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The Historic Method of Enhancing a Sign with Gold Leaf and Smalt

Antique sign - gold leaf & smalts (click image to enlarge)Recently, historic restoration specialist Tom Tisthammer of Wattle & Daub Contractors was showing me his collection of antique signs, drawing my attention to one of his favorites - a sign with an "aggregate" background. As I examined this little gem, an office-building sign identifying the "Acousticon Neumeyer Company", I saw that it was a prime example of an old wooden sign with gold leaf lettering and a smalt background. (Tracking the history of this early 20th century company by inventor Hutchinson is an interesting rabbit trail, but not pertinent to this article!)

OK, back to the matter of antique signs . . . The practice of combining gold leaf letters with a smalt background is something which began in the 1870's as a way of enhancing a sign's appearance. Often it was used in conjuction with dimensional wood letters which had been gilded but it was also very common to combine the technique with flat gilded letters as seen in this antique sign.

The use of sand - stained with japan color - was a common practice giving the sign background a velvety look; an even classier method was the use of crushed glass. Cobalt glass is officially referred to as smalt (used as pigment in paintings) but many different colors of glass, primarily black, were also historically used for smalt backgrounds on signs. The sign painter would apply the gold leaf to the lettered areas and then define the letters by "cutting around" them with a brush. There needed to be a way for the smalts to adhere to the surface and various concoctions were used such as a heavy paste of white lead mixed with black paint, lindseed oil, varnish and drier. Next he would sift smalt onto the paint while it was still wet, allowing it to sink well into the paste before pouring the excess off. Normally if it was left overnight to dry the particles had enough adhesion to remain for many years as a nicely textured, non-fading background.

I've done a number of signs in a similar manner when the situation calls for a unique or historic treatment. Of course I employ updated methods such as using a slow-setting epoxy for adhesion, tinted with the same color as the smalts, but the overall technique remains the same. Below are a few of my "modern" examples to enjoy. 

(If you click on any image in the slideshow, it will take you to a gallery where you can get a closer look at the smalt backgrounds.)

If you have examples you've seen, either of antique smalt signs or of more recent ones, I'd love to see them.

Reader Comments (6)

Do you know if you can use and what the process would be for smalt on a reverse glass sign to get the same type of effect?

November 28, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJoe

Hi Joe,
Great question and, yes, you can do this on a reverse glass sign. I've experimented with it but have never done a "paying" job with a smalt background on glass.
I've never heard of anyone trying to adhere it directly to the glass like one might do with glitter or pearl, since I think whatever is used to hold it to the glass would obscure the smalt pieces. (Might not hurt to experiment.)
The process involves adhering the smalts to a surface you would put behind the glass as a "third surface". (Front of glass is 1st surface, back of glass is 2nd surface and the smalted area would be 3rd surface.) Then you frame the glass and the smalt background together with a space between them. The depth of this space would be something you could experiment with to see how close or far from the glass gives you the desired effect.
To see some examples of this check my friend John Studden's portfolio. www.johnstudden.com/portfolio/20.htm
His work is impeccable, his knowledge of reverse glass work is vast and I'm sure he'd be glad to give you any tips if you were to ask him.
I'd be interested to know more about what you're trying to attempt. Let me know if I can be of further assistance. Especially pass on any photos if you end up doing something with this.
Good luck!

November 28, 2012 | Registered CommenterDan Seese

Dan, for reverse work on glass, try using clear shellac as an adhesive for glitter, reflective glass beads (the kind that city road crews sprinkle on newly-painted crosswalk markings), and smalt. Always easiest when the glass is horizontal, of course.

August 27, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJohn Downer

Hi John. Great to hear from you.
Good advice about the shellac. I've used it to adhere glitter and mother of pearl but have not used it for reflective glass beads or smalt. I've even mixed a little bronzing powder with shellac to fill holidays in reverse glass work.
Thanks for the tip. Shellac is really a pretty amazing & versatile medium. I'll have to give it a try with glass beads & smalt.

August 28, 2013 | Registered CommenterDan Seese

Before WW1 wood signs were made from planks of wood. If the sign needed to be larger than the available boards, you had to build it up, using a frame (or maybe another set of boards at 90 degrees for the back side - the early version of plywood).
However you did it, the boards were going to shrink & swell, making cracks in the sign face. But if you covered the sign with cloth, held on by a layer of thick white lead paint and then primed with the same stuff, you got a surface that could expand and contract without showing cracks. And if you used smalts as a topcoat you would have the equivalent of a composition shingle roof - very resistant to sun.
I have seen pictures of 'knock out' signs done this way, so I think the technique was common and fairly cheap (you could use smaller boards). Of course, when a classier project came around you would use gold leaf and smalts for a very durable, careful job.
(Note that I haven't found any documentation for this, so I may be all wet. But it seems reasonable...)

October 12, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterLee Littlewood

Hello, Lee.
Sounds reasonable, indeed! You've brought some insight to the table of which I wasn't aware. It helps to round-out the context of the "how & why" of these older signs.
I've always profited from reading the historic research you've done on various techniques and I appreciate your visit & comment here. Fascinating addition!
Cheers . . .

October 15, 2014 | Registered CommenterDan Seese

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