signwriting lessons

Can there ever be enough Red Tape? 100 reasons to use signwriting tape…


Above: Gary Wells just proving a point…

iphone 4s total cashe images 2939100 Rules why you should use Tape! Sticking it to the new big debate in Signwriting

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My first opinion is worth noting… use tape if it gets you the job done quickly and beautifully.

I have worked with guys that are tape masters – My oft relied upon cornerman Remi Rough for example has created some of the worlds greatest murals swinging the tape across the biggest chunks of architecture in London and beyond.

Jules Brown painter of the Virgin Atlantic balloons wound the stuff around 10m helvetica like a dream.

Jules Brown working with NGS London

Jules Brown on mass masking project

This whole discussion for me though, really surfaced when my much loved buddy and venerably talented Jack Hollands finished working alongside me in 2014 and perhaps Jack felt it was crucial for him to establish the most true-ist form of writing, in order to genuinely win new clients and stand tall. With the support of Dave Smith he was undoubtedly right: for him… with a terrific hand, however, up and running.

People, newbies and freshers (without that hand), cottoned on to the idea that real signwriting used a stick of chalk and a pot of paint … and ‘No Tape’! The idea stuck.

REMI CREATING TEST PANEL feb-2012-d-hirst-197

Remi trimming-in frog tape on the Damien Hirst project test panel

However I have seen his little mits twirling the tape on the quiet I have to say!! And he’s as deft as any with the stuff!!


Plain Good Tooling

And just as the great Dave Smith uses Illustrator and silk screens for a lot of his intricate outline work and states in defence of this, or rather in clarification …  ‘The Victorians would have also jumped at the chance of using this technology!’

The question begs would they not also have jumped at the chance to use signwriter’s tape too?

Of course they would have… on both counts.

Dave goes on though to gently lambast the use of tape along with Better Letters’ David Kynaston, claiming tape kicks the eye out and causes registration problems for young letterers needing to learn correct shapes.

It does at first on smaller lettering, but you get used to it… making the adjustment comes naturally. And as far as shape development I think it actually helps. In my book, any newbie who needs to both learn and stay alive, needs to make a logical open call decision early on, and do themselves a big favour.

Use it all. Choose what suits.

1.      Learn in practice time (an investment for your craft)

2.     Earn in work time (and apply what works best)

At any stage in your chosen career it is impossible to not acquire skills such as shape and consistency, as you swing the brush with or without tape, from day 1, 1,000 or your last. However in the freezing gusts of a Hoxton winter, let’s say, the extra time taken to finish each corner by hand WILL impact and cause a day’s work to roll over to two.

For the newbie it just doesn’t add up.

For those who really care, it has to.

Bottom line is I want you to get to work – tradition can go fuck itself… it’s obsolete. Tape has never been an issue before so in your own interests set it aside, drop it and move on re-building your lives and this craft.

Nick Garrett

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Slinging a bit of tape on a January project makes perfect sense to me.

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Ready for the tape off and ticks and snicks to finish.

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The men of the trade

I learnt my trade with Andy Whitmore in 1981 and as the greatest poster showcard writer I have ever seen, when moving from Keeps Intenso to Enamel, he loved the red Tessa tape.  His technique was flawless. As quick as a terriers eye. Shapes as sweet as apple crumble.

This practice was normal in this era.

And perhaps this is where distinctions can cause confusion: A Newbie, Tradesman or Craftsman all deserve the full range of tools of the trade. The difference is whether one is smart enough to rule in all possibilities.

Let’s get a few names tacked up, who have talked about this either directly to me or via Facebook. Perry, Gurney, Hopkins, Dundas are all serious commercial writers. Nearly all of them have used digital masking, tape, you name it, in order to stay competitive and sharp. They have nothing to prove. Myself neither though I never use vinyl mask. Each say without a moment’s hesitation that tape is a valid part of the writer’s kit.

