Painted On Signs Without The Paint

Written by Joseph Kreiss, photos by the author.

“Signs, signs, everywhere signs...” The 1971 hit by the Five Man Electrical Band made their message clear they didn't like signs popping up everywhere. But for the model railroader, signs are a good thing. Everywhere we look there are signs. Sign are on billboards, bus stops, and buildings. Businesses have used signs on walls, windows and roofs for decades to advertise their products and location. Most of the time the signs were painted directly onto the building's exterior.

Model railroad layouts need signs to convey to prototype. Some modelers cut stencils and use them to paint directly on to their model structures. Other more artistic model railroaders, such as Danish artist and world renowned model railroader Troels Kirk, have the talent with a paint brush to do realistic lettering by hand. 

But, how can we get the look of a painted on sign without having to actually paint it? There are several ways to do this. One way is to use decals to represent painted on signs. But unless you are able to create your own custom, made to fit decals, relying on commercially available sets can be limiting. I have made my own decals for a select few buildings on my layout, such as the large Puna Sugar Mills trans-load elevators on the HO Scale Big Island Rail layout, but the decal sheets are expensive and unless you have the right type of printer with your computer, the results are hit or miss.

I have also used my home computer and printer to produce paper signs in color that work well, are inexpensive to make and with a few tricks, look just like painted on signage. 

Here's how I recently made a large building sign for a wooden background structure on my On30 Mosquito Creek Lumber Co./Blackwater Southern & Gulf Rwy. layout.

I started by taking some measurements of the side of the building and how large I thought I wanted the sign to be. I then headed to my computer and opened up an “OpenOffice Drawing” document. I went to the tool bar  and with the “Format” pull down menu, I selected “Page,” and set the orientation to “landscape.” Knowing my sign would not be any longer than 11-inches, I keep the page at the normal letter-size 8 ½ x 11-inch copier paper setting.

I clicked on the 'Rectangle' tool at the bottom of the screen and used the Draw program's built-in top and side rulers to create a box to the approximate length and width I needed for the sign. I adjusted the line width and color for the border, and then filled the box with, in this case, a muted orange background color from “Area Style Color and Filling” selections on the top tool bar.

Next, I selected the “Text” selection on the bottom tool bar and clicked the cursor in the box I just created. I typed the business name for my new sign, in this case, “BLACKWATER LUMBER Co.” I then changed the font and adjusted the type size to fit inside the box. If, for some reason, the type disappears, it is “behind” the box. To bring it to the front, select the box, then find the pull down 'Modify' menu and select 'Arrange.' Click on “Send to Back” command and the type should reappear.

Once I was happy with the way the sign looked, I saved the file and made a print of the page. Using the printed sign, I checked to see if my computer screen dimensions were the same as the area on the building for the sign. Happy with the fit, I cut out the paper sign using a paper cutter. A metal ruler and sharp hobby knife would do the trick as well.

On a clean smooth and flat surface, such as a piece of thick glass or a piece of hardboard, I placed the sign print side down. Using fine grit sandpaper, such as 150 or 220 grit, I began to lightly and evenly sand the paper on the back of the sign. The trick is to sand almost all the paper from the back, leaving a thin layer of paper containing the print on the front side. Slow and gentle is the rule here.

Now that the sign was thinned, I carefully painted the back a with slightly diluted white glue mixture using a soft 1/2-inch-wide paint brush. I completely covered the surface and used care not to tear the sign while doing this step. I picked up the sign and carefully placed one edge in position on the building and slowly laid it into place. There's not much room for adjustment once the sign is down, so I worked diligently to get it correctly in position the first time. Once in place, I used the brush and white glue again and painted the entire surface of the sign, pushing the paper gently to help it conform with the wood plank siding of my structure. The glue seals the paper to protect it from any damage during weathering or handling. I allowed the glue to dry completely. I weathered the sign slightly and then sprayed it with Dull Coat to seal the weathering and to take any shine away caused by the dried white glue.

Note, be sure to test this method on another similar throw away sign first to make sure the ink from your printer does not smear or bleed when in contact with the white glue.

I am very happy with the results of my computer printed signs.  From normal viewing distance on the layout, look just like painted on sign and the cost to produce dozens of custom signs is mere pennies! Give it a try.

About the Author

Blackwater And Mosquito Creek's picture

Joseph Kreiss


ClinchValley's picture

Excellent information Joe, I'm going to have to try it.

alex_jay's picture

It never ceases to amaze me of how little I know. Thanks, Joseph. I have never used printed out signs because of their thickness. The best and clearest printings always seem to be those on real graphic paper which seem to be .020 or over. Because it is so thick, they have never made it to my projects. I'm going to try the sandpaper to make the thickness more manageable.