A Very Good Year
Cam Bortz is proprietor of Finest Kind Signs and Fountainhead Visuals (Pawcatuck, CT).
Over the last few years, numerous wineries and vineyards have opened in our part of Connecticut, and I've been fortunate enough to build signs for several of them. My wife Deb and I discovered Heritage Trail Vineyards in Lisbon, CT just over a year ago -- not long after its purchase by Harry Schwartz, a well-known chef, author and entrepreneur, and his wife, Laurie. They’ve turned Heritage Trail into a destination for food and wine lovers.
After a couple of visits, I realized Heritage Trail needed a serious signage makeover. The primary identity sign, a small, 2 x 3-ft., carved, roadside sign, was faded and tired-looking. Wayfinding on the property, which included signs left over from the previous ownership, also proved inadequate.
Wine and dine design
Harry and Laurie also recognized the need, but, like many busy entrepreneurs, needed some guidance. I stopped by with a brochure, and followed up by emailing a preliminary sketch for a new entrance sign. Last October, I met with them and thoroughly walked the property. We discussed their needs and developed a budget for a complete sign system.
While designing the signs, I accounted for its setting, history and rustic atmosphere. It’s located off a scenic road, which winds through some of eastern Connecticut’s loveliest farmland and forests. Buildings on the property include an 18th Century farmhouse and a 19th Century barn, which are surrounded by mature oaks and maples.
Everything about it speaks of history and tradition, and the signs needed to complement that image and feel. This was no place for plastic, vinyl and digital technology. I quickly decided the entire project would be as low-tech as possible. In other words, time to get out the yardstick, Stabilo pencils, paints and brushes.
Pointing the way
I separated the project into two groups. The primary group involved five major signs. First, I addressed a new, carved roadside sign. Local sign codes limited that sign to 6 sq. ft. Thus, making the side easily readable to passing traffic became a priority.
Harry also wanted a big sign on the barn -- 16 ft. long x 1.5 ft. high. He wanted this sign to look "vintage", or as he put it, “like it had always been there.” A third sign, also fairly small, would go by the house door and read, "Bed and Breakfast at Heritage Trail." Harry also ordered a driveway sign, which reads "Welcome" and provides directions to the parking area, tasting room and cafe. Rounding out this group of five, for the café entrance -- double doors beneath a pergola -- we decided a pergola sign should simply state, "Tastings and Cafe."
The second group comprised smaller, directional and wayfinding signs that would direct customers to the parking area and keep traffic moving in a one-way circle around the property. Despite these signs’ utilitarian nature, I nonetheless wanted them to reflect the property’s rustic setting and complement the primary signs.
I started with the 16-ft.-long, barn sign. For ease of handling and installation, I built the sign in two, 8-ft. sections using 1 x 8-ft., tongue-and-groove, pine planks. I assembled them with battens on the back, and box-framed it with 1 x 4-ft. pine sections around the perimeter.
To assemble the sign, I used stainless-steel decking screws, and, for a base finish, coated it with a barn-red, Cabot, semi-transparent stain. The pine planks cost $52, and I only spent $5 for a gallon of the stain, a closeout special. Three coats of stain, applied over several days, gave the pine a lovely, russet finish.
Then, I cut a long strip of paper, and, with a pencil and ruler, laid out the copy, "Heritage Trail Vineyards", to make a pounce pattern. I lettered the sign with TJ Ronan ivory lettering enamel, which I outlined in black with a deeper, reddish-brown drop shadow. The paint soaked deep into the stained pine, giving the entire sign the aged, "vintage" look I wanted.
A serving of class
For the "Bed and Breakfast" and "Tastings and Cafe" signs, I wanted a more formal, finished look. Among the odds and ends in my back-shop pile of cut-offs and "orphans," I found exactly what I needed: a 2 x 3-ft., decoratively shaped, mahogany-framed, MDO sign blank built by my late friend, woodworker Clyde Muller. I kept that blank for more than a decade, waiting for the right project. The other sign, a simple 6-ft. x 18-in., MDO rectangle, was also framed with mahogany.
I painted the backgrounds in a deep burgundy and the frames in dark green. The smaller, more decorative sign was perfect for the Bed and Breakfast, while the larger rectangular sign was just right for Tastings and Cafe. Like all the signs, I laid them out "by eye," using Stabilo pencils, and hand-lettered them with enamels.
The "wayfinding" part of the project required six, relatively small, directional signs. I built them all to identical size and shape using the same pine boards, box framing and barn-red, stained background. I completed all hand lettering using TJ Ronan, ivory lettering enamel.
The steel and the glue
In the meantime, I started carving the roadside sign. This sign was designed tablet-style, with a curved bottom, straight sides and dimensional crown molding on top. I've always liked this style, and have used it countless times. It has a classic, traditional look that works as either a carved sign or a dimensional effect on a flat, painted sign.
The signface measures 32 x 30 in.: I made it with two pieces of 1-in.-thick, 15-lb.-density Sign*Foam high-density urethane (HDU), which I laminated back-to back. Because Sign*Foam tends to be brittle, I routed channels in the back of one face to fit a simple framework of 1/4 x 1½-in., flat-steel bars. The steel extends above the top of the sign to create the attachment points for hanging the sign from the existing, signpost arm, and the two faces are glued together with West System’s two-part epoxy.
