Signmaker

The Job and What's Involved

Signmakers create signs for indoor and outdoor display, and produce artwork to advertise a range of products. Their work is often seen on the sides of cars, lorries and buses.

They design, manufacture and install a vast range of signs, including street direction (or wayfinding) signs, and signs that advertise shops, businesses and public facilities. The signs may be designed and manufactured as flat, one-dimensional signs, 2D signs or more complex 3D illuminated signs.

Traditionally, signmakers used drawing and painting skills to produce hand-lettered signs in enamel paint. Some still use this method, especially when designing signs for pubs, traditional settings or canal narrowboats.

Signmakers today tend to combine traditional skills with computer-aided design (CAD) and manufacture, using materials such as self-adhesive vinyl, perspex, glass, aluminium, stainless steel and PVC.

Projects may demand one or many of the diverse skills involved in the signmaking process, from graphic design to electrical engineering or construction management.

Signmakers carry out a range of tasks which vary from one project to another. These can include:

  • Designing signs using computer software, which then programmes the plotters and vinyl cutters to produce the finished product.
  • Using solvent-based inks and high-resolution digital printers to produce printed vinyl's and banners.
  • Cutting out metal and plastic letters to create 3D signs.
  • Bending glass into shape in order to create illuminated signs.
  • Engraving, etching or hand decorating materials.
  • Printing and applying graphics and livery to vehicles.
  • Installing signs on site.

As well as the technical and creative aspects of the job, signmakers may:

  • Meet customers to discuss their specific needs.
  • Suggest the best methods to achieve the required effect.
  • Quote an estimated price for potential projects.
  • Deal with paperwork, such as finalising contracts.
  • Carry out site surveys.
  • Ensure that signs are in keeping with the surrounding environment, and deal with planning applications where necessary.

Signmakers generally work 37 hours a week, from Monday to Friday, but they may be expected to work extra hours in order to meet deadlines. It may be necessary to work outside normal hours if they are installing signs in a public place, such as a shopping centre.

Production work is usually undertaken in a workshop or studio, equipped with signmaking machinery such as printers and cutting and moulding equipment. Protective clothing, such as face masks, may be needed when working with some paints and inks. The work can involve a great deal of standing and some lifting.

Many signs are external and installation often involves outdoor work. Work at heights may be required to install shop front or rooftop signs.

The starting salary as an apprentice may be around £12,000.

Getting Started with this Career Choice

The main employers are specialist sign companies, printers, engravers and graphic design businesses.

Some signmakers are self-employed. They may work freelance, or run a local franchise of a large company.

There are opportunities throughout the UK, but there can be competition for jobs.

Jobs tend to be advertised in the local press or through Jobcentre Plus offices.

Education and Training

It is possible to get a first job in signmaking directly after leaving school. In these cases, new recruits usually study part time for further qualifications. Some employers offer Apprenticeships. Apprenticeships usually require four GCSE's (A*-D) including maths, English language, a science subject, and an art or design subject. Other evidence, such as a National Record of Achievement may be helpful, as it can demonstrate a student's ability to cope with the programme of study.

Some signmakers start by studying a full or part-time course in signmaking. These courses are available at colleges throughout the UK.

It may be possible to specialise in signmaking after studying a more general art and design course, such as a one-year Foundation course in art and design, or HNC's/HND's in subjects such as graphic design.

It is also possible to enter this area of work by pursuing the Advanced Apprenticeship for the sign industry, offered by the British Sign and Graphics Association (BSGA) in association with the Cogent Sector Skills Council. Targeted at 16-18 year-olds and operating over a period of approximately four years, the scheme leads to the NVQ Level 3 in signmaking.

Apprenticeships and Advanced Apprenticeships provide structured training with an employer. As an apprentice you must be paid at least £95 per week; you may well be paid more. A recent survey found that the average wage for apprentices was £170 a week. Your pay will depend on the sector in which you work, your age, the area where you live and the stage at which you have arrived in the Apprenticeship.

Entry to Employment (e2e) can help to prepare those who are not yet ready for an Apprenticeship. In addition, Young Apprenticeships may be available for 14- to 16-year-olds. More information is available from a Connexions personal adviser or at www.apprenticeships.org.uk.

There are different arrangements for Apprenticeships in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

For further information visit My World of Work www.myworldofwork.co.uk/modernapprenticeships, Careers Wales www.careerswales.com; and for Northern Ireland contact www.careersserviceni.com.

The Diploma in manufacturing and product design may be relevant for this area of work.

A Few More Exams You Might Need

Most training is carried out on the job. This may involve working alongside an experienced signmaker and studying towards NVQ Levels 2 and 3 in signmaking, supported by part-time study at a local college.

Study normally takes around two years and covers aspects such as communication, IT, using numbers and working with others.

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Skills and Personal Qualities Needed

A signmaker needs:

  • An eye for design.
  • Knowledge of the range of typefaces and lettering styles.
  • Practical hand skills.
  • An ability to spell and good numeracy skills.
  • To be able to use a computer.
  • Normal colour vision.
  • To be accurate and precise.
  • The ability to work as part of a team.
  • Drawing or painting skills (for traditional signwriting).

Your Long Term Prospects

Signmakers can specialise in different areas within the industry, working as estimators or process planners.

Many signmakers progress to become quality control technicians, ensuring that sign and display products meet company and customer quality specifications.

Other opportunities include progressing to work as a sign designer. This role involves designing signs and displays, ranging in size from single fire exit signs and shop front banners to vehicle graphics and complete exhibition sites.

Some signmakers may progress to supervisory or management roles. It is also possible to become self-employed, and work as a freelance signmaker.

Get Further Information

British Sign & Graphics Association (BSGA),
5 Orton Enterprise Centre, Bakewell Road,
Orton Southgate, Peterborough,
Cambridgeshire PE2 6XU
Tel: 01733 230033
Website: www.bsga.co.uk

PAA\VQ-SET, Brooke House,
24 Dam Street, Lichfield,
Staffordshire WS13 6AA
Tel: 01543 254223
Website: www.paa-uk.org

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