Behind the signs – the man and the machine

They point the way for millions of people every year, but how are the fingerposts and signs in the Yorkshire Dales National Park made?

The answer is to be found in a well-lit corner of a workshop in Grassington. 

Engraver Richard Pennington, in his 27th year in the job, stands over a Taylor-Hobson pantograph.

The machine was bought for £1000 in 1974 and has been used to make all of the 3,775 fingerposts and signs in the National Park.

A clipboard hangs on the wall, showing the list of jobs for the day.

List of jobs, with the ranger's name on the left

The condition of every stile, gate and fingerpost in the Park is assessed annually .  Infrastructure which needs replacing is flagged up.  Rangers then contact Richard with their requirements.

The first step for a new sign is to select the letters, or ‘brass blanks’. The font – or ‘copy’ as it is called – is ‘A Style Line’. (Thank you to Graham Walker of Pantograph Services, Leeds, for that information.)

The brass copy

The brass blanks are then laid on a bench and measured.  ‘Public Footpath’ was 18 inches wide.

Measuring the brass blanks

In this instance, Richard scaled down the size of the lettering.   He set the pantograph so that it would produce lettering two-thirds of the size of the brass blanks (i.e 12 inches wide), and then loaded the blanks onto the ‘copy table’ of the machine.

Loading the brass blanks onto the copy table

By this time, he had sawn a length of oak for the finger sign and clamped it to the cutting bed of the pantograph.   Douglas-fir is often used as an alternative.  “Oak is more expensive, but it routs neater – it doesn’t rip up at the edges,” he says.

Larch is the wood used for the 4 by 4 inch posts.  It has been tried for the fingers, but is too poorly grained – or “raggy” as Richard puts it.

Both hands are needed to operate the pantograph.  The right hand presses the ON switch, then moves the metal stylus along the brass blanks (this in turn moves the routing blade arm).

Moving the stylus along the grooves in the brass copy

Brass is the best quality material for the blanks.  It is naturally slippery, meaning that the stylus can be moved smoothly in the grooves.

The left hand, meanwhile, raises and lowers the cutter by turning a knurled handwheel.  It is then used to keep the routing arm steady.

Richard at the pantograph

Engraving complete, Richard removes the finger sign from the pantograph, cuts one end to a point with a handsaw, and sands on the chamfer by eye.

Sanding up the finger

Typically, Richard will make about 200 finger posts and a further 400 signs each year.

“Fingerposts do not last long,” he says. “It’s the section of post near the ground which rots. I am now replacing signs that I did ten or twelve years ago.”

The last bit of the process is to saw a length of post and rout a rectangular hole near the top of it for the finger to slot in.

 Attaching the finger to the post

And that’s it!  Just for good measure, here’s a sign Richard made earlier.

Richard with a sign he made earlier

And for the really curious, here’s an image of the manufacturer’s plate on the pantograph.

Details of the pantograph

While the pantograph is called a Taylor-Hobson, the company which created and patented the technology was Taylor, Taylor & Hobson of Leicester.

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