John Elliott grew up in Sydney, Australia’s largest city. At 15, he decided he’d had enough of school and asked his father, a signwriter, if he would take him on as an apprentice. His father did, and that’s how both John and his brother, Lynden, learned the trade. John says he “virtually fell into the craft.” SignCraft gave him a call recently to learn more about his 50-plus years in the business:
Prickle Patch SignsShop size:
1500 sq. ft.Age: 71
Roland VS540 printer/cutter
Roland GS24 plotter
The brush box that I made in school at age 14.
My rest stick. (mahlstick)
Most importantly, my hands
When I first started in the business, my father was doing a lot of corporate work for Kodak, Coca-Cola and Streets ice cream. The logos had to be painted very precisely because the companies were very particular about that. I learned to signwrite very quickly and accurately because of that.
Just about every pharmacy in Australia had a Kodak logo on the fascia because they acted as agents for Kodak’s photo developing and printing service. It took us three years to paint all the Kodak signs that we had a contract for in and around Sydney—then it was time to start all over repainting them. My brother and I got very fast at doing them.
I married a girl from the Nambucca Valley, though, and we moved up here from Sydney in 1980. We bought 40 acres with her parents, built the first mud brick house and workshop in the Valley, and I worked from there. My parents-in-law put a rose farm on the rest of the land—about 10,000 or 12,000 rosebushes around my shop.
Cheryl, my wife suggested that we give the shop a name in case we would ever want to sell the business rather than using my own name. Roses have prickles, and I wanted a name that was a bit quirky. So we came up with Prickle Patch Signs. I’ve had quite a few comments on it over the years—and funny looks. It works, and it has for a long time.
Getting through the pandemic
We’re still dealing with Covid down here. It’s been a nasty thing, and besides killing people it has knocked the economy around. For the first few months of 2020, my business fell off to almost nothing. Nobody knew what was going to happen. Then things started to pick up steadily. By the end of the year I was really busy, and this year has been busier than ever.
All the shops are flat out—they can’t keep up. The building and real estate industries are also very busy, which is good for sign shops. We’re a tourist area, and since people can’t go overseas they are taking their vacations here in Australia. Experience tells me, though, that after a boom there’s always a bust, and we are noticing a bit of a slowdown recently. Hopefully it’s minor.
When I started there was only the brush. The highest tech piece of equipment that I had was a three-legged wind-up stool! Then the overhead projector came in. Remember the overhead projector? Back then I thought I would never be obsolete because no machine could do what the brush could. Even when the computers first came in and CAD systems started doing away with the jobs of friends who were toolmakers, I didn’t think it would affect me.
Computers have made our lives so convenient and everything so quick and easy that we don’t have to use our brains or learn our skills anymore. When I was a kid, I’d be in my father’s shed till 10 at night, practicing how to make a perfect S. In the end, the paint would go one way, the rest-stick another and the brush took some finding. But finally I could do it. Nowadays, you just push a button and get a perfect S.
But a lot has been lost. The thinking aspect of the work and the developing of skills have been lost in many cases. It’s not unusual for kids not to be able to spell or do basic math in their heads. That’s an example of what has been lost.
Then and now
I’m now semi-retired, which I tell people means doing only about fifty hours a week. For about 30 years though, I had a staff of between two and five. We did all sorts of sign work. I also did quite a lot of work for the Great Australian Ice Creamery, travelling all over the country painting their signs and also the murals inside their locations—about eighty of them. John Bagley, a very good signwriter and artist from Victoria, did quite a few in Victoria and southern New South Wales.
We used to do a lot of buses—two or three a month through a local coach builder. We did about 10 of the Highland Travel Coaches in maroon and teal. I figured there were plenty of big white refrigerators running along the roads, so whenever I could, I tried to get the client to go along with using another color on the bus.
On the Highland buses, they wanted a different oil painting look pictorial on the back of each one showing a popular tourist attraction. I did Captain Thunderbolt, a bush ranger—you would call him an outlaw, a waterfall, an iconic steam locomotive and such.
In 2010 I cut back and started working alone. That’s when I started putting some money in the bank. In Australia, it’s quite costly to have employees. Workers get four weeks of leave time at full wages +17½%. They also get 10 days of public holidays, which is another two weeks, and two weeks of paid sick time if needed. On top of worker’s compensation you also must pay 9½% towards their pensions. It creates a lot of pressure on a small business owner.
I have a small shop at my home now and stay busy with sign work. Most of it is digital prints, though I’m getting a few people who want hand lettering, too. I’m in an area that doesn’t allow for large sign budgets, so I don’t get to do many lovely 3D signs. I have to try to make a difference with the designs and do them as prints on flat panels. That’s what I did on the co-op signs—make boring directional signs sharp and attractive.
