How did an apprentice sign writer from Devon end up travelling to California to learn from the most talented American sign painters? It’s all thanks to the amazing help of Rick Glawson – and a chance encounter with an American popcorn stand.
Start of the journey
It would have been around about 1990, shortly after my future wife and I had got together, when a trip to America would open my eyes to an exciting new direction in my sign writing career.
At the time, I was apprenticed at a sign company called Harmony Signs in Paignton. I had been there around six years. My dad had got me on a YTS course which paid £25 a week and I had to start at the bottom and work my way up. Two days a week, I would be working, learning traditional sign writing and then I would be at the college learning other techniques and crafts. That was how I got into glass work.
I remember the guys I worked with at Harmony were always saying that the ultimate skill was gold leaf embossing and processing techniques like glue chipping and acid etching, but they didn’t do it at this company. All I knew was what I was being taught at the time: how to paint a black outline and a gold leaf letter. For me it was amazing just to be learning all these beautiful techniques of traditional sign writing because they were the basics and the backbone of my craft. You have to learn that before you go into really ornate gold leaf decoration on glass. So I was learning the craft and doing the odd bit of gold leaf around the town (taught by a guy called Jeff who had been doing gold leaf on glass, and other traditional techniques, for over 40 years).
That was when I got together with my future wife, Melissa. She suggested we take a trip to see her sister in New Zealand. We were young (I was 22, she was 24), so we saved up and in January 1990 we bought the tickets. It was a four week trip that began with a two night stopover in California. Little did I know at the time that those days in America would change the course of my life.
A stopover at Disney
At the time, the best signs and glass work in the UK were to be found in London pubs. Living and working in Devon, I was only used to seeing more basic restaurant signs, hotels signs ,van lettering and stuff like that. As I was walking around Disneyland in Anaheim, my eyes were being opened to the skills and craftsmanship of the people who worked there. Everything was beautifully done and I had never seen anything like it, not even in a magazine.
I came across some old popcorn stands and it was the first time I’d seen anything different from the Old English style of lettering. It blew my mind!I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. There was one beautiful old popcorn stand which had this crinkled, feather-like lettering which looked like it was embossed on the glass, but I wasn’t sure and it was all in 23 carat gold leaf. I decided to take some photographs and then I nipped around the back of the stand and asked the young lad who was working there if I could have a look on the inside. I wanted to feel the back of the glass (I was like the trainspotter of gold leaf reverse glass signs! ). He told me to carry on, so I’m there with my finger rubbing against the glass trying to feel what was going on there. I couldn’t figure it out because it was heavily painted, so I took some more photographs and off we went.
We carried on looking around the park and there was amazing gold leaf work everywhere with beautiful murals and awe-inspiring pictorial work done by talented Disney Imagineers. I would find out a lot more about them in the future. But for now, it was time to carry on with our trip to New Zealand!
The magazine on the side
Two days after returning from a lovely holiday, I was back at work at Harmony Signs. I remember wandering into the office to pick up something. The boss Fred Mead, was on the phone and I could see a magazine on the side. The front cover was beautifully done. It was all in gold, acid etched and oil gilded. It really took my eye, so I asked the secretary Mrs. Binmore, whose it was. She told me that it had just come in for Fred, so I asked him whether I could look through it. ‘Yes David, take it next door,’ he said.
So I took the magazine next door and started to look through it. The title was, ‘Gold Leaf: Signs of the Times’ and it was the 1990 edition. It included a piece by an amazing artist called Noel Weber who is now a really good friend and like Rick taught me so much over the years with Gold and design. Noel had done a step-by-step guide inside, showing how he had created this front cover piece.
I carried on looking further into the magazine and came across all sorts of other fascinating things. I got to the back and there was a section on glue chipped glass signs. It included details about a small book written by a chap called Bob Mitchell that you could buy from SignCraft magazine. I ordered this book in from the States. It arrived two weeks later and it was absolutely full of all these beautiful, old-fashioned glue chipped, glass signs and all this crinkled work just like I’d seen on the popcorn stand. In fact, after turning a few pages I came across some pictures of popcorn stands. I thought, ‘Well, here we are. This is exactly what I was looking at in Disneyland.’ It’s funny how it all comes together!
I got to the back of the book and there was an area for supplies, including a section on the Esoteric Sign Supply shop. They supplied all the glues and other materials a sign writer would need for the ornate processes detailed in the book. There was a phone number and a name: Rick Glawson.
Meeting ‘Daddy Fine Gold’
Phoning the States on a week day would have cost me a lot of money, so I decided to wait until the Saturday. I picked up the phone, dialled the number for Esoteric Sign Supply and a man answered. It was Rick.
