Sign Update Magazine Feature - Brushmaking

Sign Update Magazine Feature – Brushmaking

Charlotte Wormley-Healing,
Manager of A. S. Handover,
talks to Sign Update Magazine…

What hair is used in signwriting brushes?

The ideal fill for a signwriting brush would be a fine hair with a sharp point and plenty of spring so
that it responds to the writer’s touch. It is also important that the hair is available in sufficient length
(up to 60mm), holds together well and does not stick out at all angles like a bad hair day. The hair
would ideally be tough to resist the effects of oil based paints and the associated solvents, and
ideally would not cost the earth.
This does not seem too much to ask but unfortunately there is no single hair that meets all these
criteria. Readily available and inexpensive hairs (around £25 per kilo) include bristle (from pigs)
which is long and tough but does not have a point which would make it impossible for the signwriter
to obtain a sharp edge to his or her letters. Pony hair will not come to a point or hold together and
has very little strength or spring. Ox hair is also relatively cheap at around £200 per kilogram and
was widely used until the 1990s for rougher or larger work as it represents a halfway house between
bristle and the fine hairs such as squirrel and sable.
These latter two hairs have been the mainstay of signwriting brushes since the craft first developed.
Squirrel hair is widely used in North America. It holds together nicely and comes to a fine point and
at around £1,500 per kilo is not too expensive. It does, however, have little or no spring so will not
follow the hand nicely when painting, for example, an ‘S’. Most British signwriting brushes have been
made with sable over the years. This hair has all the wished-for characteristics noted above but it is
very expensive, currently selling at over £6,000 a kilogram, a cost that is currently increasing by the
month. It also needs to be cleaned and cared for religiously if the hair is not to become brittle and
break off.
In recent years, synthetic “hairs” have improved to the extent that they now offer a reasonable
alternative for many applications.

How long does it take to make a signwriting brush?

This varies with shape and size but, with hair that has already been dressed and cleaned, it should be
possible to make around 24 in an hour.

How long does it take to learn how to make a brush?

Apprenticeships for artist brush making used to last five years and it certainly takes that long to be
able to make a top quality brush at a commercial rate.

How long have A. S. Handover Ltd. been making brushes?

Mr. Handover started the business around 70 years ago. The daughter of his first brushmaker still
works with us and we have other brushmakers who have been with us for well over 30 of those 70

Do you see a renewed interest in hand-written signs?

All of the traditional signwriters who buy from us tell us they are at their busiest for years. There is a
definite appetite for products produced by hand and more people are prepared to pay that bit extra
for something special. I think people have really started to see the worth of what they are buying,
rather than just going for the cheapest option, it seems to have come full circle.


Words and photography by Charlotte unless otherwise stated. Article Published in issue 174 of Sign Update Magazine.