The Art of Custom Pinstriping
Leslie C. McManus
Doug Humble hand-lettered this 1920 20 hp Minneapolis Threshing Machine Co. steam traction engine. "Not that many people do hand lettering anymore," he says. "You see a lot of vinyl these days. But lettering is not really any harder than pinstriping, if you use the right brush." The engine is owned by Kenton Sutton, Seward, Neb.
For all the technological innovation of the last century, the finishing touch on a restoration project – custom pinstriping – is still best done by hand. But the artists who do that work today are few and far between. “It’s a dying art,” says Doug Humble. “I think decals will ultimately replace hand-striping.”
Doug is a skilled practitioner of the delicate, time-consuming art of hand pinstriping. Experienced in custom painting cars and motorcycles, he first turned his talents to antique farm equipment in 2008. A massive Reeves steam engine was his canvas.
“I had to work on a ladder,” he recalls. “It was not an easy project. Those wheels, with all those spokes … and it’s not the kind of thing I could move by myself, so I about had to stand on my head to do some of it.”
Doug (who lives in Iowa City, Iowa) went on to tackle a project or two at the Midwest Old Threshers Reunion, Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, and soon found his dance card full. In 2008, he hand-striped antique machinery for four days during the show. Last year, he worked there for over a week.
With 35 years’ experience working on classic cars and motorcycles, Doug is accustomed to the smooth finish of sheet metal. Cast iron presents new challenges. “It can be the very worst for a pinstriper,” he says. “Some of it’s so rough, it’s like trying to paint on gravel.
“It took me about a day to figure out the right consistency of paint so it won’t run into the crevices,” he explains. “You do a lot of compensating for the rough casting. The rougher it is, the thinner the paint should be – but there’s a fine line before it runs. And if it’s not right, nothing works.”
Subtle differences between collectible categories further complicate the process. “What worked on the stationary steam engines didn’t necessarily work on the traction engines,” Doug says. “The stationary engines are very rough.”
His paint of choice is 1 Shot lettering enamel, thinned with mineral spirits. Changes in paint formulas have required technique changes. “They’ve been phasing out the lead for the last 10 years,” he says. “The new formula doesn’t cover nearly as well as the old lead-based paints. You have to double-coat quite a bit.”
He uses Mack sword striping brushes (named for the bristle’s sword-like shape) made from squirrel and sable hair. “They hold the paint well,” he explains. Different features require different brushes. “A stiffer bristle seems to work better on raised lettering,” Doug says.
Learn as you go
Doug began painting as a teenager. Self-taught, he started with landscapes. “Then I got the brushes and a can of 1 Shot,” he says. In the late 1970s, he did a lot of work for a Harley dealer. “I repainted and hand-striped a lot of motorcycles,” he recalls. “I pinstriped anything and everything, even bowling pins.” A fan of artist Ed Roth’s Rat Fink work, he embraced the 1960s hot rod culture.
Operating like modern-day artists’ guilds, pinstripers provide tips and inspiration to each other. “I went to a show in Tulsa six years ago,” he says, “and there were stripers there from all over the country. Most pinstripers are self-taught; I learned a lot from them.”
Those who would earn a living from art must be versatile, and pinstripers are no exception. “A lot of stripers used to paint billboards and big ads on barns,” Doug says. “Painters used to travel the country doing that. That was good art. It livened up the countryside and farmers made some money.”
The craft, he muses, goes back centuries. “I suppose Indian pottery had what you could call pinstriping,” he says. In the past few years, he’s seen a few younger painters take up the art form. “Some people manage to do it as full time work,” he says. “But they have to do a lot of traveling. They’ll set up a tent at a car show and work 12-hour days.”
Every pinstriper fights a battle with time. “The older you get, you have to deal with changes in eyesight and steadiness of your hand,” Doug says. “With experience you learn how to control the brush, how to brace your hand.”
Years ago, Doug met a second-generation pinstriper. “His dad had worked as a pinstriper for Ford and Studebaker,” he says, “back when those cars were hand-striped.” Those days are mostly gone. Today, he says, some new cars are pinstriped, “but there’s a lot of striping tape out there.” FC
For more information: Phone Doug Humble at (319) 330-3290; e-mail: email@example.com.
Leslie McManus is editor of Farm Collector. Contact her at LMcManus@ogdenpubs.com.