Nostalgia, reflection & my very first sign?

My very first sign?

As the 2016 year mysteriously (I mean, like - wasn't it just March!?) comes to a close, I find it appropriate to reflect - not only on this year, but 'in general'.

A few months ago, my dad told me he had something very interesting to show me. He alluded that it somehow related to my present endeavor in sign-making, but wanted to surprise me.  Being an appreciator of mystery and suspense, I eagerly anticipated what this enigma might be. When my dad ultimately revealed this item to me, my face instantly lit up. My face wore a large grin - the kind that can only be rendered by a great wave of nostalgia. Before my eyes, I witnessed what may possibly represent my "very first signboard". This rather small object powerfully time-warped me to my early adolescence. All but three decades were vaporized by the mere sight of it.

So, what exactly was this object? Well, it was a sign that I had made for my dad... one that was created a very long time ago. The sign itself had been forgotten (at least the details of it), yet its presence triggered a boatload of nostalgia for me. Somewhere in this nostalgia, I may have pinpointed an early seed that affirms my present efforts in 'sign making'. If I have your interest, please read on...

As a young boy, my dad maintained a part-time / side business (much like the sign business here) that was run from a small, detached cement-block building located a mere stone's-throw from our family house. When he wasn't tinkering, my dad spent his time repairing radiators in this building. The business was aptly named Jim's Radiator Service and its humble headquarters represented, for me, a sheer wonderland for my own imagination. To this day, I would hold my dad's work ethic up to anyone who proclaims to be a 'hard worker'.  His full-time factory job demanded great energy from him. To boot, most weeks were overflowing in overtime hours, of which he took full advantage. Despite this, my dad spent considerable time in his small unassuming garage space - engaging in the gritty pursuit of radiator repair.

Like most good kids my age, I delighted in offering my dad a helping hand (<<< Not always, but most times). Not one to engage in the specialty tasks that would be performed in this small space (such as: welding, grinding, or soldering), I oftentimes reached for the broom and dustpan - making small strides each session to reveal the hidden cement floor that lied beneath the layers of debris and dust. Great pride was taken in my "garage-beautification" efforts, as the words and facial expressions from my dad's face were more than affirming to me - his loyal helper. Sometimes, I would reach the point in my organizational activity where I felt that 'everything that can possibly be done had thoroughly been done';  While I would love to go back in time to observe whether or not I was indeed correct in such assessments (haha), I am happy to say that such milestones would permit me the opportunity to engage in hands-on creation of my own.

Such creation fell into one of two activities - using a wood-burning tool to make marks on wood or grinding into wood with an electric Dremel tool. Yes, employing the good ol' Dremel tool would ironically contradict the clean-up efforts that, most likely, preceded this. But, this point merely confirms my mom's all too familiar statement of me - that "There is nothing more enticing to you than a clean room." Yes, I absolutely love to begin a new hands-on activities in a clean environment, but I regress... :)

Most of the time, I would make various types of signs with these tools, much like the cool CNC-routered specimens I would casually admire at places like the Ocean City boardwalk, various trade shows and the annual York County Fair. I recall making signs stating words and expressions like "Open" and "Jim's Radiator Service", but also remember a few depicting scenes of whitetail deer and game fish. Wearing my safety goggles, I would hack away at my creations - most times within a veil of secrecy. You see - it was my intention to unveil these masterpieces to my dad or other family members as surprises.

Finally cutting to my point, the following example represents one such creation. In my mind's eye, this sign was much more fabulous and grandiose. My dad explained just how much this sign meant to him, especially way back then - when I initially presented him with what I considered the manifestation of my artistic genius. I recall the feeling vividly... it was as if my soul was smiling and bubbling with joy over the satisfaction that met the shock of this well-calculated surprise. To this day, I still thrive on the creation of such emotional well-springs. There are few more authentic indicators of satisfaction to an artist / craftsman than the positive reaction on the part of a person receiving a work in hand.

To this end, it is my hope that my efforts in creating continue to bring joy to my customers. While I'm no longer a small kid working away in the corner of a small cinder block radiator shop, but my goal remains the same - to bring a special element of surprise and great pleasure to whomever rests at the receiving end of my creation.

