The Regional Review

Volume II - No. 1

January, 1939

trail signs

trail signs
Typical Trailside Signs At Bear Mountain.


By William H. Carr, Director,
Bear Mountain Trailside Museum,
Palisades Interstate Park,
Bear Mountain, New York.

The Bear Mountain nature trails were established in 1927. Thousands of various types of out-of-door signs and labels have been placed along two miles of trails since the inception of the undertaking. Constant experimentation has been necessary to permit the development of ways and means of preparing signs for many purposes.

Numerous inquiries have been received regarding, 1) physical methods of constructing frames; 2) lettering; 3) painting; 4) general design of labels, and 5) materials used. This brief outline of instruction concerns (a) the construction of nature trail labels in summer camps and (b) the building of more or less permanent nature trail signs in parks.

We have used the following types of signs in building camp trails:

Paper and Linen Tags: We have secured tags made both of linen and of the so-called "Fiber Waterproof" or "Oak Tag." Materials of this nature may be secured from any reliable tag manufacturing firm. We have found that the best dimension is 4-1/4 x 2-1/8". This size presents nine square inches of label space. The tags may be affixed to stakes, trees, or to out-of-door objects by means of either wire or string. India ink may be used for lettering, or a typewriter may be employed. A good grade of outdoor varnish will preserve these labels for a long time. We have always believed that it is well to vary the majority of camp trail labels from year to year; therefore a sign that will be well preserved for several months is quite satisfactory.

Burned Letter Labels: Attractive wooden signs, either of cross-sectioned cedar, fiat board surfaces, or other wooden types, may be constructed by burning the letters either with a pyrography set, or with the new electric needles obtainable at hardware stores. Scratch in letters with a sharp instrument before burning. In regions where vandalism is not a problem, these picturesque signs are certainly desirable.

Illustrated Labels: It is possible to use colored post card flower pictures along a nature trail, especially in connection with flowering plants that have "gone by" as far as the flower is concerned. It is often desirable to use bird pictures similar to those issued by the National Audubon Society. These colored pictures may be fastened to board or composition board surfaces with glue, covered with heavy spar varnish or with bakelite spray, and then further protected by a wooden molding tacked completely around the edge. We have found, however, that some of the colors fade or change perceptibly in spite of varnishing. Otherwise they stand the weather for one or two years.

Typewritten labels: Where labels are to be changed frequently and the typewriter comes into play, it has sometimes been found desirable to use a fairly stiff grade of linen typewriter paper or light cover stock. An ordinary typewriter ribbon may be used. The paper may then be affixed to a composition board backing and well covered with spar varnish to prevent moisture damage to the typing.

Art Labels: Some nature counselors desire to illustrate lettered labels by means of India ink drawings. This may be accomplished either upon cloth or upon paper or wooden signs. Oil paints also may be employed provided they are well covered with spar varnish. Label diagrams are often useful. It always should be borne in mind that the natural object holds principal interest. The label serves the function of interpreting, identifying and explaining. Labels are but mechanical means to educational ends and, in no case, should a nature trail be considered an "art gallery" wherein natural science is concerned.

It seems advisable to design semi-permanent, descriptive labels for city and state park trails. The following methods have been used successfully at Bear Mountain:

I. Metal label on wooden frame.

Construction: (1) Make frames of 3/4" x 1" chestnut or any hard, durable wood. (2) Cut sheet metal to fit and nail to frames. (3) Drill two small holes through metal and wood about one inch apart at top and bottom of each label for wiring to stakes.

Etching the sheet metal: Galvanized sheet metal must be "etched" with acid to prepare it for paint. (Otherwise the paint is apt to peel in a short time.) Sheet zinc does not require etching. However, we prefer galvanized metal, for it is harder. Here are two methods of etching galvanized sheet metal: Before employing either method, roughen the metal by rubbing with emery cloth.

1. Vinegar: (a) Paint or wash the metal faces of the labels with vinegar, making certain that the entire area is well covered. (b) Allow to dry thoroughly. (c) Wash in water and dry again.

2. Copper sulphate (blue vitriol). (Poisonous). (a) Dissolve 3/4 pound of copper sulphate crystals in one gallon of water; (b) Add 3 liquid ounces of clear household ammonia; (c) Paint metal faces of labels with this preparation and allow to dry; (d) Remove the black material, now covering the metal, with a stiff brush and water; (e) When dry, wash with benzine and dry again.

Painting: (1) Priming coat: Use a good galvanized metal primer as a first coat. This provides a better bond with the metal than ordinary paint. Use a small amount of paint and "brush it out". This helps to prevent peeling and blistering; (2) Second and third coats: These two coats should be, of course, of whatever color has been decided upon for the labels. The main requirement is that a good, flat paint should be used. This is the most satisfactory paint for lettering and illustrating. At the Trailside Museum our trail labels are of three colors: green for botany, brown for geology, and white for zoology. The great majority of our labels are green and we have always tried to get a shade of green that will blend with the color of the leaves as much as possible, in order to make the labels inconspicuous and thus preserving the beauty of the trail.

Lettering and illustrating: (1) India Ink: We consider this the best material for lettering as it can be used with ordinary lettering pens. A No. 1 (very soft) pencil should be used to draw in guide lines and preliminary lettering. If the paint is not flat enough and the ink "draws" or does not "take", one of the following remedies will usually aid: (a) First try washing the label face with water and drying. (b) If the trouble persists, wash with vinegar, or turpentine, and dry. (c) For stubborn cases, wash with a fairly strong solution of "Clorox", and dry.

