A Sign for Gritty McDuff’s

Carved sign for Maine's Oldest Brew Pub

A Handcrafted sign swings in the Atlantic breeze in Portland, Maine (image courtesy of Short and Stout Slurrings)

If you would stroll down the cobbled streets of ‘Old Port’ – the historic district of Portland, Maine – perhaps you would walk beneath a rustic, oval sign bearing this inscription; ‘Gritty’s: Maine’s Original Brew Pub’. Walk through the door and you may feel – as many have before – that you are stepping into a earlier era.

Stained Glass Window in a Pub

Light glows through a stained-glass window (image courtesy of Pub Talk)

When you enter Gritty’s, you feel like you have entered a seaport tavern that may soon be filled with privateers and fisherman who have just stepped off their schooners and walked up from the docks to spend their hard-earned, if not always honest, loot… It sits in the historic Old Port section of this seaside city and is practically a landmark in itself.
David McBride

Grittys Brew Pub Portland Maine

(Image coutesy of Fried Green Savannah)

Gritty's Breew Pub Maine

(image courtesy of Maine Roots)

Beer Taps

‘The decorative beer taps in a New England bar are a sight to be seen’ – Todd Sweeney

Gritty’s is Maine’s oldest brew pub since prohibition, and the city of Portland has a rather colourful history from that era, as Tom Bedell explained;

[Portland was] the site of one of the first temperance societies, founded in 1815. And in 1851, Portland’s mayor, Neal S. Dow, talked Maine’s governor into signing a statewide prohibition act. It became known as The Maine Law, and it outlawed the manufacture and sale of alcohol except for medicinal and mechanical purposes. I’m not sure what the latter refers to. Seems to me downing a brew after mowing the lawn would qualify as a mechanical purpose.

In any case, by 1855, suspicions arose that Dow himself, the Napoleon of Temperance, had a cache of medical and mechanical goods stashed away. It all came to a head, so to speak, in the Portland Rum Riot on June 2, when Dow had the militia fire in a crowd of a few thousand thirsty rock-throwers, killing one and wounding seven. The Maine Law was repealed the next year, and Dow’s reputation was firmly on the downward path. – Tom Bedell

Neil S. Dow

Neil S. Dow, Mayor of Portland, 1851

Gritty McDuff's Biker

Thomas Wilson shows his grit in a local bike event.

Ah, yes, times have certainly changed. In today’s post, Thomas Wilson, of Gritty MacDuff’s kindly took the time to tell us a little more about his establishment.

Our building was originally a warehouse, then a seafood restaurant and since 1988, our Brew Pub. There really isn’t a  person named “Gritty McDuff” who is involved with our company. When the owners, Richard Pfeffer and Ed Stebbins started Gritty’s they had a corporate name (Brew Associates) but when they went to the state to register their company they didn’t really have a name for the brew pub in mind. But the state required a name for the brew pub to be put on the forms. So, Richard and Ed quickly thought of a high school friend named “Sandy” whose nick-name was “Gritty.” They named the brew pub after him and the McDuff part was just added on to give it a “first and last name.”

Carved Pub Sign

The Sign we made for Gritty’s. We took this photo out behind our workshop on a particularly stormy afternoon.

We purchased a hand-crafted dimensional sign because it reflects who we are and what we do. We believe the public’s first impression of our brew pub starts with the sign. We wanted a sign that was hand-crafted like our ales, looked substantial, infers “quality” and is creative. It has the “cool” factor we were looking for. It attracts the eye and we stand out on a busy street already full of signs.

