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Started by Bill Gill, July 15, 2022, 09:09:20 AM

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Bill Gill

This has been a topic on the forum in the past, but this is an updated and revised version from a clinic I gave. It's posted in response to an interest by a forum member who has a graphic arts background. I hope other members might find this updated version interesting too. The thread will be posted in sections as they get tweaked to fit the forum.

Think of Letterbashing as kitbashing with type. The fonts on your computer are your raw materials and programs like GIMP, Inkscape, and PhotoShop are the tools you use to customize those parts to your needs and models.
L intro.jpeg

One shortcoming of many otherwise terrific models are signs that don't fit the time or location being modeled.
Once you have an eye for hand lettered signs, signs churned out with computer fonts start to look like this:

Helvetica (a font practically indistinguishable from Arial) was created in 1957 but often shows up on much earlier model signs. It looks modern, and it is not "generic block lettering" appropriate for any time period. Likewise fonts like Playbill are used out of proportion for older signs from the Civil War forward. In either case other letters can work better.

The fundamental premise of Letterbashing is:   
No typeface can accurately represent hand lettering!

If hand lettering and sign painting aren't part of your modeling toolbox, one good handbook that can be downloaded online is the Speedball Textbook. There are a number of editions. They all give solid information on the basics of hand lettering.

Letterbashing is a technique I developed for making model signs that look hand lettered by modifying computer fonts, but avoiding the challenge of actually trying to hand paint very small letters.

This thread focuses on large exterior lettering painted on walls. I call these "factory signs". The examples were created with GIMP.  (PhotoShop may have slightly different tools, but the essentials will be the same. I'll use GIMP terms since that's what I know, translating any differences shouldn't be difficult).

The lettering and printing trades are steeped in long histories with ambiguous, confusing terminology and strong opinions. Reducing that to fit this thread inevitably will leave big gaps and causes distortions. Proceeding anyway, here's one way to produce realistic signs that better compliment your models.

Small Shop Signs
The lettering on these signs is usually too small to actually write out by hand, so this simple introductory project was designed to get a reader without any lettering background a little familiar with changing text around. I almost deleted it all, but instead shortened it as it might prove useful in thinking about approaching sign making.
STEP 1. Using your word processing program, type whatever short message you need: SALE, REPAIRS WHILE U WAIT, Back in 5 mins., All You Can Eat, POTATOES 50¢. Don't worry about anything except the words.
STEP 2. Arrange the words roughly in the shape you need: square, tall or wide. Try anything, you can change it later.

STEP 3. Choose a couple fonts that look like hand lettering and are somewhat similar in appearance.
STEP 4. Substitute individual letters from the different fonts for the letters in the sign, avoiding repeating any letters.
Individual letters can be made bold or italic and/or slightly rotated or warped to make them appear related. And symmetric letters can be flipped horizontally.

Bill Gill

The REPAIRS WHILE U WAIT example isn't quite "Letterbashing". It's just an inroduction to fiddling with text. The next section will dive into the basics of the technique.

Bill Gill

OK, let's see if this works. In order to follow along, familiarity with graphics software helps a lot. Understanding how to use "layers" when working on an image is critically important. The other tools used are pretty basic at this stage. If you have questions, ask and I'll do my best to give straight forward replies. (I have GIMP and use its names when  explaining the steps.)
L intro copy.jpeg

So how did the computer font on the top sign top turn into the lettering on the bottom sign?
Here are the steps using the letter R as an example:

The R will be widened slightly to fit the space between the windows and then its tail will be changed.

1. Open a new file set to the size you want. If designing lettering for printing decals or printing on paper it is best to set the resolution at least at 600dpi, more if you can. Make the size of the working space ("canvas") about twice as big as the finished project will be.

  a. If you have a scale photo/drawing of what the lettering will be applied to,    drag that onto the canvas and scale it to fit.
  b. Add a new layer on top of your base image, label it "lettering" to help keep track as several layers will be created as you work. Labeling the others will help too.
  c. Paste the R onto the lettering layer and position it where you want it to be.

