Every year or so I experience a certain restlessness in the shop signage department. Whether to experiment with a new style of lettering or to make use of an interesting piece of stone, a fresh sign is a way to test the state of my skills without having to worry about commercial pressures or implacable deadlines.
The sign now hanging above the shop window was a year in the making, beginning with the purchase of the stock from Verbayna Antiques (now in Princeton, MA). Their harvest of a collection of slate mantlepieces from a farmhouse in Sterling yielded one very promising candidate with an elegant fabricated profile reminiscent of an 18th-century gravestone. It is difficult to date the mantlepiece with any accuracy without the help of the former homeowners, but the fact that it was painted with a faux-marble lacquer seems to indicate that it was manufactured to suit the tastes of Victorian gentry.
I could tell by chipping along the edges, and by the ring of a knocked knuckle, that it was indeed slate, but the color remained a mystery until I got it back to the shop and broke out the angle grinder. Expecting black or maybe green, I was surprised to see that it was an uncommonly pure shade of purple. Most of what is available now in that color is distinctly variegated, a swirl of purple and green, and even if the surface is predominantly purple it is usually inkblotted with green accents. As I removed the lacquer shell I anticipated an array of the usual blemishes. But here was an almost immaculate five-foot length of pale aubergine.
The design process usually proceeds from the inside out: let the shape of the text determine the shape of the margins. In this case I already had fixed margins and needed to design the text to fit the shape. The name of my shop works best as a single line and since that seemed the best use of the stone anyway I set to work designing a size and style of lettering that looked like it was the purpose for which the mantlepiece was originally intended.
When in doubt use roman capitals. But in order to fit the name on one line with generous letter spacing the capitals would have been too small to be read at a comfortable distance. Italic upper and lower case was my next idea, and I thought the issue of scale had been resolved. I could make these letters as large as I wanted, easily visible from any distance or direction. However I wasn't sure I'd be able to find enough time to carve so many large letters to keep the project from going well into a second year. I decided to give my nascent efforts at designing a roman lower case a real workout. This was, in effect, the middle porridge. The design filled the length of the shape nicely and the letter size seemed poised for reasonably rapid progress. The only inhibiting factor was the incredible softness of the stone, softer than almost anything else I've carved. Given the occasionally explosive fragility of the stone, any hope of an easy rhythm was set aside after the first letter. Perhaps, I sometimes wondered, it was happier as a mantlepiece.
Eventually a slow hand paid off. The letters were carved as cleanly as I could make them. All that remained was to pick a color of 1-Shot with which to paint the inscription. I chose a bright, friendly Robin's-Egg Blue for a sufficiently dramatic contrast against the purple background. Installation was completed with epoxied keyhole plates and anchor-mounted screws and the help of the gents upstairs at Central Mass Sign Guys.
Now I have a sign that will last forever. Or until that familiar restlessness creeps in. Whichever comes first.