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Sign Painting Essentials - How To Make a Sign

Signs come in all shapes and sizes. The surface can be paper, wood, glass, metal or concrete. I’m going to try and keep this simple and cover the materials I would use to make a small wooden sign for personal use like the one below. Making small signs for friends and family is a great way to learn and to make mistakes without the pressure of working for a client.

Here is what I use...


The AS Handover 2112 series is my go-to brush when it comes to lettering. I also own some Kafka Kwills, which are superb, but I do prefer the 2112 series. These brushes are made from 100% pure Kolinsky sable, which are considered to be top of the line when it comes to sign painting brush hairs.


Primers, undercoats and topcoats - the world of paint is more complex than I ever thought it could be. It can get incredibly confusing knowing how to prepare your sign but here is what I do. I give the birch plywood two coats of Zinsser Bulls Eye 1-2-3 (after sanding) before giving it a top coat of an oil or water-based paint. I will use either OneShot as the top coat or a cheaper oil based paint you can find in any hardware store if I need a lot of it or if I need a basic colour like black or white. I tend to go for a satin finish for topcoats.

Lettering Enamel - any lettering I do is almost always with OneShot paint. Some older sign painters will tell you that the quality has reduced over the years but it’s the number 1 brand in the sign painting world and has a good track record. Other brands like Craftmaster, Ronan and Alpha 6 Corporation also produce sign painting enamels but they’re harder to source for me.


Being from Ireland, where we tend to have all 4 seasons in one day, using wood that can withstand our constant rain is a necessity. I tend to go for exterior grade (important) birch plywood. There are so many options out there when it comes to wood, so do your research and find what best suits your sign’s purpose.

Your Design

It takes a sign painter of great skill to be able to layout a sign directly on the surface without a pattern. Most signs will be designed beforehand, and are then transferred onto your sign using chalk or the pounce pattern method.

Chalk/whiting/pounce wheel

This is used to transfer your design onto the prepared wood. The pounce method is an old school technique, but I prefer to chalk the back of my designs before tracing over the lines onto the sign which leaves me with an accurate guide to follow when painting.

Mahl Stick

A mahl stick is a tool that helps to keep your hand steady while painting. It also keeps you from accidentally touching any paint you’ve just lettered, essential for a left-hander like myself.


Stabilo pencils are great for all surfaces, and allow you to add any marks of changes you need to your design after transferring it to the sign.

4oz coffee cups

I mix my paint with mineral spirits in small 4oz coffee cups. You can order them in bulk online and can be held in the same hand as the mahl stick for ease of access and efficiency when reloading the brush.

Mini roller

Mini rollers are great for preparing the wood with an undercoat and top coat. I find I get a much better finish with a roller than a decorator’s paint brush.

Tissues/rags/mineral spirits

If you’re anything like me, you will need to do plenty of clean ups along the way. Make sure you wear clothes you don’t mind getting paint on!

White spirits and brush oil

Usually the last part of the job is cleaning your brushes and greasing them. It’s so important to clean your brushes correctly. Brushes can be expensive and the last thing you want to do is let enamel paint dry inside the ferrule of those precious tools of yours. Give them a rinse in white spirits and grease them up with your preferred brush oil, I use neatsfoot oil from AS Handover.

This is not an exhaustive list as my sign kit usually has some extra bits and bobs but these items should definitely set you on your way to creating your first sign!

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Thanks for the detailed and informative article.

Do you use original 1shot brush cleaner? Is it possible to clean brushes from 1shot paint with something else/cheaper, like white spirits?

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