Developed and perfected in Europe, porcelain enamel techniques brought new possibilities for the production of high quality, durable signs. During fabrication, a powdered glass composition (frit) is applied in layers to a metal base. The lettering is carefully stencilled on by hand. The sign is then fired in a kiln, which causes the glass and metal to bond.
Porcelain enamel is more than a surface paint. When heated to high temperatures, metal becomes porous. The liquid glass seeps into the small openings, and the metal and glass become structurally one. Vintage signs made with porcelain enamel maintain this bond and, therefore, their quality.
In the late 1890s, porcelain enamel signs made their way across the Atlantic to the United States. The techniques were quickly adopted by artisans and fabricators. They experimented with bold colour and different techniques to create new designs. Because of their durability, porcelain enamel signs were a boon for outdoor advertising. Resistant to rain, snow, wind and sun, these signs were industrial strength. Above all, porcelain enamel signs were colourful and stunning, a perfect way to catch the eye of a passer-by.
WWII brought scrap metal drives. Across the world citizens were encouraged to contribute scrap metal and other materials to help the war effort. Pots, pans, iron fences, all metal was game–including porcelain enamel signs. The scrap metal was melted down so it could be transformed into tanks, ships, and weapons. By the end of the WWII, the production of porcelain enamel signs had seen its peak. The dye was cast, signs of this material were to become the collectable antique signs of the future.
After WWII, sign manufacturers began to experiment with and use other materials. The plastic industry started to grow by leaps and bound and new commercial uses for plastics were rapidly being introduced. Metal sign fabrication shifted course. Due to the high cost of manufacturing porcelain enamel signs, steel metal bases were replaced with tin, a much thinner material. The glassy hand-stencilled porcelain enamel surfaces gave way to enamel paint, which does not have the bonding properties of porcelain enamel. While tin signs lowered the bottom line and contributed to more efficient mass production, the overall value of the signs diminished. Tin signs are not as durable as porcelain enamel signs and, as a result, they are a more disposable version of the now sought-after vintage enamel signs.
Enamel Signs Guide
If You Care about Your Signage – use Vitreous Enamel Signs1. When you don’t want your signs to last a long time.
Why? – Vitreous Enamel is notorious for its vastly extended life over other materials. They will look as good as new even after 40 years, making them an ideal long term signage solution.
2. When there is NO chance of any corrosion
Why? – Enamel’s glass-like properties protect the whole sign so that it is safe from attack from corrosion. That’s why they are specified for marine environments because they can resist attack from salt. Applications range from oil platforms to the logo’s on ships’ funnels. The rear of the signs may rust over time on newer signs as they are largely made on metal but this can be protected against using a anti rust agent
3. When chemicals such as acids and alkalis are not going to be a threat.
Why? – Enamel has amazing resistance to most chemicals, including solvents. This makes them ideal for corrosive, industrial, or severe atmospheres.
4. When the finish and aesthetics of your signs are unimportant to you.
Why? – Enamel’s lustrous surface appearance, “relief effect” of the enamel layers and the wide range of colours and designs available mean that Vitreous Enamel Signs are very pleasing to the eye. Because of this they are frequently used for decoration, especially in pubs, restaurants and hotels and used as a specialist medium for many artists.
6. Cleaning enamel signs is easy
Why? – Enamel’s hard surface makes the signs very easy to keep clean, restoring the original brightness with a wipe. This quality has made vitreous enamel the preferred choice for electricity pylon identity plates where access is notoriously difficult.
7. colours in your sign fading.
Enamel’s colourfastness ensures the sign looks as bright after many years as it did when first manufactured. Examples of vitreous enamel advertising signs dating from the 18oos still look as vibrant as when they were first displayed.