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Making the New Look Old

The details of a challenging, yet fun sign project.

By Bill Stanford

Occasionally in the day-to-day signery, a customer will have an extraordinary request that makes you want to drop what you are doing and jump right to it. It's the occasional fun project that makes you glad that the old sign shop opened that day! Don't get me wrong. The day-to-day sign business can be rewarding in itself. But isn't it nice to occasionally get a customer that leaves the total creativity up to you?

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  • Recently a taxidermist walked into the shop and began to explain that there would be an outdoor sportsman store opening up in the area in a couple of days. This particular store was allowing local businesses that also offered a service to outdoor sportsman a unique opportunity to set up a display inside. My client was setting up an action display featuring some of his taxidermy work, a deer watching two turkeys fighting it out in a woodland setting. The taxidermist proceeded to explain that he needed a finishing touch to his display and that's where I came in. He wanted a no hunting sign mounted within the display. "That's no problem," I replied, "we can fix you right up with one. What vinyl colors would you like?" To which he replied "I'm not really thinking vinyl, but more the look of an old barn board that appears to have been out in the woods for a while. Can you make something like that?" "Sure!" I stated without batting an eye. "I'm going to need it day after tomorrow," he said while turning around to leave, "I'll pick it up before noon." I looked at my watch and noticed it was 4:56pm. I shook the watch and slapped it a little then held it up to my ear to see if it was running. Yup, it was right...

    The First Steps to Achieving Antiquity

    While unlocking the door the next morning I was a little more than anxious to get started with a barn board no hunting sign. Not having enough time to track down an actual barn board, I figured I'd make one myself. It would be fun! I marched back to the MDO pile, and found a piece that would be just about the right size for a no hunting sign. It was about 12" x 18" or so, but I didn't measure it because I was anxious to get started, and if an old timer made a sign from a barn board he wouldn't have bothered to measure anyway.

    I started by cutting notches in each side but not being real careful to get them even, thinking the notches would give it sort of a quaint appearance. The MDO was then attacked by the sander and a round file to relieve the square or sharp corners and appear to be worn smooth. At the inside point of the notches, a small groove was filed down the face to make a cracked board effect. When the board was all sanded and filed smooth, it was taken outside and tossed across the parking lot a couple of times. That sounds a bit abrupt and extreme, but it sure gave it a worn, weathered and beat appearance. It was then taken back in and sanded quickly across the face to get off any rough edges.

    Next, with a bit of irony, the sign that was eventually to look old was primed with new construction primer. Well, I guess you had to be there > it struck me as funny at the time, and it dries fast. Being that I had to have the sign done the next day, I set a small fan on the table and placed the primed board in front of it to speed drying time. While that was drying, I looked through the paint shelves to find a fast drying dull and old looking paint to use as a base color. A dull light brown color called Palomino was found that would be perfect for the job.

    Usually primer is sanded down smooth but in this case the brush marks were left to give a little more texture to the piece. The Palomino was then applied covering all the edges and dents with a good coat, then placed in front of the fan to dry. When the first coat was dry, a second thinner coat was applied and placed again in front of the fan to dry. The MDO now had a dull gray/tan base coat that was on its way to becoming a barn board.

    Getting Down to the Grain of the Matter

    Up to this point the primer and painting procedures have been fairly basic and straightforward, but now it's time to get creative! A dark brown paint, almost an artist's VanDyke Brown, was selected and a small amount placed in a throwaway cup. The dark brown was then reduced by about 4:1, so it was very close to the consistency of the reducer. We have cheap chip brushes laying around the shop for cleaning paint out of can lids, cleaning up board edges and so forth, and one of these cheap brushes would be just the ticket for applying wood grain. I ruffled up the bristles and was not the least bit gentle about it, even pulling out a few of them in the process. If you have an old ragged brush lying around it would be perfect for this.

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    The reason the paint should to be that thin is because there is so little of it on the brush, it has to be thin to flow out. If the brush is too loaded with paint, it will look like someone spilled his or her coffee on the sign. Been there, done that. Here is the simplest way to create wood grain. The brush is dabbed into the thinned mixture trying not to load down the brush too much. Drag the brush across a piece of paper until the brush is leaving streaks in its path, then gently run the brush across the board in a smooth stroke. The brush strokes do not have to be straight. In fact, if they are a little wiggly and run a little unparalleled, they look more realistic. If an area has a bit too much coverage, the base color can be alternated with the dark coat until it looks like a wood grain. Then use a detail brush to make the cracks in the wood and to better accentuate the dents and gouges. Then my board was back in front of the old fan to speed up drying, again. I was sure glad to finally see spring. It was drafty enough in here last winter without running the fan.

    The Final Touches

    On this particular no hunting sign the lettering was to look as if an amateur had done it several years ago, so without a pattern or plan I just started painting. The popular dry brush technique was used on much of the lettering so it would look weathered and worn. Darker colored lettering with an ivory drop shadow made the paint job appear to have aged a few years.

    When the lettering had dried, yes in front of the fan again, the old beat up chip brush and dark paint was again used to lightly go over the lettering so the woodgrain appeared to be cracking the paint. Now all it needs is a pair of rusty nails and Mr. Taxidermy is good to go!

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