MEET THE MAKERS #3 – SIGNWRITING

A behind-the-scenes glimpse into the workshops of the craftspeople creating the Budvar Bike

JAMES 'COOP' COOPER, SIGNWRITER
Dapper Signs, Bristol, UK

It won’t be a surprise to anyone who knows the Budvar story that we have something of a passion for people whose work – just like our brewing – involves true dedication, skill, mastery of craft, respect for tradition and going the extra mile to deliver perfection.

One of the great things about our partnership project with BOLT Motorcycles is that we get to meet a whole bunch of inspiring and gifted craftspeople currently working on the Budvar Bike. As you can imagine, turning the raw ingredients of what was a boxy old 1980’s model JAWA CZ into a thing of beauty requires some serious skills. And as well as the skill and vision of Andrew and Simone at BOLT, the bike’s customisation is giving a glimpse into some incredible traditional crafts, like fabrication, leatherwork and sign-writing.

In this mini-series, we’re following Andrew around the workshops as the bike is being transformed, catching up over a cold Budvar with each of the makers working on it. Last is James ‘Coop’ Cooper, signwriter extraordinaire and founder of Dapper Signs in Bristol, the master of the brush and steady hand who is responsible for the stunning Budvar logo and trims on the bike.

Fans of Budvar tank beer – or Tankové Pivo – will know that the brand is no stranger to hand-painted lettering. All tank installations in the UK feature painted Budvar logos and text by signwriters. So when it came to the putting the finishing touches to the bike’s look, Andrew wanted to echo both this more modern tradition as well as honouring the historic hand-lettering of the Budvar logo itself. He brought in Coop, a master of the craft, and the man behind all BOLT’s distinctive signage.

We caught up with Coop at BOLT in London to talk a little about signwriting, the skill of the craft and why it’s enjoying such a resurgence in the UK.

So how did you get started?

I first started painting signs when I was employed by a mate of mine doing a food tent at a festival and they needed a blackboard done. And I needed to not get a real job. That was about 10 years ago. I got some compliments from people who were – probably – a bit worse for wear in hindsight, but off the back of that that I got some business cards done saying ‘sign writer’ like I’d been doing it for 30 years. And it just went from there.

Tell us about the name.

The first name I had was "Sign Flu" – that was around the time of swine flu. I thought it’d be really funny…it obviously wasn’t. When I started getting emails from pharmaceutical companies, I decided it was probably time to change. Hence "Dapper Signs". I think it’s better…don’t you?

What’s the process for a job like this?

For something like this, this beautiful petrol tank, I brought the tracing paper so I could get a really rough idea of the size of the tanks and sketch it out. Then I do a more finished drawing of the logo; then traced it down with a carbon paper. Then it’s painting by numbers really. I always use an enamel paint called one-shot and mix it with white spirit to get consistency right, but these are lovely bold colours: red and gold on cream.

What was your training like? What inspired you?

I was calling myself a signwriter for six months before I even picked up a brush. I was using mostly posca pens and mainly doing menu boards for pubs and cafes, but the more I found out, the more nerdish I became and obsessed with the craft of it. A great signwriter called Wayne Osborne recommended an old book called Signwork that’s out of print now; it’s the Bible really for signwriting. I kind of went from there and I’ve never stopped learning.

What can you tell us about the craft’s history?

It’s the second oldest career this…think about it. First there was the ‘service’, then signs advertising the service, if you know what I mean! Signwriting does have a really rich history in the UK, America and Australia particularly. All have distinct histories with styles. But it’s not always been as popular as today. There’s been a resurgence. When I first started dropping business cards around Bristol and so on, half the work was letting people know that the art form still existed. It had basically become extinct.

Is that down to vinyl stickers and print?

Yeah. You go up a high street and its vinyl this and vinyl that. It’s all the same fonts and computer-generated stuff. It’s usually been printed by someone with no idea of layout or anything like that, with no idea of the stuff that makes it eye-catching or easy on the eye. The people who come to Dapper Signs are proud of their businesses and they want something bespoke and unique. They want to stand out and be independent.

How do you tell the difference?

Half the time it’s because the good stuff isn’t done in a common computer fault. It’s been done with somebody with their hands. Often you look close enough, definitely with my work, you’ll see the fine cock ups and all that lot. All the little cock-ups and idiosyncrasies are what makes it human y’know? It’s about embracing the imperfections.

Do sign writers end up with their own style?

I think so. I’m all about the rough and ready style myself. Hand-lettered stuff. And it’s all from in-here, in my head.

What do you think of the Budvar logo?

It’s beautiful. Somebody really drafted that. You can tell. It was drafted by someone sat at an easel with ink and a pen. And it’s a beauty to work on too, very emblematic of the period – nineteenth-century brewing companies.

Do you enjoy the painting itself?

Yeah, absolutely. When I’m painting I get deep in the zone. Lord forbid someone talks to me. I can’t construct basic sentences. It’s a kind of concentration; you lose hours just painting letters.

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