Hello! I'm organizing a Western-themed murder mystery party that's set in an old-time saloon. I thought it would be fun to add some particular decorative aspects in the form of some (real) frontier town ordinances, printed out as signs to be hung around the saloon. This instructable walks through the process of creating these signs to look as authentic as possible, including aging the paper sign itself, wearing the wooden backboard for the sign, and other processes.
There are other excellent tutorials for aging/ antiquing paper, so if you don't like the one I describe, you can follow one of those.
The paper-aging technique also works well for other themes, including pirate treasure maps.
Step 1: Wooden Backboard - Materials
- Old scraps of thin pine or cedar, or other tannic wood (1x4 or 1x6). You can use broken down old pallets for this.
- Roofing nails (pref. old ones). They look like this.
- White vinegar or other mild acid.
- #0000-gauge steel wool (the finer the better - at least #00 should work)
- Old paintbrush
- Safety gear - goggles and gloves
Step 2: Wooden Backboard - Make an Aging Solution
There are many processes for aging wood all over the intertubes, here's one that worked well for me. Note this will darken the wood - if you are going for a more sun-bleached look, I'll be covering that in a separate instructable at some point, or you can google your own method.
Put on your safety goggles and gloves.
Shred a pad of #0000-gauge steel wool (the finer the better, so if you don't have #0000, at least #00 should work) into an old, clean glass jar.
Pour white vinegar over the steel wool, up to about 1/3 from the top. Mix with an old stick or stirrer, or fasten a lid on tightly and shake. Remove or loosen the lid.
After around 30-45 minutes you should start seeing rust over the exposed portions of the steel wool. This is good. Re-fasten the lid and shake, or stir with your wooden stick, to expose different areas of the steel wool. Remove/ loosen the lid.
After about an hour or two, there should be significant rust on the exposed wool. If not, mix up and wait longer. Darker stain can be achieved with more time, but typically after 2-3 days very little improvement is seen. While we're waiting for the stain to achieve the desired color, let's move on to making the paper sign.
Step 3: Sign Design - Materials
- Sign text - research some old ghost-town or frontier ordinances, or come up with your own. The ones I used come from the town of Silverton in Colorado, USA from the year 1890.
- Paper - I used fairly standard copy/ laser paper, which is typically rather smooth. You might get better results with rougher cut paper.
- Printer - I've included shots of signs made and aged using ink-jet and laser printers. The laser produced better results - the ink did not bleed during the aging process, and the text is overall more consistent.
- Image editing software - I use GIMP, but use whatever you're comfortable with.
- Old-timey fonts - get some from Free Fonts or elsewhere.
Step 4: Sign Design - Creation
Using your image editor, enter your ordinance or other text in your chosen font, and design the sign to your taste. I've included one of my own designs as a PDF, you are free to use or edit as desired.
Save the image, and when you're satisfied, print it out. I like to do two copies of each since it's likely I'll mess up a step somewhere.
You'll notice that the edges of your sign are very smooth and straight, which was unlikely to be the case for the time period you are trying to achieve. So the next step is to rough up the edges.
Step 5: Sign Design - Roughing
Place your sign on a smooth, flat surface, and hold your ruler down fairly firmly (not enough to crease the paper) about 1-2" - 3/4" (1 - 1.5cm) inside one edge of the paper, and tear off the strip.
Repeat this process for the other edges. You should end up with something similar to the image. Don't worry if the edges aren't perfectly straight, or if you create little nicks/ tears - those add to the verisimilitude and authenticity. Also, the text may not end up perfectly centered - that's ok, too. Printing was a primitive operation in "those days"!
You can take this a step further if you wish - perhaps adding more little tears along the edges, or even in the middle of the page. If you're creating a pirate map that has been through all weathers, consider crumpling the paper up, or making even rougher edges with larger nicks and creases. Basically, imagine the sort of life your sign will have led - something hung up in a single place will have a very different look than something exposed to seawater, harsh conditions, and being folded up repeatedly.
Once you are satisfied with your edges/ paper, it's time to move on. You'll be able to distress the paper further later if needed.
