President’s Post August | Keeping Traditional Techniques Alive

What happens when you get 60 signwriters and artistic types in one workshop…. basically, mayhem and madness tinged with some brilliance. Paint flies, stories are shared, passion is discovered by some and shared by others. Egos are sent packing; learning is in abundance and above all, a great deal of fun and frivolity is had by all. This is Letterheads.

Some 40 odd years ago in the US of A, 7 signwriters began to meet over a few ales to share stories and trade tips between themselves. This meeting blossomed into a worldwide movement of like-minded souls getting together one to two times a year in many different countries over the planet. Helsinki, Japan, Scotland, USA, UK, Australia, and good old Aotearoa to name a few.

New Zealand has taken the letterheads idea and really run with it, our meetings are usually sell-outs and attract many passionate signwriters who have found over the years that their chosen career has also become a chosen hobby.

So, what’s it all about? The traditional techniques of sign manufacture may not be in common use in today’s sign shops but many of us have realised they still have their place and are also great fun to do. I can hand letter a brick wall cheaper and quicker than using ACM sheets etc. Large lettering is also easier and cheaper to create by hand than the use of vinyl so these skills can make you money. The old saying “if you don’t use it …. you lose it” is very apt here, these skills must be shared to keep them alive in the future. Computers, cutters, and digital printers are tools just like the brush, a true tradesman is familiar with all his tools and their use and is always learning.

Mike Jackson a signee from Wyoming in the US explains it like this….

“At the center of all the hoopla is the willingness to learn, share, and explore. Prior to the Letterheads, many craftsmen closely guarded their hard-earned knowledge. Once, caught up in the movement, it becomes difficult not to want to share your knowledge, especially when even more experienced people are sharing theirs”.

A walk amongst the bustling signees, their sign kits packed in around their position on the sign wall, shoulder to shoulder, exposes the eyes to a feast of creative artworks, airbrushing, pinstriping, pictorial work, hand carving, and more, all created as you watch using many different techniques and processes many different to what you may know, which is a great way to learn better ways of doing things. This atmosphere of fun and learning seems to grab people, absorbing them into its magic, promoting the sharing of skills, and putting smiles on every dial.

At first, it can be a bit intimidating coming amongst all that talent and experience, but you will soon find this will ease as you share and talk with the other signees and realise, they are learning too, we all have things to share, teach and learn. JUST GET IN THERE AND DO IT. Once the egos are removed from the equation the real learning and fun begins.

So how does it work?

Letterheads events are run on a non-profit voluntary basis, there is no board, president, secretary, or official organiser. Each meeting the next letterheads host is chosen, coerced, volunteered from the participants. Each host has their own way of doing things and running a Letterheads Meet. Some events have Themes, with most having official logos designed by the host that can be used as one of your projects and is usually the design of the glasswork/gilding project in the classes held at most events. A fee is charged usually including meals and materials for the 3-day meet. Industry suppliers act as sponsors to help with the costs. Accommodation is at your own cost and booking with venues identified by the host near to their workshop.

If you ever attend a meet, be prepared…. sleep a lot before you come as you won’t want to when you get there. Most evenings run well into the following day with festivities and creativity not wanting to stop. Signees are renowned for their creativity which can get a little crazy at times, which makes for some great fun days and nights.

So, whether you’re an apprentice, a newbie, or a wise old craftsman make the decision to get along to the next Letterheads Meet. It will change your life if you let it, it has mine. This year’s meet is being hosted by Clinton Potter of Red Star Signs in Hamilton. Visit for details and registrations. I look forward to seeing you there.

Check out some pics from last year’s meet in Christchurch at