Meeting The Letterheads

P1030106At one point during my weekend in Rochester, while waiting to be served in one of the local public houses visited during a Friday night pub crawl, I heard the barmaid comment with surprise upon the volume of customers they’d received that evening. By way of explanation I heard another voice chime in “It’s the signwriters”!

It struck me that this was the first time I’d been part of such a collective – a mass of signwriters, pinstripers, woodgrainers, craftsmen and enthusiasts from most corners of the globe descending upon this historic city for a weekend of workshops, networking, socialising, drinking and paint-slinging. It was my first Letterheads meet and the first on UK soil for seven years – hosted and organized by Kent signmaking royalty Mick Pollard and his daughter Kate Belmonte and based at the Rochester Corn Exchange under the heading “What The Dickens!” after the city’s connections with the famous author.

Indeed, the signwriters were everywhere. When I stopped off to pick up a morning coffee, there they were, grabbing a quick breakfast before getting back to the brushes. You could spot them wandering Rochester high street, admiring and taking photos of the many hand-painted fascias of Mick Pollard  – “an outdoor museum”, as one voice put it. They were there swarming over vintage vehicles in the car park opposite the Corn exchange, ready with paints and striping brushes to pounce upon anything that was stationery for too long (in one related incident nearby, a postbox was well and truly “gilded”!)


Art Schilling pinstriping

The meet was already in full swing by the time I arrived on the Friday afternoon and I was a little reluctant to get the brushes out at first for fear of embarrassing myself in such esteemed company. Of course, I need not have worried, for as the weekend progressed it became apparent that this was no place for egotistical grandstanding and everyone seemed to be there for the same reason – the sharing of knowledge, friendship and the enthusiasm and love for a craft too special to have it’s noble practitioners replaced by machines.

My first workshop helped me to settle into my new surroundings – wood graining with David Kynaston. As the demonstration got underway it became apparent that this was a deceptively simple skill to learn but one that took much practice to master.  We were shown some basic techniques for creating a mahogany effect grain and a walnut burr effect, and then invited to practice on some pre-prepared boards using the methods we’d just been shown.

David Kynaston demonstrates a walnut burr effect.

David Kynaston demonstrates a walnut burr effect.

After sitting in on a presentation on pinstriping by Art Schilling and Neil Melliard I thought it high time I actually got my brushes out and painted something. The main hall was laid out with rows of easels and, in the centre, a couple of round tables stocked up with an assortment of one-shot paints, thinners and other sundries, a collective pool of materials for us to get inspired with. There were blue tarpaulins taped to the hall floor to prevent the inevitable paint spills from ruining the corn exchange carpet. In one corner of the hall David Smith was leading a weekend-long glass gilding workshop. Elsewhere, people were occupying themselves with lettering practice or working on designs that they’d brought along for the meet. I opted to use the time to work on my freehand, beginning with some casual lettering.  There was a general hum of chatter and laughter and easy conversation. It’s not the kind of event in which you’d find yourself stuck for something to say and I soon found myself in various conversations, listening to people’s stories and receiving advice on my hand-lettered efforts.

The painting continued into the evening, followed by a welcome party with the mayor, followed by a stagger around some of the local pubs, followed by bed in a conveniently situated hotel just minutes from the meet.

Up early Saturday to try and make up for lost time on the Friday. No sooner had I set up on my easel in the hall than I was greeted by fellow Bournemouth signwriter Steve Blackwell who had been roped into a project and thought it appropriate to rope me in too.

We were appointed the task of replicating a crest design onto the bonnet of a Russian racing car. The previous bonnet, sporting a horrific dent in its centre, which led to much discussion, theorizing and speculation as to how it had happened, was propped up against a wall in the corn exchange car park next to the car itself (which already had two signwriters working on lettering along the sides). Steve and I carried the dented bonnet back into the building and laid it on the carpet to begin tracing the design prior to pouncing the crest onto the new bonnet with chalk.

The (almost) finished crest.

The (almost) finished crest.

The Russian racing car was just one of several vehicles that were signwritten in the car park over the weekend. I believe they were arranged with Mick Pollard for a reasonable fee, with the proceeds being put towards the event charity – Arthiritis Research UK.

We were soon joined on our bonnet project by Wes, another fellow south-coast signwriter, operating from Portsmouth.  It became apparent fairly early on that we’d taken on quite a task, especially when it was revealed that the owner of the car was driving from Sussex later that afternoon to collect it. The intricacy of the crest meant that we would have to layer certain elements of the graphic, and because we were painting onto a black background we were going to need to second-coat it to get it looking half decent. Usually a job of this nature would require two, maybe three days to complete. It was going to be a tight finish….

…and we almost pulled it off! The last sections we painted were completed with the owner stood close by growing ever more impatient with us. All that was left were a couple of outlines on a globe image in the centre of the crest, the reason we couldn’t complete due to the previous layer still being wet. Mick Pollard promised to visit the client the following week to finish these final details. Despite this I felt good about what we’d managed to do in a limited timescale although Steve seemed a little apologetic for asking me to get involved in the first place.

P1030091Once we’d finished outside it was back into the Corn Exchange. By now the bar was open so I grabbed a beer and assumed my position at the easel, continuing until 8pm at which point we were kicked out and moved over to Ye Arrow, a pub just a moments walk away, where the Letterheads organizers had kindly arranged live music for our evening’s entertainment.

Up early again on the Sunday, and into the hall where I set up again with paints, easel and coffee to begin working on some gothic alphabet practice.  Once again things settled into a nice routine whereby I’d paint for ten minutes, then someone would walk past, stop and comment upon what I’d done – offering advice or just passing the time of day, they’d move along, I’d paint some more, someone else would stop by and so on. It was one of the highlights of the weekend, just meeting some of the signwriters and artists, some of whom I’d been in touch with in the past by email but had never met in person. It was great to hook up with James and Katie Cooper of Dapper Signs in Bristol, whose work I had admired for some time, and I also got to meet Andrew Grundon, painter of my favourite ever pub sign – the Bucket Of Blood in Cornwall (yes, I have a favourite pub sign!).

After packing my brushes up I spent a little time wandering the hall and taking in some of the work that had been produced over the weekend. Unfortunately I had to catch a train back to Bournemouth so I had to leave the Letterheads just as the charity auction was getting under way. After grabbing my belongings I took a final walk along Rochester High Street, taking a last opportunity to photograph the castle and cathedral along with some of the hand painted fascias, then boarded my train.

Here is a small selection of the outstanding work on display a the UK Letterheads meet 2014. Massive thanks to Kate, Mick and everyone who put the effort in on what was a fantastic weekend. Hopefully we won’t have to wait seven years for the next meet.

P1030111P1030083P1030099P1030101P1030102P1030103P1030104P1030107P1030105P1030110More photos from the event can be found here….

Most of the photos posted on the facebook page are courtesy of Veronika, the Viewfinder. Check out her page here…..