 

The Bell-in-Hand-Tavern (Boston, MA)

In keeping with my thoughts about creating tavern signs for establishments that once existed (the approach I have called "historical fiction"), I have forged ahead with yet another historical treasure. This time, I attempted to breath life into what has been called "America's first tavern". The Bell-in-Hand Tavern in Boston claims to have poured the first draft of cold beer in the year 1795.

Serving as a busy hub for printers and politicians, sailors and students, in no time at all, this New England watering hole established itself as the most prominent alehouse in Boston. The first owner of this famous establishment was Jimmy Wilson. The name sounds quite common to our modern ears, and in the streets of Revolutionary Boston, it was one that, more than likely, every Bostonian knew very well.

What was it about his tavern that made his name so familiar to everyone in Boston? Well, for Jimmy Wilson, such "fame" (as we refer to it today) derived initially from the fact that he, for some fifty years, had served as the town crier to his beloved neighbors. Being the bearer of news (good, bad or indifferent), Wilson had established himself within the hearts and minds of his city's populous. When he retired from his long-tenured post, he decided to open a bar. It would only seem fitting that his choice in naming this tavern be "The Bell-in-Hand".

So, what was so interesting about Jimmy Wilson's tavern? Well, this tavern not only insisted in the exclusive serving of ale (as opposed to the litany of standard liquors popular at the time), each drink order was served in two mugs. Apparently, one mug was used for the ale; the other held its frothy byproduct. As thick as the news Wilson had, for so many years, dispensed to his fellow citizenry, so too was the elixir served from his tap.

To this day, this tavern is in full operation - 45 Union Street, Boston, MA. Obviously, the establishment has changed substantially in both appearance and tradition. I mean, surely Jimmy Wilson would appear puzzled to learn that the Bell-in-Hand rocks a Facebook page! The menu offerings have inevitably grown to meet the needs of Boston's thirsty inhabitants and visitors. Within the rapid pace of Boston's daily life (considered a 'rat-race' to many), the cacophony resulting from the hustle and bustle can easily find its way from the streets into establishments like the Bell-in-Hand, attempting to distract us from enjoying a small piece of mind whilst in the company of our good friends and a cool beverage.

Despite this, I'll wager that - if one stops to listen very hard (even during happy hour) - they just might hear the sound of a singular bell ringing, finding its way through the thick crowd of this glorious alehouse... an echo which began in the wake of the Revolution; one that today reminds us of our American spirit and the need to unite with our fellow man / woman over a cold mug of ale.


My thought process

So, after my digging and learning about this amazing tavern, I located a very interesting panel that once rested inside a shutter, possibly a door. The physical surface was perfect for this venture, as I proceeded to apply layers and layers of paint, in hopes to create the appearance of a substrate that had bore witness to years and years of experience amidst a tavern environment - the smoke, soot, changes in temperature, sunlight, occasional repair / repainting, cleaning, and the possible slight alteration here and there to the sign's design.

My aim was to create something that would have functioned as a secondary sign, not the main exterior billboard that would have graced the exterior. This sign would have rested above the fireplace mantel, possibly behind the bar... in either case, a product of pride in the establishment; one that reminded the customers within that they were indeed, even if for a small time, a true part of this environment. The color choices - red and teal/green - might appear strange at first. However, by integrating this scheme within multiple layers of varnish and washes, the results are harmonious. I particularly enjoy seeing the highly saturated versions of the red and green poke through here and there, even though they are present in small and subtle measure. The gravy-brown tonality serves to unify the entire sign, holding the visual aesthetic together.

As of today, this sign is available for purchase. This is an original work and rather exclusive, so I encourage you to act swiftly. I may or may not choose to make more like this, but am certain that there will not be two alike... the panel used for this sign was a true maverick, hiding deep within my stockpile of surfaces. Please let me know if you have any questions or would like to see additional photos of this piece. Thank you for reading!

-Andy

The finished sign, available for purchase.

The finished sign, available for purchase.

