Workshop at marketstreet , Georgetown
learned how to make signboards from his father Mr. Kok Ying Chow.The father migrated from Guangdong, China and apprenticed a mastercraftsman in Penang at the age of 14.
After the 2nd World War upon the master’s retirement, he took on the business.The son, Mr Kok Ah Wah, took over the business after the father passed away, thus keeping the business within the family for 70 years.Now, over 62 years old and with 7 children, Mr Kok Ah Wah may sadly be the last of his generation to continue this family trade.
It takes him between 1-3 weeks to finish making a signboard. Besides servicing locals, Mr Kok also exports occasionally to foreign countries.
Signboards framed above front doors as practiced in China, have similar relevance for the migrant Chinese that settled in Penang. In Chinese geomancy, the front entrance is a significant passage that blesses the comings and goings of the residents and their guests.
Generally, the carved wooden signboards served two distinct purposes, residential and commercial.
Mr Kok Ah Wah at work
The new arrivals would have their district or origin in China carved in Chinese characters, usually set against black paint.This would immediately identify the families diatect groups and clan names.Far from home, such details served to assert their identity and maintain close cultural ties with their motherland, usually, a smaller rectangular sign was placed below this main sign.This was often inscribed with positive affirmation of blessings upon entering and leaving.
As for commercial business, they too hung signboards to proudly exhibit their trade name. a joint venture was identified by the characters “Hup Kee”. Sometimes, signboards were presented to traders when they first began business. These congratulatory offerings also indicated positive affirmation for a prosperous business.
The difference between Mr Kok Wah’s handcrafted signboards and the machine-crafted signboards is the texture and the depth of the carving achieved by using different chisel heads. Here are 3 techniques which Mr Kok has perfected.
In the old days, signboard craftsmen were known to have used a set of 64 chisels. Mr Kok currently uses only half a dozen different chisels. Most signboard makers now use a machine to engrave signboards.
The materials & tools: 1.softwood 2.carving tools 3.mixture of putty & Thinner 4.paints
Prepare an ideal size of softwood.Smoothen the surface with sandpaper
Paint a layer of putty on the wood.
Prepare the characters(Letters) on a piece of paper, using carbon paper, trace it on to the wood.
Place carving tool at 45º in the center of a character and knock gently with a hammer to remove shavings.
Shave out the shape of the letter, leaving a margin of 1mm between the indented space and the tracing line
Using a smaller U-shaped carving tool, cut a slope all along the tracing line.
Brush over the carved space with a mixture of putty and thinner
Use oil paint to paint the flat surface one colour (black) and the carved words another colour (gold or red)
Some items done by Mr kok