Wow, I couldn’t believe it, what a gentleman! After chatting for an hour , he revealed that I was the first person from the UK he had spoken to. That was really nice. He was interested in some of the crafts I was working with and we discussed different techniques, but just to talk to him for the first time was a real honour and because of everything he had done and seeing his work in Bob Mitchell’s book. The book had looked into the background of glue chip glass signs, but it was Rick’s photographs and examples of his work, along with work by Noel Weber and other artists that proved to be a turning point for me. I decided I was going to start learning some of the more interesting ornate glass work that I was destined to create in my life. Rick said to me, ‘Dave, do you fancy coming out to the California Conclave? it would be nice if you can come back out to California and view the shop that I work at and meet other artists.’
I said, ‘I would love to.’ And after two years of faxing back and forth, ordering glues in, having a go at glue chipping and getting to know Rick and his business partner, Lola Grey all by phone, I was finally on my way back to America. Before I left, I told Michael Bullous, a friend and fellow sign writer from Newton Abbot that I had been invited to America to this old fashioned gilding shop that does all this fancy gold leaf art. ‘Do you fancy going?’ I asked.
‘I’d love to,’ he said. So we got on a plane and off we went. We arrived at LAX airport and we were as excited as kids! It was a beautiful February day and we jumped off the plane and called Rick who directed us to where we could get a taxi to his shop in Wilmington. I think the taxi ride was around about half an hour.
I remember the car door opening and there was Rick. He was a tall man (People would ask him how tall he was, Ricks reply was, i’m five foot 18 inches!) instead of 6 foot 6 inches. Known fondly as ‘Daddy Fine Gold’, Rick was like the Willie Wonka of the gold leaf world and Mike and I were about to step into his ‘Candy Store !’
Esoteric Sign Supply & The Fine Gold Sign Company
Esoteric Sign Supply and the Fine Gold Sign Company were located in Wilmington, California. They operated out of a 5,000 square foot facility.
The Fine Gold Sign Co., which was an outlet for Rick’s artistic expression, dealt exclusively in gold leaf signage, specialising in custom as well as a commercial gold work. Rick was a talented and dedicated sign artist who specialised in fine gold glass work. He was a conservator of early reverse glass advertising with expertise in sign restoration from the 1860 to 1920s period; that was his main passion. Through his experience and research, he rediscovered and adapted decorative glue chip, acid etching, embossed processing, angel gilding and other lost embellishing techniques.
The Esoteric Sign Supply Corporation was a specialty sign painter’s supply store that provided materials for many out of the ordinary gilding techniques. Every tool and material that could be used to create or restore a reverse glass sign could be found there: gold and silver leaf of every carot and type; paints; varnishes; exotic brushes; abalone mother of pearl; glass cutters; nippers; edge scallopers; glues; acids for embossing; books and videos (back in the day) – everything was there.
Amidst all the glitter and glass there was a fine collection of beautiful sign painters’ memorabilia on display. A visit to the store was no time to be in a hurry!
As well as selling globally, the Esoteric Sign Supply Corporation was a port for commercial artists who would visit to see these elaborate glass signs. They would normally be greeted by the knowledgeable and ever-gracious Lola Grey who was in charge of the supply department there. She managed the business side of things whereas Rick would be playing with the gold and looking after people. Lola, who was a bit older than Rick and very much like a mother to him had been with him for many years and had helped him through a low point in his life. Both Rick and Lola were always happy to share their knowledge with customers, whether they were phoning or visiting the shop.
Behind that store was Rick’s other business, The Fine Gold Sign Company. Several rooms served as workshops for all the different types of sign painting and restoration he was involved in. It was here where damaged glass signs came from around the world to be given a facelift and a new lease of life. When Mike and I arrived that February, Rick took us straight into the shop and it was as if we had stepped back in time. There was glass and gold everywhere; beautiful ornate mirrors; restoration work hanging on the walls – it was just an amazing place and we were like kids in a candy store!.
He then took us around to the area where he’d been making big signs and whatever other stuff was going on at the time. David Trujillo did fantastic work alongside Rick producing a lot of these beautiful glass signs. Taught by Rick, he was brilliant at restoration and gilding in reverse on glass. Then there was Janet Takahashi who was mostly involved with the conservation work along with being an amazing calligrapher. Another guy was Ramiro Arrendondo. He was the main person responsible for working with mother of pearl – cutting the pearl and getting those products ready to send out and ship out to people around the world.
I also remember Rick and Lola’s cat, Bruce. He was massive! and a proper character, the size of an Alsatian, wandering around the department.