I also made the dimensional crown molding from Sign*Foam. I built up the crown with four layers of 1-in.-thick Sign*Foam HDU, and used several router bits to create the shape I wanted. The crown has a hollowed-out groove that accepts the top of the glued, 2-in.-thick signfaces. It forms a quasi, upside-down "bathtub" that fits over the top of the faces to create a virtually unbreakable, double-faced sign. With his system, I can finish the carving and dimensional effects before gluing the faces together.
This sign also features 3-D, grape cluster on each face. First, I handcarved the lettering directly into the Sign*Foam faces. To create the "grapes and leaves," I used a product called Abracadabra Smooth & Sculpt, a two-part, epoxy, modeling resin from Abracadabra Signs and Designs. I mixed up the resin, rolled each "grape" by hand and pressed them into the face, then did the same for the "leaves".
Using Magic Sculpt was much faster than carving grape clusters out of Sign*Foam, and it looks more realistic. With the carving and modeling done, I mixed a pot of two-part, marine epoxy and glued the two faces together, then glued the crown molding in place. I left the sign in the clamps over the weekend, giving the slow-curing epoxy plenty of time to set up before starting to prime and paint.
A stylish coat
The carved sign will be primed with at least two coats of Chromatic water-borne acrylic primer, to fill the microscopic voids in the Sign*Foam surface. This provides a smooth, sandable base for the deep, dark-green, satin-finish topcoat. I'm one of those dinosaurs who’s never warmed up to using acrylic latex coatings on my signs; I prefer the high-quality, Dutch-made enamels from Fine Paints of Europe (FPE).
Following several coats of FPE enamel top-coat, I began gilding. Because the sign would be installed by a state highway, legibility was a major concern. Passing traffic averages at least 40 mph, and, under some lighting conditions, goldleaf on carved letters can be difficult to read at a glance.
My solution? I gilded an outline on the primary copy (Heritage Trail) with 23k gold and filled in the body of the carved letters with ivory enamel I’d warmed with a little imitation gold. I gilded the secondary copy (Winery & Cafe) solid with 23k gold over a mix of Rolco fast and Lefranc Charbonnel slow size.
For the final, post-gilding touch, I painted the grapes with a bright, glossy burgundy/crimson, and coated the leaves with a soft, natural green with yellow-green highlights that to stand out from the very deep, dark-green background.
This project took slightly more than two months to complete, so it made sense to deliver and install the signs in several stages. I first finished the big barn, café and bed-and-breakfast signs, which I delivered and installed in early November. Next, I completed the "wayfinding" signs, which were installed around the end of November. For my final delivery - in a snowstorm, the day after Christmas - I finished the dimensional sign.
Projects of this sort -- a complete image makeover, as it were -- don't come along every day. They deserve our best efforts. To have one come along that offers complete artistic freedom, a reasonable and workable budget, and, best of all, the trust and enthusiastic gratitude of clients like Harry and Laurie, made this job deeply enjoyable. It was equally satisfying to know there’s still a market for jobs of this scale, completed entirely with traditional techniques and the oldest (and newest) of materials.
Equipment and Materials
Adhesive: Two-part epoxy, from West System (Bay City, MI), (866) 937-8797 or www.westsystem.com
Coatings: Chromatic water-based, acrylic primer, available from Garston Sign Supply (East Hartford, CT), (860) 289-3040 or www.garston.com; Dutch enamel topcoat, from Fine Paints of Europe (Woodstock, VT), (800) 332-1556 or www.finepaintsofeurope.com; lettering enamel, from TJ Ronan Corp. (Bronx, NY), (800) 247-6626 or www.ronanpaints.com; semi-transparent stain, from Cabot (Newburyport, MA), (800) 877-8246 or www.cabotstain.com
Goldleaf: Fast size, from Rolco (Carlstadt, NJ), (866) 271-5367 or www.rolcolabs.com; Charbonnel slow size, from Lefranc & Bourgeois, available at art- and paint-supply stores; 23k goldleaf, available from Sepp Leaf (NYC), (800) 971-7377 or www.seppleaf.com
Substrates: Sign*Foam 15-lb. HDU, from Sign Arts Products Inc. (Laguna Hills, CA), (800) 338-4030 or www.signfoam.com; Abracadabra Smooth & Sculpt modeling epoxy resin, from Abracadabra Signs (Ayr, ON, Canada), (877) 342-0847 or www.abracadabrasigns.com; medium-density-overleaf (MDO) plywood panels, available from such suppliers as Great Northern Lumber (Chicago), (800) 288-2202 or www.greatnorthernlumber.com; mahogany and pine panels, available from lumber-supply stores.
More about Cam
Cam Bortz, a graduate of Shippensburg University, opened Finest Kind Signs in 1988. Trained as a traditional signpainter and gilder, he’s evolved his business to include custom, 3-D HDU and wood signage. In 2003, when his longtime bracket fabricator retired, he founded Bracket Guys and began producing custom, wrought-iron brackets. Bortz recently founded Fountainhead Visuals, which specializes in developing brand identities for companies and organizations. He’s earned several awards in past ST Sign Contests.
Bortz has contributed to the preservation of traditional signmaking crafts through his involvement with the Letterhead and Walldog movements. He said, “I view Walldog events as a means of sharing and teaching these skills, as well as demonstrating their lasting value to the general public, and creating valuable public art for the benefit of the host communities.”
For more information about Bortz’s work, visit www.injafsa.com or call (860) 234-5402.