Posted on Sunday, December 26th, 2021
When SignCraft spoke with Bill Kirnec last week, he was getting ready to start lettering and pinstriping another new wrecker for Sandy’s Towing from the 1700-sq.-ft. shop next to his home in Centerville, Ohio.
“I’ve done this company’s trucks for years,” he says. “They like what I do, and they want paint instead of vinyl. They want lettering and striping—the whole deal.”
Now 84, Bill has been painting signs and doing pinstriping for over six decades. It started after high school. His father worked in a steel mill, and his mother thought Bill should work there, too, because it was steady work. His dad recognized his art talent, though, so he stopped by a sign shop, and Bill was soon hired as an apprentice.
“Painting signs came easy to me,” Bill says, “mostly because I was so interested in the work. I really wanted to do it. I worked with guys who did these beautiful theater posters. They were just fantastic craftsmen. Another fellow I worked with had been a pinstriper at the Packard automobile factory. He could pull a beautiful 8-ft. line in one stroke—something I never was able to do. It was all such an inspiration.”
Bill has witnessed a lot of changes in the sign industry over the years. In many ways, he says the sign world barely resembles what it was when he first became part of it.
“The computer has changed the work so much,” he says. “Many of my friends quit doing hand lettering all together because everything was being done with the computer. I know it’s easier, but you just hate to see people with great skills not using them.
“I’ve seen some good vinyl lettering jobs and some good wraps. I could tell that whoever did them was really into their work. You could read the message, and the design had some movement to it. But a lot of the computer work just doesn’t have that.
“I know that with vinyl, you can make money on volume because you can turn more work out. You just punch it in and get it out the door. But for me, that’s not really as satisfying as doing good designs.”
Bill went into business for himself in 1963, doing a variety of commercial signs and truck lettering. He did some electrical sign work and neon for another shop for a while. He also specialized in pinstriping. In 1975 he striped at Daytona Bike Week. He continued to stripe there and at other shows for several years.
“Those were exciting times,” Bill says. “Guys would come to the show just to get me to stripe their bike. Sometimes they would have to wait three or four days for me to get to it. They liked my style and wanted it on their bike.”
Bill rode motorcycles from the time he was a kid. A motorcycle accident in 1977 cost him one leg and left him with a bit of a tremor in his hand. He thought he might have to quit lettering but decided that he wouldn’t let it stop him. He learned to control the tremor and kept on painting.
About the time he turned 70 Bill decided that he didn’t want to keep painting real estate signs and digging postholes. He decided to retire “more-or-less.” It turned out to be less, because many of his customers kept asking him for hand lettering and pinstriping.
“They just wouldn’t leave me alone,” says Bill, laughing. “I’m glad for that because I don’t know what I would have done. I’m not one to just sit around. I found myself doing more of the interesting types of work—and I was more passionate about it. I’m still doing it now because I love it so much.
“Hand lettering is so much fun. It’s nice to hear people say, ‘I know you did that truck…’ When you ask them how they can tell, they say something like ‘Oh, just by looking at it!’ That’s pretty satisfying.”
Bill says he wishes that more people could enjoy painting signs and pinstriping as much as he has all these years. He says it takes a powerful desire to learn and develop your skills—much like it does to excel at most anything.
“It’s almost impossible to find anyone who wants to learn to stripe and hand letter today. Many want to make big bucks right away but don’t want to do all the practice work to start to master it. It’s a shame. I’d hate to think it’s a dying art.
“It’s not something you can do just halfheartedly. You have to want to make letters and stripes with a brush and be passionate about it. Hand lettering has faded away, but if you really want to learn, you will. It takes a lot of effort and commitment. You just have to get in there and do it. You have to believe that you can.
“That’s why I’m still doing it. I love it. I’m having fun and making a little money doing it, so that’s all good. I get to do my thing and people seem to like it.”
Bill with a freshly painted tow truck.