Wood and Wood: Hand-Painted Sign Making

Buddy Wood, of Jamestown, has spent his career creating eye-catching hand-painted signs. He first encountered the art form in the Navy during the 1960s. After he returned home to Fentress County, he began to work in the trade professionally at a time when most local businesses, shops, stores, schools, and churches relied on painters for their signage, advertising, and window displays. In the 1970s, Buddy got his start painting the “big boards” for tourist attractions in Pigeon Forge. Buddy recalled, “One morning I drove all the way to Sevier County and painted a sign and come back, and really that’s where I started. There wasn’t enough painters to do all the work.” Business was booming in Pigeon Forge. According to Buddy, “Main thing they wanted was their sign done. That was it. Bottom Line. Get on it and get busy.” Buddy painted signs for Goldrush Junction before it was Silver Dollar City. In 1986, this park was renamed again: “Dollywood.” listen

As part of the 2020 Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program, Buddy taught his son Mike Wood the subtleties of traditional design, lettering, illustration, pattern transferring, construction, and maintenance. Buddy’s expertise in sign painting extends beyond simply putting brush to sign. A deep knowledge of paints, their composition, their durability, and their flash points, are also part of the job. “My father knows many of the nuanced skills that aren’t taught in books,” Mike says. “I want to familiarize myself with his skills in order to preserve and continue their use in the Upper Cumberland.” 

For Buddy and Mike, hand painting has been a family tradition and way to make a living. Since the 1990s, this treasured art form has been rapidly replaced by the computer. What was once ubiquitous on sides of buildings and in shop windows is now scarcely seen in a downtown landscape. Buddy is one of the few sign painters left in Tennessee who possesses the skills and workmanship to create these everyday works of art. “It is crucial to pass down these skills, otherwise it might be a lost art form,” Buddy explained. “Especially in rural America.”

Apprentice Mike Wood as a boy.

Field Notes, December 2019–

Buddy Wood’s shop is a detached building next to his house. It is complete with a kitchen and living room, making it feel more like a second home than a workshop. The room where the sign painting happens is located in the center of the building, like the heart that keeps the place going. Buddy’s shop is filled with everyday materials; one would only learn the nuances of the typical-looking paint cans and brushes by talking to Buddy. Buddy is a man of few words. His son Mike sat in a chair in front of a three-foot sawtooth blade. 

Mike reached behind him and poured a can of yellow 1-Shot lettering enamel into a Del Monte green bean can. He held the can in one hand and a paintbrush in another, as he leaned towards the blade in concentration. When his eyes were an inch from the blade, he slowly raised his hand to it and let the paint from his brush transfer to the letter on the sign. The words “BIG CREEK” were arched across the top and the first two letters of “farm” were beginning to be colored in. At one point, Mike flipped the unwieldy piece of steel around to reveal “Adios Amigo!” in a cheerful yellow script on the other side. The outline of the letters had been hand drawn on the blade, but no painter’s tape was in sight because “tape is a crutch,” according to Buddy. “The bristles of the brush do the work for you,” Mike said dutifully as he worked.

“Your brush is not your only tool. Your paint is a tool itself. And how it behaves.”

Buddy stood behind Mike and kept a watchful eye on his son’s progress. Though Mike is an accomplished sign painter, it was clear that his father still watches him like a hawk. Mike chuckled, “The difficult part, he’s told me a thousand times, is painting.” “That’s the hardest thing,” Buddy said as he nodded his head in agreement. “Your brush is not your only tool,” Mike explained. “Your paint is a tool itself. And how it behaves.” listenA collection of paint cans were huddled together on a shelf in the corner of the room. 1-Shot paints from Chicago and cans of lettering enamel and bulletin color from the New York-based company Ronan are trusted by sign painters around the country. Buddy and Mike not only know the best paints for the job, they also know the alchemy involved to prepare the paints for sign painting. Knowledge of how paints interact comes from years of experience. “If you mix paint, you’re messing with it,” Buddy said. Mike quickly replied, building on his father’s wisdom: “Even mixing colors. If you’re going to paint something that’s going to have outdoor longevity, you need to use colors that are already as they come. Then maybe skew it a little this way or that with black or dark blue or white. otherwise you’ll completely change the consistency of the paint.”Buddy nodded his head, “the thing about sign painting is, it only is a few colors.” Mike painted for another hour, expertly wielding his squirrel tail brush. He looked back at his father, who nodded in approval, “You’re doing alright.”listen

Folklife staff visited Buddy and Mike in December 2019. View a virtual gallery of more of photographs from that day.

*This team is funded through a special partnership with the South Arts’ initiative In These Mountains: Central Appalachian Folk Art & Culture.

Further Reading:

  • Ames, Daniel T. Ames’ Alphabets. Adapted to the use of Architects, Engravers, Engineers, Artists, Sign-painters, Draughtsmen, etc., 1880. 
  • Duvall, Edward J. Modern Sign Painting. Wilmette, Ill: F.J. Drake, 1949. Print.
  • Foggin, Mark. “Fading Brush Strokes: Celebrating Hand-Painted Signs.” Letter Arts Review, vol. 23, no. 4, 2009, pp. 16-27
  • Gauntt, Barbara. “Keeping Hand Painting Alive: Paul Gore Embraces the Reemerging, Custom Craft.” The Clarion Ledger, Sep 30, 2018. \
  • Jackson, Joseph. “John A. Woodside: Philadelphia’s Glorified Sign-Painter.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 57, no. 1, 1933, pp. 58–65.
  • Klimek, Suzi. “Hand-Painted Signs — A Dying Breed?” Tribune Business Weekly, vol. 6, no. 52, 1996, pp. 13. 

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