Signmaking 101: Mahl Sticks

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Mike Jackson
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Signmaking 101: Mahl Sticks

Post by Mike Jackson » Tue Jul 20, 2004 9:12 am

A long time ago, you could get into a heated debate between sign letterers about the virtues and needs of a mahl stick against the people who said they would never need one or use one. It reminded me of all the debates about whether a Mac or PC is better of recent years (please don't take this forum to that debate!)

I learned hand lettering watching George Seelander and Glen Newcomer. Both were great sign painters and both used a mahl stick, so I started painting using them. As Glen mentioned one day, he felt naked without his mahl stick in his free hand. I am left handed, so dragging my pinky finger across the newly lettered panel wasn't much of an option and I never liked the "hand over hand" method.

My favorite CHEAP mahl stick was a 1/2" straight wooden dowel, 36" long with a 1.5" rubber ball on the end. Less than a dollar.

Griffhold used to sell a two piece aluminum mahl stick. I sill liked my rubber ball better than the little black tip that came with it. They were about $10

Other people made their mahl sticks using a baby bottle nipple and a dowel. They pushed the dowel into the nipple, and with some silicone glue, pulled the extra rubber nipple back over the tip and trimmed the excess. I never liked that one, because I didn't think the end was large enough for my tastes.

I have Steven Parrish's old sign kits here. He liked a much longer mahl stick. His was made from a wooden pool queue, tapered of course, with a cork ball on the end. I've seen people use a gold club. I bought a mahl stick while in California a while back made out of lightweight graphite.

Besides keeping my hands out of the paint, Glen and George taught me how to use the mahl stick to help hand paint a long straight line. It came in handy on borders and also large letters.

If you have any other thoughts on this topic, please add them below!
Mike Jackson / co-administrator
Golden Era Studios
Vintage Ornamental Clip art
Jackson Hole, WY

Photography site:
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Jack Wills
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Post by Jack Wills » Tue Jul 20, 2004 2:31 pm

I had a stick about 18" long with handballs on each end
that I would use for control when needed. Both ends would
lay on the surface and serve as a rest. On high end pieces
I woul wrap some velvet around them. It was just a steady
rest more than a mahl stick.
Although on rare occasions when i can stomach going to
a mall, I will carry a stick.


Si Allen
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Joined: Mon Jul 05, 2004 2:31 pm
Location: La Mirada, ca

Post by Si Allen » Tue Jul 20, 2004 2:39 pm

In my younger days, i never used a mahl stick. Now in my 'senior days' I sometimes use the shaft of a golf club.

It is light, stong and has a great grip!


Brian the Brush UK
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Location: Yorkshire, England, UK

Post by Brian the Brush UK » Tue Jul 20, 2004 5:10 pm

I used to have a wooden mahl stick that came in three pieces with brass ferrels to screw it together to make whatever length of stick you required, it was 2 feet long with one piece but with the extentions on was almost 5 feet long, as I remember one of my then apprentices borrowed it and never gave me it back. I would love another like it, the balance and weight were perfect for me, I've never seem another one like it, I now use an aluminium one which has no soul.
With a stroke more imagination.

John Lennig
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Location: Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada

malh stick

Post by John Lennig » Tue Jul 20, 2004 7:22 pm

Brian, last year, while in Sussex, I picked up 2 wooden mahlsticks from Wrights of Lymm, a 2 piece affair, with brass screw together connector and wood knob. They were 8.76 pounds each. Heavy, eh!

I'm still using my first stick, (a 3 piece alum. slip together number)bought in 1963 at Frazees Paints on C St., San Diego, they carried full sign supplies.It's in my oil kit, whilst my griffold aluminum screw together one is in my Latex(TV/Movie) kit. Studio stick is wood dowel with rubber ball, garage one is bamboo with Unibroue cork...

Hi Wayne in Midhurst!

John Lennig / SignRider
"You spelled it wrong!"

