Profile: Stu and Chris Dobell

By SignCraft.com

Posted on Wednesday, May 12th, 2021

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We first featured the work of these two well-known Aussie sign painters in our November/December 2009 issue. Take a look at their outstanding work and hear about their roots in the trade. Find them on Instagram @dobellsignco, too!

SignCraft caught up with Chris Dobell early one morning as he was working on a mural. Chris’s brother, Stu, had recently returned to their native Australia for a few months. Chris was missing the extra pair of hands and his brother’s creative insight, as well. Here’s what he had to say about starting a traditional sign shop in Victoria, British Columbia:

My two brothers and I are second-generation signwriters and screen printers. We grew up in our dad’s shop, Dobell Signs, in Wollongong, NSW, Australia. It was a well-established shop that he and our mother, Dian, ran for 40-plus years. Dad was a trade school signwriting teacher back in the 80’s. Being raised in that environment really got the paint and brushes in our blood.

Stu and I are now signwriters here in Victoria, BC, and our brother, Mat, is more involved with the screen-printing side of things. Mat is still living in Australia. Dad’s still painting a few signs and art pieces in Australia. During his recent visit to Victoria, we got out the brushes and did a little father-and-sons wall job here in Canada. That was good fun. Just a couple of days ago Stu went back to Australia to get some of his work visa details straightened out, but he plans to be back here in a few months.

Stu and I began painting signs at age 16, and completed the Australian apprenticeship program, which included three years in the New South Wales T.A.F.E. signwriting program. We learned the traditional side of things, although nowadays they don’t touch too much on that sort of thing—it’s more the computer side that they stress now.

After my apprenticeship, I did a bit of traveling around and worked in different sign shops here and there around the world. I eventually ended up in Victoria about three years ago; I came here on holiday to start off with and spent the first year just having some time off work. Then I applied for my residency and once I got all that sorted out, I started back to work again.

When Stu and I got started here, no one knew who we were, of course. Coming from a very successful, established business back home, it’s kind of nice to move to a place where I get a little recognition for my own work.

When Stu and I decided to open a sign shop, there were just too many digital guys locally to compete with. So we went back to our roots and started a traditional sign shop without any graphic computers. It’s how we were taught. We don’t have much equipment; just our work boxes, a few brushes and a little space to work from. But it’s all good.

We’ve found that working this way makes us think a little bit more. Giving up the computers to do everything by hand makes the work take a little longer, but it’s rewarding. And it’s starting to pay off—people are seeing what we’re doing. They can tell it’s something special and the work is coming in. And now that Stu is back in Australia for a few months, I think there will be a lot of early mornings and some nightshifts, too.

Dobell Designs is a two-man shop, and we work out of the back of Incite Screen Printing, a T-shirt screen printing shop owned owned by Aden Eillis and Colby Spence, who we met when we first came to town. We rent the back of their shop.

Stu and I believe that people everywhere still have some special appreciation for something that is hand-done. It has a unique element to it. We’ve been very fortunate in that we got in with a nearby company called Phillips Brewery—it’s owned by Matthew Phillips, who understands what we’re about. Their beers are made by hand, so they appreciate that our signs are made by hand. In a lot of ways they’ve taken us along for the ride as their company has grown. They’ve really come on board and pushed Stu and me in a lot of ways.

The brewery supports the pubs that offer their beers by giving them a personalized sign that promotes the pub and Phillips Brewery. Phillips Brewery has given us the opportunity to bring back the traditional pub signage and create some great looking signage for their brewery—not to mention they provide us with some awesome beer for inspiration!

Most of the work is A-frames, welcome signs and menu boards. They really get our work out into the public eye. Phillips has three or four reps out selling their beer, but they’re also selling our signs for us, in a way. And get- ting our signs into pubs in the tourist towns is turning out to be very beneficial for us. David Wong, owner of the Six Mile Pub, the oldest pub in BC, has also given Stu and I the oppor- tunity to restore his pub with traditional hand painted signs.

Our work range goes from boats to vehicles to flat painted signs and pinstriping. We do everything by hand. We do signs, antique signs, menu boards, window splashes, gold leaf, trucks, boats and more. If it stands still long enough, we will paint it.

We’re not really speaking to one certain type of work. We do lots of flat painted wood signs and vehicles, too. It seems that customers are coming to us because we’re offering something that no one else does. Recently we have been doing some of the faux antique signs, too, with the help of Mark Fair [Mark Fair Signs, Montgomery, Alabama]. He’s given us some great guidance.

We’ve gotten to know some great people and artists through SignCraft and some of the online communities such as Creative Signmakers of America. The likes of guys like Mike Meyer, Mark Fair, Bob Sauls, and Brad Bandow—just to name a few. They’re all such talented guys—and they’re nice people to talk to, as well. They don’t mind answering an e- mail and offering a bit of advice. And whenever we get a SignCraft that has a Lane Walker or Rob Cooper article, the pages always get marked for future reference.

It’s taken a little while but people are beginning to recognize our work. There’s some beautiful work in this town—much of it is older, and I don’t know who did it or what’s happened to those sign painters. Maybe they’ve retired or gone the computer route, but I think those older signs are why people are familiar with good work and why they’re still looking for it. For someone around here who wants to have a boat or a truck lettered or some pinstriping or a hand-lettered sign, there’s no one to be found. So when they see one of our signs, they seek us out and often say something like, “We saw this or that sign, and how much does it cost for that sort of thing?”

That’s one thing about this island—the people are nice and they really seem to appreciate the arts. There’s definitely a big art culture here. If someone passes on the sidewalk as you’re painting a sign, they’ll stop and watch and tell you you’re doing a good job.

—From an interview with John McIltrot