Tradition of Hand-Applied Gold Leaf Fades Into History

In a profession that often spans several generations of family members and can trace its history back to the earliest settlements, tradition has always been very important among firefighters.

But one that’s vanishing is the practice of accenting fire apparatus with genuine gold leaf. It’s a tradition that Mike Norris and his four sons still take pride in carrying on, although they rarely get a chance to do it the way it was done decades ago when, they say, artistic ability mattered a lot more.

The custom can be traced to the days of bucket brigades, according to Norris, who is 58 and operates out of a shop in West Babylon on Long Island, N.Y., where the family business, M. Norris & Sons Inc., is in its 35th year.

“After the fire, there’d be a pile of buckets,” he said. “Maybe you had a really nice looking bucket, but another guy didn’t, so he’d grab yours. So, naturally, you’d put your name on it. That’s how it started.”

Then the fires of competition kicked in. Maybe your bucket wasn’t quite as attractive as the next guy’s.

“Things started to get more and more elaborate,” Norris said. “These guys were constantly trying to outdo each other, and gold leaf was the standard.”

That drive is also the reason fire engines are red, he said, or at least remained red until modern times. Red was at one time, according to Norris, the most difficult and costly paint color to produce, which made it the rarest. So, of course, that’s the color firefighters had to have if they wanted to be in the game.

The use of traditional gold leaf lettering on fire apparatus faded over the past 30 years as less-expensive and more durable materials became available and sophisticated computer-aided cutting tools were developed.

Some fire departments that value the status of gold leaf still seek out artisans such as Norris, although he estimates there may be only a dozen left in the United States who use traditional methods of applying it by hand.

Few apparatus companies offer gold leaf as an option these days, but there is still a demand for it at Pierce Manufacturing in Appleton, Wis., which sells more fire trucks in the U.S. than any other builder.

Pierce said it provides gold leaf detailing for about 70 percent of the 1,700 or so apparatus that it builds each year. The cost of that work can range from $2,000 to $20,000, according to Brad Fuss, the company’s graphics supervisor.

Both Pierce and M. Norris & Sons use genuine gold leaf and follow similar processes, but with some differences. Mike Norris Jr. said his family is reluctant to divulge all the details of its method, but described the following steps.

A sheet of rolled vinyl is placed on a plotter, a computer-driven tool that contains a sharp blade, and the letters are cut to the desired shape. Gold leaf sizing, an adhesive, is then placed on the letters and allowed to set up until tacky, which usually takes a couple of hours, depending on temperature and humidity.

Sheets Of Gold Leaf

Then 3.5-inch-by-3.5-inch sheets of gold leaf are placed against the sizing, and the gold sticks firmly to the letters when the gold leaf’s paper backing is peeled off. Then the letters go through a polishing process, according to Norris Jr., and the excess vinyl is trimmed off.

A solid laminate clear coat which comes in a sheet and which contains letter shadowing – the classic black, or another color – is then applied over the letters, and a coat of final sealer is added and allowed to dry.

He said installation is completed by peeling the backing from the vinyl and a powerful adhesive bonds the letters to the vehicle. “Then the truck is ready for service,” he said.

Pierce uses what it calls the Goldstar process. It has five technicians in its graphics department who can do three to 12 jobs a day, according to Mike Grabner, one of the technicians.

“Gold leaf is not a perfect metal,” to try to work with, he said. If a mistake is made in the application process, he said, it is not as though a whole $6,000 lettering job is ruined. “We can fix our problems one letter at a time,” he said.

Sutphen, another leading apparatus manufacturer, used to have artists who hand-applied gold leaf, but have not offered that option for many years, according to Ken Creese, the company’s sales and marketing director.

“Much of what is done today is the pre-made encapsulated gold products,” he said. “I do know of a few trucks we built in which the end users or dealer contracted someone in the local area [for gold leafing]. It is a very expensive option.”

One of alternative products is SignGold, a ready-made material that contains gold. The letters are produced by taking a roll of the vinyl that already contains the gold and cutting them out using a computer-driven plotter.

The SignGold process allows much more margin for error in fire engine lettering, according to Mike Norris Sr., and mistakes can be corrected quickly and less expensively than in the old days.

He and his sons don’t attempt to hide their displeasure that automation and convenience have eroded the traditional artisan’s craft of hand lettering, and they’re not happy that many fire departments have switched to products such as SignGold, primarily because they’re less expensive.

“It’s getting really hard for us,” Mike Jr. said. “We’ve lost a lot of customers to SignGold.”

As fire apparatus jobs have declined to two or three per month, he said the family business has been forced more and more to take on standard commercial lettering for business vehicles.

Even though his family’s company is using mostly the newer vinyl application method for gold leaf, he said it continues to guarantee the work for the life of the vehicle. “The first one we did from the ’90s are still on the truck,” he said. “We haven’t had it fail yet.”

The Norrises know they have an uphill struggle to convince younger fire department administrators to choose the traditional gold leaf when purchasing apparatus. While there are still some old-line firefighters who want it, Mike Norris Sr. said they’re becoming fewer and fewer.

“In the old hand-traditional method, you had to put the gold exactly where you wanted it; you had to be a skilled artist,” he said. “I’m guessing there may be about 12 people in the country who can do it that way now.”

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