The sign trade has been wonderful for me. It suits me right down to the ground. I love the variety of it. There’s always something different. One day you may be stuck behind the desk doing paperwork, the next day you may be out painting a wall or in a cherry picker installing a sign, then the next day you’re doing a design. I’ve been in the trade for a long time, but I still find myself doing things I’ve never done before. There aren’t too many careers where you can say that.
—From an interview with Tom McIltrot
Aluminum composite material [ACM] V-grooved at back to fold over the 2-in. frame. Stopping the groove at the lettering allowed it to protrude from the top and bottom of the sign and stay rigid, giving a dimensional look.
5-by-5-in. hardwood laminated post, timber framed ACM sign panel. I purchased a lockable letterbox with a mail slot. Letters are brushed stainless steel, with the smaller ones bonded to an ACM panel.
This is a plumber friend’s father-in-law’s restored 1970s Ford Escort van written to suit the van.
Digital print on ACM
Digital print on ACM
Digital print on ACM
Through the seventies, my brother, Lyn, a mate, John Brady, and I did a lot of these railway bridges around the Sydney suburbs for Coke. We built a bracket arrangement that clipped on to the bridges to sit the planks on. There’s no way we would get away with the bracketing arrangement nowadays.
Arnott’s had two of these bridges over Parramatta Road, one of the main westbound arteries out of the city. The other one, not shown here, was near their main factory in a suburb called Homebush. It was quite the icon and was used very often by Sydneysiders: “Just past the Arnott’s bridge…” and so forth. Arnott’s asked Coke who did their bridges, and so it goes. We repainted and wrote them two or three times over the years. These photos would’ve been about 1978 I reckon.
A single sheet of aluminum composite material V-grooved on the rear to allow all the folds to make an economical dimensional sign. Palm tree is laser cut 6mm acrylic with vinyl print. The lettering is ACM, cut on the jigsaw. Don’t blame me for the color scheme.
This was made using found timber for the rustic look. It’s backed with ACM. The roll of brown paper is on a 25mm [1-in.] dowel rod, mounted in a hinging arrangement with a timber block loosely mortised and tenoned on top to act as a brake on the paper roll. The paper slips through a slot in the bottom frame to keep it from flapping and is cut with an internal serrated blade as it’s torn forward.
Handwritten in the old style. The truck had been restored by the owners, Ron and Stan Newman.
These are all handwritten, and feature the mock block technique, as does the Newman truck above. It was interesting to see the Dobell Bros. talk about the mock block on SignCraft.com recently. When I first started working for my father and with my older brother, we used to do a lot of work for Shelley’s Drinks, a large soft drink company in Sydney that provided free signage for shops that sold their drinks.
We painted signs on walls, windows, awning fascias or whatever, on grocery shops, milk bars, fruit shops, etc. all over Sydney and its suburbs. I became very proficient at it, and mock block became a staple in my design arsenal. I can mock block a letter faster than outline it. I use it now when I want the sign to have a bit of a classic look.
Low-quality print-and-cut on cheap-and-nasty vinyl, with the flouro brushed on with Langnickel brushes.
The client wanted the lettering to look like it had been on there for 20 years. He wanted a weathered painting of his dog on there, too. You can’t do things like this with a computer and then just stick it on.
One sign on double-sided Weathertex board. It’s on its third or fourth recycling and looking deliberately a bit shaggy. A love job for my daughter’s coffee shop, it was handwritten for the fun of it.
Grooved and folded ACM, strengthened with a steel frame, set onto a concrete plinth.
This was a joint project at Portland NSW with the Wallnuts [the Australian counterpart of the “Walldogs”]. You can Google Portland Wallnuts NSW to see more.
Hand-painted murals on rear, with “Highland” on side hand painted. Swoosh graphics hand painted. Secondary copy in vinyl.
House name print on ACM. If you turn around while looking at the sign, that’s the view you see.
A small property name sign, handwritten on Weathertex board.
Flat ACM with digital print; one 12-by-3-ft. panel with the truck jigsawed out of a 10-by-5-ft. ACM sheet. The lettering and graphics are a replica of the bus signage from the company they sold thirty years ago. The truck I played with in CorelDRAW to make it look more “painterly.”
The owner wanted a painted sign, so it was up on the 10-ft. trestles and planks for me. It had to be done over the weekend. I worked from the client’s art, improving it with the yellow border. April was very wet this year, so I got it all marked out with chalk, scaled from a drawing. It took all morning to travel, set up and mark out the sign, then came an unexpected rainstorm at lunch time. All the markout washed off. I had to pack up in the rain and come back the next weekend.
Just a common advertising sign, 3-by-2-ft. digital print on ACM. See the Mike Stevens’s [the late author of Mastering Layout] influence in the layout?
Sprayed, clear-over-base mural and graphics. Bairnsdale is on the coast of Victoria, and the mural is based on a photo the owner supplied.
Vinyl lettering and graphics
A bit of fun on a traveling seafood shop. The menus had whiteboard panels for altering the prices.
Brushed stainless letters pinned off a masonry wall