By Bill Kovely
Posted on Monday, April 26th, 2021
Once upon a time, a sign painting shop was a very low-tech environment. Often an Electro-Pounce perforating tool was the most sophisticated piece of equipment around. Brushes, charcoal, perf wheels, paint, smaltz, yardsticks, ladders and a few woodworking tools rounded out the equipment list.
You also needed a long lettering easel with a roll of butcher paper mounted at the end. Let’s not forget gold leaf, 1 Shot enamel, Rich Art watercolors, and a paint bench with quills, fitches, lard oil, wash pots.
My shop, W.K. Signs in Santa Ana, California, was one such sign shop. A dinosaur sign shop to be? hmmm.
The making of a sign painter
In late 1964, I was working on a college art degree, but felt I wasn’t talented enough in art for it to be satisfying or profitable enough to pursue. I was intrigued, though, by the brush work needed to create letters and numerals. One of my teachers knew the owner of a local sign shop, John Saint, and suggested I pay him a visit.
When I walked in, the sign painter was hand lettering the letter “S.” I was amazed. It looked so smooth and easy. I was hooked. Not only did I learn a trade from John, but a trade that I would love.
Learning the trade was something that you looked forward to every day. At the end of the day, John would sometimes let me do a small showcard or a “For Rent” sign—anything that let me practice my sign painting skills. There was constant practice and many disappointments. If I did a poorly lettered job, John would encourage me to keep at it, because everyone who loved hand lettering went through this learning process.
It was a completely different time. Any signpainter could get in their station wagon with their brushes and quarts of black, white, blue and red, then work your way across the country, doing storefronts or barbershop windows. A little aluminum powder and a powder puff for the dynamite jobs meant quick, easy money. Plus you got a free haircut!
The sign trade was a little different than trades like contractors, plumbers and electricians, which had fixed places of business. Some sign painters specialized in walls, barns or anything in between, and would travel across country to do various jobs. It was a wonderful trade with a lot of individual creativity.
In 1969 I opened my own shop in a space I leased. Now I’m 79 and still making signs. My long-time clients depend on me for smaller signs that I can handle myself or with my son’s help. I can turn out their jobs more promptly than larger companies and they like that quick service.
Enter the computer age
One day in the early 1980s I was busy lettering a sign when a salesman pulled up. He carried in this blue box, put it on the bench and said, “Let me show you what this does…”
It was a Gerber Signmaker IV. I watched it cut out some vinyl lettering. I had been buying rub-on type sheets at the stationery store to produce film positives for silk screen work. This machine was the future. That was obvious and I bought it on the spot.
Eventually, though, it became difficult to compete with signs made with cut vinyl lettering if you hand lettered. In 1999 I bought a 24-in. Graphtec plotter from Ordway Sign Supply in Van Nuys. Knowing nothing about the new equipment, I knew I needed a tutor. That’s when I met Paul Daigneault. Years before, Paul had been a terrific splash man. He worked in the South Bay area and loved doing those big window splashes. Paul was a great teacher and helped me enter the computer age.
As time and technology moved on I knew I needed to move along with it. In 2010, I bought a Roland printer and Paul tutored me once again. This time, when Paul walked into the shop he looked around and could see the effects of the changes on my shop. Parts of the shop were no longer used, and dusty unused brushes sat on the shelf.
He walked around taking photos. Those who know Paul know of his infectious sense of humor. I could hear murmuring, chuckling and a few a-ha’s as he photographed my shop.
He came into my office, squinting his eyes and smiling, and said, “Bill this is a dinosaur sign shop.” Well, the name stuck.
W.K. Signs today
The shop still looks and feels about the same today as it did back when Paul visited that first time. I bought the 1250-sq.-ft. building in 1971. Over the years, I taught several other sign makers the trade.
I met Sam Adamov in 1970 when he pulled up on his Norton motorcycle and asked for a job. I hired him on the spot. He became a good friend and a great sign artist. Later, Ken Lewis, a journeyman, was my right-hand man for many years. My son Andrew, who has his own graphic design business, comes in one day a week and helps out. That one day really helps take the pressure off me.
There have always been a lot of creative sign people in this area—folks like Walter Methner, Rick Glawson, Chuck, “Shakey Jake” Babbitt, John Studden, Bob Iverson and my good friend Rick Sacks. Rick worked for John Saint after I left. I can’t forget Ske and Troy Olschewske who are my go-to guys for help today.
There are so many other talented sign people whom I know—too many to mention here. But I have to mention Izzy Posner, a great gold man who did a gold demonstration in my shop for other sign painters back in 1973. He was a wonderful, kind man who sold us all brushes. His stories were the best parts of his many visits.
I always loved lettering a sign. That was enough for me. I was brought up in the sign business when it was all about what you could do with your layout ability, your hands and your brush. I was lucky to find something that I enjoyed doing, and to this day I still love it. I still get to letter a wall once in a while and small signs now and then.
And of course, for now, the dinosaur has not left the building.