Many signs (such as advertising signs, railway station signs street signs etc.) are described as enamel, this can cause confusion to potential buyers particularly for those trying to determine if an item is genuine or a reproduction. The application of "enamel" to signs can be done in a variety of ways.
Firstly there is straight forward enamel paint which is allowed to dry at normal room temperature. The term "enamel" derives from the fact that the paint is tough and resilient to knocks. This type of paint will be most familiar to modellers and hobbyists such as the Humbrol range. Enamel paint can be readily chipped or scratched with a screw driver.
Next up, there is "stove enamel". This again is a painted process (normally sprayed or printed) that is then baked in an oven to give it a hard-wearing and resilient surface (see example photo below left). White goods such as washing machines have a stove enamel finish. Many reproduction signs described as "enamel" are in fact painted/sprayed enamel or stove enamelled. These reproduction signs will usually have a galvanised steel non-shiny light grey back (see example photo below right). As stove enamel is only a hard paint finish it can still be readily scratched or damaged with a sharp object such as a screwdriver.
The final and most expensive and hard wearing finish is "vitreous enamel". This is the most commonly used material for genuine enamel signs because it is very hard wearing and resilient. The process of vitreous enamelling involves the application of a powered glass compound which is then fired in an oven to a temperature of about 800 degrees C. This melts the glass compound which fuses to the underlying metal and leaves a high sheen, extremely tough finish. Even though the finish is extremely tough, it is extremely brittle (it is essentially a layer of glass) so in genuine signs you will often see it chipped or cracked off the edges where corrosion has allowed to gain a hold (see example photo below left), and especially when a sign is bent, the enamel would normally have cracked off along the bend line. The other thing to mention about vitreous enamel is that it has a noticeable thickness of finish, so where for example there is an original screw hole in the sign the enamel will have pooled around the hole as it liquified and then set (see example photo below right). This will be practically non-existent in a stove enamel reproduction (compare with the photo above).
Repairing vitreous enamel signs can be difficult because of this reason - there is a need to build up the thickness of enamel in a paint to produce a well matched and convincing repair. Because of the cost and difficulty of the vitreous enamel process, almost all reproduction signs are painted or stove enamel and bare little comparison with vitreous enamel originals.
If in doubt always ask the seller what material the sign is made of, unless there is a categorical confirmation that the sign is vitreous enamel you can pretty much guarentee it is stove enamel.
Cast Iron Signs
By way of a footnote to the above, there are also many fake cast iron railway signs being sold on eBay. Some respectable sellers are quite open about it and some of the reproductions are fine for those who want a nice item but don't want to pay the premium price of an original. Others are more cagey about the history of an item and some are sadly deliberately trying to pass off fakes as genuine articles. The surest way to stop yourself being caught out is do your homework!
- Ask the seller directly if the item is genuine or a reproduction. Some sellers deliberately trying to mislead will be very careful with their descriptions - be careful of items described as "old" or "weathered" - these could simply mean old fakes or fakes left out in the rain for a few months! If you recieve no reply or "don't know" then proceed with caution.
- Check the sellers current and previous sales. If the seller is selling five others the same you know it's a fake. Some sellers know this and will only sell one at a time so check their previous sales history. Also see if similar items are being sold by other sellers.
- What's it made of? Stupid question? Not really. I bought a "cast iron" sign on eBay that was made of aluminium! Lineside signs on posts and bridge plates will be made of cast iron so if it's made of aluminium you can be pretty sure it's a fake.
- What does the original look like? Again do some research. Have a look on Google for an example of a genuine item. Also you could have a look at previous railwayana auction websites. Some have good photos showing the lots and from this you can deduce what the genuine item looks like www.prorail.co.uk is an excellent place to start looking. Below are three genuine Southern Railway cast iron signs that are commonly faked. Compare the lettering sizes, spaces, hole positions and sizes and border sizes with faked ones. You can spot the differences quite easily. Also the faked signs tend to be smaller (obviously takes less material to produce the fake!).