Sign painter brings lost art of hand painting and lettering back to Essexville

It’s an art form that Justin Stilson wants to bring back from the past. Pinstriping and custom sign painting were popular before Stilson was born, but the owner of Stilson Sign and Custom in Essexville is bringing back the craft and breathing new life into what was a lost art.

“It’s something I had always wanted to do,” Stilson says.

He was working in a body shop in Saginaw that specialized in restoring hot rods and muscle cars. He became interested in pinstriping after a former coworker gave him a hands-on tutorial.

“The guy we had at the time as a body shop manager was an old-school guy and he actually had been an old-school custom pinstriper and sign painter,” Stilson says.

Stilson asked the manager to help him with some pinstriping on a car, but instead the manager taught him how to do it himself. “He had some paint left in his pinstriping brush and asked me if I wanted to try it.”

They started by painting Stilson’s toolbox, mirroring each other from side to side.

“So, we’d just kind of ping pong back and forth and the next thing I knew my toolbox was all pinstriped, and I thought, ‘This is cool.’ ”

Justin Stilson was working in a Saginaw bodyshop when he discovered his interest in old-fashioned hand lettering and pinstriping.He enjoyed it so much, he decided it would be his new gig. Within a day or so, he had ordered himself some lettering brushes, pin striping brushes, and paint.

“From that point on, I just started devoting myself to the craft and that type of craftsmanship. I’ve just really loved it.”

Stilson says it took a few years to get to where he could do the work full time.

“I kept working at the hot rod shop, but started taking some side jobs, and then I had enough work to start doing this as a full-time thing. It’s been a real positive experience.”

He opened his own shop in January of 2021 and has been building his client base since then.

Pinstriping and custom sign painting are niche markets, and Stilson says most people don’t even know about them. In the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, race cars were hand-lettered and pinstriped. He says truck and vehicle lettering was all hand-drawn, and he is particularly interested in that type of work.

Before opening his own shop, Justin Stilson worked in a body shop and metal fabricator. He also has a background in art and woodworking. Hand-lettered and painted signs used to be the marketing tools that businesses used to advertise. A few decades ago, hand-painted signs fell out of favor because mass-produced vinyl signs were cheaper and easier to make.

“It’s unfortunate that it’s replaced hand lettering because now people don’t realize the value of hand lettering and what kind of character and feel you can get from it and how it can influence the visual impact of something.”

Stilson still sees the value in the art.

“Cities used to be so vibrant with that stuff and now it’s kind of a lost art. I’m trying to bring it back as much as I can and bring awareness to it.”

He’s not the only one interested in the niche art form. Stilson says he has a whole host of people who are nostalgia buffs and old-time car guys “who had experience with sign painters back in the day.” He says he also sees a growing number of people who appreciate his work.

Everywhere Justin Stilson looks, he sees unique fonts and artwork he can incorporate into his signs.“It’s something that has a very valuable part in the community and in business,” he says.

While Stilson is passionate about hotrods and classic cars, he also has helped with restoration of other pieces.

“Last summer I restored a floor type safe from about 1871,” he says. The safe had been used in a meat shop back at the turn of the last century.

“I was able to strip and take it a step further and re-do all of the artwork that was originally on the safe,” including the gold leaf.  “Gold-leaf is something I’m interested in. It’s a fascinating form of the sign painting industry. It’s actual gold and you build your letters with it. It was something that was widely used back in the day, but it’s something I’m really interested in and do a lot of work with.”

Justin Stilson is passionate about restoring classic cars and antiques.Stilson says he’s been a hands-on artist his whole life and pulls from all of his experiences. Not only did he work in the body shop, but he worked in metal fabrications. He also found inspiration from his parents. Stilson worked with his dad as a woodworker. His mom is a natural artist.

“She helped me when I was growing up to explore those different things. I was the kid who was always drawing on his folders instead of paying attention – I was doing that.”

That interest in art and learning to paint in an old-school sort of way led Stilson to start seeing the world in a different way.

“It’s such a visual art form, so everywhere I look now, I can see things that are interesting to me – even just letters. There are so many different alphabet styles and fonts and stuff like that that fascinates me.”

Stilson says it’s not just the letters and art, but looking at old signs and shop trucks of people that inspire him. He also likes to look at pictures from the past. “That’s what I really enjoy – it is bringing that character back.”

To learn more about Stilson and what he does, visit his Facebook page at where he also has some videos posted of his work.