Restoration & Re-Creation of Historic Signs
April 20, 2015
A few years ago, we purchased an antique porcelain Ford dealership sign at the Portland Swap meet. Although the sign was in relatively good condition considering its age, it was originally a double-sided and had beautiful art deco curved wings with neon that wrapped around both sides. Because the sign was missing its curved ends, neon and the other oval panel that would have complemented the side we purchased, it sat in our inventory until we began to get ambitious.
Fortunately, we found another sign similar to ours and the owner was kind enough to allow us to use his sign to re-create some of the parts that were missing. Starting with hand-cut templates, we mapped out the original hole locations and to form the curves of the curved ends, which were additionally complicated by having a specific flange on the ends of them that allowed them to seamlessly connect to the main oval sign face.
Once we had the templates built for the missing pieces and our forms followed the correct curvature of the curved end caps, we began an exhaustive effort to match the distinctive Ford blue exactly. If the color was not a spot-on match to the original sign it would defeat the purpose of re-creating the lost parts if they did not match up. This took quite a few firings before the match was identical. It turns out that Ford used numerous sign companies across the world to manufacture dealership signs and so there were subtle differences among manufacturers, like Mulholland Sign Co (of Kalamazoo, Michigan was one of the most prevalent), Cook Sign Co, and other sign companies that made each sign distinctly unique. In our case, our sign was clearly a darker shade of blue and different than Mulholland signs we have seen. Originally manufactured by Cook Sign Company, which was based in Fargo, North Dakota, our sign was just slightly different, so getting the right shade of color was very important.
Now that the correct porcelain shade of blue was achieved, we could begin work on laser cutting and hand forming the parts so that they could match the same tolerances as the originals.
While all of this work was happening on the parts, we were working on re-creating the artwork. Some parts were placed on a high resolution scanner, while other large parts too large or complicated to scan, were photographed, the images of which were imported into Adobe Illustrator and/or Photoshop. While most poor quality ‘reproductions’ simply scan an image and use the software to create a vector image, we spend countless hours hand-drawing each nuance and detail. On complicated projects we have spent upwards to 25 hours on some signs to draw every detail to re-create artwork.
If one examines how porcelain signs were originally manufactured one can begin to understand how to re-create the same effects. This has taken VAULT® ten years of exhaustive research and making numerous prototypes, some of which turned out great, but most of which just did not have the quality we were seeking to achieve. It was, at times, nerve-racking. Going through this process, we learned a lot throughout the years:
For example, there are a subtle details that are found in original signs (circa 1920’s-1930’s) that give them character. For starters, the lettering, oval and bands on original Ford oval signs, were all created through hand-cut stencils by someone using either a blade or cutters who may not have had the steadiest of hand. This introduced a slight, yet constant, wavering in the lines of the artwork. If you examine an original sign closely, this slight wavering of art gives the sign less than perfect lines.
Then prior to firing a sign in the kiln, when the template (or whatever mask or screen) was removed by the sign maker, it may have “chipped” the edges of the thick dry porcelain on a very small scale in some places, but not everywhere. Because many original signs sprayed the porcelain frit onto the sign faces, there can also be signs of overspray, creating even more details, like shelving . All of these nuances are not imperfections, they are simply part of what gives original signs their appeal.
Our obsessive attention to re-creating all of these details took an enormous amount of effort, but without perfect artwork, the smallest of these details that are inherent in original signs simply cannot be captured.
Once the vector artwork is finished, the cut and shaped sign blanks can finally go into production. Depending on the sign and what parts are being re-created, hand-cut stencils (for simple artwork) or silkscreens (for detailed artwork) are made. The artwork is then fired in a large furnace at temperatures over 1,350 degrees, which permanently fuses the porcelain art to the enameling steel, creating porcelain panels with brilliant colors, a durable finish and incredible resistance. In the case of the Ford signs, which were two color signs (blue and white) the sign had be fired a total of three separate times to achieve the art (first the base coat, then each color).
Because the process and materials that are used to create a VAULT® porcelain sign are virtually unchanged from those used by the original manufacturers, the end result is an incomparable re-creation of a historic vintage sign that otherwise would never have been previously possible.
This has been a very ambitious undertaking in which much time and effort has been put into making all of these parts, without which a complete sign would not have been possible. Our hope is that our work will get ordinary people excited about porcelain signs. The reaction that we want to elicit from people is ‘This is so cool’. The reaction that we want from our customers is to go beyond their expectations. Both are a tall order, but after a decade of working at this, I am comfortable saying that we have achieved perfection in the craft of porcelain sign making. We are very proud of the quality of these restorations and re-creations. We hope you feel the same.
Chad Haas, Chief Gearhead at VAULT®
We will always endeavor at VAULT® to maintain the highest level of craftsmanship in making great products that are extraordinary and unequaled in terms of their quality.
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