Signwriter shares his thoughts on traditional vs vinyl styles – and mistakes to avoid

Ever since Philip Smyth was a kid, he’s had a fascination with signwriting. 

His parents collected vintage signs, and his dad created exhibition displays for a living – so when he decided to do an apprenticeship to become a signwriter, it wasn’t much of a surprise. 

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Now 30 years into his career, he’s one of the few traditional signwriters left standing. 

He does trucks, cars, business signage, shopfronts and more – but admits he has a soft spot for trucks in particular. 

“I’ve always had an interest in trucks, I’ve got a couple of my own vintage ones,” he says.

“The traditional, hand-painted signwriting is a bit of a dying art, but we do lots of different types of signwriting so we’re very busy. 

“I like doing the trucks because with a shopfront you need a good dry day, but with a truck, you can bring it inside and work on it no matter what the weather is.” 

Smyth does computerised and vinyl signwriting as well as handpainted

Smyth, who is based in Alfredton, Victoria, says that most big fleet owners prefer vinyl signwriting these days, but many owner drivers and small fleet owners still go the traditional route. 

“Every truck that’s hand-painted is a one-off artwork,” he says. 

“There are people who like that traditional style, or they want that personal touch. 

“Or they might have seen pictures of someone else’s truck and they want something similar.

“You can add whatever colours and touches they choose to make it their own.”

Smyth also works with digital and vinyl cut lettering, which is faster and easier than hand-painted scrollwork.

“If you did a job in vinyl, compared to a job that’s painted, painting takes three or four times as long,” he explains. 

“If you do a line of scroll and then you do the names in vinyl, it speeds the job up. A lot of guys like that because if they sell the truck, you can just take the name off and leave the painted lines and scrolls.”

Notley Transport’s Kenworth came out great

He thinks certain trucks need that hand-painted look, especially if it’s a restoration.

“What really drives me crazy is if you go to a truck show and you see a 1950s restored Bedford or something like that, and it’s got computer cut lettering on it!” he says.

“It should be hand-painted, because that’s how it was at the time.”

He has worked on many different restorations over the years, and says the process varies depending on how old the truck is.

Smyth’s workshop is based in Alfredton, Victoria

“People come in and if they’ve bought a second-hand truck it’s often just a name change or a refresh on the lines and scrolls. 

“If it’s a brand new one, they’ll often have a few photos of trucks they’ve seen on the road or from social media. 

“We might get a photo, put it on the screen on the computer and roughly draw what it will look like.

“Then when you get the truck in, most of the lines we will tape up with pin striping tape, to keep them nice and straight.”

He adds: “With a restoration job on an older truck, like dating back to the ‘30s or ‘40s, we don’t use tape, we just draw the lines by hand. 

“That’s the way they traditionally would have been done – like a horse-drawn carriage.” 

Kane Transport came to Smyth for some eye-catching scrollwork

Much of his work comes from word of mouth. 

“You get in with a few guys, and they talk to each other and one job leads to another. 

“Or guys will have a truck for a few years and they’ll damage it and have to get a new bonnet, and you touch that up, or they buy more trucks.” 

The 53-year-old has four full-time staff, and his son has also taken an interest in the family business. 

“My son did his apprenticeship when he was 17 and went off and did a few other things, did a bit of truck driving and farm work. 

“But he’s come back now and he’s really jumped onto it with me.”

signwriter
Smyth and his son hard at work

He says that while there might not be very many traditional signwriters left in the game, they are all very talented – and he sees his competition as an inspiration. 

“There are probably six to 10 blokes in Victoria who are doing the traditional signwriting now, and they’re all doing really nice work, so that sets the bar. 

“As a signwriter, you want to be as good as everyone else.”

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