaching is important to me, too. I love doing it, and the idea of keeping the craft alive. I have done workshops all over—including two with my good friend Will Lynes in Sydney, Australia. We teach about 20 artists over four days. We have another planned there for 2021.
I’ve also taught my daughter Hannah to do gold leaf, and she’s now marketing small glass signs on Instagram as @laurensletters_uk.
I enjoy doing a sign now and then, though, in between everything else. After a while, you kind of miss doing a nice storefront sign or something like that. So I make room for a sign project when I can.
Using social media Social media makes it easier to connect with people. A good example is Rob Cooper, whose work I have always admired. When he came on to Instagram last year, I was able to message him about his work. Now we stay in touch regularly thanks to Instagram. I love his work—he is what I would call a proper sign writer. He’s brilliant.
These days, most of my customers come from Instagram, too. I’ve managed to build up a good following there as @davesmithartist, and I share work on it all the time. I started with a basic website around 1998, and it became a big help for marketing my work. Then around 2013, I started using Instagram. It’s a great way to share your work and for people to find you.
About that same time, a friend of mine who is a filmmaker made a video about me and my work. He put that online and it was instrumental in helping people find out about my work. That led to doing work for Jameson Whiskey and doing some album covers, starting with John Mayer.