There’s nothing like dropping onto a bit of clean tape forming a perfect half thorn serif.

Martin Hopkins

Earning the right to use tape? 

The notion that you have to earn your right to use tape is complete bollox. It is the old die hard, paternal, ‘I fought in the war‘, attitude that comes from the spout of writers that jingo the shit out of the craft and ride off on an ego trip without a glance at effect.

When you pass info on to young writers it shapes their lives. So it has to be passed on in the knowledge of how best it will serve their craft.

And craft it is. There is a way of using tape correctly… and here are a few key crafted points.

How to use clean-edge and red tape

1. Type of clean edge tape?

I like the Tessa red style of ¼’’ tape but compared to the original this new stuff is hard and doesn’t splice off with the thumbnail like that of auld.

Tessa yellow clean edge and similar are very good. Lay it in straight and nail off the edge for no probs.


The Hirst show, Trinity Room by NGS. 7 KM of lines down with perfection finishing, double masked.

2. How to get it down dead straight?

Working with Jack (yep that old wall-dog did swing some slick tape for sure!) and Remi Rough one weekend on some 8 linear murals for Charity organisers Bond, saw us all copying the master!! Remi slapped it up by eye in a flash.

‘’Thumbs down the middle, stick down one end, pull down the centre and land the other end on the mark’’

I can’t remember seeing Jack looking so happy as that day!

Red tape is narrow and just sits in the middle of the thumb.

3. Tape swerves when I smooth down?

Once the ends are tapped down firmly the tape should be dead straight under nice tension. Next do a Karate Kid moment and tap down every 4’’ along the tape with the soft outer edge of your hand … ping ping ping and that tacks it in ready, locked down, for a safe smooth down and edge crown.

Run the back of your nail along it’s edge and make sure you have NO misses.

4. I get legs, leaks and ears on the tape? Double trouble

As you run the brush to tape you are hitting the tape too full with paint and the seep line happens. Approach the tape with gusto but raise to the tip of the brush as you arrive and release just as you touch it – it’s deft – it’s a skill.

In the case of leaks always use the best clean edge type of tape available… yep it’s not cheap but it does save stress. 

Also you can paint the edge of the tape with background colour, then when just dry do your work. 

The background forms a safe seal and the cut will be clean as silk. I call this double masking.


5. Can there ever be really too much Red Tape?

So if you do decide to adopt the so called ‘high ground’ then to even think about rolls of sticky stuff feels like a sin, right? That little chink of self loathing casts a mountainous shadow over your otherwise perfectly sound practice. It could be something you have created to struggle with. Why would your young (I’m gonna be the best!!??) ego allow you to do that? At such an early stage in your career why on earth give yourself anything to struggle with?  It’s difficult enough.

It’s daft to tie (or tape!) yourself to a mast when what is needed is all hands to the deck… and stay in as clear water as possible.

6. But it’s quicker without once I get the hang of it!?

The amount of time saved either way is actually largely down to the design, typeface and surface. If you really want to look at how to save time, look at the areas of the practice that eat up lots of time such as design and tracing down.

Tracing down is a time assassin. Stay tuned for my tricks on how to save time and build skills effectively.

Paint Safe: Using tape week on week saves days and removes the pressure build up that causes anxiety and burnout in some.

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Final word – tape up or shut up.

The whole point of doing this work is to do the beauty thing but to make money without racking up pressure. Hitting corners dead on in winter, spring, fall or summer adds pressure and most writers who advocate NOT using tape sit their fat asses in studios all year round. Fact. They also charge huge amounts to teach, pass on, and hang out.

If you set up a rule of no tape then you face a dilemma every time you want to break it.  So here’s the all pervading rule for signpainters.

Make lots of rules that are useless or one that works.

Rule 1-100:  I AM FREE

Many thanks and big respect to all mentioned in this article.

Next NGS Article:  Tracedown tranquillity: the perfected way

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