Heritage Crafts


The design and production of signs by drawing and painting onto various materials.
Currently viable
Craft category
Historic area of significance
Area practiced currently
Origin in the UK


The craft of painting signs, originally using pictures or symbols as very few people could read, is an ancient craft with examples in western civilisation dating back to Roman times. Painting lettering on signs became common in eighteenth-century England when literacy rates increased. The development of the craft was effectively complete by the start of the Victorian era, at which point signwriters were in high demand when each shop fascia was hand-painted. The craft declined significantly with the introduction of computer cut plastic signs in the 1980s, and most plastic shopfronts and leasing vehicles moved to plastic signs. However, there were a number of traditional signwriters who refused to abandon the craft.

Today about 300 signwriters can be found across the country, and the market for hand-painted signs is strong – for historic buildings, ‘traditional’ pubs and restaurants, vintage vehicles, horse drawn vehicles etc.

A detailed history of the craft can be found on the website of Richard Gregory.


The techniques of signwriting are quite simple, but the craft requires a lot of practise. There are three principle ways to hold a brush (45 degrees, flat or italic), and there are six key brushstrokes, each with two versions. The techniques have been well documented in many publications and tutorials.



  • Canal boat painting
  • Traditional fairground decoration – there are about 20 across the UK

Allied crafts

  • Gilding

Issues affecting the viability

  • Historically, signwriting was a skill acquired through the family or as an apprentice. Since the mid-1980s fewer people are training as apprenticeships have reduced and courses closed. Many of the current crop came through the latter years of the City & Guilds qualifications (closed in the early-2000s) and those that have been fortunate to have an apprenticeship, whether formal or not, since 1979.
  • Although the basic skills of signwriting are relatively quick and simple to learn, it takes years of commercial experience to perfect the skills and truly master the craft.
  • Some signwriters run short courses but at the time of writing there is no official qualification. There are hundreds of people interested in the craft and who do the courses, but few continue with it as a career.
  • Some people are putting themselves forward as signwriters when what they are doing is producing a lettering layout on a computer printout, tracing this onto the required object and filling it in with paint. Traditional signwriting is set out and painted by hand and it is the slight irregularites of hand craft that give the work its character. That is completely lost with the machine-made look of computer work, even when painted.


National Lottery Heritage Fund
Swire Charitable Trust
The Royal Mint
Pilgrim Trust
Maxwell/Hanrahan Foundation
William Grant Foundation

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