Signs in Old Port Maine

(image courtesy of Corey Templeton)

Standing out is important, but so is fitting in. It’s a fine balance in a place like Old Port. Portland sign-painter, Will Sears, explains:

Portland has an awesome hand-painted sign scene. It’s dwindling and I know there are still some old sign-painters kicking around, but a lot of the ones I’ve talked to, due to financial reasons have converted to vinyl technology and it’s sad to see that. But if you walk through Old Port, there’s lots of huge painted advertisements, you know, building signs – really, really cool stuff! A lot of them are kind of ghost signs at this point, which is even cooler, and a lot of it has been preserved which is cool, like a business will not paint over it even if it’s no longer their business. There’s a respect for it. -Will Sears (Better Letter Signs, Portland, Maine)

Maine Ghost Sign

One of the Ghost Signs in Old Port (image courtesy of Kevin P. Luke)

Ghost Ad in Portland, Maine

Another One, almost within sight of Gritty’s (image coutesy of Panoramio)

Carved & gilded sign in Maine

Hand-Carved Signs are nothing new to this neighbourhood. We’re only continuing a long-standing tradition!

Thomas Wilson continues,

The “Old Port” section of Portland Maine was the original port of Portland. Picture dozens of sailing ships lined at the several docks unloading goods into cobblestone streets where men pushed carts of these items and materials into red brick warehouses to be sold or traded.

Fishing Vessels Painting 1908

‘Fishing Vessels at the Dock’, a postcard from Portland, Maine, c. 1908, painted by Hugh Manatee

A Cobbled Street in Maine

A Cobbled Street in Old Port

In the 1960’s and -70’s the area had fallen on hard times and was one of the roughest parts of Portland. There was very little commercial activity, no residential units and the area was not very attractive. In the 1980’s, however, the area was re-discovered and several dozen blocks of those red brick buildings are filled with shops, restaurants, bars, pubs, hotels, offices and residential units. It’s a lively scene populated by locals and tourists. Cruise ships visit during the summer and fall, there’s a thriving music & arts scene.

A Street in Maine

Wharf Lane, Old Port, after a downpour

Old Port Maine

A Panoramic image of the Old Port district (image courtesy of Portland Old Port)

Gritty McDuff’s was one of the first places to open in this rediscovered ‘old port’, and Maine’s original brew pub. Which means we were the first bar in Maine to brew our own beer on site and serve it.

We run a great organization. We started a quarter century ago. Today, we have 2 more brew pubs, distribute our beer throughout New England to other bars, restaurants and retailers, have 10 different ales, employ over 130 people, work with dozens of vendors and distributors and have a great time doing it.

To Celebrate Gritty’s twenty-fifth anniversary, a new beer was developed.

The S.O.S. or “Special Oatmeal Stout” was the first beer we brewed in honour of our 25th anniversary. It’s a small batch, limited edition beer. This dark, rich masterpiece combines a mix of toasted malts and hops that results in a well balanced, beautiful beer that is a little “bigger”  – more taste and more alcohol. We sold out of the first batch and expect our customers will demand we bring it back next spring.

S.O.S. Beer Label

Gritty’s Special Oatmeal Stout (image courtesy of Beerpulse)

Years ago, Richard and Ed were the first bar or brew pub to start a “mug club” in Maine. The idea was to build a loyal customer base and it’s worked really well! Today each of our three brew pubs has their own mug club – so there are over 1,800 mug club members between the three locations. In Portland we have a three-year waiting list to join.

Numbered Mugs in Maine

Numbered mugs hang from the ceiling at Gritty’s. Each belongs to a member of the prestigious ‘Mug Club’. (image courtesy of Urban Beer Nerd)

Basically  to join the customer pays $75 per year. In return they get a numbered mug that hangs above the bar. It’s their mug, they are the only person who can use it. They get discounts on beer and food and the mug clubs take field trips to sporting events or compete against each other in zany games.

Gritty's Beer

A Foaming Beer (image courtesy of Ice Fest)

Last month, we were visited by John Holl, author of “The American Craft Beer Cookbook”. It was a wonderful event. John’s new book featured a recipe for  our Corn Chowder and Blackened Shrimp. John was in town to launch his book tour, so we thought: why not sign some books in the pub? He sold some books, we had some chowder and beer and we all had a really great time.

