Sign of The Times

It’s fair to say there is a bit of a trend for faded signwriting and logos on Buses these days, and our very own James Peene admits to having a real soft spot for this kind of thing!

To some, it may seem strange that a nut and bolt restored Bus can be considered less sought after than a similar one that’s a little tatty around the edges and emblazoned with hand-painted company logos that have been slowly worn away by the sands of time, but that’s just the way the scene seems to be at the minute. 

Consequently, prices being asked for such beasts – usually imported from far-off climes – have become slightly inflated as a result.  Obviously, not everyone is in the position to import or buy such a vehicle.  Or perhaps like me, you have a right-hand drive Bus that has spent all of its life as a recreational vehicle here in Blighty and has never seen the likes of Stateside desert sun, but lust after the faded signwriting look, why not have a go at adding some yourself?  Now, I appreciate the idea this will be very “Marmite” to some readers, but VWs are a very personal thing and, that which might float one person’s boats may sink another’s flotilla!  I have my own views on ‘faux’ signwriting, and feel it needs to have a reason behind it (in my case, to advertise my photography business), but you may disagree.  All I would say is, like tattoos, sit down and think a little longer about it first.  Though, unlike tattoos, it’s significantly easier to remove some faded signwriting!

 I designed my logos myself with the express intention of it ‘working’ on the side of an old Bus.  And having some experience of signwriting paint and pin striping, I took the bull by the horns and created my own take on weatherworn branding upon my steed!  And it served me well for many years, but I recently re-visited the logos as some of it wasn’t working for me (part of the design was too small and in the wrong colour).  I also thought the inclusion of some Champagne Edition-style stripes might set the whole thing off a treat.  You can decide for yourself how I did, but hopefully the following steps will give you some idea how I achieved it, and inspire you to go out there and have a go yourself.  Remember, you can always wipe it off again ……

01 The very first part I can’t tell you how to do! It involves creating a logo, or coming up with a design of your own.  For the less artistically-inclined, there’s always Google … Once you are happy with what you have, the next step is to decide where to place it, and how big you want it to be.

02 Designs can be scaled up (or down) in size in most basic computer editing programmes and then printed out on a home printer.  If they’re big, you may need to do it in sections, but beware that line thicknesses change dramatically when supersized, and you quickly lose definition.  Alternatively, draw them onto tracing paper. 

03 Transferring the design is very simple.  Turn your scaled design back to front and then, with a soft pencil, shade, scribble or rub lots of lead over the back of the design, ensuring total coverage. 

04 Once this is done – and this is the clever bit – tape the design onto the vehicle, taking time to check its position.  And yes, before anyone says anything, I know one of my original logos looked crooked, but it’s my design, okay?!  Now trace the outline of the logo with a ballpoint pen, pressing quite hard. 

This will transfer some of the soft pencil lead from the design to the vehicle.  Et voila!  Remove the paper and see how your design looks.  If it isn’t quite right, simply rub off the lines and do it again.

05 That’s the easy bit.  Now here’s where you need a steady hand.  Some folk opt for spraying with rattle cans on a masked design, which is cool and looks great but, for that genuine sign written look, you want to hand paint with proper sign writer’s enamel.  1-Shot has long been the brand of choice, and comes in a plethora of solid colours, so you can mix it and obtain the hue you are looking for.  I wanted an olive green colour, so mixed this up using bright green, ivory, a little black and a splodge of orange!  I tend to dilute the paint a little bit to make it easier to apply, mixing one third thinners to two thirds paint.  I used a special sign writers’ brush called a chisel writer, which has a long bristle cut straight and flat along the tip.  Rather than dabbing the paint on, you want to ‘pull’ long lines, covering as much as possible in one stroke.

The brush should be well ‘loaded’ with paint, but not so much that it is dripping off.  Professional sign writers will overload the brush, then wipe the bristles back and forth across a piece of glossy magazine paper to ‘unload’ some of it.  This technique is known as ‘paletting’. 

Unless you’re a natural born striper (very few people are!), don’t expect to get it right first time.  Practice on a scrap panel or even a piece of wood first to get the hang of it.  For perfect sign writing, you want to get as even coverage as possible but, as we are trying to achieve a faded, weather-worn look here, we wanted the paint a little thin in places.  If you have patches of rust, or damage, you want any logos or sign writing to run through them, or it will be immediately obvious it has been added later on.  This can be tricky to achieve as well.

