Painting wall graphics the old school way

By signcraft

Posted on Monday, January 31st, 2022

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If you look at photos of cities and towns from 100 years ago, there are always plenty of signs on the old buildings. Ads for local businesses, soft drinks, home products, tobacco and more all wound up emblazoned on the big brick walls.

Recently, Bob Behounek [Berwyn, Illinois] was asked by a client to create wall graphics for the old brick walls that are inside four of their restaurants—three pizza shops and a taco shop. The pizza shop has been open for 20 years; the taco shop was brand new and scheduled to open this spring. Each of the four projects was roughly the same square footage.

Though the graphics were mostly lettering, they weren’t really “signs.” They were decorative murals painted using traditional methods and were meant to add visual appeal to the old rough brick walls that were inside each restaurant.

Bob lined up friend and colleague Pat Finley [Finley Signs, Montgomery, Illinois] to help him with the project. It made for a very experienced pair of sign painters. Between the two there is over 107 years of sign painting experience.

“These walls were very rough brick walls,” says Bob, “between 70 and 100 years old. They certainly weren’t finished brickwork like you see on the outside of a building. They were structural walls, and one would guess that long ago, they were meant to be covered with board and batten or plaster. They didn’t care how pretty the mortar and brickwork was.

“The walls had also been sandblasted to clean them. That made the surface of the brick even more porous. Lettering them kept Pat and me on our toes!”

The taco restaurant

The first wall was in the taco restaurant. It was not yet open, so the building renovations were still underway. After discussing the job initially with the client, Bob did a scale sketch of the design he proposed. At the meeting to review the design, Bob and Pat suggested that doing all the graphics in black would create the look the client wanted without being obtrusive. The client agreed and the project was approved. Bob also designed the graphics for the entrance doors and the main sign.

A few days later, Bob and Pat went to the site in the evening, projected a transparency of the design on the wall with an overhead projector and traced it on the brick with black Sharpie markers—plenty of them, thanks to the rough surface.

“Pat came back the next day,” Bob says, “and we started painting the wall. It was old common brick with a very rough mortar job. Mortar was sticking out quite a bit in some joints and completely missing in others.”

The lettering was done with 1 Shot with Chromatic Flattening Paste added. The paste eliminated the gloss finish of the enamel, adding to the aged look. All thinning was done with turpentine.

“It was all done with regular wall brushes,” says Pat, “straight and angled fitches and a few cutters to fill in here and there. There were some very interesting mortar joints in those walls. Sometimes you’d hit a soft spot and just about lose the brush in the joint.”

The wall was complete by the end of the day. Pat finished the last few letters as the sun was setting outside the big windows behind him.

“This was a cool old building that had been a machine shop,” says Bob. “A portion of the original building was kept, then an addition provided more space. The old beams and hoists were kept as part of the décor. This original brick wall was the perfect place to use hand lettering to add to the ambiance.”

The pizza shop

The first Paisans Pizzeria opened in 1985 by Luigi Paisans. Today his son and grandsons provide pizza and wings from seven locations in the Chicago area. The second wall was for their Cicero location. The century-old brick wall was surely never intended to be an interior wall in a restaurant—much less to carry a wall lettering project. It was an interior structural wall that would have been meant to be covered.

Again Bob did a scale sketch, went to the site the evening before, projected and traced the graphics. The next day, out came the 1 Shot enamels—this time in pizza shop colors—along with the flattening paste, fitches and cutters. The shop was open for business, so patrons got to watch two real sign painters painting real lettering on another challenging brick wall.

“It wasn’t easy,” says Pat, “but it was something different. It’s always good to see the reactions of people when you’re lettering on site like that—most people are amazed. People really like that look, too, and the customer was really happy with the walls.”

It was a change of pace for Bob, who has spent his career doing showcards, hand lettering and sign design. “I’ve probably only done four walls in my whole life,” he says, laughing, “and now I’ve done two in just a month. They were fun, and it’s always good to work with Pat.

“There’s nothing high tech about wall lettering like this—it’s just a matter of skill, craftsmanship, creativity. It’s not really a sign, but more wall graphics meant to be part of the décor. It gives you something cool to look at while you’re eating your tacos or pizza.”