Beer Cookbook

John Holl’s Cookbook (image courtesy of Press Herald)

If you’re considering starting a brew pub, honestly, don’t start one now! There are over 1,300 new breweries coming on-line in American this year alone! There are too many and they all won’t make it. Wait for the shakeout in about 5 years; you’ll be able to buy a brewery cheap. On the other hand, if you just can’t wait our advice is to think globally and act locally. Produce the best, most unique beer you can and sell it locally, build a loyal local base and then think about expanding your market. Become an integral part of your community. Support local causes, work hard and have fun doing it!

Christmas Beer Label

Label for Gritty’s Christmas Ale (image courtesy of Mom’s Malt Barley)

We all come up with the names for our beers – usually when we’ve been drinking ourselves. The design work is done by an amazing designer named Chris Hadden. Chris has done beer labels for several breweries all over America and each one has a different feel and look. Chris is over-the-top talented and we’re lucky he works with us.

Gritty's Logo

The Gritty’s Logo, designed by Chris Hadden

Barrel End with Logo

The Logo lends itself to many applications.

Pub Signs in Maine

A Rainy Day at Gritty’s (image courtesy of Maine Roots)

I’ll end with these words from an anonymous blog writer:

There is something about Gritty’s that, it seems to me, embodies the spirit of Maine.  Maybe it’s the wide, scarred tables that invite you to sit down with friends and strangers alike; maybe it’s the way it manages to seem like a rough, tough brew pub and still be welcoming; maybe it’s the way it represents the entreprenuerial spirit of the people of Maine; or maybe it’s a combination of all of these.   Regardless, Gritty’s is special and unique – even among the many and varied bars along Fore Street in the Old Port, the original Gritty’s location stands apart with a character all its own. – Maine Roots Blog

Gritty's at Night

Gritty’s at Night


Nutmegger Workshop

Signmaker from Portland, Oregon

Peter Vogel specialises in creating very authentic-looking, type-rich signs that look like they’ve been around since the great depression. We’ve already mentioned Pete’s Nutmegger Workshop in an earlier post, but today we have the pleasure of devoting the entire blog post to this unique sign-shop in Portland Oregon.

I’m a New Englander and a Nutmegger is a person who hails from Connecticut, the Nutmeg state. There’s a story that goes back 200 years or so about the spice trade, old clipper ships and the Connecticut Yankee traders who imported barrels of nutmegs so hard that customers thought they were sold wooden nuggets instead of the real spice. Nutmeg is a extremely hard seed from a tropical tree in the islands of Indonesia and India and was new to the colonial states, so no one really knows if these claims had merit or not.  The official name for Connecticut is ‘The Constitution State’, by the way.

Nutmegger Workshop is a part time gig with hopes to go full time. I’m a career graphic designer. Most of my design experience has been with higher-end print collateral, identity design, marketing campaign graphics and everything from invitations to magazines to billboards and even large scale vehicle wraps. I’ve been at it more than 30 years. I currently work as the art director at the Portland Tribune newspaper here in Oregon.

I design my signs on a Mac in Illustrator. I certainly don’t claim to have the freehand skill set that traditional sign writers have.  I do steer clear of printer fonts and have created many of my own hand drawn alphabets based on what I see on old signs and in old lettering books. I intend to learn what I can from other sign painters and I was even offered a few lessons from Ronald Lloyd, a 77 year-old traditional sign writer in England who admires my work. We email and trade photos of our latest work. So I typically cut stencils, but Ron has suggested that I start free-handing drop shadows and other details to start developing my brush skills. It’s a start.

Hand-Painted Sign in England

A Sign by Ronald Lloyd

Hand-painted Sign in England

Another one.

I draw inspiration from turn-of-the-century photographs of city street scenes. Hand-painted signs were everywhere — on windows, in upper-story windows, on fascia boards, sides of buildings, you name it. Sign-writers’ work hung like galleried art back in those days. I recently visited Boston and Portland, Maine and took photos of ghost signs that offered up quite a bit of inspiration. And I’m always inspired by hand letterer Dana Tanamachi of Tanamachi Studio in New York.  She epitomizes ‘brain, hand and eye’.