Step 6: Paper Aging - Materials
- Old roasting/ lasagne/ brownie pan. Don't use your wife's favorite pan, this will make her mad and you will have to find somewhere else to complete your sign, and quite possibly to live.
- Coffee, tea, or other dark acidic liquids.
- Mud to taste.
- Somewhere flat for drying, or an oven if you are not able to air-dry the paper.
Step 7: Age the Paper
Brew your tea/ make your coffee/ acquire other dark staining liquids.
For tea or coffee, I've found whatever's leftover in the pot to be sufficient, however I did also experiment with different solutions (yes, I'm a Research Paper Ager), so expect to try various combinations of liquid until you're happy.
I ended up going with a mixture of tea, coffee, and some handfuls of dirt from my vegetable planter. I mixed the dirt in a little (well, swirled it really), but you want to be able to discern some chunks of mud, so don't mix it in completely - the mud adds texture as well as color.
Note: your fingers WILL get stained during this process. If this is an issue, wear gloves - surgical gloves work well.
Pour the liquids into your pan. I've found (again, Research Paper Ager) that hot liquid works better than cold, but again YMMV - just be careful not to scald yourself.
You'll want a depth of enough to completely submerge the paper, that way you don't have to flip it while it's wet.
Now timing is another factor affecting how your sign will eventually look. I've found about 20-25 minutes is sufficient, but here's the thing - it's very easy to darken the paper, but lightening it is considerably harder. So perhaps you want to leave the paper in for 10-15 minutes, take it out, dry it, and if it needs to be darker, give it another 10 minutes or thereabouts. You'll know when you're satisfied because it will look great!
Anyway, however long you soak the paper for, after that amount of time carefully take it out and lay it somewhere flat to dry (if air-drying), or pop it in the oven on an old cookie sheet at around 300ºF/ 150ºC for 2-3 minutes - when the edges start to curl, you're done.
The image here is of an earlier sample I made; this one was soaked twice for about 20 minutes each, and air-dried after each soaking. It looked a little too abused for my purposes so I won't be using it in the saloon. The dark grainy bits towards the bottom are little tiny specks of mud.
Step 8: Paper Aging - Enhancements (Optional)
Now if you have access to any real, actual old papers you'll notice they're not uniform in color, typically the center is lighter and gets darker towards the edges. I believe this is due to the edges of the paper absorbing impurities over time, but regardless of the cause, you might want to mimic the effect.
The way to do this is simple, but takes a little care. Take your (dry) paper sign and place it somewhere flat that you don't mind get wet and stained (so keep off the dining table!). Then grab an old teabag, piece of kitchen towel, or old rag, and soak it liberally in your aging solution. Ring out the excess, but leave the teabag or whatever wet, not just damp. Gently apply the teabag to the edge of the paper - about 1/4" - 1/2" coverage, and try not to be consistent - the more randomly applied the better. However, try to follow the contours of the paper's edge, don't just apply the stain in a straight line.
If you like, you can repeat this process multiple times, varying the coverage with each pass.
If you do this right, it will result in a subtle darkening of the edges with a smooth blend towards the lighter center. Do it wrong, and, well, the results are in the image. If you do mess up, however, there is a simple fix - just soak the entire paper in your aging solution again for a while (just remember this will darken the paper a little more overall).
Once you're satisfied, put your aged paper somewhere safe. Other tutorials mention flattening the paper under heavy weights such as books, but I don't think this is necessary - slightly crumpled paper just adds to the realism.
Step 9: Wooden Backboard - Distress the Wood
Again, there are many methods to achieve and aged, distressed look in wood, including several instructables. This is one of my favourite methods, but for best results, look for really old pieces of wood (or images thereof) and imagine how they got that way - were they weatherbeaten? subject to impact by sharp or blunt objects (over time, impact marks will be softened and become less distinct)?; or distressed in other ways? This will inform how you treat your wood, and produce better results than simply following someone else's instructions.
Put on your safety gear.
If you are cutting wood to length, use a rough cut (an old, blunt-ish handsaw if you have one; also camping saws are excellent for this), and don't follow an exact straight line. It's also likely that the signs you are reproducing were not made from cut lumber, so if you have a piece with a broken end, that could be perfect.
