In this article, you will learn how to repair a stone wall sign and reinstate gold leaf hand lettering. This photo guide has several tips for a process which can be applied to different sign refurbishment projects. Providing you with the know-how for rejuvenating exterior signs which will last.

Why refurbish old signs?

If you or your client chooses to retain the original design for a sign, or simply wants to revive an old sign, knowing how to refurbish them is important. In some instances, sign panels or substrates are too decayed to restore and will require a complete replacement. If the design is still legible on wall signs with direct to stone paint and lettering, it is likely that it can be repaired.

Materials used for this refurbishment

  • Exterior grade, ready mixed masonry filler
  • Spatula or rigid edged item
  • Painters’ caulk
  • Silicone sealant gun
  • Scraper
  • 180 grit sandpaper
  • A dust mask
  • Clean, lint free cloths
  • Dusting brush
  • Masonry primer
  • Masonry top coat paint (black satin)
  • White spirit: thinners / brush cleaners
  • Paint pots
  • Tracing paper
  • Pencil
  • Two inch (50mm) and one inch (25mm) masking tape
  • Paint brush
  • Signwriting brushes
  • Gold size
  • 23k gold leaf
  • Chalk (opposite colour from background)
  • French chalk powder (pounce powder)
Damaged stone wall sign

Shown are two opposite facing stone wall signs, with what appears to be gold leaf lettering. Both are in poor condition with flaking paint, drill holes and dusty, uneven surfaces.

Damaged sign on wall

The signs were thought to have been initially lettered in the 1950s or 1960s. The current owner of the building wanted to retain the heritage of the signs and reinstate the original design on both pillars.

Assess where to begin

As well as determining the process of repair, photographing and measuring the lettering and lines ensures replicating the design as accurately as possible.

Plan how you will eventually reinstate the original design onto the wall. Determine what elements of the existing design can be salvaged and copy as much as possible.

Lettering for wall sign

Tracing the visible design is advisable before any repair work commences. The tracing can be used for size and spacing reference when the pillars are ready to letter. The tracing pattern can also be used to transfer the lettering design once the surfaces are painted.

Preparing the surface

Repairing a wall sign

Any loose or flaking paint should be scraped and sanded first. Wearing a dust mask is advisable for any sanding and removal of dust.

All dents and uneven areas should then be filled with suitable filler. In this instance, ready mixed exterior filler was used to fill the damaged stone wall signs. The filler was smeared onto the uneven surfaces before flattening out with a spatula.

Filling a damaged wall sign

Once dried and cured (the manufacturers’ instructions stated 24 hours), the filler was scraped and sanded to make the wall surface as smooth and even as possible.

The filling process was then repeated as the dents in one wall were too deep for one application.

Masonry sign repair

Using a spatula or right-angled, rigid edge, filling any corner gaps is also important. Again, sanding once dry ensures a smooth and even surface before painting.

Filling corner edges of a sign

Painters’ caulk was also used to fill hard to reach gaps in the tight corners. This was applied using a silicone sealant gun.

The painting process

Masonry primer on wall sign

The first coat of primer was applied once all the filler had hardened and was sanded smooth. Ensuring that all dust had been swept off and the surfaces were clean, the signs’ edges were then taped with two inch (50mm) masking tape.

The masking tape was pressed on hard and provided a clean edge for the painted pillars.

Preparing edges of the sign

Now that the pillars were coated white, gaps and dents previously unnoticed were also filled, smoothened and sanded.

The use of the masking tape is most helpful in achieving the clean, straight edges.

Base coat the wall sign

The surfaces were now as smooth as practically possible, and the edges were all filled.

Black wall sign

Once all the additional filler had dried and cured, the rectangular backgrounds could be masked again, before two coats of black masonry paint were applied by brush.

A small foam roller can also be used for painting as well as using a small brush to paint the hard to reach corner edges.

The paint was quick drying (able to overcoat in a few hours) but I left the second coat of black until the following day.

Reinstating the design

Tracing a design onto a sign

The tracing of the original design was used for transferring the layout onto the newly painted pillars.

It was important to match the replacement lettering as close as possible to the original. The look and format of the design had to appear true to the era in which it had been created.

Adjusting the sign design

In the case of the pillars, both backgrounds were almost level so there weren’t mathematical adjustments required.

If working on a background which is squint or skewed, the design may at times make the background look more unequal. Instead of levelling the design true, optically adjust the design to suit the background and viewing distance.

Tracing pattern for sign design

Once the tracing pattern is taped into the position which looks best, use masking tape to create a hinge on one edge of the pattern. Here you see the top edge of the tape hinged.

Using chalk which is a discernible colour from the background, chalk over the back of the pencilled design area. Then gently rub with your hand so to remove any masses of chalk dust.

The chalked sign design

Using French chalk powder wrapped in a lint free cloth or clean rag, gently tap the lettering area.

The entire lettering surface should have a thin layer of French chalk powder laid on.

Pencilling the sign design

Ensuring that the pattern is tightly taped into position and will not move, begin tracing on top of the design with a pencil. You can use a ball point or soft nib pen too.

Do not press too hard in case the tracing paper tears or the surface is scored. After tracing a small amount of the design, peel back one small corner area of the tracing paper. If you cannot see the relief drawing which you have drawn already, redraw and press harder.

Dundee sign design

A soft leaded pencil works well on this knobbly surface. Pressing too hard or using a nib which is too sharp will tear the paper.

Painting the gold size

Signwriter with gold size

Now that the relief drawing has been traced and you can see the design, start filling the lettering with a signwriting brush.

Signwriting gold size

The lettering and lines will all be finished in 23 carat gold leaf. Gold size (which is like a glue which the gold leaf will stick to) is painted on before allowing it to become slightly tacky. Judging the tackiness of the size will differ, dependant on the environment temperature and how thin the gold size is.

Gilding the lettering

Gold leaf gilding a wall sign

On this day of lettering, the temperature was a biting two or three degrees. So the gold size took approximately forty five minutes before it was at the tacky stage for gilding.

The gold leaf comes read to apply from pages. The pages are stuck onto the just right tackiness, before quickly rubbed and snapped back.

Gold leaf on a wall sign

Work quickly and in divided portions. Do not letter the entire design with gold size if there is lots to gild. The size will dry too hard before you can reach that area for gilding.

In this photo, the title lettering and some below were painted with gold size before the tackiness was suitable. The gilding of that area started before completing the rest of the lettering in size. Keep checking the areas already painted with the back of your finger to test the tackiness.

How to gild gold leaf onto a wall

Rub on with your thumb and snap back. Make sure not to rub any uncoated gold paper onto the tacky gold size. Or the paper (without any gold on it) will stick to the size. If this happens, clean off with white spirits and re-size before waiting for the right tackiness to gild again.

Tidying the gold leaf

Remove excess gold leaf on the wall sign

Once all the area has been gilded, use a soft brush to wipe off excess gold. A make-up brush works well for this. A clean dusting brush is also useful to remove any chalk still on the surface.

If the chalk is plentiful and too much to rub off, wait until the gold leaf is hardened and return to wash off. At least twenty four hours in colder environments.

Gold leaf wall sign in Dundee

There were some small, furry areas on and around the gold lettering which was touched up with the background paint. This made the finished piece more accurate, with cleaner edges.

The design has been reinstated is now true to the original, ready to gleam for years to come.

Tell me what you plan to create and send me some photos!