Tanamachi Studio Book Covers

One of Dana Tanamachi’s recent projects. (image courtesy of Tanamachi Studio)

I get emails from around the world asking about my aging process. It’s a secret, actually, but I’ve learned mostly from a lifetime of  “doing” — refinishing furniture, house painting, collecting antiques and understanding how things age.   I’ve also learned much from online how-to articles and videos. I take what I need from these and create my own processes through trial and error. I’m never totally satisfied with my process and am always looking improve it. One thing I do know for sure is that a sharp chisel and an old chain can add years to a piece better than anything else.

rustic aged sign

A Close-up of one of Peter’s signs (image courtesy of Design Observer)

Not all of my signs are distressed. Many clients don’t want to hang anything in their house or business that looks damaged. The distressed look isn’t for everybody. I have turned down requests for signs with company logos and bright colors because this isn’t what I do. I have no desire to be a full-service commercial sign fabricator.

Most all of my work is commissioned, though I constantly make signs that I post to my site that I think people will want to see and draw inspiration from. I get a lot of “I like that one sign on your site, but can you make it say this.” I’m looking for that magic formula that will capture people, but I’m not sure there is one.  One design shop wanted me to create a series of vintage-looking French signs and others have told me that they would rather have any old sign, regardless of what it said, as if they discovered it hidden in the attic of an old building.

Antique French Sign

One of Peter’s French Signs

A recent, satisfying project was a cover that I painted for Portland Monthly magazine. Their creative director had been following my work and had wanted to get it into the magazine at some point. When he contacted me to design a cover for their Farmers Market issue, we both knew it was the perfect application for my work. I thought it would be a situation where I’d be heavily art directed, but it was quite the opposite. I provided a few layout options, he made a selection and we were good to go. It was great exposure and the cover received national recognition.

Magazine Cover Designs

Some of Pete’s original Concepts for the Portland Monthly Cover

And here’s a nice sequence showing the production of the sign:

wooden trim

sign blank

primed sign blank

sign blank with a coat of timber surfacer

Sign Blank with background colours painted

Started Sign

Partially Painted Sign

Hand-Painted Sign, nearly finished

Hand-Painted Sign

Distressed hand-painted sign

Detail of patina sign

Yep. Hand-Painted letters always stand out from the crowd!

Yep. Hand-Painted letters always stand out from the crowd!

magazine blurb on Peter Vogel

Peter gets coverage inside the magazine.

A year ago I saw a short, 2-minute promotional video for a traditional letterpress printer that really impressed me. I approached Parliament, the creative firm that produced the video, and asked if they’d be interested in a trade — a sign for a video. The firm owns The Witherspoon Building, a 1890s-era brick building in downtown Portland and is spending millions for seismic upgrades and renovations. The sign they filmed me making, Witherspoon & Sons, will hang in their new office space to commemorate the building’s history. We just finished shooting and the 2-minute final edit should be posted to my website in a week or so.

Witherspoon Building Antique Sign

Sign Peter Exchanged for a video

The letterpress video that prompted the exchange (for Keegan Meegan Printers):

And the video for Peter:

Nutmegger Workshop: Witherspoon & Sons from Nutmegger Workshop on Vimeo.

Wall Letters for Bocados

graphic designer stewrt horton

Stewart Horton

Just over a year ago, we branched out a little from our usual fare of carved HDU signs, and collaborated on a project with Stewart Horton, of Horton & Co. – a design firm based in Newcastle.

Stewart worked with his sister Ingrid (a graphic designer in Melbourne), to re-brand Bocados Spanish Kitchen,  a Spanish restaurant that was moving into a beautiful stucco house on the corner of King and Watt streets in East Newcastle. Since it had formerly operated from the building next door, it was important to give the restaurant a new and different look.

The Hortons decided to do their research and make Bocados as authentic in appearance as possible. Stewart tells:

spanish restaurant in newcastle australia

Bocados Spanish Kitchen, King St, Newcastle East

We wanted to get that Northern Spanish feel, of pigs & acorns, as well as a lot of copper, brass and zinc. We didn’t want the restaurant to look Moroccan.

