Follow-up: The Dobell Brothers

By signcraft

Posted on Tuesday, July 13th, 2021

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Shop Name:
Dobell Sign Co.

Victoria, British Columbia, Canada

Ages: Chris is 48, Stu is 43.

Instagram: @dobellsignco
Facebook: dobellsignco

In the November/December 2009 issue of SignCraft Magazine, we profiled two young brothers from Australia who had move to Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. Chris and Stu are second-generation signwriters who had served traditional apprenticeships in Australia before computers changed all that.

They connected with the Phillips Brewery, a premier craft brewery based in Victoria who connected the unique appeal of hand lettering with their brand. Chris and Stu turn out a steady stream of hand lettered graphics of all kinds for the brewery, whose market now spans across Canada. We’ll let the two of them bring you up to date on the changes in their work over the past 12 years.

Chris:  In 2009, Stu had returned to Australia. Not long after that we lost the space we had been renting. We had been doing a lot of work for Phillips brewery, so I went and talked to the owner. He put me on to a few nearby places that were available for rent, but the rent was too high. Eventually the solution was to work out of a 10 x 10 space on the brewery grounds.

Stu ran a shop of his own in Tasmania for a while then in 2015 came back to Canada. We started doing a lot more projects for the brewery everything from building beer wagons to lettering windows. The brewery has grown a lot so there’s been a lot to do.

We do a big variety of work for the brewery — skateboards, menu boards, sandwich boards, fridges. A lot of it is promotional graphics. We have done .at least 200 fridges over the past few years.

Stu:  The fridges are fun to do, and the pubs love to have them for promotional events. Often they raffle them off, and the reps tell us that raffling off a custom painted fridge works better than doing a big flat screen TV. Each time someone has a Phillips beer in the pub they get a chance on the fridge. The fridges are all different so some people go from pub to pub looking for the one they want to try to win.

Chris:  It’s pretty cool to think that the brewery can sustain two sign painters. They make up about 70 percent of our work. The balance is for small businesses around the island who want hand lettering—places like tattoo shops, barbershops and artisans. They appreciate what we’re doing — probably because they do their work by hand as well.

Some people just assume the computers are more involved with our work than they are. We explain to them that we still work by hand, and if they want computer-cut vinyl though have to go elsewhere.

We only use the computer for logos that people email to us, but not for any design work. We’re still old-school — we do our designs on a sketch pad. Some folks can’t envision a sign from a sketch done with pencils and colored markers. We usually get it to a certain point then explain that they just have to trust us on the details.

A tourist market

Chris:  There are quite a few people who live on the island plus we get a lot of tourists. Of course tourism has really been hurt over the past two years because of the pandemic.

Usually there are over 200 cruise ships that come here on their way up to Alaska via the inside passage. We’re a popular stop for them. A lot of the businesses downtown take a lot of pride in their shop front since their trying to draw the tourists. That’s been good for our business.

Some of our work is shipped to pubs across Canada. That brings us some interesting work from people who track this down because they have seen what we do.

Staying with hand lettering

Stu:  Victoria feels a lot like where we grew up. It’s on the coast and it feels like home. When we first visited here, we were a couple of foolish young guys just wanting to see the world and have fun. It wasn’t in the plans to live here.

We had seen what happened with our dad’s business with the computer but wanted to stay with hand lettering. We had learned to letter by hand and we didn’t want to spend all day at the computer. It took a few years before people here realized what we’re doing. We’ve also had a lot of support and encouragement from the folks with the brewery, including Sean O’Keefe is the graphic designer here.

Fortunately part of the market here is enthusiastic about hand lettering. They want something unique so that they can stand out. Hand lettered signs are a great way to do that because there’s so much computer work around.

Creating an effective sign isn’t just a matter of pressing buttons. Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of focus on traditional fundamentals of layout in a lot of the computer work you see. It leads to kind of a cookie-cutter effect where all the signs look about the same. We learned traditional approach as we went through trade school. Sadly, all that’s gone by the wayside now.

