Handmade roadside signsBy

Handmade roadside signs

America's back roads were once forested with colorful homemade signs hawking everything from farm produce to lodgings, local sights to cheap cafes and gasoline.

Unlike the crisp factory-made markers used by corporate giants like Burma Shave, mom and pop signs were painted in garages, basements and barns. The unique one-of-a-kind, often naive style, have made handpainted road signs very collectible folk art. The more outlandish the style or subject, the better.

Previous attempts to reproduce these signs in mass quantities were not successful. No rapid mechanical process could capture the handpainted details of the originals. That has changed with the introduction of versions with extensive hand work. Individual brush strokes, the folksy style and artificial weathering have fooled many buyers into thinking the new signs are vintage pieces.

There are so many different new designs being made, it's impossible to identify pieces by the subject. The best way to catch most new signs is to examine how a suspect piece is made.

First, look for evidence of how the sign was meant to be attached. Most vintage signs will have drilled holes for screws, or at least nail holes, down the center or in two or more corners. Real signs, remember, were meant to be used outdoors and had to withstand wind, rain and vandals.

Most new signs we've examined have delicate little hangers on the back (Fig. 1). These are fine for hanging "antiques" in the living room, but obviously couldn't have supported a real sign outdoors in the wind. New hangers can, of course, be added to genuinely old signs. That's why you need to look for screw or nail holes. None of the new signs we've seen have any nasty looking rust-stained screw or nail holes typical of old signs.

Another good clue a sign may be new is size, especially if a seller is offering several signs. If several different signs have the exact dimensions, something is wrong. What are the chances, for example, that a vintage Smokey and eggs sign (Figs. 4 & 5) would both be exactly 25 by 18 inches? Also note that the three boards are the same width in both signs.

Most vintage pre-1950 roadside wood signs were done with lead-based enamel paints. The new signs shown in this article are painted with water-based latex and acrylic paints. Any evidence of many layers of paint are generally a positive sign of age. Paint chips, for example, are a good place to look for layers of old paint. Also look in screw and nail holes and cracks and splits

Blurred and faded paint, "worm holes," gouged and pitted surfaces, and other superficial wear are not generally reliable indicators of age. These conditions are easily applied at the factory.

We know of some new signs bringing over $150 at auction. Most of the new signs shown in this article are $15 to $30 each wholesale. Many similar signs are appearing in malls and outdoor shows for $50-$75.


Fig. 1 The small hangers found on the backs of signs shown in this article. These are fine for household use but were never used for actual signs made for outdoor use.


Fig. 2 Closeup of the chicken head in Fig. 5. All the new signs are made in a deliberately amateurish style. This attempts to copy the homemade appearance of vintage signs.


Fig. 3 New 29-inch by 16-inch painted wood sign for canoe rentals. Framing around the edge. Painted in black, red and yellow. Distressed finish applied at factory.


Fig. 4 New 25-inch by 18-inch painted wood sign featuring Smokey the Bear. Yellow background with Smokey, lettering and trim in black.


Fig. 5 New 18-nch by 25-inch painted wood egg sign. White background with red, yellow and black.


Fig. 6 New 25-inch by 12-inch painted wood sign for cabin rentals. Green background with black lettering and white accents.


Fig. 7 New 18-inch three-dimensional painted wood arrow. Red body with white lettering; gold and black trim. Unlike most new wooden signs which are made in China, Indonesia or India, this piece is made in the United States.