References

http://bellinhand.com/

A Philadelphia Treasure, Bookbinder's Seafood House

In the spirit of the upcoming July 4th holiday, a time in which all good Americans pause to celebrate the remarkable independence that so powerfully set our nation apart from our European motherland. Such independence is felt no stronger than in the aptly-deemed "city of brotherly love". Yes, the great city of Philadelphia - "Olde City, Philadelphia" to be rather specific - resonates with the echoes of our founding fathers.

Olde City, Philadelphia

Olde City, Philadelphia

If you haven't visited Olde City, you are really missing out. Just stop and take a moment to observe. The internal energy one experiences in this great city seems to reaffirm the suspicion that these great citizens are still heeding Benjamin Franklin's encouragement and hope for the American citizenry... To apply oneself towards the pursuit of happiness.

Within the junction of 5th & Market Streets, one can peer through the glass encasement in their efforts to capture a glimpse of the famous Liberty Bell. Just across Market Street, a priceless, unobstructed front-on view of Independence Hall can be appreciated. This ancient building remains one of the greatest icons associated with the birth of our great nation - its symmetry reminding us of the objectivity and equality of mind in which our Constitution's framers aimed to maintain, despite such tumultuous circumstances and uncertain times facing them.

The  Liberty Bell

The Liberty Bell

Independence Hall

Independence Hall

In our modern day, few working cities maintain such a pure, uncompromising agenda for reflecting their Colonial aesthetic. Olde City, despite the inevitable dash of neon and intermittent office high rise sprinkled here and there, leaves very little to our imaginations as to, say, what Ben Franklin may have seen in his day. Yes, there is that awkward sound caused by wide, rubber tires traversing the rough and irregular surface of these gorgeous cobblestone streets; However, the sound of a horse and carriage clip-clapping through a nearby side street easily cancels this out... and, with minimal effort, we can transport ourselves back to the earlier version of this amazing, historically-rich city.

So, what does all of this have to do with my sign business? Great question. I'm proud of your reading this far! Well, as I mention in my last post, the idea of creating historical-looking signs for establishments which no longer exist really excites me. For my first example, I decided to pursue what was once a true landmark within the construct of Philadelphia restaurants - Bookbinder's Seafood House, Inc., located in Olde City at the junction of Walnut & 2nd Streets. While this is the original location, a second location was later opened in Center City (15th Street). You can learn more about the history of this restaurant here [Wikipedia entry].

The very first time I stepped foot in Philadelphia, I recall walking past this restaurant. Posted to the front of the aesthetically charming facade of this establishment was a sign, indicating it was anything but 'open for business'. Interestingly, the past decade has bore witness to several attempts to reopen the restaurant - the most recent attempt appearing to be quite substantial.

While the reopening of Bookbinder's  (A Retro Restaurant Re-imaged [Phillymag]) is a very exciting prospect for both visitors and nearby residents, my focus centers on the long legacy of the establishment - from 1865 until my first experience with this gloriously defunct facade that I recall filling me simultaneously with both nostalgia and deep sadness.

The origin of my venture began when I noticed a cool wooden panel that was propped up against a wall adjacent my easel. Recognizing its rich potential as a sign substrate, it had been recently relocated from my storage stash to the more immediate proximity within my home. A recent glance gave way to my decision to forge ahead with my idea, the one in which I would create an original tribute to what I then considered an unfortunate 'defunction' of a once glorious establishment. I was going to create a hypothetical historical sign for the Bookbinder's Seafood House... & what better time than now?!

Modest research rendered substantial amounts of visual fodder, much of which fell under the category of graphics and advertisements. Menus, newspaper flyers, matchbooks and various memorabilia... all revealed a decent degree of visual unity. Subtle variations existed within these graphics, but the bold typography, the lobster silhouette / motif, and the affinity towards the salmon / red colors punctuated by black and white accents remained quite consistent. The numerous photographs found in my quest enriched the visual experience, most of which reflected the notion that this restaurant was endeared by both blue collar and the more affluent patrons. Many of the photographs tend to feature the decades of the 70s and 80s... the result, a true "vintage" aesthetic in the truest sense of the word.