Rick Sacks
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Location: Mendocino, California

Post by Rick Sacks » Wed Jul 21, 2004 8:14 am

My wooden stick gets sanded with a fine paper periodically to remove paint smears. The ballon the end is covered with a piece of chamois drawn over it and secured with a rubber band. I also like to lightly dust the chamois and stick with talc. I keep the mahlsticks in my kit that break down, but far prefer the one piece wooden ones.
Mendocino, California
"Where the redwoods meet the Sea"

Dan Seese
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Joined: Tue Apr 13, 2004 11:29 pm
Location: Fort Collins, CO

Post by Dan Seese » Wed Jul 21, 2004 5:40 pm

Harold Asmus, the gentleman who taught me how to letter, used a mahl stick that tapered and had a cork at the end, similar to Steven Parrish's stick described by Mike. Of course, I think the layers of paint drips added considerably to the weight of the instrument.
A few years ago, after he died, his family asked if I would paint a "For Lease" sign to hang in the window of his vacant shop. I tried to execute it as best as I could in the "Harold Asmus vernacular" (i.e. red bold gothic lettering on an ascending curve with yellow drop shadow; black secondary copy with a light blue shadow.) This was a common approach he took to this type of sign - simple, clean design. When they wanted to pay me, I dared to ask for a trade, (it was obscene to mention his mahl stick as my highest treasure, but I did.) They were happy, instead, to give me a couple of old signs, a couple of truck lettering brushes, a stick of charcoal and a blank "Asmus Sign Co." invoice that looked like it was designed in about 1945. These smaller items were inside one of his cigar boxes. Real treasures to me. His sons continue to treasure his mahl stick, as it should be.
I had one of the Griffold aluminum collapsible units a few years back but the threads wore out and it would loosen while in use.
I've tried a number of homemade options. What I like is a wooden dowel, 3/8" diameter. It has a bit of flexibility, which may be a problem if you're not used to it, but I like the fact that it is lighter than a 1/2" dowel. I buy one of those little 1" diameter super-balls that you get at a toy store (again, light-weight) drill a hole in it and glue it to the end of the dowel. It's nice to have several sizes so that if I'm in a tight space I can use the short one or if I need to span a painted area I can use the longer one.

Doug Bernhardt
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Location: Ottawa Canada

Post by Doug Bernhardt » Wed Jul 21, 2004 7:00 pm

Hi all and Goldie,
Just before I began my apprenticeship I bought one of those aluminum mahl sticks, left my home town and came to Ottawa to learn to be a signwriter. Sho-cards was always what I wanted to do, as an early mentor in my home town was that and ... good at it. I really wanted to do TV work as in those days advertisments usually consisted of a nice sho-card still photo, (all in greys with black and white)with a voice over...that was the epitome to me. When I got here everyone worked on the flat bench and never ever used a mahl stick. So after many years and meeting the likes of the people here, I fell in love with gold glass. Out comes the old griffold although I never actually liked it. The first year at California Conclave I fell in love with the Bosses mahl stick. It was much like the ones he sold but of mahoganey and much lighter. It was fixed with an antique parasol handle which made it balance perfectly and on the end a babies soother which he said made it non-slip on glass and when in a moment of concern (or head scratching) provided a bit of oral comfort! After another year of covetting it he just gave it to see's much more use than I ever thought it would and is amoung my treasured possesions. I had also started to experiment with a pool cue and straight oak dowels intending to get something I liked but when he gave me his, the remaining pieces just sat in a dusty corner. As for the Griffold....I saw Robin Siebert struggling with some outlines one day and gave that one to her.

Dave Draper
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Joined: Mon Jul 05, 2004 12:04 pm
Location: Bloomington Illinois USA

Post by Dave Draper » Wed Jul 21, 2004 11:32 pm

I use both methods, "hand over" and "stick it" methods.

I wasn't fussy, I grabbed a wooden yard stick, walking cane, tree branch, paint stir stick, whatever, and broke it to the length I needed at the time when I wanted to use it, then tossed it in the dumpster (out on a job).

On a door window, the "elbow" room was restricted somewhat, so some was painted hand over, and some with a busted off yard stick with a art gum eraser duct taped on the end. Sometimes I would palet on the stick.

Pretty crude, huh? :roll:

Wayne Osborne
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Joined: Tue Jun 15, 2004 2:03 am
Location: West Sussex.England

Post by Wayne Osborne » Thu Jul 22, 2004 6:13 am

My latest , greatest discovery in the " build a better mahlstick" catagory,

A 2 piece hardwood rod *originally for cleaning 12 bore shotgun. with strong screw together brass fittings.-add a rubber walking stick end ( trimmed to more rounded shape) cover in clean cloth(to avoid skidmarks)

is 34 inches long,has a tapered handle part and Fits in my box too!

