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The Brotherhood of Sign Painters

Lauren and I had good fortune a couple of weeks ago to visit to Bob Fray’s sign-painting shop on Division Street. Bob’s father started Kingston Sign Service on Bagot Street, upstairs from Hyman’s Deli, next door to the Chown Hardware warehouse, on the site that is now the Anna Lane condos. He moved it up to Division Street in the 1950s, and it’s still a going concern.

Bob Fray with the original Kingston Sign Service logo

Bob was in the middle of working on an update to a large wooden plaque listing the Commandants of the Royal Military College. As he explained to us, these old plaques — lists of prize-winners, fire chiefs, principals, and the like — were made big, to accommodate the future. You’ve seen plaques like this, in Memorial Hall in City Hall or a church or any other similar ceremonial space, with their blank spaces at the bottom for people yet to serve. Just imagine: if a plaque was started in 1873, and updated every few years, it has had names added by many different painters, each one of whom has had to create a consistent “hand” or letter style to the one before. Bob was able to point out to us on another sign the span of years he had painted, and those his father had painted. He told us how in the old days you didn’t have gold paint, so you had to paint the letters with a tacky paint and then sprinkle it with gold powder. He still has a can of that stuff, and though he has switched to gold paint now, he still uses, cleans, and cares for remarkable old brushes that you just can’t get any more.

Tools of the trade

We look forward to interviewing Bob when he has a few moments to sit still. We can tell already that he has great stories.

— Laura Murray