They had just moved from the place next door, so it really needed to look new and different. The logo stayed the same, so we needed to make it dimensional – make it pop out of the wall a bit, to grab people’s attention. It couldn’t just be flat.

My sister Ingrid and I collaborated on this project. She designed and painted the murals on the front wall and inside.

Now that it has all come together, the client has only given us positive feedback about the signage and the project in general. In a few months time, they’ll be opening up the top floor of the building as a bar, so they’re expanding and it’s worked out very well for them.

spanish pig mural

spanish sun mural

spanish restaurant door

spanish restaurant interior

Where did we come in? We took the Bocados logo and rendered it as cut-out stainless steel letters, which were mounted above the entrance. We painted the letters a warm earth-tone colour. They don’t shout for attention, but just blend in nicely with the other elements of architecture and art. For us, this was an unusual project, but sometimes it’s fun to diversify.

spanish restaurant sign

Thank you Stewart and Ingrid, we’d love to work together on more creative projects in the future!


How to Carve a Letter – Part 3

Take a look at our third carving video:

Hi. Welcome back. It’s time to carve our first real letter – a capital ‘R’. Tody we’re going to be using a block-cap, sans-serif font for this ‘R’, because it’s nice and chunky.

Now, basically, we’re going to be doing the same steps that we learned in the last video. First, V-Tooling in the lines, then chiseling out from the centre towards the edges…of course, we have a few major differences here between the ‘R’, and the ‘I’ that we carved last time.

Obviously, the ‘R’ has a curve to it, which the ‘I’ didn’t have. And, we also have several place where the grooves intersect. At those places, we just have to be careful to make our carving tidy and precise, but basically the concept is the same as when you carve a simple groove. Just work out from the centre bit-by-bit towards the edge.

On the outside edge of the curve, turn your chisel upside-down, like this, so that the bevel is down. That sort-of helps steer the chisel around the corner, so it doesn’t jump as you go. Of course, the mopre complex the letter, the more time it takes to complete, but with lots of practice you’ll gain contro; over your chisel and be able to carve just about anything. After a while, your hands just sort-of know what to do.

Does this look familiar? That’s right, our little piece of yellow sandpaper will make everything look good. Nice, here’s our beautiful, uppercase hand-carved ‘R’. In the next episode, we’ll get even more complex and carve a nice curvy ampersand. It’ll have varying stroke widths and lots of curves… so, see you next time!

okMitch Studio

Dmitry Pankov okMitch studio

Dmitry Pankov, of okMitch Studio, Brooklyn

A sign shop doesn’t need to have a big crew to have a big reputation. Brooklyn-based okMitch studio is proof of that. Dmitry Pankov (Known as Mitch) and Angel Saemai make up the entire enterprise. Mitch came from Russia, with a background in street art. Angel ‘was slaving away at a large corporate advertising agency’. Now they create everything from giant, hand-painted wall murals to elegant gilded window lettering to rustic hanging signs. Though neither grew up in New York, their work is quickly becoming part of the urban fabric of the city. Today they share their thoughts:

 (Angel) –  Mitch moved to NYC in 2006 from Russia, where he went to art school for photography. In Russia he was also creating commercial murals as well as street art. Once in NYC, his first and second jobs were at commercial sign shops, mainly dealing with vinyl and awnings. Not too interested in creating mainstream kinds of signs and also with a desire to work for himself, he eventually started okMitch.

Although Mitch was showing his art in Brooklyn and Miami shows, he was also getting into trouble with the law for his street art. It became a troublesome way to showcase his work and at this time he was also in the middle of transitioning to working for himself. I too always had the desire to be my own boss, so started helping him out.

So, how it really began was with a mural on 4 sides of a trailer at the NYC Water Taxi Beach (no longer exists), a bar and event space along the Hudson River with sand shipped in from Jersey. I heard they were building it and reached out to see if we could paint something. Mitch designed some crazy ideas, including the one he ended up painting –  a colorful  neon mural of geese (the owner’s idea).

