A SERVICE COUNTER SIGN

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It was just a sign I saw at the All-Studebaker Swap Meet in Reedsville, PA in November of 2005.  Who could know that it would turn into an obsession?  There, on the banister leading up to the loft of the building was a sign made of wooden letters mounted on a very long 2x4.  It read:  GENUINE PARTS  STUDEBAKER APPROVED ACCESSORIES.  The Art Deco font attracted my attention and the sheer length of it fascinated me.  The asking price was way more than I was prepared to spend, and the sign had already been sold, but when I got home I decided I WANTED one for the Studegarage.  I'm handy, I'm a little skilled at computer graphics and wood working, I could make one of these signs!

I started sending emails to my Studebaker buddies asking if they had seen this sign and knew anything about it.  I soon learned that it was representative of signs that many Studebaker dealers had from the late 1930's through the 1950's.  My inquiries even turned up a few people that owned similar ones.  The factory provided the painted wood letters to the dealers.  They were installed above service and parts counters in dealerships and in the factory parts depots across the U.S.  Here's how they looked originally, as seen in a factory photo of a parts depot about 1946.  Dick Quinn provided the photo to me, as well as other valuable documentation.

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It turned out that Dick had a set of the letters in his own attic from an old dealership.  Within days, I also discovered that several other Studebaker people I know also had sets of letters, some complete, some incomplete.  I soon had photos in my hands of surviving sign letters.  What was common was that the letters appeared to be uniform in size and color, in general.  Strangely, the first sign I saw, the one at Reedsville, had probably been repainted at some point in red and green.  The originals were all a deep maroon, bordering on brown.  The tall letters spelling STUDEBAKER were 6-1/2" tall and the smaller letters were 3-1/8" tall.  They had been cut from 3/4" thick plywood.  In some cases, the letters were clearly cut with a jig saw, in other cases the radiused inside corners on some letters like A revealed that a router or mill may have been used.

Some of the original documentation for the letters appeared in the January 4, 1946 Parts and Accessories Bulletin #29.  A view of the letters mounted on the end   of some parts bins was shown in another bulletin.  In 1948, both wood and plastic letters were offered to the dealers.  Click on the thumbnails below to see the information, click your BACK button to return to this page.

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I started out trying to duplicate the letter shapes.  A little Web surfing showed that the basic font was "Broadway", created in 1928 by Morris Fuller Benton, a noted type designer with a family history in typography.  You can read about him at  http://www.linotype.com/7-682-7-12759/morrisfullerbenton.html and   http://www.typebox.com/3thinkbox/3hist1_2.html

You may have a version of the Broadway font on your computer.  The shapes of the letters in the Studebaker sign are the same, but the width of the heavy bars and light strokes were altered by the makers of the plywood letters so that the signs would be both readable and structurally sound.  After many hours struggling with my CAD program on my PC, I was able to reproduce the size, shape, and appearance of the letters.  With the help of photos, scans, and measurements provided by a number of Studebaker collectors, I was eventually satisfied that I could create the same letters that appeared in the signs.  I had to figure out the unstated "rules" and formulas for constructing the letters to figure out the width of each letter, the curves, and many other details.  The goal of this was to create a CAD (computer aided design) file that could be used by automated machinery to cut the letters.  Here is how the resulting letters look in a color pretty close to the original, at least as close as a computer screen can reproduce.

 

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And, yet, a mystery appeared!  In some of the photographs of old dealerships, the signs looked different.  For example, in the photo below which appeared in Dick Quinn's "Almanac" column in Turning Wheels, March 2004, the A letters are reversed left-to-right and the E's and B are upside down, as compared to the basic font and the factory photograph.  I puzzled about this for some time, but eventually concluded there were two sources for the errors.  Some of the old letters that I inspected had been cut using a jig saw or band saw.  The bottom surface of the veneer was torn while the top was cut cleanly.  The A that I looked at had been cut upside down, and anyone mounting the letter would have chosen the "good" side.  So, some of the errors were due to the manufacturing process.  Other errors were introduced because the factory probably did not provide an exact guide on how to mount the letters, so the installer of the moment made the best choice he could think of.  The letters were painted front and back, so many orientations were possible.   At least there appeared to be some consistency at any particular dealer site.

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In many dealerships, the letters were mounted directly on the walls by nailing, screwing, or gluing.  In other places, the letters were mounted using small brackets screwed to their bottom or back surfaces, then attached to a board projecting out from the wall.  The letters then appeared to be almost free-standing.  Lighting was used to cast a creative shadow to highlight the letters.  The sign at Reedsville was done this way.  Another example is the photo below from the 1950 "Inside Facts" book used by salesmen at dealerships.  The letters are just visible at the top of the photo.