2.Choose a selection tool (I picked the freehand "lasso" tool).
  a. Outline the right side of the R to select it. In this simple situation include as much blank white space as you can inside of the left edge of the cut.
LB c.jpeg

  b. Copy that outlined part and paste it back in place. In this case the letter is being widened, so drag the pasted part to the right until it fills the area you want. Anchor that layer.
LB d.jpeg

3. Next the gaps where the R was split get filled.
  a. Select and copy a part of the letter that is the same height as the gap. (Here I exactly selected and copied the upper horizontal stroke of the left side of the R.

  b. Paste the copied stroke as a new layer then drag it over and align it to cover the gap at the top of the R.
c. Repeat step b. and this time cover the gap in the mid stroke.
d. Merge all the layers with the new parts of the R down to the Lettering layer.

That is the most basic type of Letterbashing. But it barely scratches the surface of what else it can do.
LB e.jpeg

Bill Gill

At this point some of you are probably thinking that was a lot of effort, why not use the scale tool, uncheck the "keep aspect" box and simply stretch the R a little to the right ?

Good question. Here's why. If you exam the LETTERBASHING sign you will notice the letters were not all widened the same amount. The I wasn't widened at all.
The H was widened a little. The L, E and T were widened more.

When you uncheck the "keep aspect" box for the scale tool and stretch a letter horizontally to widen it you also widen all the vertical strokes of that letter. The result is if you scale each letter individually like that each will have a different width vertical stroke.
LB f.jpeg
Not the look we're going for here.

Letterbashing preserves the stroke size while expanding or contracting the overall letter.

The same Letterbashing technique for the R was used to widen the L, E, T and H.

We'll look at the remaining letters next time, but before ending this post, what about that tail on the R? How did it get changed?

Good question, better yet, why did it get changed? The Letterbashed tail looks like an older style R than the original font. It was better suited to this particular sign and it also further helped disguise the original font that was used.

So, quickly, this is how it was done:
The  letter J was added as a new layer at the same size as the original R. The top of the J was erased a bit. The remaining part of the J was flipped horizontally using the "flip tool" Next bottom of that part was rotated outward just a tiny bit with the "rotate tool".

Next the tail of the R on the original lettering layer was erased. The new tail was dragged into place and any necessary adjustments to its length or rotation was done. Then the tail was merged down onto the R.

Sound complicated, well yeah, sort of, but compared to trying to hand painting lettering, easy peasy. Like anything else, it takes practice and an understanding of what to look for in hand lettering.

Plenty to digest for now. Questions?

Bill Gill

Here's the original image I used to alter the lettering on the diner sign that Stuart posted in his Luke's Garage & Gas Station thread.
original sign.jpeg

And here is the Letterbashed version. The differences are very subtle. Compare the Bs in BUSHEL and BASKET in the letterbashed sign and the Ls and Es across both signs.
ltrbashed sign.jpg

Bill Gill

The alterations done to that original sign won't always work for preexisting signs or lettering, but when they do they are less cumbersome than the basic technique shown in a previous post.

Here is what was done to the E in BASKET:
1. Used the rectangle tool to carefully select just a part of the bottom stroke and its drop shadow.

Here's that selected part pasted as the new layer in place.

Then I simply dragged the layer to the right. That kept the colors and everything in scale and aligned.

Following the same steps but dragging the layer a little to the left would have shortened the stroke.

Merging all the layers down at the end kept everything in place and I then went to the next letter. Like I said, this method won't work all the time, but when it can it's pretty fast once you get the feel for it. Selecting where to cut is what makes it work.

Bill Gill

Krusty & Ray, Thank you. Apologies for the late reply.Your comments were noted as "Alerts" to this thread and I just saw them.

Bill Gill

With the almost innumerable fonts available,
what is the need to resort to an admittedly somewhat awkward system of altering them?

Here's one way to look at it. Up through the mid 20th century clowns mostly looked like the one on the left. More recently they often look something like the one on the right.
Tastes change in pretty much everything including lettering. New fonts created specifically to look 'old fashioned' are still modern fonts that reflect current fashions, and they are not handlettering.

Here's another little example of letterbashing an R by adding a drop shadow.
When you look, notice isn't simply a black R offset and stacked on top of a red R. Look at the corners, they are connected the way signpainters did drop shadows. The third R has a different tail stroke and a bit of ornamentaion, all done with basic techniques on a computer that almost all of us would be hard pressed to paint by hand.
decorative R.jpeg

Here's a neat example of a little custom handlettering that you won't find in any font.
custom Co..jpeg 

Bill Gill

One possibility for recreating old signs is to trace them off of photos. Here's a prototype photo of the D.W. Carpenter Lumberyard. It's sign on the side of the building was recreated for the NEB&W. You have to look extremely hard to make out the faint lettering.
dw carpenter bldg.jpg
After a lot of fiddling I managed to extract this from that photo.
DW carpenter GIMPed.jpeg 
It's not good enough to trace.