Some coloured lettering has a white base coat underneath, so you could maybe try and replicate that.  Essentially, it’s totally up to you and, if it looks absolutely awful when it’s done, don’t worry ……

06 … one of the beauties of sign writers’ enamel is it’s easy to work with.  If you balls up, or don’t like what you’ve done, simply wipe it off with a tissue and white spirit and start again.  The paint is usually tacky to the touch for about two hours, and touch dry but still soft for about four.  It isn’t properly dry for about 24 hours though, and takes a whole week to cure and go hard, so you have a little time to decide if you like what you’ve done.  Here I’m removing a section of the Champagne Edition-style stripes I added to my Bus with a sharp razor blade as I decided they would look better converging to a sharp point, rather than curving down into the rear light clusters. 

07 Speaking of stripes, as I only had a limited amount of the mixed green colour; I prepped and painted these at the same time as the logos.  The key to good looking stripes is getting them even and harmonious with the vehicle.  I marked out the bottom line on my Bus following the wheel arch curve using a soft-pencil, carefully measuring from the panel edge to ensure the line wasn’t skew-whiff.  Subsequent lines were then measured from the first using a school compass set to maintain an even gap in between.  This also proved a good way of drawing curved lines, marking an arc every couple of centimetres and then freehand drawing a line that touches the top of each arc. 

08 Another way of marking curves is to use a magnetic pin striping wheel guide.  The added benefit of this is you can stand back and check your design as you work. 

09 Unless you have a very steady hand, and have done this sort of thing before, stripes are better if they are masked!  Using fine line automotive masking tape helps to get very straight lines, but also successfully stretches and masks around curves.  Don’t be tempted to use DIY masking tape because the enamel will creep under the edges and ruin your lines.  Painting is exactly the same as painting the logo, pull long strokes in the direction of the stripe, trying to cover as much as possible in one go and not going over and over the same spot.  Leaving brush strokes visible here is good for the final effect, too!  Once completed, leave the masking tape on until the stripes are tacky touch dry (approx. four hours).

10 Once everything is painted and de-masked, stand back and check your work.  In fact, stand well back and look at it for quite a while.  Remember, you have one week, as the paint needs at least that long to cure properly before you can begin the fading/ ageing process. 

11 Fading, patina, fauxtina, call it what you will.  What you want to achieve is the effect of years of weather wearing away at the paint.  Now, there are as many ways to do this as there are to do the painting in the first place.  Some people use very fine grade sandpaper but, whilst this has the desired effect of rubbing away the top layer of paint, it can easily score the paint and damage the surrounding paintwork.  This is why it’s better, in my opinion, to use T-Cut, or a similar abrasive polish.  If you have ever run your fingers over genuine faded sign writing, you will notice it’s very smooth, with no hard edges, and T-Cut fakes this effect very well.

Squirt a liberal amount onto a clean polishing cloth and gently rub away at the painted area.  Where the paint is thinner, you will find you go through to the body paint more quickly.  Using small circular strokes apply light pressure and keep going over until the desired effect is achieved.  Take your time, and keep wiping off any residue so you can check progress.  Think about how weather would wear paint over time – rain water, for example, would run down a panel, not across it, so use vertical stokes as opposed to horizontal.  Also think about where the fading or wear would be more severe.  Anything on the roof, or front panel, for example, would be more faded from the sun than lower down on the sills, and think about places that would get damage from use.  I took a little more off the stripes under the petrol flap to give a sense of years of fuel spillage.  This is a bit of a suck-it-and-see exercise, but the end effect is just down to what you want.  When you’re happy, leave it for another week and then, if necessary, gently go over it a second time.  The beauty of sign writers’ enamel is that even after a year, any stripes or logos can be T-Cut away completely, and should you decide it’s no longer working for you.

12 So here’s where I decided to stop on my Bus – just enough wear to suggest the logos have been there for some time, and are in keeping with the general condition of the rest of the Bus.  Leave it now for a couple of weeks at least to allow the paint to really harden, and then gently polish the whole Bus with a good quality polish.  Alternatively, leave it just as is if you prefer the more weathered look.

If you are still unsure about giving it a go yourself, have a surf around on the web for tutorials and how tos on pin striping and /or sign writing.  Or, like me, ask your wife to buy you a pin striping course for your birthday! If you need inspiration, look around at Buses at shows (and in the pages of this publication) and see close up the effects you are working towards.

Finally don’t be tempted to cut corners using model makers’ paint, or cheap watercolour brushes, you’ll only make your life more difficult.  A few quid spent on the proper gear will pay dividends in the long run.  I generally buy my supplies online, from companies such as AS Handover (www.handover.co.uk) and Pin Striping UK (www.pinstripinguk.com).  Good Luck!