My visual fodder - garnered from my visual research

My visual fodder - garnered from my visual research

My goal was to take the best from my visual fodder and synthesize them into a harmonious composition. After importing the picture of my wooden panel into Photoshop, I began building the composition over top. The central panel motif seemed perfect for the red lobster silhouette, common to almost all Bookbinder graphic material. Historically speaking - simple, large, bold motifs have traditionally found their way into the sign compositions of most establishments, serving their timeless role as a concise, democratic beacon to any and all who set gaze their way. In this case, there is no mistaking the probability that this big red lobster would indicate something other than hot, fresh, delicious seafood.

The bold typography for the upper and lower horizontal frame / molding was garnered from two different matchbox designs. The framework surrounding the inner panel's perimeter was inspired by a photograph depicting the restaurant's exterior window structure and design - the beautiful intermingling of both teal and salmon pinstripes. The ivy sprigs which flank the upper left and right corners of the sign have their origins in an illustrated graphic that depicts the restaurant's facade. In this illustration, a large, horizontal sign is shown secured in an overhead position, within the structure of the restaurant's bump-out / entryway. A close examination of this illustrated sign reveals these ivy sprigs, elements that I haven't found elsewhere in "Bookbinder-world".

References to the two locations have been incorporated into the sign, as are both the "PHILAD-A." and the business's date of establishment, 1865. Here is this digital composition, as it stands today (below). Bear in mind that this digital sketch is rough and merely serves the purpose of getting a sense of what works and what doesn't work, visually.

I will be revisiting the composition and tweaking things here and there. Then, once I am content with how it looks from this "sketch form", I will proceed to execute the "real sign" using paint. These updates will be included, so stay tuned!

-Andy

My digital comp / sketch, to date

My digital comp / sketch, to date

Update: Saturday, July 16

I have managed to squeeze in some small sessions on this, here and there - in between my present commissions. Not one to articulate every step (for fear of keeping some of my trade secrets safe), I have snapped a few process pictures involved with the actual creation of this sign.

As you can see here, the digital composition established was printed out and used to mark-out the general elements on the physical substrate. These serve as reference marks (guides) for me during the painting process.

Once I am satisfied with the overall layout in pencil, my attention is turned to the medium of paint. For this particular signboard, I felt it extremely important to honor the existing surface patina of the panel. In order to maintain the beauty of what only time could produce, I applied the paint in a very light-handed manner. Had I laid the paint on thickly and then later relied on subtractive measures, such as sanding or chipping to create an aged finish, the results would have (more than likely) caused irreparable collateral changes to the existing surface surrounding the lettering and images.

I'll provide one trade secret - used on some occasions and only employed when it fits. It fit here. In order to gain a time-eroded finish, I applied a "tacky masking agent" to specific areas of the painted surface. As long as the paint had thoroughly dried, this technique worked wonderfully. By applying various degrees of pressure to this "mask", and then lifting (again, to various degrees and angles), I was able to subtract subtle pieces of the painted design.

The result is reflective of a physical surface that has been susceptible to the gentle chipping, flaking and fading that accompanies the test of time.  Yet, it is important to understand that the overall integrity of the image remaining is stable. The trick here is to apply this masking technique as timely as possible. For example, attempting to lift-off of the same sign a couple of days after it had been painted would not yield the same results; The paint would have created a solid bond to the surface and to its neighboring paint molecules.

 

Links for further exploration:

Google search – “Bookbinders Seafood Philadelphia”
https://www.google.com/search?q=bookbinders+seafood&hl=en&biw=1280&bih=634&site=imghp&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiM35i5zMvNAhWMPj4KHSMrB4EQ_AUICigD#hl=en&tbm=isch&q=bookbinders+seafood+philadelphia&imgrc=6vkuM6otKOFHBM%3A

This link explains the second Bookbinder’s venue, opened on 15th Street
Philaphilia (blog) - Old-Ass Building of the Week, November 14th (2011)
http://philaphilia.blogspot.com/2011/11/old-ass-building-of-week-november-14th.html