Christopher Brimley updated October 4, 2011


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  • Painted On Signs - Revisited

    by James A. Powell

    Photos by the author

    The difference between regular 20# bond and onionskin is amazing! Here you can see that onionskin is nearly transparent.
    Model Railroading - January 2002 - Page 40

    I know the following technique is really starting to be old hat for many of us, but I seem to keep finding different methods to improve it, such as the following two descriptions.

    So, whats the secret to my signs? Onionskin - yeah, onionskin. For those of you who do not know, onionskin is a very thin paper that at one time was used quite often during the days of the original "carbon copies." To illustrate how thin onionskin is, think about a regular piece of computer printer paper. It is usually 20#, while onionskin is usually 8# or 9#. The weight refers to how much a thousand basis sheets weigh for a particular type of paper - the lighter the weight, the thinner the paper. This means onionskin is much thinner...less than half the thickness of ordinary paper.

    My signs actually come from all over, antique sign books, Internet sites and my imagination. Most of the painted on signs on my layout are my own design, or at least signs I have rendered personally from older designs. I use Macromedia Freehand (a professional, vector-based illustration program) to layout my signs.If I get my signs online, or I design them myself, they are already in my computer. However, if I get them from a book, I scan them in and resize them. I do not use George Sellioss method of using the signs directly from the book anymore. I feel the book paper is too thick to work with and make look good, plus I dont really like cutting up expensive full-color books. Id rather put them on the coffee table.

    I print my images using an Epson Stylus Color 980. It is a fairly new and very high-resolution ink jet. It uses the new 2880 dpi process, which produces near-to-photo-quality prints on regular paper. I dont need anywhere near that resolution for my signs, so I use the lowest print quality available. Using the lowest print quality uses less ink and prints much faster.

    I load one sheet of onionskin in at a time. Obviously, onionskin isn't made for running through ink jet printers, but if you place it on top of paper that is already loaded into the input tray, it feeds into the printer just fine.

    Even on a low quality print setting, the onionskin gets fairly saturated with ink during the printing process, therefore it is pretty wet when it comes out of the printer. I let the ink dry for about 20 minutes. After the ink has dried, I cut out my signs with a new, sharp X-Acto knife. If the blade is the slightest bit dull, the paper rips instead of cuts. I like to make the cuts s lightly smaller than the image to avoid any "white" edges. Here are two different routes you can use to approach this technique. If you find your ink smears too much with the first technique, try my alternate method.

    Use a damp cloth or sponge to pat the sign down into the mortar lines.
    Model Railroading - January 2002 - Page 41

    First Method: Now we come to the secret! We've all been told that using fullstrength white glue and covering either the back of the sign or the wall, then affixing the sign to the wall is the way to go, right? Wrong! Take a shallow plate or dish and fill it up with a small amount of water, enough to cover the sign. Then put about half as much white glue as water in the plate. Mix the two together thoroughly. Place the sign face up in the water/glue mixture. Some ink will run off of the sign, but the signs lettering will stay intact. The ink shouldn't run or bleed all over the sign; some will just lift off. So, if your glue/water mixture turns red right after you put a red sign in it, dont worry! Let the sign soak in the mixture for about five minutes.

    If you are putting the sign on a plastic wall, all you need to do is set it on the wall, tap it lightly with a slightly damp sponge or cloth and let it dry. If on the other hand, your wall is plaster or Hydrocal, you should lightly coat the area of the wall with some full-strength white glue, then put the sign in place. This is done because the plaster/ Hydrocal soaks up a lot of the water from the paper, and causes it not to stick.

    Alternate Method: Before I print the sign, I flip it vertically, so it is backwards! I then print it out and let it dry completely. Then I smear full-strength white glue all over the printed side of the sign. I then place the sign glue-side-down onto the pre-painted brick wall.

    Both Methods Continued: I tend to be very impatient when building, so I speed u p my drying process with a heat gun. I wouldn't recommend this unless you've played with your heat gun before and understand what the slightest amount of heat can do to a plastic brick wall!

    When the sign is thoroughly dry, and I mean completely dry, take 400-grit sand paper and sand away! Since the paper sign is so thin, after about ten strokes or so, the sign is worn away leaving only brick. If you would like to weather the sign even more, you can lightly moisten your fingertip with water and gently rub bits of paper off of the sign. When doing this, take great care, as large chunks of sign can sometimes come right off!

    Sanding causes very fine dust to build up on the sign and surrounding wall. To get rid of this dust, I brush a very light black wash mixture all over the entire wall, including the sign. My black wash is made with Deltas CeramCote acrylic black paint and water. I use paint rather than India ink because its a lot easier to vary the shades of the wash mixture. I make sure not to get the sign wet, just damp, as getting the now very thin sign wet will cause it to raise from the wall and possibly peel off.

    When the wash dries, apply any dry brushing as needed.

    The following sites have all kinds of information on signs. They are EXCELLENT resources for anyone wanting to model painted on signs: - click on the "ADS" link

    htm - click on the "Free Ad Signs" link

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  • John Warren likes this
  • Tim Allen
    Tim Allen Great Article Chris. Where can I get onion paper from? I wanna try this.
    October 4, 2011
  • John  Warren
    John Warren Thanks Chris, great article and techiniques, thanks for sharing.
    October 4, 2011