Something different… a signwriting course


Wayne Tanswell in his workshop in Sudbury

In April I put on some scruffy painting clothes, as I do almost every day now, and headed to Sudbury with my niece Alice for a day long workshop with traditional signwriter Wayne Tanswell.

I’d describe Wayne as the Fred Dibnah of the signwriting world. Not only does he climb up ladders and conduct his business from dizzy heights, he has had commissions from all round the world (Middle East, USA and Africa), painted specially commissioned signs for major art galleries and had several exhibitions. One is coming up soon – Writing Wrongs at the Apex in Bury St Edmunds (Tuesday 26 April – Sunday 15 May).


The sign I painted… with a bit of help, actually a lot of help

It may seem as if I’ve gone off on a wild tangent and heaven knows I have enough time pressure with OCA and a house move happening in less than two weeks but it was a fantastic day and I learnt a whole lot that I believe I can put to good use.

I thought we might start off with a bit of a talk about typefaces and fonts but none of that. Wayne is a do’er not an academic and he got us doing without ado. We learnt how to shape basic italic letters using a signwriter’s chisel end brush (different to anything I have painted with before), how to use a Mahl stick (a pole with a round pad at the end) which you rest your painting hand on for stability, how you can mix and dilute signwriter’s enamel paint and how beautifully it flows when you  get the hang of it.


Wayne’s freehand script

In addition to reproducing the typefaces clients specify, signwriters develop their own freehand font. Watching Wayne paint freehand is mesmerising. His paintbrush is like a conductors baton working its way to a conclusion. I’m waxing a bit lyrical here but if you watch this short video on You Tube you’ll understand what I mean.

Wayne fell into signwriting by accident. On his last day of school in Long Melford in Suffolk he was too impatient to wait for the bus home and hitchhiked instead. He got a lift and when he explained that he’d just left school, didn’t have any qualifications but wanted to a job, the driver  invited him to come and work and train with him as a signwriter.  And so he did.

Having been signwriting for 40 years Wayne is ready to share his trade secrets. He gave us lots of  tips about how to scale up existing artwork and transfer it to external walls and other surfaces. He fired us up with enthusiasm for this traditional craft which is rapidly coming back into fashion.

It is of course much harder than it looks, and Wayne needn’t fear that  Alice and I going to put him out of business any time soon, but once you’ve mastered use of the brush and mahl stick practice does lead to noticeable improvement. Wayne says if we practice every day for an hour or so for three or four  months, we’ll master it. I’ve got a commission to paint a friend’s house sign so hope she won’t mind waiting!

I’d like to experiment with using words in my OCA art… perhaps in the style of a palimpsest, words just partially revealed. This is relevant I feel to the Shakespeare theme that I am planning for my next assignment. The control the mahl stick provides and the flowing detail that can be achieved with a signwriter’s brush are also extremely useful discoveries that I can certainly put to good use.

If I can discipline myself to put in the practice, getting to grips with basic signwriting could be a very valuable skill to have and not at all at odds with my OCA ambitions. And of course there are always house signs that need to be painted including one in the new home we’ll be in soon.

Further information

Signwriter Wayne Tanswell’s website

Lovely piece in the East Anglian Daily Times about Wayne Tanswell’s exhibition at the Apex in Bury St Edmunds


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