Oil paints: If so desired, any oil paint may be used for lettering or illustrating. Allow several days for drying when using artists' oils.

3. Water colors: Ordinary water colors or show card colors also may be employed and are especially suitable for illustrating.

4. Printer's ink: It has been found practicable to use printer's ink for the purpose of transferring imprints of leaves to labels. This may be done by coating a soft rubber roller with a small amount of ink and then inking the leaf evenly. Place the leaf, inked side down, upon the label, cover with a sheet of paper, and rub. The imprint of the leaf will be inked upon the label. It is well to experiment upon newspaper first.

Varnishing: First erase pencil lines with art gum. The faces, and at least the edges of the labels, should then be given two or three coats of a good grade of spar or exterior varnish in order to preserve their appearance. We have found that varnish with a high bakelite content is most satisfactory. Rub the labels lightly with a cloth dampened with turpentine between coats to prevent "drawing". After being placed upon the trail, they should be revarnished from time to time, according to their locations: if exposed directly to the sun, about every two months; if located in the shade, about every six months. Frequent varnishing is especially necessary if water colors have been used.

Label posts and wiring; With one or two exceptions, our nature trail labels are wired to stakes driven into the ground in front of the objects described rather than to the trees themselves. We have always been fortunate enough to obtain sufficient saplings averaging 1-1/2" in diameter to supply our needs from various sections of park land which were being cleared for one purpose or another. In this way we have not had to destroy young trees to obtain our label posts. We have found that cedar and locust make the most enduring stakes, although, in southern states we recommend the use of metal posts to prevent termite damage. Posts should be well-seasoned after cutting. Shave the bark from the section of stake which is to go into the ground and point the end. The shaved section should be treated in a hot creosote bath for best results.

Method No. 1 for wiring label to stake: Use a No. 14 gauge, soft galvanized strand wire. Bend short lengths of this wire into U shapes. Draw the two ends of a bent wire through the pair of holes drilled at the top of the label. Repeat for the holes at the bottom of the label. Place the label against the stake so that each pair of wires straddles the stake. Then pull tight and twist the ends together with pliers. Cut off the surplus wire at an angle --- thus producing a sharp point that will discourage those attempting to tamper with the wire. The above method is fairly satisfactory but when the wire becomes loose, the label may be turned on the stake or lifted off entirely. This may be prevented by using the following, more complicated method:

Method No. 2 for wiring labels to stakes: Wire the bottom of the label to the stake as in Method No. 1. Then drill a 3/16" hole through the stake just above the top of the label. Put the wire through the top pair of holes and around the stake as in Method No. 1 but do not twist the ends. Bring them back through the hole prepared in the stake --- pull tight --- wrap around to the back of the stake again, and then twist the ends together and cut.

II. All-metal labels

Follow the above directions, omitting the wooden frames. It is not advisable to use plain metal labels where there is any chance of vandalism as they are easily bent. Many uses may be found for very small all-metal labels fastened on stakes and bearing numbers only. These are prepared in the same way as the larger labels, the wooden frame being omitted. A good size is 2" x 2", or they may be cut in the silhouette of an acorn or a leaf. These numbered labels may be used in many ways, and especially in the following: Along "test" trails or on trails where in conspicuous labels are desired. Mimeographed sheets may be prepared as a key to the numbered labels. For concentration gardens where many labels are required for a small area, a large "key label" may be placed upon a board at the front of the garden. A garden labeled in this way also may be used as a means of testing science or botany students.

III. Wall-board labels

A hard-finish, dense type of wall-board may be sawed to the proper sizes and used with or without wooden frames. Paint with two coats of flat paint, front arid back -- letter and varnish. A sample of the wall board should be tested for resistance to exposure before proceeding. As in the case of No. II, this type of label cannot be used where vandalism is present.

IV. Paper signs

Cover stock or bristol board may be lettered or typewritten, given two or three coats of varnish, and used as follows: (A) Stake labels. Tack the lettered and varnished paper to a light wooden frame which has been fastened to a wooden stake. (B) Out-of-door bulletin board material: Tack the paper labels directly to the board or, better still, to a piece of shellacked and varnished wall-board which has been cut to fit the bulletin board. This permits the removal of the entire display without damaging the labels. Paper buckling may be noticed when using this type of label. This may be remedied in part by nailing a light wooden molding about the edges of each label. The most satisfactory method is to glue the label to the wall-board before either is varnished. Next, nail on the molding and then shellac the exposed surface of the wall board. Finally, give the entire display, labels and all, at least two coats of spar varnish. Photographs, reproductions of photographs, paintings, or drawings, may be used with very good effect.

NOTE: We have been advised by the research departments of various paint companies to try the following method of preparing our metal labels: (a) Wash metal surface with vinegar and allow to dry. (b) Paint with one or two coats of the new type, "bakelite" or rubber-base automobile enamel. (c) Letter and illustrate with the same type enamel in another color, using a brush.

This seems to be the most durable system for label work. Varnish, the weak link in our method, is eliminated entirely. This new, weather-resisting enamel has been used satisfactorily to refinish automobiles. This method would, however, require the use of a brush for lettering, -- a more painstaking operation than lettering with pens and India ink. Considering the number of damaged signs that must be replaced and the new labels that must be prepared each year as trails are developed, we prefer to use the faster, simpler method of lettering with India ink up on flat paint.

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Date: 04-Jul-2002