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How to Restore Old Signs

Signs identify and direct.
old sign image by Rainer Tagwercher from Fotolia.com

Signs promote, advertise, entertain and inform you about what's happening or what has happened. Old signs give us a glimpse into our history. Early signs were mostly symbols because few people could read. Barber poles became red and white to represent blood and bandages since barbers were also surgeons. Restoring old signs gives you a look into history and, in some cases, a valuable collectible. Restoring a neon sign may involve replacing some parts, but some of the old porcelain and wood signs may need only a good cleaning.

Porcelain Signs

Clean the surface of a porcelain sign with a soft cloth dampened with a non-perfume, non-additive soap such as laundry detergent labeled "free." Use a spray bottle to spray the soap into cracks and crevices.

Remove rust from porcelain signs by making a cream of tartar paste. Mix 1 tbsp. of cream of tartar and five drops of water. Take an old soft toothbrush, coat it with the paste and scrub the rust off of the porcelain.

Touch up damaged paint with enamel paint or with cold enamel. Paint the damaged area with a small brush dipped in the enamel. Cold enamel is an epoxy and can be purchased at a craft store.

Use a dry brush and brush over the new paint blending it into the old paint. This keeps the new paint from standing out and keeps the old, rustic look.

Repaint the entire sign, as an alternative to touching up the paint. Scrap old paint off of the sign with a wood scraper before repainting. Use a small brush to go over all the painted surfaces with the enamel. It’s best to either touch up or paint; if you try to do both, you may end up with a contrast between the two.

Gilded Signs

Repair an on-the-surface gilded sign by regilding the damaged area. Apply oil size with a small paint brush to the surface of the sign. Brush on gold leaf when oil becomes tacky but not completely dry. Oil size is an adhesive used to stick gold leaf to the surface when gilding and can be bought at a craft store.

Let the regilded sign's surface dry completely. Spray clear non-yellowing polyurethane on the new gold leaf.

Take a sample of an under-the-surface gold leaf gilded sign to an expert to determine the composition of the gold used and how much alloy (silver and copper) was used. Under-the-surface gilding is when the gold is applied on the underside and shows through to the front. Regild the damaged sign using the same formula that was used originally.

Paint a coat of varnish over the under-the-surface gilded area.

Neon Signs

Check a neon sign for a failing transformer. A faulty transformer will cause the neon sign to flicker constantly. Unplug the neon sign. Replace the old transformer by removing caps at each end of sign to get to the transformer. Untwist the wires leading to transformer and unscrew the transformer.

Take the transformer to a neon sign company and buy a new one. Reinstall the transformer by screwing the transformer into the sign and reconnecting the wires. The wires on the left side are connected to the left side and the wires on the right side are connected to the right side. Be careful not to cross over the wires.

Check the neon tube if it doesn't light up.You can see where the glass is broken. Unplug the neon light. Remove a broken tube by finding where the tube is connected to the wiring. Pull tube back to expose the wiring.

Untwist the wiring with needle nose pliers on both ends of sign. Remove the wires or plastic clips that hold the tube in place. Remove the tube. Take note on how you removed the wires and tube because you’ll need it to replace the tube.

Take the broken tube to a company that makes neon tubes. They will make you a new one. Replace the tube in the sign. Make sure wires are the same way they were before you removed the tube.

Plug in the tube after everything has been replaced to make sure it works.

Wood Signs

Wash old wood signs with a mixture of laundry detergent "free" of perfumes or additives and warm water. Add two drops of soap to a gallon of warm water. Wet a soft cloth and wipe to remove dust and dirt from the old wood sign.

Refresh the faded parts of a wood sign by painting the areas with outdoor paint. Use a small brush for painting. Take a dry brush, run it through the paint, to blend and give it a rustic look.

Wipe the wood sign down with a furniture oil to restore some moisture in the wood and help preserve it. Use just enough oil to penetrate the wood, wipe off any excess oil. After oil has soaked into wood, spray with non-yellowing polyurethane.

Things You'll Need:

  • Soft Cloth
  • Non-additive laundry detergent
  • Spray bottle
  • Cream of tartar
  • Old soft toothbrush
  • Enamel paint
  • Cold enamel
  • Small paintbrushes
  • Paint scraper
  • Gold leaf
  • Oil size
  • Varnish
  • Polyurethane non-yellowing
  • Transformer
  • Neon tube
  • Furniture oil


Antique signs last longer if kept inside a building.


  • The voltage in a neon sign is dangerous. Always unplug a sign before working on it.
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