Hints for Sign-Painters

Manufacturer and builder, 1 / 1869

As simple and easy as it may seem to be able to letter a sign properly, it must be admitted that there are but few that are well lettered, and so made as to be attractive both in color and style of letter. The conviction is forced upon the observer that the majority of signs are overdone, constrained, and evidently designed in very bad taste. In addition to all conceivable forms and shapes of signs - and among these forms we may enumerate long, round, square, oval, triangular, hexagonal, polygonal, scroll, stellanated, prismatic, animal, and floral-shaped - we observe as many forms and styles of letter, each style being somewhat peculiar in itself, and in some degree original with the artist who designed it. We are not apt to notice small signs unless we are seeking particularly for them, or are interested in something connected therewith; unusually large and largely lettered signs escape our observation by being so excessively obvious. Scanty-lettered signs we do not often care to read the second time, as we get but little satisfaction by so doing, while profusely lettered ones we do not read, for it is often too tedious. The signs that are generally remembered are those that are in size neither too large nor too small, neither gaudy nor tame in their coloring, neither scanty nor profuse in their lettering, and that give, in plain letters and in a few words, the information they have to convey. A sign of this character carries a correct business cast with it, and as we enter the establishment we feel quite sure that the proceedings and business within will harmonize with the sign without. A plain and direct business should be represented by a plain parallelogram form of sign, with a plain, bold letter that seems to tell you that things are done as they should be, and indicative that a balance-sheet is made out at the end of each financial year. When we see signs that are overlarge, or, on the other hand, too small, we are apt to imagine that the trade of the establishment to which they belong corresponds to their respective peculiarities.

There seems to be a growing indication of pressing the forms of masculine and female figures into service, and making them perform the duties of the signboard. The Goddess of Liberty, with outstretched arm resting on her star-studded shield, resplendent with stars and stripes of an indefinite number, points to the oyster-collar, or the "retreat" where flown the "lager;" the American eage, in brass and Dutchleaf gold, is perched over the portals of the entrance where pinchbeck watches are sold. Male and female aborigins, coarsely painted with vermilion or bedaubed with burnt amber, stolid, ill-shaped, and nearly nude, together with the sooty African, the swarthy Turk, the kilted Highlander, and fun-loving Punch, dressed in gaudy, nondescript robes, tell us where the scented maccaboy and other snuffs, or the choicest varieties of the "weed," may be obtained. But good taste admits that the majority of these forms are but caricatures of true signs. They are not at all intended to represent the word business as a true, substantial, or commercial sense.

It may not be out of place here to make a few remarks relative to show-cards, since they are nothing but miniature signs. They embody as many characteristics as the permanent signboard, and are as much admired or condemned by the lovers of good taste. As the show-card, or even the business card, is an isolated piece of work, harmony of typographic grouping must be sought for. As in a sign, a crowding together of the words produces confusion, and too much blank space causes a painful contrast between the color of the card and that of the ink. Moreover, an unequal gradation of the sizes of the letters, or the lines unduly spaced, is equally distasteful. As we hastily look at a business card, we expect to see at a glance the name of the firm it represents, as well as their business. Like a business sign, a business card should be printed in a plain, bold letter, the name of the business being the most conspicuous, as if it were not afraid of being inspected. The names of the firm should also be bold, yet not too prominent, as itf modesty was one of their peculiar characteristic. Then the place where their business is conducted should be in a smaller letter, as if not pushing itself too much in your way, and the necessary details should thereafter follow in a plain letter, corresponding with the other general features of it. Like signs, the card that is the most admired is plain, of medium size, in conspicuous print, concicely worded, and with an even margin around the edges, giving relief to the reading matter, which it incloses like a frame. Large-sized cards we do not so ofthen notice or keep, unless we are produsely lettered; we lay them aside until we feel that we have leisure to peruse them. Small cards we notice but little, as their dwarf proportions seem to carry an air of a limited business.

It is more to the distorted and ill-proportioned appearance of letters as seen upon signs and show-cards that we would call attention. A person who has a love for beautiful and correct letters can not be otherwise than pained at such distorted ones.

Probably there is no art more difficult of attainment, and one in which so few persons are proficient, as that of making letters of the style called Roman; yet this letter is the one in which our books and papers are printed, and the one most commonly presented to the eye. However perfectly formed these letters may be when shaped by the art of the die-sinker, as seen in the impression produced by printing-types, nevertheless, sign-boards that at every step meet our eyes attest that upon them are many unsuccessful attempts to form well-proportioned letters.

Among a few of the faults that are evident we will mention that the letters A, V, and W often encroach upon each other's premises, and if a vertical line were drawn between two of them, more or less of each letter would be cut off. That each letter must be inclosed within a space determined by right angles, as is seen upon a printer's type, seems not to have entered the mind of the artist.