Handpainted Mural in New York

Mitch’s first mural in New York, image courtesy of okMitch Studio (all images courtesy of okMitch Studio unless otherwise specified)

Also, when we first started, it was under another name, Unplate Murals, which lasted just a handful of months. The name came from Mitch’s street art handle, but since that was a collaboration with another artist in Russia, he dropped it and renamed it to okMitch Studio — kind of a quick idea that just stuck.

(Mitch) – Unplate began after doing a lot of graffiti that morphed into other media and showcasing of art on the street. It was a collaboration with my partner, Ben Papyan. We mainly worked with wheat-pastes and stencils of black and white images.

Both of us were also making a living by painting murals for different local businesses in our town [Krasnodar, Russia]

Since sign painting and work on glass is really an American thing, besides the art classes I had in school, I’m more or less self taught with this craft. I read books – like Signwork, by Bill Stewart and  Gold Leaf Techniques by Kent Smith – watched YouTube videos, and figured out how other people did it while incorporating my own techniques and experiences. Still, there’s always more to learn.

Initially, I made most of my signs using a stencil, since that’s how I also made some of my street art. These signs end up with the same look and are cleaner & precise. All of our murals are hand painted and within the past couple of years, I have been doing more hand lettering on the glass, because clients want that less than perfect look. I think the final product is the most important part and am not snobby towards using machines or digital techniques, seeing them more as an aid than anything else. However, there is a personal satisfaction to putting hard work and skill into real hand done products. It’s more impressive too.

(Angel) – Our link is up on the The Sign Painters movie site. Through that, a bunch of sign painters from around the country and abroad reached out to us to give us props for our work. We also got the pleasure of meeting a couple of these guys to exchange some tricks of the trade.

ESPO [also known as Steven Powers] is one sign painter and graffiti artist who influenced us from the start. He incorporates his signs with art – something we really appreciate and strive to do. It’s important to us to not to just create signs that are nostalgic or mimic a sign found in the past, so whenever possible it’s our goal to combine contemporary design with this traditional technique.

huge mural in brooklyn

A Mural by Steven Powers, image courtesy of A Love Letter for You

One of our favorite hanging signs was for Silk Road Cycles. The art was designed by a really talented graphic designer, Jon Contino, who reached out to us to make a cool sign for his logo. It was the first time we really customized a hanging bracket to go with a sign. Sometimes, these kinds of things can turn out cheesy, but ours ended up more subtle, thankfully. We drove around the neighborhood looking for rusty unused sign brackets on the side of buildings instead of aging one ourselves and ended finding one thrown out on the corner, half a block from our house. Then we went to a bike shop and asked them for used parts and lucked out with an old sprocket, which was put on the end of the matching hanging bracket. It spins too!

rustic hanging sign for brooklyn bike shop

The Sign for Silk Road Cycles, image courtesy of Design Boom

bike sprocket sign bracket

The Sprocket that spins!

sign logo for bike shop

The sign hanger even made it onto the Silk Road Cycles website and business card, in a somewhat stylised form.


Gold leaf gilding is always fun because it’s so delicate and about precision. The execution is almost like a form of meditation – a nice break from the large scale painting we do through Overall Murals [the name used for the mural side of the business]. Mural projects are a whole other story – they come with a set of different challenges and rewards.

– Angel

Here’s some more of their work:

red hanging sign brooklyn

A Hanging Sign for a Brooklyn Shop

gilded window sign brooklyn

Gilded Window Sign for The Brooklyn Circus, Brooklyn

painted wooden coffee sign

Painted Sign for Jack’s Coffee, Amagansett, NY

burger wall mural NYC

Hand-Painted Wall Mural for Mikey’s Burger, Ludlow St. OkMitch also designed the logo for Mikey’s.

wooden hanging sign new york

A Rustic Wooden Hanging Sign for a Shop called Top Hat, on Broome St.

Thanks, okMitch!