In the world of antique and vintage signs there are a few indicators that can help to authenticate a true vintage piece.
Before the Industrial Revolution, the majority of signs were hand-painted. No mater the subject material, the craftsmanship behind these pieces was always a central focal point for observers, so detail usually tend to be high. While these signs were artfully crafted to mimic industrial uniformity, there are some cues you can use to help identify the authenticity of truly old signs.
Sign painters had to draw all lettering by hand, which took great precision. Among the most difficult letters in the alphabet were the S, C, and O. An authentic hand painted sign will almost always have subtle differentiation between these letters either on the same sign or between subsequent signs if one is available for comparison. Identifying variations in letter thickness and curvature is one way to tell that a sign is not made by a machine printing method.
Brush strokes may also be an indicator of a hand painted sign. Bumps in the paint, slight variance in thickness, and minimal streaking from brush textures are all good signs that your piece is made by hand.
Sign materials should make logical sense for the era in which they would have been used. For example during the World War II the US government encouraged citizens to recycle their scrap metals. Metal production factories were concentrating on the war effort and materials for signs shifted from metal to porcelain, and to some extent back to wood. Modern metal signs use baked on enamel but are generally made of aluminum, while original period signs were generally made of steel which was prone to rust. Porcelain signs from the World War II era will usually have indented letters, due to porcelain that was molded instead of cast for easier production and to be lighter.
Standardized sizes can be another great clue when trying to determining age or authenticity of a sign. Metal and plywood sheets are produced in standard 4 ft. x 8 ft. sections. These materials would be cut into rectangular dimensions that made sure to minimize waste. 4’x4’, 2’x4’, 18”x24”, and 12”x9” are some of these standard dimensions. Signs with these dimensions are almost always post war to modern. It is also good to note that standard paper sizes like US 8.5”x11 and A4 were not observed in the sign industry and these were not ever sizes used in vintage sign making.
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