How to create graphics with a vintage look

By Todd Hanson

Posted on Friday, February 19th, 2021

Over the past few years, rat rods and retro rods have taken off in popularity, and the call for faux-aged lettering and pinstriping has created a cool, new road for us to travel. The old, beat-up look has made a huge impact in the hot rod world—and for hand-lettering and striping artists, too. The look you can give these vehicles is of great value when done well.

Before we get started, here is your first and most important tip: Do not mask and paint a computer-designed layout for aged lettering or striping! I cannot emphasize how lame that is. These are vehicles that were made long before computer lettering, so there would not be any computerized artwork at all on these. Just don’t do it. Not cool at all.

How you approach this work is based largely on the finished paint qualities of the car or truck. The vehicles I’ve worked on have come in varying degrees of finish. Some have shown up all in black primer, others in primer and paint together, and some with a lot of rust.

Paint with aging in mind

When you are painting, whether it’s a lettering brush or a striping brush, and the brush skips over an area, don’t go back and fill in. Just let those voids be part of the aging process. If it’s a pinstriping job that’s going to be scuffed up, you can stripe faster and a little bit looser. I’m not saying sloppy, but the stripes don’t have to be as perfect because the aging is going to change the look of the striping considerably.

When doing pinstriping that will be aged, stripe more than you think the vehicle needs. You’ll be removing a lot of the striping you are putting on, so you won’t be seeing as much of it in the end. I learned that on my first job, because I thought a lot of the work I did was lost.

Dirt for vintage graphics

To age the lettering when the cars are all scraped up, rusty, and have a multitude of finishes on them, I’ll grab a handful of dirt—yes, dirt—and really scuff up the lettering. I also use a combination of Scotchbrite pads and sometimes 300- or 400-grit wet/dry sandpaper with the dirt. Dirt and dust go everywhere, so be prepared. When aging the striping on louvers on hoods, I lay an old blanket over the engine so it doesn’t get covered in dirt.

Wear work gloves when rubbing the dirt; your hands will thank you later. Work gloves are kind of my secret weapon. I can work a certain area by just using the material of the gloves as the abrasive and not necessarily use dirt. Or, I pinch a little dirt between my index finger and my thumb. When I go to the panel, I trap the dirt against the panel with my index finger, then rub.

When going over a large area I use the whole palm of my hand with dirt. Back up and look at your work from a distance periodically and determine if it needs more rubbing. If the finish of one side of the car happens to appear rougher and more weathered than the other, age the lettering and striping to fit each side.

I approach the lettering and pinstriping the same way as if I wasn’t going to age the artwork. I do the lettering first and the striping second. Here’s another very important tip: Use lighter color choices (for both the lettering and the pinstriping) than you might normally have chosen. When you rub dirt on the paint, the paint darkens from the dirt adhering to it.

The trick is to wait for the paint to set up to the point that it’s still wet, but it doesn’t come off on your finger when you touch it. This way the paint doesn’t smear, but it dirties up well and will wear off from the abrasive rubbing.

Yes, it’s a very strange feeling to scuff up perfectly good stripes. The rubbing takes a while and it helps to be quite aggressive. The illusion of aging just doesn’t happen in three minutes. Sometimes the paint may have dried a bit too much before you get to a particular spot for rubbing. Don’t panic. As long as you have lettered or striped the spot within an hour or two, you can still break through the top dried layer of paint. The paint will still be a little bit soft underneath the top dried layer. It just takes a little more work when rubbing.

Over-do it? Time to repaint

If you feel you have taken off too much of the lettering or striping, just repaint the area that you feel needs more, and age again. No big deal. It can be a 2-in. section of re-painted striping, and it will blend right in.

When using multiple colors on a job, and with different colors drying at different speeds, it can be difficult to follow what I said to do earlier with one color. Sometimes I’ll letter or stripe a couple colors and then do the aging.

By the way—the paint is usually dry once you’ve been rubbing dirt in it for a while, so I wipe off the area I worked on with some Windex. I’ll get the area clean and then continue on with the next colors and repeat the process. I use the same principle when I’m working with a color panel; I’ll age the panel first, clean the surface, and then lay out the lettering on it. I’ll paint the letters, then age again.

When aging, rub side to side most of the time, and occasionally in a circular motion. Don’t rub up and down. Over the years, the vehicle is bound to pick up some scrapes down the side. So, it makes sense to do the rubbing in that same direction.

Feel free to add a few scrapes, being very random about them. You want your work to look as if it happened over a long period of time. Don’t make all the aging equal. Say there’s a panel welded into a fender, and the panel isn’t painted to match the rest of the area. Don’t stripe or letter in this area, because it’s been cut out. The lettering and striping would be gone, too, right?

If an area blends from paint to primer, think along the same lines—the striping would fade away at the primer. With that said, sometimes you have to cheat if the door is primered and paint splotched, and the customer wants lettering on it. Even though the lettering or striping technically wouldn’t age this way, the look will still be effective.

Be flexible

Remember every job has different goals to accomplish for the customer, so my comments are guidelines that can change, depending on each job. Lettering is normally more important than striping; you have to be able to read letters, not stripes.

If you do this right, you will be tired. My arm is usually sore for a day or two after rubbing out the striping and lettering on one of these rat rods. You will use arm muscles you didn’t know you had. (Maybe I’m just old and out of shape!) But the finished product looks so cool when it’s done, it’s worth it.

You probably wonder about the time involved in this process. Based on my experience, your work time can almost double compared to a regular striping job that has no aging. You cannot cheat in the aging process. You must spend the time on each square inch of striping and lettering, or you won’t create the image of old paint. This takes time, so plan for it.

Now for the fun part. If you can go to a car show where your work will be shown, stand near the owner of the car and listen to people make comments such as, “Where did he find a car that looks like that?” When people learn that the stripes and lettering are new, they can’t believe it.

You might also hear someone ask, “When are you going to get your car painted?” And you will probably see some of the shiny car enthusiasts a little angry or say that it’s stupid to have cars like these at shows. These moments can be very interesting and comical, and I enjoy them all.

Todd Hanson’s shop, Hanson Graphix, is in Wauseon, Ohio. He is also the author of Pinstriping Instruction and Designs, which is available from SignCraft.com.

This lubester can and panel were new and shiny when I started.

I use the same approach to recreate cool “old” parts and service signs. This sign started out as a new white aluminum panel.

The base color of the door was black. I had to age the door before lettering it—then age the lettering.