Faux vintage signs for modern times

By Dennis Gerathy

Posted on Friday, April 16th, 2021

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Many years ago I was listening to a recording of a motivational speaker who said, “One good idea can revolutionize your business and your entire life.” The power and truth in that statement would prove to be a defining moment in my career.

In February of 1992, I had already been in business for myself for 24 years. It was winter (something I’m not a real big fan of), I didn’t have much work, I had a touch of the flu—I was seriously considering getting out of the sign business and finding something else to do for a living. I was actually reading the classified ads to consider my options.

I was weary of the hassles connected with the sign business: suppliers who didn’t have what I needed, customers who were slow to pay, problems with equipment. Another big factor was the work I was doing. It was nearly all real estate signs, and I found that really boring.

Little did I realize that God was about to throw me a lifeline and pull me out of the funk I was in. God’s timing is always perfect; He might be early but He’s never late. My phone rang and a gentleman asked me to come and see him about a sign. He wanted a 1-by-5-ft. sign that would hang over an archway at his shop. The sign would read Grand Central Station and the copy would be white-on-black. Then he said the magic words: “Can you make it look old?”

I said “Sure!” without knowing how I would do it. I just knew I could do it. For some unknown reason I was very excited about this project. I took an old board I had lying around the shop, cut it to size and painted it with flat black latex. I lettered it with an off-white acrylic in a spurred Roman letter style. Once it was dry, I sanded the entire surface and then framed it with some old barn wood. The customer loved it.

Later, as I relaxed back at my shop with a cup of coffee, I looked at the check he had given me and realized then and there that I had hit on a great idea. I began making old-looking signs with all sorts of different themes and selling them at arts-and-craft shows. That, of course, led to lots of custom orders.

How I make them

Most of my signs start as a panel of half-inch overlaid plywood that I coat out with acrylic paint and a cutter. Once dry, I do my layout, which is often done with soft chalk or charcoal. I reproduce many of my designs so I have pounce patterns for those.

The goal of my layouts is to make it look like a sign that was hand-lettered by a local sign painter 50 years ago or more. I stay with the letter styles and colors that would have been common at the time. I often include some artwork—most of the old-time sign painters were artists at heart.

I want the signs to look as if they were professionally done, not homemade by someone with no experience. But the hand-lettered signs of years ago were not about perfection so the lettering need not be precise.

Once it dries I go at it with some sandpaper to give it a worn look. Then I usually frame them up with some weathered wood. Often I use salvaged wood for the frame because it’s hard to match for an authentic appearance. If the paint is cracking and peeling, all the better.

Since these signs are usually for indoor use, I letter them with artists acrylics such as Accent and Deco Art brand paints. Acrylic dries fast, it’s easy to blend and covers well. I get the paints at arts and crafts stores or online.

I letter the signs with a variety of brushes that I have bought over the years. I am always experimenting to find brushes that I like.

Occasionally someone will ask if they can put their sign out on their porch under a roof. That’s fine, and when I know that’s going to happen I often coat them with Minwax Satin Clear for a little extra protection.

If the sign is going to have full outdoor exposure, I will, of course, use enamel paints. I also use enamels on vintage vehicles. It is becoming quite popular to not restore the exterior of old vehicles, or at least make them appear not to be restored. The paint may be fading and there may be some dents, and the owner wants the lettering to look appropriate for the time when the truck was new.

These are always fun to do and I letter them with 1 Shot enamel and lettering quills. When dry I sand them to remove any gloss and sand through here and there to add to the aged effect. Again I try to make them look as if they were lettered by a sign painter from that era, long before the precision and perfection of computers.

Shows and dealers

I now have a group of retail stores and boat dealers that purchase my work for resale. I participate in several art shows each year and have decorated 15 restaurants with cottage-themed signs. This one simple concept rejuvenated my passion for painting signs and certainly elevated my creativity.

I firmly believe that many people maintain an ongoing love affair with the past. I arrived at that conclusion based on the fact that I have hand-painted, hand-framed and sold over 27,000 vintage signs since that first one in ’92.

The beauty of the past

At 78, I have been accused of being old school and stuck in the past on occasion. I plead guilty as charged. I am deeply sentimental and set in my ways, and I know in my heart, mind and memory that things really were better years ago.

So I play to that vast audience with my work. I have always loved old towns, buildings, signs, cars, music, books and toys. Is it any wonder that I really enjoy junk-picking and wandering around antique stores?

All my happy memories lie in the past. How could they be in the future when I haven’t gotten there yet? Of course I plan ahead for family outings and vacations but the future is promised to no one. Yes, some technology is wonderful, but I also see the vast number of problems associated with it. My life is simple and I like it that way.

That one great idea that was presented to me nearly 30 years ago has paved the way for me to be living here in beautiful Northern Michigan on a three-acre wooded parcel in a lovely home that my vintage signs paid for. Life is good because God is good. My wonderful family and all my sign painter friends are the result of one single act.

I believe that while I was still in my mother’s womb, God placed within my DNA the tiniest seed of artistic ability—then He waited patiently to see what I would do with it. When the curtain comes down on my life, I can be confident that I didn’t let Him down.

Dennis Gerathy’s shop, Vintage Signs, is in Cedar, Michigan.

SignCraft, January/February 2007, with updates