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The same Broadway font was used for exterior signs on dealerships, too.   Here is a picture of the Carl E. Filer dealership in Greenville, PA as seen in the late 1940's.  The sign has huge letters in the same font.  This picture appeared on the inside cover of Turning Wheels in October, 2003, accompanying an article about the Filer dealership.

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These signs weren't the only use of the Broadway font by Studebaker.   Here is a large K25 truck from the late 1930's showing the Studebaker name on the side of the hood in Broadway, though the hub caps and radiator ornament used different Art Deco fonts.

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While the Broadway font might seem old fashioned and dated in the 21st century, the fact that it appears on my computer should be an indication of continuing interest from the graphic arts professionals.  On a January, 2006 trip to Los Angeles, I found numerous signs using it, including a fairly new marquee at the Broadway Cinema in Santa Monica.

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Eventually, I had a complete CAD file which captured the shapes of the letter outlines.  There are several ways to get the letters made using the file.  I printed out the drawing on heavy manila paper and cut out the letters for patterns to trace onto plywood.  I tried cutting a few of them on a power scroll saw in my workshop.  It is very difficult to saw the shapes smoothly and exactly to the profiles by guiding pieces of plywood by hand.  It also takes a lot of time to cut each letter and finish the edges.  It would be an OK process to make just one set, but other people had expressed interest in having a set of letters for themselves.  I got quotes from a number of sign makers, some sheet metal and machining job shops with gigantic 2 kilowatt lasers, and from water jet cutting shops.  In the end, a water jet shop was given the task of making several sets of letters using my CAD file to drive the machinery. 

A water jet cutter has a pump to raise the water pressure to 50,000 to 60,000 psi and mix fine garnet abrasive with the water.  The garnet speeds the cutting process, but the water pressure alone will do the job.  The water squirts at very high speed through a tiny hole (0.007" diameter) in a plate made of synthetic ruby or sapphire.  The stream cuts its way through almost any material - wood, plastic, steel, stone, titanium, carbon fiber, paper, cloth, etc.  The jet pierces its own hole to start cutting - like for the insides of A's and O's - and can penetrate several inches of steel or stone.  In softer materials like plywood, the cutting speed is fairly fast.  A full 4'x8' sheet of plywood can be placed on the machine's cutting table and the jet moves just above the surface.  Some water splashes on the parts but not enough to hurt the plywood.  The finished edges are smooth, and the width of the kerf (material removed) is very small.  You can learn more about water jets at http://www.waterjets.org .  One of my friends in Massachusetts, Jim Ayer, has a business making intricate custom jigsaw puzzles using a water jet.  Visit him at http://www.ayerpuzzles.com .  Numerically-controlled lasers of 100-2000 watts may also be used to cut the plywood, and the cutting speed is fast enough that the wood doesn't catch fire, though it gets a little brown at the cut edge.  Both methods produce excellent results, far better than manually cutting them on a power scroll saw or jig saw.

When I received the plywood letters from the water jet shop, they needed to be painted. 

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Fortunately, I had taken one of the letters I borrowed to the local paint store where they have a color scanner.  They were able to produce an extremely close match to the original color in a modern enamel.  A little primer, a little paint, and we're ready to put the letters up.  They'll go inside because plywood doesn't do well outside, even when painted, unless it's marine grade.  It's easier to photograph the letters arranged this way because they stretch a full 14 feet when laid out and spaced correctly!

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Here are a few of the finished letters (P, A, and R) in the late afternoon sun. 

The ones on top are the reproductions and the ones on the bottom are the originals.  Errrr, I think so...

I would like to extend my sincere thanks to the many people who helped through my quest to reproduce the sign.  Dan Webber had collected the sign I saw at Reedsville from the American Service Center dealership in Arlington, VA.  [This dealership took on an early Mercedes franchise offered to it by Studebaker and today survives as a very large Mercedes dealer at its original location!]  Dan sold the sign and several others to Max Corkins, who resold it and an second set of letters at Reedsville to Bob Ziff, all of whom filled in a lot of information for me.  Bo Markham in Texas gave me details of the letters installed in his father's dealership in 1939 - Bo still has the letters.  Joe Parsons in Raleigh, NC acquired an incomplete set of wood letters (plus a set of plastic ones!) through buying out eight dealerships over the years - Joe loaned me four of the letters for my design effort and I was able to make the missing letters for his set.  Dick Quinn, ever the guru on all things Studebaker, emailed me photos and scans of his set of letters, as well as tons of information about the factory and dealerships.  He also provided a lot of moral support.  Fortunately, I was also able to fabricate three letters for Dick's set, as well.

If you would like to have a set of letters just like the originals, send me an email or call any time. 

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