Vintage-looking signs bring past alive

The 1946 Chevrolet 1-Ton truck outside and the old-fashioned "Sign Department" script lettering on the door are the first clues that Tom Towler's workshop is no ordinary shed.

Inside, the workshop on East Valley View Road outside Ashland is filled with paintbrushes, paint, boards, bird decoys, weather vanes and other odds and ends that Towler uses to create handmade, vintage-looking signs.

"The Attention of Tourists and Pleasure Seekers is respectfully called to the Celebrated Del Monte Hotel," reads one.

"The Most Elegant Seaside Establishment in the World" promises a "Roman Plunge Pool & Solarium," "Hot Water Bathing in Winter" and a "Maze of Gardens," all starting at $3 a day.

The sign features a painting of a wind-battered tree overlooking the ocean plus meticulously hand-lettered words.

"I try to research things so that they are appropriate to the period with the colors, the wording and everything else," Towler said. "I like it to look like it was yanked off a wall somewhere."

Towler left behind his sign-painting and advertising career with Pepsi and Dr. Pepper 30 years ago in order to strike out on his own. He sells his signs at trade shows and ships custom orders throughout America and even as far away as New Zealand.

He's always careful to tell prospective buyers that his signs aren't antiques.

But they are often done on old, weathered wood, and can include three-dimensional antique objects such as carpenters' tools, duck decoys and wagon parts. When he goes to supply stores to pick up the paint he uses, the cans are sometimes covered in dust.

"Things are so digital now," Towler said, noting that the art of sign-painting is fading away. "It's a dinosaur."

When someone commissions a custom-made sign, he creates a sketch on a legal pad.

Then Towler, who is proficient in computer graphics programs, makes a digital version of the design to send to the customer. He's found that people are better able to visualize the sign's appearance when they see it that way. Once Towler has worked out the design with a customer, he goes back to the old-fashioned world of drawing and painting the sign by hand.

He visits secondhand stores and flea markets to pick up items he needs to make his signs. Once he visited a Goodwill store, and walked to the check-out counter with a broken frame and a kinked, rusty golf club.

The clerk at the check-out counter said, "We have better clubs than that."

"It's fine," Towler responded.

With a look of pity, the clerk said, "You can have it."

To give his newly finished signs an old look, Towler uses a variety of techniques, such as sanding down some areas. Accidents are welcome.

"I spill some coffee on it and I say, 'That looks pretty good.' If I drop it while I'm loading the truck for a trade show, sometimes that makes it better," he said.

A few people have had a hard time grasping the idea of a new sign crafted to look old.

"I had a lady in Portland say, 'Can you do better on the price? These are all scratched up,'" Towler recalled.

History-loving sports fans are frequent buyers of his signs. A Texas Rangers sign tries to recruit new players with the promise, "Earn $1.25 A Day." Babe Ruth makes "A Home Run Swat" on a sign advertising "Base Ball Liniment." A "Billiard Parlour" sign has holders for cue sticks.

Often Towler's signs are for places and things that he has made up, while at other times they are for businesses that still exist. Locally, he's made vintage-looking signs and banners for Noah's Rafting, the Ashland Springs Hotel, the Lake of the Woods resort, Britt Festivals and others.

Sometimes he makes careful replicas of signs that have long since disappeared.

A woman came to him with a black and white photo of a sign from her father-in-law's radiator repair business.

Towler recreated the sign, which read, "Taft's Radiator Shop. 14th & Broadway. Dial CA3-6422."

The woman gave it to her husband so he could have a memento of his father.

She reported back to Towler, "He's hung it up and it brought a tear to his eye."

For more information on Towler's work, visit or call 541-488-3724. He sells his signs locally at the Ashland Artisan Emporium, 1670 Ashland St., and at the American Mercantile, 1314 Court St., Medford.

Prices for a custom-made sign start at $75.

Staff writer Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-479-8199 or

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