Making a new old sign

By Devin Linsenbach

Posted on Wednesday, October 7th, 2020

One of the very cool things that a sign maker can do is to create a new sign that looks 50 years old—weathered letters on a cracked and blistered background. With the right layout and letter styles, plus a little sanding to add to the effect, the results can be very convincing.

Unless you can start with a weather-beaten plank or panel, the first thing you need to do is create the panel, complete with a cracked or “crackled” finish. It’s easier than you think.

Howard Bertram [Bertram Signs & Graphics, Carefree, Arizona] does his share of these faux vintage signs, often for lobby signs and interior décor. Right before he applies his finish coat to the background, he brushes on a coat of thinned Elmer’s Glue or similar wood glue. The finish coat of exterior acrylic latex goes on as the glue starts to dry and as the two products dry, a crackled finish is the result.


Applying the thinned wood glue over the dark base color of the panel

“I prime the panel,” says Howard, “then coat with exterior acrylic house paint with a gloss finish—not matte, satin or semi-gloss. This base color is usually dark to provide contrast with the crackle finish coat, which is usually a light color. Allow to dry completely.

“Thin some white or yellow wood glue slightly with water to about the consistency of tomato soup. Coat the entire background quickly. Here in Arizona, things dry almost instantly, so this may differ slightly based on the relative humidity in different parts of the country.


A heat gun speeds the drying of the glue so that you can apply the finish coat as the glue is dull and has started to dry translucent in some areas.

“Let the glue dry for a few minutes. It will get dull on its surface, and thin areas will start to turn clear. Topcoat with the desired background color paint. Use a light-colored matte finish paint that contrasts to the dark background. Don’t over-brush the paint or it will start to pick up the glue.”


Again, the heat gun is used, this time to speed the drying of the light-colored finish coat and to encourage more cracking.

The paint will start cracking within minutes. If he wants more cracks and crazing, Howard uses a hair dryer to speed the process and create larger cracks.

Once dry, it’s ready to letter. You can letter with a somewhat dry brush here and there to add to the weathered look, or thin the paint more than usual to let the brushstrokes show. After the lettering dries, you can scuff and sand it to make it even more authentic.

Howard Bertram, Bertram Signs & Graphics, Carefree, Arizona