Jon Harl
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Joined: Thu Apr 08, 2004 4:55 am
Location: San Jose, California

Post by Jon Harl » Fri Jul 23, 2004 1:35 am

Hey Mike, I've got one of those graphite mahl sticks too. It's made from a fishing rod blank. I put a cork fishing floate on both ends and dipped each cork in that rubber material that they use on plier handles. One rubberized cork rests on the piece I'm working on and the other ball is cupped in my left hand. This makes it easier to hold the stick and a paint cup and card to pallet on. I got the idea for this mahl stick from one I bought from a guy that was selling them at Letterhead meets (I can't remember his name) Joe Curtis, the San Jose sign painter, taught me about cupping the ball in my left hand. He likes the left hand ball real big and I like it medium sized. He likes his stick about 36" and I like mine 48".

Dan Seese
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Joined: Tue Apr 13, 2004 11:29 pm
Location: Fort Collins, CO

Post by Dan Seese » Fri Jul 23, 2004 11:44 am

It occurs to me that, in order to avoid confusion, I should define our terms here.

Definition #1:
A Mahl Stick - A stick used by artists and sign painters as a rest for the hand while working.

Definition #2
AMAL Shtick - Witty, tounge-in-cheek, huckster-style text used for announcements, sidebars and comments (most likely penned by Doc Welty) in the periodical entitled A Magazine About Letterheads, aka AMAL.

cam bortz
Posts: 67
Joined: Tue May 04, 2004 8:54 am

Post by cam bortz » Wed Jul 28, 2004 6:25 pm

My own favorite stick is a 3/8" dowel, with a rubber end such as you put on a chair leg. The end is wrapped with cloth bicycle-handlebar tape. The edge of the end plug is such that it can be hung onto the top edge of a signboard, handy for using the stick to guide straight pinstripe lines on the edge of a sign.

Some letterers never use a stick, others always. For me it's entirely situation-driven; if I'm working over tight pounce lines or wet paint, it keeps my fingers from smearing. And there's no way to do any sort of glass-gold work without a good mahlstick.

Bill Riedel
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Location: 15 Warren St Little Ferry, NJ 07643

Post by Bill Riedel » Fri Jul 30, 2004 2:43 pm

I just would like to share my experience with the mahl stick.
I learned early to work with one, but you had to balance a palet with a cup of paint on the palet while lettering. This took alittle practice, but when working outside and a blast of wind would get under the palet and lift it enough to spill the paint. Later I made a little box fastened to the palet and the paint cup fit in it eliminating the windy spills.
The most popular metal mahl sticks that were two or three parts always had a tendency to work loose, which is very annoying. The other problem with metal is when working in the cold weather they seem to draw the cold into your hand. The cure for this is the wooden mahl sticks.

The very best mahl stick in all the years of lettering is the fibreglass one piece with a rubber coated cork ball. It is so light and comfortable that the very first time I had it in my hands I was sold. It was handed to me at Mike Lavallee's meet in Rcchester a few years ago by Don King from Seattle, Wash. He was selling them and I bought a few just to give as gifts. The only drawback is that you can't pack it, so I carry it like a walking stick.
Bill Riedel

Mike Jackson
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Post by Mike Jackson » Fri Jul 30, 2004 3:59 pm

I learned to use a dixie cup when painting using a mahl stick, then palette the brush against the edge of the cup. The cup is held with the pointer finger and thumb, with the mahl stick going between the pointer finger and the middle finger. My Graphite mahl stick came from Don King, too.

Mike Jackson
Mike Jackson / co-administrator
Golden Era Studios
Vintage Ornamental Clip art
Jackson Hole, WY

Photography site:
Teton Images
Jackson Hole photography blog:
Best of the Tetons

Gary Herpst
Posts: 2
Joined: Fri Aug 27, 2004 2:59 pm
Location: Apopka Florida

Mahl Stick

Post by Gary Herpst » Fri Aug 27, 2004 3:27 pm

When I first started working in my father's New Jersey sign shop at 16 we lettered mostly on a show card bench. My father only used a mahl stick when working on trucks and vertical surfaces. The mahl stick alwayed intiminated me at that age and I spilt paint all over myself using folded paint cups on a many an occasion. I shied away from using them until I moved to Florida years later. I found most of the shop had more vertical benches, I started working hand over hand and using a mahl stick. I'm 51 now and have many mahl sticks that I could not live without.

I have Two 1/2" aluminum sticks that slide together and two 3/8" aluminum that screw together, all in my sign kits. At the bench I like a hardwood 1/2" dowel, 36" long. On the end I wrap foam tape to about 1" and then dip it in Plasti Dip. The foam helps the Plasti Dip hold better on slippery surfaces. They are great for pulling long vertical strokes, if I remember to put my paint cup down first!

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