Step by step: Making a replica of a vintage glass sign

By signcraft

Posted on Saturday, November 13th, 2021

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A few years ago, the local public library contacted Duncan Wilkie of Comsign in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. While going through their vault, they had found some old gold leaf signs and said they would like to have them “touched up.”

Duncan told them to send them over and he would take a look. There were three small framed glass panels, gilded in reverse. The first said “Edmonton”; the second “Public” and the third, “Library.”

On one, the background paint was peeling, though the gold was still intact. He flipped it over and took it apart. Behind the wood backing panel, he was surprised to find a section of a Winnipeg newspaper from 1916 serving as padding.

“I called the customer back,” says Duncan, “and explained that I didn’t want to touch these gems. They are a part of not only sign painting history, but contain important items from the country’s, and in particular Winnipeg’s, history. I convinced them that I would be happy to make replicas that they could display, but I didn’t want to tamper with the originals.”

The library agreed and Duncan went to work on the replicas. He matched the letter style as closely as possible and gilded the new glass panels, then framed them. He wanted the frames on the replicas to match the originals but couldn’t find a similar molding, so he fabricated the molding himself to get a perfect match.

“These signs were apparently made in Winnipeg and shipped here,” Duncan says, “Even when I was young and learning to letter, Winnipeg—which was 750 miles away—had many excellent sign painters who did a lot of gold leaf work there. These panels were very well done, but not perfect. Laurie, my wife, called them ‘perfectly imperfect.’ Thanks to computers, we’re all used to perfect letters, and it’s tempting to ‘fix’ things up. But I tried to be as true to the originals as possible.

“Many people in a similar situation would have touched up the peeling backing paint as best they could,” he says. “But I think it may be best to leave such signs as they are—in their original state. Making a replica is a better option.”

Here’s the sign as Duncan disassembled it. The folded newspaper in the upper right was dated 1916.

The newspaper included the latest news on World War I.

Duncan began by tracing the original lettering to make a pattern.

The pattern was perforated with a fine pounce wheel for pounce transfer.

The pattern was positioned in reverse on the front side of the glass as a guide while laying the gold.

The 23K gold leaf was applied using a water size.

Once the gild had dried, the pattern was pounced in reverse, and the lettering was done using Backing Black paint from Canadian Signcrafters Supply.

When dry, the strokes were trimmed with a razor blade as needed.

The excess gold was cleaned from the glass with cotton and water.

The black background was applied over the lettering.

Here’s the finished glass, ready for framing.

Here’s one of the panels, finished and framed.

And here’s a closer look.

The original signs are on the left and Duncan’s replicas are on the right.

Here are the three replica panels.

While Duncan was at it, he made a panel as a sample for the shop wall.

Here’s the 1916 newspaper that had been used as a shim between the original sign and the backing.

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