Traditional Signwriter - Dean Box


As featured in            second issue. 

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I do not know why but from an early age I wanted to be a signwriter. I was good at art and was told by my schoolteacher that I would not make a living out of being a good artist.

During a school holiday I worked for a local sign company for only a few days, as because I was left handed they said it would be difficult to teach me, the owner told my father that I would never make it as a signwriter (but what they had not noticed at the time is that I am ambidextrous, luckily I use both hands equally and now I draw with the left hand and paint with the right hand).   

None of this deterred me and when I was due to leave school I contacted nearly every sign company in Bedfordshire, most of which did no signwriting and the few who did were mainly one man businesses and did not want to or take the time to train anyone. Still determined I found only two colleges that had signwriting courses, there were other colleges that carried out a small amount of signwriting within a painting and decorating course.

I had an interview with Shirecliff College in Sheffield where after taking a test I was offered a free scholarship to start in September 1983. In the meantime and to gain work experience I worked for a local signwriter Mick Gilbert (without pay) for one month. When the time came for me to start my college course Mick Gilbert said that I would not learn the complete trade in a classroom and he would take me on as his apprentice.

Mick Gilbert was a time served tradesman, even when he was serving in the army for national service he was a signwriter. His business was mainly with Charles Wells Brewery at the time, he supplied all of their signage, this was the cream of the sign trade, I learnt all aspects of the trade from guilding to oil painting swinging signs, back painting mirrors, windows and light boxes, cut out letters and of course lettering. With artwork most mistakes can be hidden but lettering allows no errors, this is how we are judged by our peers.

You can always tell an artist that's turned his had to signwriting, as Japanese brush writing is considered an art form so is the art of signwriting. Like all good scholars I surpassed my master and would rate my work against any that I have seen. On my 19th birthday I asked Mick Gilbert for a rise but he could not afford this so I decided to start out on my own and Mick still booked me to carry out work for him and ironically I was earning more for a days work than I had originally asked for a week. I ran Mick's business on my own for a year whilst he was recovering from a motorbike accident; we enjoyed a good working friendship until his retirement.

Over the years I have carried out many diverse jobs in the sign trade, the smallest lettering to date being on a pot which stood on a pub bar for supporters donations to a football club and the largest was on aircraft hanger doors at Cranfield University. The most awkward was the inside of speaker bells for a public address company. One of the best contracts I had was travelling the length and breath of the UK, Ireland and Europe for three years with another signwriter painting snakes and ladders and hopscotch etc. on the floors of an international children's retailer. This we had to carry out during the night while the shops where closed, we had a great time!

I spent another year with a colleague painting curtain sides on lorry trailers. I have painted and designed many corporate logos.

With the decline of the pub trade I do work for private owners now. In my opinion the quality of the Brewers work has gone down due to them cutting costs, likewise the haulage companies do not have the same pride with the signage on their wagons, the best quality work is being carried out mostly for private owner operators and I do the writing for one of the best airbrush artist in the country.

When I started in the trade most mass produced signs were formed with the silk screen process, now with the advent of computers anyone that can work one can set up in the vinyl sign trade. Although I do offer this service but this is not where my passion for the sign trade lies.

I have now been in business for 21 years and I have reached the age that they say 'life begins at' I still have to earn a living and working for yourself does have its ups and downs but I would not change a thing, I love the trade now as much as the first day I started. My hobbies are my trade, studying pub signs, folk art and heraldry. I know I will never be rich and I would sooner loose money than carry out poor workmanship.

Most of my greatest work now is for fairgrounds, steam engines, wagons, carts and narrow boats. I love showing off my work at shows and on the canals especially on those summer days when people are fascinated and stop to admire my work and comment on how easy I make it look, this makes me feel very proud of what I do.

If you would like any further information or would like me to design and or quote on a current project then please contact me.
See my 'contact me' page or complete my contact form.
Dean Box