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Meet the Maker: Pete McKearnan, Sign Painter


Stumptown founder Duane Sorenson first met Pete McKearnan 15 years ago when Pete’s shop Signworks was in the same building as the very first Stumptown. “I met Duane when he was working on his first cafe,” he says.  “He was doing a lot of the construction himself. He had a bandana for a dust mask and was hammer drilling the concrete floor for the plumbing.”BelmontCafe_0030-620

The sign shop eventually moved out of the building to a bigger space and Stumptown opened new locations in Portland, Seattle, New York and L.A. and hired Pete to paint to paint the window signs.


Sign painting is an old world craft, and Pete is a true master. He studied at the Institute of Lettering and Design in 1977, a trade school for sign painting out of Chicago that has since shut down. (In fact, there is only one such school left in the country.)  We popped by his shop in deep South East Portland to learn about his labor intensive processes like paper pouncing and poked around his brush boxes, finding squirrel brushes from Russia, leaves of gold, and an impressive library of turn-of-the-century sign painting sketchbooks.PeteMcKearnan_043PeteMcKearnan_116PeteMcKearnan_251

How did you get started doing this? Where did you learn and what was that process like?

I went to Institute of lettering and Design in Chicago. After a few months of pen lettering, I started learning brush lettering. I started with basic lettering then learned scripts and casual letter styles. I also learned basic sign design.


Can you tell us about the process of hand-painting a sign?

First, you need a design. Either the client provides a design or I generate it. Then we need to enlarge the design. You can just sketch the design directly on the surface to be lettered or quite often we use a paper pounce pattern. We have a perforator that makes a series of holes on the pattern along the guidelines of our design.PeteMcKearnan_142PeteMcKearnan_135

We then carefully place the pattern on the lettering surface and hit a pounce bag, (a bag full of powder ) against it. The powder goes through the holes where the guidelines are and transfers the layout to the lettering surface.


Then there is lettering, with nice lettering quills, or a good wall fitch for a brush. With lots of dexterity, brush pressure, twisting, and turning we create letters. Then there is outlining and shading or whatever embellishment we decide to use. It helps to have good music.BelmontCafe_0004DivisionCafe_0119-620DSC_0296Stump.PineSt

Thanks Pete!