Chris:  We see a lot of young people coming into the craft, though. Most of them have another job, so they’re not depending on their sign painting for a living. Some come and go, but the ones the stick around are doing some very nice work.

But you have to be fast to make money with a brush. Speed comes with time spent on the brush and it’s hard to get enough hours in to get really fast when you’re working part-time. Plus when you’re starting off and don’t have much of a portfolio yet you usually end up giving away some of your design work just to get work out there.

You have to really want it to get good at sign painting. You have to give up almost everything else and focus on it. There’s a lot to learn — the design, the lettering skills, the techniques, and the business side of it. It’s sort of consumes you.

It’s a love-hate relationship, but we do love it. What other job you get to get to do cool stuff just about every day? Every week it’s a new week. You don’t know what will be coming through the door. It’s not like a normal 9 to 5 gig where you’re punching buttons every day.

Interviews on Instagram Live

Stu:  At the start of the pandemic it became apparent that there wouldn’t be meetings of sign people again anytime soon. We were feeling pretty cut off from everyone. While talking with our good friend Harry Tapley [Harry’s Custom Art, Hollister, California] we got the idea of calling up our friends on Instagram Live, having a beer and talking shop.

So we did one with Harry just for fun. We got some great feedback and people asked if we were going to do more. We did a few more and it grew from there. It became a weekly thing. It’s been a great way to connect with people whose work we have admired over the years. We’ve done nearly 50 of the interviews so far. You can see them all on our Instagram.

We really enjoy getting to meets and hanging out with others who get what we do. In 2017, after going to several meets down in the States, we hosted a meet up here. It was a lot of fun. We had about 40 people from across Canada and the US here – including Harry Tapley, Dave Correll. Jeff Devey, Greg Reid, Bert Quimby and all these other folks we admire.

Most of the people we meet aren’t in our world. They don’t understand it. When you tell most people that you are a signwriter, they say, “A songwriter? You write songs?” I explain that we’ve written a few songs, but we really paint signs.

The mock blocking effect

Chris:  Last year I did a little book, Mock Block King, to explain the mock blocking technique, which is a traditional technique for shading letters. It was always popular in Australia and we learn to do it during our trade school training. Our Dad taught it in the trade school that the apprentices attended, and it was in all the apprenticeship manuals.

Mock Blocking is a faster way to create the effect of a true three-dimensional letter by using the background of the sign for one of the shading colors instead of mixing and applying another color.

When we got to Canada, we didn’t see it used on this side of the world. We continued to use it in our work and other painters asked us about it. Then social media came into play and we started getting comments about it on our posts. There’s a process to it, so I decided to put together a little manual to show people how it is done, step-by-step.

The earliest example I have seen of it was from the late 1800s in Australia. It probably came to Australia from the British. Since much of the Australian style was influenced by the Brits. I think some clever sign writer realizes that “if I just use the background color as the shadow I won’t have to worry about adding another color in here!”

It is best done by hand and certainly best learned by hand. It’s very difficult to replicate on the computer. Stu and I use it often and have modernized it quite a bit from the early versions we learned in trade school. In Australia it was usually done only with a standard block letter. We do it with almost any letter style. It’s a real challenge when you try to do it in reverse on glass on a goldleaf job!

Brush and paint

Chris:  This is been a great journey for Stu and me. In spite of all the change in the industry, we’re able to do the work we like best, with brush and paint. That’s rare these days. Our dad seems to think we were born to do this.

Stu:  Sign painting is all we really know. We were raised in the business. . There’s been so much change in the business just in our lifetimes. It’s great to see there’s a resurgence in interest in hand lettering.

It’s a fun ride. Of course you have those days when you’re stuck doing something you don’t really want to do but then the next thing you know you’re on a project you really enjoy. Like a lot of sign people, that’s what keeps us going — every day there’s something different to do. It keeps the passion there.

Chris’ how-to book on the “mock blocking” technique shows how it’s done.



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