So it was used as a template. A computer font similar to the lettering was the starting point  and the individual letters were then bashed to match the original as closely as possible.
DW Carpenter LB.jpg

Bill Gill

This is probably the best example of Letterbashing to date. A modeler asked me to convert a b&w photo into a full color image that he could print out for a billboard on his layout. He also wanted to change the name (and population) of the town to reflect one closer to his layout's location.
Ugly Red Willies.jpeg
The b&w photo had enough challenges that the prospect of simply colorizing it successfully didn't look promising.

Letterbashing it was also a challenge. I could trace "Ugly Red Willie's" but all the rest of the lettering was letterbashed using over a dozen fonts.
I can't think of another way to capture all the quirky lettering and spacing that makes this sign so neat.
LB Ugly Red.jpeg



Have been following along. What version are you using. Doesn't like the version I have, Gimp Ver. 1.10.20.

My layout is completely different than yours in your second post. I played around with mine but could get the same screen as you present in the second post.

New York, Vermont & Northern Rwy. - Route of the Black Diamonds

Bill Gill

Bernd I'm using GIMP 1.10.30. But, several things will change the look compared to what you have.  First of all, I have a Mac and there are some visual differences from a PC.
Second those three screen shots showing how the R was elongated were taken back around 2015 when I had a much older version of GIMP.

Third I edited those shots (using GIMP) to fit the format for a slide show used in a clinic I presented, so my real working screen didn't look exactly like that either.

For the information on this thread I glossed over details in the descriptions above just to give people a general sense of what Letterbashing can do and also to try not to overwhelm with too many things all at once.


Bill -

Although I do not use GIMP, I am following your methods to this point.  Photoshop is similar in being able to cut, move and paste and add layers as needed then merge them together.

Another possibility in creating a hand painted sign, such as your D. W. Carpenter example,  is to import the original photograph as a template and then draw the outline of each letter.  This would be possible in SketchUp, Photoshop and Illustrator to name a few.  Using the outline method would also allow you to add additional "imperfections" to the lettering.  Either way the process can be a little tedious and time consuming.


Bill Gill

Stuart, You are right about tracing the outline of letters on some signs being a good approach. I did that with GIMP for "Ugly Red Willie's" at the top of the billboard. Tracing can work really well to get a good facsimile. But with the D.W. Carpenter sign the blurry letters seemed too inconsistent and irregular for tracing by anyone who didn't already have a lettering background.

And I also did try at first to trace all the lettering on the rest of the 'Ugly Red' billboard. That got really tedious in a hurry as I wanted to capture all the quirkiness. It was faster, for me, to type in approximate letters from fonts and then stretch or chop them to match.

And it was then easier to use that same method when changing the name of the town and the population number rather than trying to draw those letters freehand in the "style" of the original.

You are right overall too in that at times there are definitely simpler ways to recreate lettering than all that cutting and manipulating. Letterbashing is one way to do it in some cases, but whatever works is the goal.

As an aside, here's how Letterbashing came about in the first place. I'm not a sign painter, but I wound up painting a number of historic looking signs when I worked at maritime museum. Then at one point I was asked to repaint the name on the transom of the museum's center piece.

The only reference in the time period they wanted  was a somewhat fuzzy old photo of the stern taken at an angle. The only tool available to assist me in making a pattern for the lettering was a signmaking plotter that could either drawing a limited selection of fonts or cut them out of vinyl.

I drew a full size paper pattern using a font kind of close to the photo and then spent a week tracing and changing letters to look more like the letters in the photo. Surprisingly it worked.

Then all I had to do was stand on a ladder on a raft and transfer and paint the lettering on the ship while it and the raft bobbed in the river. No pressure...
Charles W. Morgan MSM.JPG


Thanks for clearing that up. Makes more sense now.

Nice job on that boat lettering. I can just picture you out there bobbing around on a ladder.


New York, Vermont & Northern Rwy. - Route of the Black Diamonds