It is nothing uncommon to see a total disregard of the rules of proportion in reference to the space that letters should occupy.

The Roman letter, as employed by sign-painters, is capable of being extended from its common width, and is also capable of being condensed, and is known by the terms of common, extended, and condensed letter, each having the same height, but different widths. These three proportions are amply sufficient for ordinary signs. The makers of type have extra-extended and also extra-condensed letters, but these forms are not often called into requisition by the sign or showcard painter. It will be observed that, when capital letters are placed in the order of their width, the letter I occupies the least space: J is a little wider; C, L, S and Z occupy the third place; O and Q, the fourth; B, D, E, F, P, T, and & the fifth; G, U, V, and Y, the sixth; A, K, R, and X, the seventh; H and N, the eighth; M, the ninth, and W, the tenth: Æ and Œ occupy a space between the ninth and tenth spaces. This division of the alphabet may be of assistance to those who are sometimes at a loss what proportional width to give letters when grouped together.

We see, then, if the letter I be taken as one width, A and the others of the seventh group occupy each twice the width of I; the third, or C group, one and a half. By spacing an alphabet with dividers, the correct width that spaces of each division should occupy can be readily and correctly ascertained.

Of the small letters, or, as they are termed by printers, the lower-case letters, we notice that i, j, and l are the least and the same in width; f and t then follow, being a little wider; the third space is filled by c, e, o, r, and s; the fourth space is occupied by a, b, d, g, p, q, and z; the fifth by h, k, n, u; v, x, and y; the seventh by m and w. The space occupied by ff, fi, fl, se, and œ is the same as that of the capital letters B, D, and others of that series, which also very nearly corresponds to the small letters h, k, etc. The space occupied by ffi and ffl is the same as that required for M. The dollar mark, $, has the same width as the letter J.

In a comparison of the small letters with the capitals, we find that i, j, and l are less in width than the capital I, which very nearly corresponds to the space occupied by f and t. The third space of the small letters falls between that of I and J, while the fourth is the as that of the capital J. The small letters h, k, etc., of the fifth space are the same as the space of the capitals C, L,S, and Z.

The figures, or Arabic numberals, may be divided into four groups. The figure 1 is first, occupying the least space. The figure 7 is next in width; then follow 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 8, and 9, and lastly the 0, generally made a little wider. The figures 1, 7, and the letter I occupy the same width; with the exception of the 0, which occupies the same spaces as L, S, and Z, the other figures are of the same width as the capital letter J.

If one would form well-proportioned letters, he should divide the alphatbet into groups in the order we have indicated. Since the capital I occupies the least space, it may be taken as a standard. The eye and jusgment, assisted by this scale of widths, will enable any person to obtain a very good idea of the space the others should occupy.

In addition to proportioning the width, it will be observed that many letters, as A, M, N, V, W, X, Y, and Z, are made up in part of oblique lines. It will be further observed that the angles and liens of A differ from those of K, and both A and K differ in their angles from X and W. A closer examination of well-proportioned letters will show that the inclined portions of A, M, and V have the same angles, those of X, Y, and Z are similar, and K and W, the two remaining letters, are made in part with unlike oblique lines, and also differing from the others mentioned. There are therefore, but four angles in all these letters, and if they could be determined, there would then be an easy rule governing their formation.

Taste and circumstances determine the width of the common Roman, the extended, or condensed letter. As they thus differ, the oblique lines of the letters so formed also differ. To approximate to the proper angles for each of the three kinds, let one provide himself with three pieces of thin board, metal, or even thick paper, made with one side and the bottom at right angles to each other; the other side is cut with four angles, as seen in figures. [EI KUVIA] Fig. 1 shos the angles for the condensed letter; Fig. 2, those for the common Roman letter; and Fig. 3, those for the extended letter. It will be observed that one side of each form is divided into four equal parts, each appropriated to certain letters and varying in angle from their neighbor. The lower division gives the oblique lines of the W, the second those of A, M, N, and V, the third those of X, Y, and Z, and the fourth K. No exact guide can be given for these angles; as before remarked, taste and judgment must decide them. One can measure the angles of some good alphabet and be governed by them in making his angles.

To use these instruments, place the bottom portion upon a line drawn beneath the letters to be made, or the back can be similarly placed upon a vertical line, and the angles formed from the appropriate divisions. The draughtsman can use his T-square or parallel rule, which is adjusted so as to bring the divisions required between the lines forming the top and bottom of the letters, and make the lines as he would upon the beveled side of a triangular set-square.

To persons who have difficulty in making letters upon signs, plans, or drawings, the hints above given may prove of essential service, and although we have given bu a "hint" for an approximation to good letters, nevertheless, to the ingenious, to those who pride themselves upon a uniform style of letter, this hint will be acceptable, and can be carried out with the most satisfactory results.

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