Fonts and Culture
2018-01-15

The beauty of characters: old shop preserving the craft of hand-carved characters! Interviewing signboard makers (Part Two)

 Apart from font designers, what other profession spends time with fonts day in and day out? We recently visited designers of Taiwan’s traditional and modern signboard makers for a glimpse of the relationship between fonts and signboards and how the fonts evolved with the trend of design. Quality signboards can always promote business!
 
Moving along the alleys of the old town of Wanhua Taipei, one is constantly surprised by the scene of quiet and focused professionals. Time seems to travel backwards with the warmth of their hands. Yung Hsin Carving Company is an old signboard store that has been in the neighborhood for more than 50 years. From the traditional wooden signboards to today’s computer laser engraving, Yung Hsin has witnessed the changes of signboards and the evolution of time. 

"I am sixty years old this year, forty of which was spent in the signboard industry!" Master Chiang Chin Shih said with a hearty laugh. 

Looking back to the glamorous days of wood-carved signboards, Master Chiang led us from one side of the alley to the other. The entire street used to be factory rooms for producing signboards. The once-bustling street changed with the advancement of technology and as laser engraving gradually replaced hand-carved characters, traditional signboard shops either closed or adjusted with the trend. Today, on the workers of Master Chiang Chin Shih’s workshop are left busy with the work at hand.

With many years of experience in the profession, Yung Hsin Carving Company is one of the few signboard shops that preserves traditional hand-carved techniques. Each master has three or four decades of experience, therefore even though computer laser engraving can produce a character in tens of seconds, there are still stores that insist on creating signboards through the hand-carved method. Particularly, for traditional shops such as bakeries, hand-carved characters never fail to express a sense of friendliness and charm. 
 
To give us a glimpse of the unique charm of hand-carved characters, Master Chiang took out a heavy box that contained a wood-carved Chinese character “美” that was completed two weeks ago using Taiwan Red Cypress. The smooth edges and warmth of the texture give the character a sense of delicacy while the harmonious strokes of the character seem to be enhanced in the hands of the master. Unlike technicians of computer laser engravings, who only require a month’s time to familiarize with the machine, masters of traditional hand carving needs years to hone the craft. The warmth of hand crafting need the polish of time.

When asked about the circumstances when entering the trade, Master Chiang states that it takes at least one year to create presentable characters. The Ming font, with its sharp edges, are usually more difficult for young artisans. In contrast, the rounded edges of semi-cursive scripts are easier to handle. However, Master Chiang laughed and said that everything is easy if you possess genuine skill!

 

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Master Chiang opened the drawer of his old counter and took out some precious gold foil. He told us that “in the past, Taiwanese often talk about ‘golden signboards’; they were literally made with gold foil!” As we cautiously touched the thin piece of gold foil, we realized the preciousness of insisting authentic craft, and the pricelessness of the old master's persistence in traditional crafts. On the other side of the room, another master was in the process of carving small signboards, his focused expression undisturbed by the sound of our chatter. The beauty of hand-carved characters is born from pairs of humble and skilled hands through focus and concentration.
 
*We give thanks to Master Chiang Chin Shih of Yung Hsin Carving Company for his interview in this DynaFont story. 

 

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