I visited the Fine Gold Sign Company several times over the years. Rick always had the very latest gadget or paint coating with foolproof instructions for me. I was constantly amazed at his wealth of knowledge and his eagerness to share it with his customers and friends. Whether it was gilding, applying gold leaf or painting a simple sign, Rick would patiently walk you through the process and that friendly help came with no added charge. Whenever he discovered an old technique/recipe he couldn’t wait to share it with other artists ,his face would light up and his eyes would enlarge with excitement.
Rick Glawson’s story
Rick Glawson was widely acknowledged as one of the world’s foremost gold leaf experts. Rick learnt gold leaf the hard way with no formal academic training.
It was a 1940 Speedball catalogue that really got him going as a kid. He was awestruck by the beauty of the illuminated manuscripts in the back and started creating his own. Throughout his school years, Rick created posters for people he knew, teaching himself from catalogues how to produce copperplate, Spencerian script, Old English calligraphy and other techniques.
While searching for a material called shell gold, a powdered gold in gum arabic base used to put highlights on illuminated letters, Rick wrote to Hastings and Company a gold leaf manufacturing company that is no longer in business. They sent him back a little book on water gilding on glass for sign work. All of a sudden, Rick’s eyes had been opened, and he said to himself, ‘This is the stuff I want to do by hand.’ He had found his home. Rick laid his first piece of gold leaf in 1972 and it got into his blood.
During that period, he was also making custom furniture for small companies because he loved woodwork and was a skilled cabinet maker. He moved into the furniture industry and produced beautiful cabinetry for hospitals and restaurants. On the side he was doing small window lettering jobs for drug stores, getting referrals from installers who were aware of his creative skills.
Eventually, circumstances forced him to make a choice: remain a cabinet maker or enter the sign business full-time. He started doing window gold leaf lettering for banks and offices and never stopped. It was just his passion. You could find his work all over Los Angeles and as far afield as Chicago.
Rick’s interest in reverse glass signs started after he acquired a beautiful old glass sign. Upon close examination, he noticed that gold leaf provided the sparkle in the main lettering. That motivated him to research the history of this art form and the methods and materials used for it. Where recordings were incomplete or missing, he experimented with often reinvented tools, techniques and materials to exactly duplicate the original forms. Through years of trial and error Rick learned how to perfectly restore, duplicate or create any kind of reverse glass sign.
Glass was rarely used in advertising prior to the 1860s because it was such a rare commodity. By the 1880s, increased glass production lowered those costs and reverse glass advertising became popular. Reverse glass signs are painted on the reverse side because this accepts paint more easily. The front of the glass then becomes a protective layer through which the art is viewed.These signs were hand-painted in very limited numbers and the brewing industry was a major client of glass art studios.
Over the years, Rick expanded his focus to cover everything from cut plexiglass to billboards on walls. In fact by 1984, he was getting so much work that it was taking him away from the gold leaf work. He made up his mind that he was going to kindly decline anything that he didn’t want to do. Although he feared upsetting his existing customers, he experienced the opposite reaction when he told them that he specialised in Gold Leaf.
Letterheads and the California Conclave
On that first initial phone call with Rick, he had also invited me to attend the ‘California Conclave’. I came to discover that the Conclave was a gathering of 100 to 150 artists who would come together to share their beautiful gilding techniques and processes. The Conclave assembled for three days over a weekend, usually every February.
It originated out of the Letterheads movement. Letterheads is an organisation that was started back in 1975 by seven sign painters. They got together and swapped and shared ideas at their different sign shops around America. Rick attended his first Letterhead meet in 1985, which was their 10th anniversary. It was held in Denver, the organisation’s birthplace. He learnt something new at every meeting and in 1986 he began his own annual Letterhead meet which he called the California Conclave.
Rick explained that the national and regional meetings served several hundred attendees and it was difficult to brainstorm with people who were actively gilding and chipping. The California Conclave, which was held at The Fine Gold Sign Company was by invitation only because of the limited space. 100 to 150 people would arrive from all over the United States, Canada and as far away as Europe.
It was like a generation had lost out on some of this knowledge because it hadn’t been shared. A lot of the techniques and processes were being done at the turn of the century, but by the 1910s and 1920s they just passed out of usage until Rick revived a lot of them and started sharing them again. So it was thanks to him that we were able to start learning so much. That’s how I got to meet a lot of the people I know today. Craftsmen like Noel Weber, Mark Otis, Dave McDonald, Doug Bernhardt, Bill Hueg, David and Susie Butler who created the amazing T.Shirt designs every year for the Conclaves ,Sean Beauchamp, Gregg Heger, Mike Jackson , Joe Balabuszko ,Gary Berg , Larry White, Gary Godby, Tom Kennedy, Jeff Lang, Pat Mackle and so many more ( an endless list!) of like minded artists. Everyone was willing to reach out and teach each other. There was never an issue. It was all about people sharing their crafts and I know if Rick was around today how impressed he would be seeing the incredible work this new young generation of men and woman are creating and sharing around the world through social media and workshops.
