The Art of Custom Pinstriping

Custom pinstriping puts finishing touch on antique machinery

| August 2010

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    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.
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    Doug paints raised lettering on a 1908 14-30 Vilter Corliss stationary steam engine. "Pinstriping takes concentration," he says, "but sometimes my mind wanders."
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    Sketch marks made by a Stabilo pencil are still visible on the engine surface. "You can paint over it or wash it off with water," Doug says. "It has really soft graphite. On humid days it almost melts."
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    Painting raised lettering on cast iron requires a precise paint consistency and a steady hand. 
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    A handpress at Printers’ Hall on the Midwest Old Threshers Reunion grounds shows off Doug’s work. The press predates the Civil War.
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    A trio of gauges above perfectly painted raised lettering. Pinstriping on the Vilter Corliss is a faithful reproduction of the engine’s original appearance. Doug created cardboard templates to use in painting the ornamental flourishes.
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    Intricate detail on the Reeves company monogram.
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    Striping and scrollwork add a note of elegance to the 5,500-pound flywheel on the Vilter Corliss.
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    Pinstriping on the massive wheels of this Reeves 32-132 steam traction engine required a painter with a gymnast’s skills. "I about had to stand on my head to do some of it," Doug says.
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    Doug uses a pencil line as a guide when striping a flywheel. "It’s pretty helpful when you try to meet the line at the other end," he says. Long straight lines are the biggest challenge for a pinstriper. "You really have to concentrate, and move your body with the brush," he says. "Some guys specialize in straight-line striping."
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    Doug revived the logo on this 1915 20 hp Woods Brothers steam engine. "On the old farm equipment, they usually tell me exactly what they want, in terms of colors," he says, "or they’ll have old catalog illustrations for me to work from."

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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.



Unique challenges

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.