signwriting lessons

Speed writing – or slick production?

More speed less waste… Month 3-6 guide for Newbies

iphone 4s total cashe images 2865

Irena Szhestekova setting up… always zen calm.


Most of my apprentices get to month 3 and beat themselves up about how slow they feel they are. So of course I wade in and tell them they are useless and need to go back to a desk job… 

But as a last chance maybe there is something I can do to help them out of the fight club draft.


Signsmith students learning the craft

”Firstly speed comes in good time and that good time is always (seems to be the case) month 5 of my apprenticeship training where all things just lighten up.


Month 3, I tell them to try a few things to remove time eating blocks and boulders on their critical path of daily production. In fact I have told them most of this since day 1 but it is really hard believing strange directives that the mind of a dynamic youngster filters as ‘’Nah… Not a Win!’’


The first way to look at attaining speed on site is to understand that by peeling off time on ALL processes of the day the production roll through becomes … Optimised.

It’s far easier trimming of 10 processes than misunderstanding the problem and blaming just one: your hand on the brush.


The Heavenly Quill Zone

Let’s look at the moment you get on the brush and how it feels emotionally. Probably excitement, trepidation, pressure and joy mixed up into a molten bundle that bounces around your brain.

I know this because it never stops.

If it does then it’s game over or you’re pushing up daisies in the Goldilocks Zone.

Surefire lettering brushes

Nothing quite like that feeling!… is there??

Prepare your journey – avoiding stress

Rush hour

First job of the day is to arrive on site with as little fatigue and stress as possible. That’s why I head out at 6am by train into London in order to beat the psychopaths named Commuters. So important to avoid passive aggression and plain assault – they see you with a work bag and tele-ladder and assume you are a burglar or just purely there for sport.

The first culprit of the day beyond a blinding hangover is adrenalin. The stuff kills brush technique.

Brush technique relies upon smooth signals from neural pathways to hand and when adrenaline invades the system the smooth transition of micro control mechanisms gets chewed up. The impact of this is you are battling to gain control and the hand feels out.

When this happens the stress level, and adrenaline goes up and so an vicious negative cycle ensues causing stress… nay anxiety.


”Stress is manageable and normal up to a point but when it crosses the line and turns into anxiety you end up in meltdown threat territory. Poor Jack and Tobias wore a lot of shit off me because I didn’t realise I had crossed the line into anxiety attacks during 2013- early 2015. 


So it is crucial to create a cut off point where you set down – grab a break and a tea or better still a banana (which calms the adrenaline) and chill. Time outs add up to good practice.


Setting up on site – Don’t rush

You’ve had a proper breakfast right???

Most newbies after a couple of months have already developed an invasion like military set up process… it’s like the SAS have arrived!! I remember working with Hannah Mathews and boom she was flying as soon as she arrived on site.

Slow up on set up!

Gilding Meaning it

Sign trainee Hannah Matthews distressing glass gild.

Find a secure space on site… set out gear calmly and take 30 minutes getting all ready for the first run up the ladder. I call this Paint Safe Mode. Beware of pedestrians, and wind… (all types of wind!)




Young fella on the tracedown.jpg

Here are the keypoint areas of focused time savers:


Tracing down a design

You’ve got the hang of setting up layouts by now. You can use a ruler to trace and chalk down the straights. All good … but there are some cool tricks coming up.


Paint mix

Yep the paint mix needs to have the right slip and grip. Add a nib of black for coverage.


Double coating

The knack of getting paint to cover in one can be enhanced by adding Oneshot metallic silver into the paint… all paint.  There’s more.


Modes of writing

Think in terms of 3 types of production: Bespoke, Display, Poster. We’ll look at display technique to get you flying. 

5 ways to roll fast 


  1. Arrive on site stress free and fuel tank on full.

  2. Trace down using ruler on half the straights, freehand the other 50% and dot line the curves.

  3. Mark top bottom horizontals at beginning and end of each text line and tape in. Yep it works.

  4. Add a few drops of fairy liquid or similar to all paints to add elasticity and fast flow acceleration.

  5. Take breaks and plenty of baby wipes for easy clean ups. Dab in turps for stubborn removals




But of all the most important time machines the mind is the one that will get you there in goodstyle. So when you start out on this road analyse how much time you spend on the following:


1 Talking yourself out of the zone:  I rarely talk to strangers on site… I love people but they can distract and raise my error rate when going back into the high performance zone for example: glass gilding … or any lettering pursuit. Most would be clients are knee jerk responsive, who will eat up time and not come back to you. Catch up at the end of the day. Apologies if that seems harsh but error rates need to be kept in check and risks minimised.

Stay safe on that ladder.


2  Clear thinking: If you allow yourself to question, reflect re check and wonder WTF you are doing every stroke of the day you will fail. When you are on site you are in work mode – forget the learning desires. You’ll learn anyway. You’ll also learn that practice happens in to studio in your own time. Work happens at work – which is by default, the best practice of all.


3 Talking the into the Zone:  Talk yourself into the zone… I can do this … I will roll this beauty… I will love this journey.


4 Self Praise: From me right here Well Done!!! You are all gems. This early path will be behind you forever soon. In two years from now you’ll be flying as a pro. Cherish these vulnerable bigger than real moments. Share them.


5 Pride and Love:  Share these experiences with peers and create a network based on love of the craft. There’s no right better or wrong way when you love what you do. You will learn though, from those around you.


Keypoints, ‘Display’ writing mode


”The biggest single time waste on the brush is struggling to cover in 1. We add a tinkter of silver and black to all colours to help coverage – NEVER use brilliant white… always tint to Dove or ‘Signwriters’ white.

It’s a great way of taking the pressure off yourself to say, I’ll not worry about covering in one hit, I’ll use 2 coats. You ca add some driers to Oneshot or use an acrylic tough undercoat mixed to match and then top coat with Oneshot.  But importantly don’t waste time struggling with the first coat. Flash it on quick as a terrier. That will cover the surface by say 65%… then go back when tacky and zip another quick coat over bringing it up to acceptable 95%.

When done, do a 20 min zip around with a fine brush clipping in ears and edges, with background colour. This is how we did a lot of exhibition display work up to 1984 before the vinyl malaise kicked in. It works… job done!


Clean up – Getting out alive

Finishing up on site is a risky as the descent of Everest. Don’t rush … go slowly and deliberate. But in order to do that you have to understand you have burnt up loads of sugar and yr probably starving because you skipped lunch.

Never skip fuelling up. Always eat snacks for fuel

NGS Fuel pack:  Jaffa cakes, drinks, Chocolate and fruit.

Final word


So remember – speed will come on it’s own. But these points help:


Head smart – don’t go into practice mode when you need to be in work mode.

Paint safe – slow down start up and wind down modes.

Trace smart – dot curves and 50% of straights.

Paint smart – use a good bit of tape to quicken up and reduce pressure.

Eat and drink well to keep fuelled up.


Jack learning the ropes

My apprentices have contributed so much to beautifying London and beyond. But to Jack Hollands, and Tobias Newbigin I hold a special high regard because so many times I was right when it counted … but they were more right when it mattered.



Love and respect boys.



NGS Proudly sponsoring the New Generation of Signpainters. Mostly in London.


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