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Advanced Hand Lettering Techniques and Step by Steps.

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Site Man
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Location: Marlborough, MA


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Posted by Danny Baronian on August 15, 2003
Does anyone have descriptions of the various varnishes that have been made for the sign industry? Rick used to carry quite a varity under the Commonwealth brand.

I know what damar is, that it's used for adding texture to glass prior to gilding, and for attaching prints and or mop. Are there other uses for it?

How about a description and uses for other varnishes. Asphaultum is also in the varnish family. But what is fat varnish, quick rubbing varnish, bulletin spar, clear fibroseal, and whatever else I might have missed?


Jeffrey P. Lang
I think "white damar" is the type used for putting a texture down before gilding over it, & regular damar is used for clear coating over oil paintings.
Re: Varnish.The Fat

First I'd like to say that when I can't find my little yellow cataloge I get very nervous.I love that book!
The term "Fat" comes from fine arts painting.It refers to the content of the ingredeints in the mix.
The "fat" is any oil you put in the varnish.The more oil the fatter it is ,also more open time and brushes out smoother.The more driers and varnish, less oil the thinner it is.(Drys faster but harder to work with.
Also putting a "fatter layer over a thinner layer can give a very nice crackle effect.
If anybody wants more info they'll just have to wait until my painting formula and workout video comes out at home depot.
I have two books,"Formulas for painters by Robert massey,It's got alot of great receipies.
The other is an old book I bought in my favorite "over price book store" in Atlantic city "Scientific methods of varnish manufacture" 1940 unfortunatly I don't think I'm smart enough to understand most of it.

Ron Percell
Damar is used mostly for a clear top coat in the Fine Art fields. Kent smith is the one to these questions, but I'll give it a shot.

Fat varnish, quick rubbing varnish, bulletin spar, clear fibroseal were used as as mediums to make paint and or substitutes. A common use was for adding mixing powders (Gold/Brass/aluminum/bronze/copper, some like Fiborseal could also be used a fast gold size for repairs.

The first part of the names are very discriptive,
"Fat" Varish being a thicker viscosity, and also a title given to double rendered products(Thick stuff on the bottom) I'm not 100% sure, but I'm thinking it could also be a nick name for Damar.

"Quick" being fast drying, i also beleive Quick Drying and Fiborseal are one in the same, with Black having Carbon Black added. Glawson stated that all Japans should have some added or used as a thinner to extend their life, also that quick rubbing varnish would extend the open time of dumar.

Window Spar was made specially for clear coating gold reverse work, and fast drying. I believe window was a combination of Bullentin Spar(used most on large wood preperation) mixed with Fiborseal. Rick also stated Bullentin Spar was good as the hardening portion when mixed with Dumar.

There are differences between Asphaltum, and Asphaltum Varnish, Varnish. Asphaltum is used in combination with Varish as a tint/glaze, the varish is used to speed up drying time, and to extend the life.

Hope I got that right, maybe Kent can correct or add to this.
Kent Smith
Fat varnish is just a fatter formula, usually with thickened oils added or heavy resin mix such as thick damar. Thick Damar varnish was originally manufactured for use with oil colors and pallette knife paintings. Sign painters used this thick version for embossing, adding balsam of fir to keep it from sagging and enough quick rubbing varnish to alow it to dry in a reasonable amount of time. Natural formulas never dry which keeps oil painting from cracking. The white version is more pure with less coloration from bark and root. The darker mixes were suitable for mixing with pigment. Window spar is just spar varnish which is designated WW or water white. This is the spar varnish which is skimmed off the top in manufacture that is the most clear which makes it less visible on glass. Bulletin spar is the mid-range spar which has a slight orage tint but is still suitable to varnish over pigmented pictorials on bulletins. The balance of the spar is quite orange to brown which is more suited to furniture use since it typically is used over many shades of brown wood stains and will not show its own color. The dark color comes from the cooking process and if left too long at 105C, the spar comes out almost totally brown. Having to keep such a close eye on manufacture is the reason that most manufacturers swithched to formulated synthetic resins where you add ingredients and stir them up. You will notice on the cans that most common enamels and varnishs are synthetic now. Quick Rubbing varnish is a think pure varnish resin with only drier and solvent added and is used for rubbed varnish finishes on furniture. Once rubbed into the surface of wood, it becomes sovent and alcohol proof and is enhanced with waxes over the top. It is used by sign painters because of the quick drying nature but because the resin is thin, it is not at all UV resistant. This is why it works well as a backup varnish or mixed with Japans as a resin for backup paint. Fibroseal is a mixing varnish which is a blend of varnish, driers and oils with a small amount of solvent. It is best used for thinning enamels and mixing oil colors into enamels. It also can be used as a resin for metallic powders which are first made into a paste by adding small amounts of turpentine, then add enough varnish to make them brushable. Florence and venice japans are also mixing resin varnishes with varying dry times. They also can be substituted for quick sizing. Florence works very well as a matte varnish medium as it flows well on glass. Asphaltum is a tar which can be used as a colorant in varnish or as an acid resist. Asphaltum V, or asphaltum varnish, was created by Sherwin-Williams as a waterproofing undercoating for automobiles. The varnish base which they added allows the asphaltum to adhere well to the steel and cure so that it will not come off the underbody of cars and trucks. It can also be used as a ready mix but it has a limited color range.

So here we have another lesson in manufacturers making products for some other use for which we sign painters find an alternate use.

I have not found my original label from Commonwealth that I loaned to Rick to ge the descriptions of their product line. We are doing some rearranging around here for our 75th Anniversary open house for customers so much of my old files are in turmoil. I think I have described them all though, let me know if I missed anything.

Mike Jackson
Hi Danny,
Some of the labels on my old cans listed the products and a small note telling of the suggested uses of each. I don't know if I still have one or whether they got sold to the old shop.

You forgot to mention:
Black Fibroseal (sometimes used to create shadow glazes. It was more of a true black than the brown cast in asphaltum. The Clear and Black Fibroseal dried very fast)

WW Window Spar (I always assumed it was to varnish over the back of a painted window to protect it. I never really did that on a window, except maybe a gold leaf job.

I'll look at my cans of old varnish for the label.


Mike Jackson
Duh! I should have thought of this first.

Hi Danny,
It's funny that neither you nor I immediately thought of looking in Rick's yellow spiral catalog. Starting on page 14 to page 17 of my booklet, it lists the products and then his description and suggested usses.

Maybe someone will have time to type it all up and post it here, but here is an example for just the Clear Fibroseal:

Clear Fibroseal: This famous old product has long been a favorite with sign artisist. It takes the place of all quick drying mixing varnishes. Clear Fibroseal is thin in body, flows free and dries in 30 minutes. All japan colors should contain a liberal portion of Fibroseal as both the thinner and binder in order to secure the best possible results.

Maybe I can coax someone the catalog and with more time to type it out for this site. I could add it to the Glawson section.

Mike Jackson
Marjorie Meyer
Mike --- If you get the information to me I will type it for you. Please email me at marjmeyer@sbcglobal.net.

Also, thanks for your references on gold leaf backup paint!
Mike Jackson
Danny Barronian spent part of the afternoon typing out the information from the last Esoteric catalog.

I just created the page and added it to the Glawson Pages


Thanks Danny! Thanks Marjorie for also volunteering to type out the info!
Mike Jackson

Rick Sacks
Hey kids, remember Signwriter's Companion?
Ron Percell
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Re: Varnish

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