I like to use two or three 4" strips of wood (1x4 pine boards) placed side-by-side for one of my signs, but if you only have narrower or wider pieces, that's ok - just size appropriately for your project.
Take a strip of the wood you are using for the backboard. Using a variety of tools (hammer, chain, axe?), reproduce the stresses your piece of wood would have been subject to over long periods of time. A piece of timber aboard a pirate ship will show very different wounds than a similar piece of wood that's been locked in a dry basement for years. Overall, you want to soften the edges (achieved by striking lightly with your hammer), and smooth out (but not completely remove) any surface blemishes. Flaking off large-ish splinters might also be appropriate - don't forget to soften the resulting edges.
If your wood was subject to insect abuse, use an awl or old drill bit of the appropriate size to re-create the holes left by boring beasts.
When you are satisfied, repeat with any other necessary pieces of wood. Once all are complete, it's time to stain.
Step 10: Wooden Backboard - Apply the Stain
Put on your safety gear.
Find a work space away from anything you do not wish to get stained, and protect the area from overspill.
Taking an old paintbrush, apply the stain you made before to your workpieces. Pay attention to any cuts/ gouges in the surface of the wood, as if those are freshly made they will be quite obvious - the goal is to make the wood look old, after all.
As with pretty much all paint/ stain jobs, several thin coats are better than one thick one, so after applying a thin coat, let the wood dry - typically stains dry darker, so you'll want to see how it looks once dry before applying more if needed.
Once the wood is stained to your liking, set it aside to dry fully, and proceed.
Step 11: Aging the Nails
Now it's time to age the nails. Now you don't of course have to use nails to fix your paper to the backboard, but for my purposes I feel it adds a certain authenticity - I don't think staples or push-pins were used much in "them days". Glue would have been available, of course, so if you want the truly authentic look then please feel free to mix up your own glue from the materials of the day.
If you decide to use nails, a wide flat head and short shank are my favourites simply because the flat head will hold the paper more securely and the short shank means the point won't poke through the backboard.
The nails I had to hand were galvanized roofing nails. They were, of course, far too clean for my purposes, so I had to age them.
If you used the rusty steel wool + vinegar method for staining your backboard, you probably have some of the stain left over. This is perfect for rusting the nails, although the process takes time and should be carefully monitored to avoid over-rusting - you don't want the nails to lose their structural integrity since they'll need to be banged into the wood.
Put on your safety gear.
Put some nails into a flat container (I used the lid of my stain jar), and pour a little of the stain over them so they are partially submerged - you want a lot of oxygen to reach the wet nails to produce the oxidization reaction.
Check on the nails every 30-45 minutes. When they are the color and texture you desire, remove them from the solution, rinse in clean water, and dry thoroughly to prevent any further oxidization. Note that it's possible that hammering the nails into the wood will cause some of the rust to flake off, however.
Step 12: Fix the Boards Together
There are several methods to achieve joining the boards together. The simplest is to apply wood glue along the edge of one of the boards and glue the next edge-on to it, holding together with clamps for an hour or so. However, this does not result in a strong bond, especially if the edges are not perfectly aligned, so my preferred approach is to screw thin battens across the back of the boards as shown - just bear in mind this will result in the signs not lying flush against a wall.
Put on your safety gear.
Take as many stained boards as necessary to fit the width of your sign, and place them face down on your work surface. Take a batten (which can be any scrap wood of sufficient length and thickness), align across the backs of all the boards, and screw down into each board. Use screws that will not poke through the front of the boards.
Step 13: Affix the Sign to the Backboard
If you've been following along you should now have several pieces:
- A paper sign aged to match the historical period you are targeting.
- A backboard, similarly aged to the relevant period.
- Some rusted nails (I use four per sign).
Put on your safety gear.
All that's left is to join them together. Simply align the paper to the backboard in a pleasing arrangement, and fix using nails or glue. Once done (glue is dry, if needed), screw or nail a picture holder into the back (or use a piece of string as appropriate) and hang up. Voila! Historical accuracy in a few hours or less!