Maker's Mark

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This article is from Issue 92 of Woodcraft Magazine.

Today, woodworkers have many ways to sign their work

By Tim Snyder

The tradition of signing your work goes back to the very beginnings of man-made objects. Three hundred years ago, a Colonial craftsmen might use chalk or pencil to sign the underside of a chair or the bottom of a drawer. More established furniture makers sometimes glued paper labels to finished pieces, listing the company name and location. 

Today, the reasons for signing your work haven’t changed. A maker’s mark is a reliable way for professional woodworkers to generate future business. A signature can preserve an artisan’s legacy, add something special to a family heirloom, and inspire future generations of woodworkers. What has changed today are the options we have to create maker’s marks on completed work. As the chart below suggests, there are a surprising number of details that can be conveyed, and quite a few different ways to impart them. Sources for some of the signing options can be found in the Buyer’s Guide (p. 70). I’m grateful to all the woodworkers who shared their signing strategies with me as I did the research for this article.

What’s in a Maker’s Mark? The details you want to provide can determine the marking options you choose. Cost is also a factor.

MARKER

Fast, affordable, flexible, and permanent

If Colonial-era craftsmen had access to permanent markers, it’s a sure bet they would have used them instead of pencil or chalk. Permanent markers are inexpensive and available to write in different line weights. Of course, a Sharpie-signed piece lacks the formality and class of some other options. But your flexibility in penning a personalized message can be a great advantage. A Sharpie message can always be put down alongside a branded imprint or inset medallion, providing special occasion details next to a more expensive maker’s mark.

Tips

  • Black works best. Other colors are more prone to fading over time.
  • Try out different point sizes. A fine point is best for small projects. 
  • Take a practice run on a scrap piece of the same species. If signing on bare wood yields blotchy lettering, give the wood a coat of clear sealer before making your mark, and consider switching to a marker with a finer point.


Medallion 

Elegance and flexibility

Here’s an option that’s classy, compact, durable, and fairly easy to install. You can order medallions that include any combination of details you want to include: name, tagline, logo, location, web address, etc. Metal and wood versions are available. 

If you’ve got access to a CNC router, you can create your own stock of custom-made medallions.

Tips

  • You can install a medallion before or after finish has been applied to the project. 
  • Protect the installation area with masking tape, as shown in the photo.
  • Use a sharp Forstner bit to drill a recess that matches the diameter and thickness of your medallion. Bed the medallion in clear epoxy.

Paper label 

Easy to customize and apply

The convenience and economy of a paper maker’s mark is nothing new. Well-established Colonial-era furniture makers often glued nicely printed placards to the undersides of chairs and drawers. Today this maker’s mark option is easier than ever. Your label can provide contact information, a logo, and even a message to memorialize a special occasion. Ensure label longevity by following some of the tips at right. 

Tips

  • Locate your label where it won’t be affected by abrasion or impact. 
  • Expect colors to fade. Sticking with black ink is your best bet. 
  • Use decoupage glue (available at craft stores) or wood glue thinned to milky consistency. Apply the glue to bare wood with a foam brush, then press the paper into place, taking care to work out any bubbles. After the glue dries, protect your label with clear shellac or varnish. 

NAMEPLATE

High class, low price

Laser-engraved nameplates offer an attractive, affordable way to affix your maker’s mark. You can buy a 1" × 2-1/2" solid brass nameplate with three lines of text for under $5.00. This gives you the option of ordering a personalized message for a special occasion; or you can make a bulk order with more standard maker copy. Either way, you’ve got an attractive way to memorialize a project. 

Tips

  • Pick your finish. Woodcraft offers nameplates with different metallic finishes, including black, brass, and gold. Different lettering styles are also available.

BRANDING IRON

Heat for a cool impression

For many woodworkers, the best way to brand your work is...with a brand. Most brands sold today include a handle that contains the heating element. An electric brand with basic lettering can cost about $100. Prices go up if you want to incorporate logo details, decorative borders, or other embellishments. 

Tips 

  • Brand on bare wood to avoid unexpected interactions with finish.
  • Expect to vary branding time and pressure to make a clear impression on different woods. Before branding a finished project, make a test brand or two on scrap wood of the same species. This will give you a better idea of the pressure and time required for a clear impression.
  • A brand won’t show up clearly on dark woods. One solution is to create a branded placard from a thin piece of light-toned wood, and glue it to the darker wood.

Multiple marking options. A single technique or tool may not provide enough information. For a more complete maker’s mark, you can exploit the advantages of each marking tool. Here, a brand provides the company name. Metal stamps record the date. Engraving adds the maker’s signature.

ENGRAVING TOOL

Carving done quickly

A powered engraving tool equipped with a ball-nose bit enables you to quickly inscribe a signature or short message on your project. But there are a couple of limitations to this maker’s mark option. The first one is visibility: A shallow inscription won’t show up as well as a brand, nameplate, or Sharpie signature. Secondly, it takes practice to make smooth, consistent letters and numbers. Use the tips below for best results. 

Tips 

  • Finish first. It’s fine to carve into bare wood, as shown here. But a finished surface will show your engraved lettering more concisely. 
  • Use tape to guide your lettering work. Go ahead and engrave into the tape if necessary; you can always deepen your engraving after removing the tape.
  • Find your style. It’s counterintuitive, but it’s easier to engrave on hard surfaces like steel than it is on soft materials like wood. Expect to put in some practice before you get a feel for engraving a signature or message. 

Metal Stamps

Great for dates

Regardless of other imprints or markings that comprise your signature, it can be useful to have a set of metal stamps. Basic sets are available for around $20. With a few firm hammer taps, you can incise the date, a number designation (if you’re making a group of pieces), or even a short message. 

Tips

  • Before stamping your project, make some test impressions on a piece of scrap wood of the same species. This will tell you how hard a hammer blow is required make a good impression. 
  • To make a stamp more visible, you can paint over the impressions, then wipe off all finish from the surrounding surface.

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