Step-by-step: Restore a wood sign

By signcraft

Posted on Friday, July 2nd, 2021

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Sooner or later, it’s necessary to refinish a quality-built wood sign—to sand and repaint it. Other cases call for more extensive woodwork and repairs and involve restoring a wood sign and all its details to its original condition.

Ian Macdonald has been focusing on restoring wood signs for the past three years—after noticing how many fine handmade wood signs in his area needed repaired or refinished. His shop, Historic Sign Restoration, is in Rochester, New York.

In upstate New York and across New England, there are many beautiful wood signs that had been made 15 or 20 years ago—or longer. Time and the elements were catching up with many of them, leaving cracked faces, peeling paint and rotting trim.

“I decided to focus most of my time on quality made signs that needed help,” says Ian, “the company name just sort of speaks for itself. Restoration is becoming really important today. It’s part of living with nature, not against it. Resources that can be reclaimed are better for the environment and for customers. These signs were typically expensive to produce when new and quite cost prohibitive to replace. Rather than having extra firewood around, why not bring it back to life?”

Most of the signs Ian has restored were made of high-quality redwood and mahogany. Years of exposure to the elements have taken their toll. If it is early in that process, you may be able to refinish a wood sign by simply sanding and repainting. To restore a wood sign once damage has occurred, though, you must undo that wear-and-tear.

“When I get them,” he says, “they’re in rough shape. The paint is peeling, boards have de-laminated and there’s probably some rot here and there. Sometimes a maintenance man has tried refinishing the gold leaf with gold paint. There may be cracks and splits in the face. Some are literally in pieces. Worst of all, repaints are usually a cheap latex paint and applied randomly to save time. Hand-painted outlines, lettering and flourishes are gone or poorly matched.

“The Edgewood Resort sign was in six pieces when I picked it up, hanging together thanks to some iron strips on the back. It was up in the Thousand Islands area, at the Canadian border of New York. It is huge—6-by-13-ft. and made of 2-in. clear heart vertical grain redwood. We built a special cradle to work on it, and it took six guys to lift it back in place.”

Some of the signs are carved; others are sandblasted. It’s a little easier to hide some of the repairs on the textured background of a blasted sign, but repairing carved signs usually takes a little more work. That’s especially true if it has to be gilded, because gold leaf shows every imperfection in the surface.

You can see more wood signs that Ian has restored here.

Restore a wood sign: 7 steps

  • Repair any damage to the wood and replace trim if necessary.
  • Fill cracks and defects with commercial wood filler or a mixture of sawdust and marine spar varnish.
  • Glue cracked panels back together.
  • Sand the sign, finishing with 220 grit sandpaper.
  • Prime with two coats of oil-based primer.
  • Finish with two or three coats of oil-based enamel.
  • Gild the lettering if necessary.

Restore a wood sign, step-by-step

For Ian, the first step to restoring a wood sign is to repair any major damage to the wood. This is mostly hand work, fitting patches as needed. The redwood signs usually have little, if any, rot, but pine and cedar signs sometimes have significant rotting. If the sign has cracked—as many have—it is laminated back together. Any cracks, dings and divots are patched or filled.

Sanding is usually the next step, because most of these signs were originally finished with oil-based paint. Ian usually sands the sign down to bare wood using belt and orbital sanders. Details and carved letters must be re-carved then sanded by hand. If the sign was finished with acrylic latex paint, though, it is stripped using a heat gun and sometimes liquid paint stripper (the good stuff, says Ian, that burns your skin).

At this point, any remaining imperfections are filled and sanded. Ian uses a quality commercial wood filler or mixes the sawdust from the wood on the sign with marine spar varnish to make a filler. He always has pill bottles full of good sawdust on hand that he has collected from different woods they have worked on. The sign is finish-sanded down with 220 grit paper. Then it’s time for two coats of slow oil-based primer.

The first coat of primer is thinned 60-40 with mineral spirits to allow for maximum penetration. The second coat is applied at full strength after allowing plenty of time for the first coat to dry completely. He always sands between coats of any paint.

Next, the sign is ready for two to three coats of enamel paint. He finds that bulletin enamels don’t require that much paint, but even quality brand oils like Sherwin Williams will require at least two coats. Oil-based finishes must be allowed to dry completely before sanding and applying the next coat. Often the sign sits for three or four days before it can be sanded and the next coat applied.

“Most of these signs were gilded when they were new,” says Ian. “Carved letters that aren’t finished in gold or silver leaf lose their impact. I see a lot of new computer-routed signs with painted letters, and I scratch my head and wonder why? Gold leaf is what sets the sign artist apart from the amateur. When you restore a wood sign, this step adds a lot of impact to the lettering.”

Ian uses slow gold size to get a gild with the maximum burnish. Once it has dried to a sufficient tack, the gold leaf is applied, burnished and hand outlined or shadowed or both. The sign is ready to be installed—once again.

“It’s fulfilling to bring a sign back to life,” says Ian. “I love working with my hands again, the smell of cut wood and paint—just like the old days. We probably won’t be able to get wood like this ever again, so it’s a kick to restore a wood sign like this. It’s been a real joy and the response has really been great.”

Post trim shows the extensive decay that can occur.

Cracks in the panel must be cleaned and filled.

Rotted wood is removed leaving solid wood.

A fitted plug is made to replace the rotted portion.

Here a splice has been made to replace decaying wood.

Sanding the face with a random orbital sander

Sanding in progress

Applying first coat of primer. Note that the background on this sign will be left unpainted.

Some components, like this base molding, need to be fabricated from new material to replace rotted originals.

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