Bringing classic wood signs back to life

By SignCraft Magazine

Posted on Tuesday, February 16th, 2021

When Ian Macdonald was thinking about getting back in the sign business after being out of it for a while, he noticed how many handmade wood signs in his area needed to be repaired or refinished. He decided to set up shop again as Historic Sign Restoration, in his native Rochester, New York.

In upstate New York and across New England, there are many beautiful wood signs that had been made 15 or 20 years ago—or longer. Time and the elements were catching up with many of them, leaving cracked faces, peeling paint and rotting trim.

“I decided to focus on restoring signs like that,” says Ian, “and even named my business for it. Restoration and reclamation is becoming really important today. It’s part of living green. Rather than throw a beautiful thing in the dumpster, why not bring it back to life?”

Most of the signs Ian has restored were made of high-quality redwood and mahogany. Years of exposure to the elements have taken their toll.

“When I get them,” he says, “they’re in rough shape. The paint is peeling, and there’s probably some rotting wood here and there. Sometimes a maintenance man has tried refinishing the gold leaf with gold paint. There may be cracks and splits in the face. Some are literally in pieces.

“The Edgewood Resort sign was in six pieces when I picked it up, hanging together thanks to some iron strips on the back. It was up in the Thousand Islands area, at the Canadian border of New York. It is huge—6-by-13-ft. and made of 2-in. clear heart vertical grain redwood. It took six of us to move it around.”

Some of the signs are carved; others are sandblasted. It’s a little easier to hide some of the repairs on the textured background of a blasted sign, but repairing carved signs usually takes a little more work. That’s especially true if it has to be gilded, because gold leaf shows every imperfection in the surface.

“Most of my work is done with traditional materials—smalts, slow gold size, enamel paint,” he says. “The woodwork is all hand work, and there is plenty of hand sanding. A carved sign usually requires a little more attention.

“I’ve restored some HDU signs, too. Sometimes the paint film has been broken or the sign has been damaged. The UV and elements start affecting the HDU. It’s time to get out the auto body filler to rebuild those areas, then sand, finish and possibly gild it.”

Ian works with the help of Scott Knox, whom Ian calls “a true MacGyver” and handles a lot of the fabrication and woodwork. Ian does the sales and finishing, along with much of the reconstruction and repair, hand lettering and gilding.

Restoring a wood sign

For Ian, the first step to restoring a wood sign is to repair any major damage to the wood. This is mostly hand work, fitting patches as needed. The redwood signs usually have little, if any, rot, but pine and cedar signs sometimes have significant rotting. Any cracks, dings and divots are patched, then if the sign has cracked—as many have—it is laminated back together.

Sanding is the next step because most of these signs were originally finished with oil-based paint. If the sign was finished with acrylic latex paint, though, it is stripped using liquid paint stripper. On most of the signs, though, Ian and Scott sand the sign down to bare wood using belt and orbital sanders. Details and carved letters must be sanded by hand.

At this point, any remaining imperfections are filled and sanded. Ian uses a quality commercial wood filler or mixes the sawdust from the wood on the sign with marine spar varnish to make a filler. The sign is finish-sanded down with 220 grit paper. Then it’s time for two coats of slow oil-based primer.

The first coat of primer is thinned 50-50 with mineral spirits to allow for maximum penetration. The second coat is applied at full strength after allowing plenty of time for the first coat to dry completely.

Finally it’s ready for two to three coats of enamel paint. Oil-based finishes must be allowed to dry completely before applying the next coat. Often the sign sits for three or four days before it can be sanded and the next coat applied.

Many of these signs used gold leaf on the letters and sometimes the trim. Ian uses slow size to get a gild with the maximum burnish. The sign is ready to be installed—once again.

“It’s a lot of fun to bring a sign back to life,” says Ian. “I love working with my hands again—just like the old days. We won’t be able to get wood like this ever again, so it’s a kick to restore a wood sign like this. It’s been a real joy and the response has really been great.”

This is a 30-year-old 3-by-13-ft. sandblasted redwood sign. The background had been unfinished since new. Ian bleached it with oxalic acid to bring it back to the original natural color then finished the background with tung oil in multiple coats, so it would absorb into the wood. The 23K gold leaf on Bristol was engine-turned.

This double-faced, hand-carved redwood is 42 years old. The 6-by-6-in. treated posts were wrapped with pine, and Ian fabricated new base moldings from western red cedar. The rotted 8-in. finials were repaired and installed with new base plates.

This 65-year-old neon sign had been on the front of a drug store in Utica. The grandchildren of the founder had brought it to Ian’s friend, Howie Cohen, of Just Neon in Utica to restore the sign for use in their home. The rust holes in the sheet metal were repaired with metal patches, filled with body filler and sanded. New metal coping was fabricated and riveted to the body. Howie fabricated new glass neon bent in traditional red glass and then installed new PK housings, GTO wire and transformers.

This sign’s 1 ½-in. HDU background had deteriorated due to a broken paint film, as had the moldings and the finish on the Gemini letters. Ian added a black smalts background panel and new hardwood moldings. The letters were refinished with automotive paint and gilded in 23K gold leaf.

This 35-year-old 6-by-13-ft. hand-carved sign with hand-painted illustration was broken into seven pieces when Ian picked it up. It was done for a well-known resort in the Thousand Islands region of New York State.

The project included a new Registration sign that was hand lettered on overlaid plywood. The end cap wood pieces were harvested on the property.

This double-faced 5-by-8-ft. hand-carved pine sign is 24 years old. Ian removed a substantial amount of rotted wood, bees’ nests and a few ant families from the sign and repaired their damage.

On these 32-year-old twin single-faced, sandblasted redwood signs the deterioration was pretty severe. The client had a new logo so the existing sign faces were reversed. Ian did the carved lettering with a raised outline on what had been the backs of the signs. The background is chip-gouged by hand, and the logo icon is raised and hand painted. The copy is gilded in 23K gold leaf.