It was just an amazing time and I couldn’t get enough of those three or four days I spent there each year. Rick and I remained friends for many years. I would get back from a meet and couldn’t wait to tell the old guys from Harmony Signs about it. They were interested, but only mildly because it was an American gathering and they were set in their ways over here regarding sharing the skills, most of them were looking to retire and here I was just starting my gold journey! I’m saying they were old, but they were probably my age now, 55 to 65 !- I still learnt so much from these ole timers and have them to thank for taking me on at the time and teaching me at that young age.
In 2000, I was honoured when Rick asked me to teach a class with him at the International Letterheads meet in Boise, Idaho hosted by Noel and Lucy Weber. Over four days, we taught a class of 15 people how to chemically Angel gild. We Angel gilded all the panels and then went on to teach all the students how to signwrite, gild and apply abalone to the reverse side of the glass.
Letterheads, by the way, is still alive and kicking and the 50th Letterhead meet in Cincinnati will be coming up in 2025 at The American Sign Museum run by the owner and Rick’s close friend Tod Swormstedt.
Trips with Rick
During the three days at the Conclave, Rick would always take us on two or three trips. One trip was to the Disney sign department at Anaheim. It was fascinating to see behind the scenes, watching all the Disney guys in the sign painters’ department and seeing all the gilding and marbling work going on. The Trompe-l’oeil (trick of the eye) technique was amazing.
Rick was based in Wilmington, just 20 miles from Disneyworld in Anaheim, the place I had first encountered the amazing work of the Disney Imagineeers. Rick would hold Letterhead or Fine Gold workshops and these Imagineers would come to him for three days and learn new processes. Then they would go back and paint the beautiful gilded windows that you see on Main Street as you walk down through the park.
Another memorable trip was when we went to see an 1890s chemist set-up and a reverse glass collectors’ house in Orange County. We visited a private house which was once a working pharmacy full of apothecary and old advertising signs. It had all this beautiful old-fashioned glass work and amazing carved chemist cabinets. Those little visits were really important for everyone over those few days as they brought people together. Rick would just set up these amazing weekends. There won’t be any more like that again.
End of an Era
Sadly on March 10th 2003, 20 years ago Rick passed away following a stroke. It was a massive upset for the sign and glass gilding industries and he will always be missed by so many friends.
Rick was just a lovely man who would help anyone with what they were doing. You literally needed a voice recorder just to take in the information he would give you because he was so knowledgeable, not just about gold leaf and glasswork but about everything. Rick was a one off.
I feel really lucky to have been part of that Letterhead movement. If it wasn’t for me picking up the magazine at work and ordering the Glue Chip book I might not be doing what I do now, although I guess I would have got involved somewhere along the line.
On the passing of Rick I travelled to California to his funeral and we had our last chance to go and see the Fine Gold Sign Company which eventually closed about a year later. Rick’s brother and Sister in-law very kindly sent me over from Wilmington this beautiful cash register. It read the National Cash Register on the back, but Rick had put his unique touch to it and made an antique brass plate for the front of the till reading ‘Fine Gold Sign Company Co’ .
Rick also made this glass sign. It was displayed next to the till at the front of Fine Gold on a glass cabinet. I learnt so much from this piece with the embossing process of creating acid etched buildings with Breweries and Factories. Rick’s brother Paul kindly sent me this piece of craftsmanship.
David and Susie Butler, Noel and Lucy Weber , Bill Hueg , Mark and Rose Oatis, Doug Bernhardt , David and Robin McDonald, Todd Swormstead ,Mike Jackson, Kent Smith ,Raymond Chapman ,Dusty Yaxley and his wife were all very close friends of Rick’s and so many other friends were there who paid their respect at Rick’s funeral that day. It was an honour to be asked by Lola to be one of the pallbearers at his funeral along with Rick’s other friends and it was lovely to be part of that special day.
It was the end of an era and you had to have been part of it to realise how special it really was at Fine Gold and how generous and caring Rick and Lola were over those 18 remarkable Conclaves. Rick was just amazing and he had a passion for sharing his knowledge and helping people. A humble man and a gentle giant. They really were good times and I learnt so much from all the artists I met in those early years and all thanks to Rick Glawson.