To get inspiration for his designs, Neill has accumulated a huge library of Hawaiiana; he draws his design ideas, styles and imagery not just from territorial period signs, but from other period artwork such as print ads and aloha shirts. He starts with shapes: rectangles, squares, ovals, circles and a sort of fluted chevron that was common in Art Deco design. One of his faux hotel signs, for instance, is similar to the actual Art Deco sign that still graces the plantation-era Manago Hotel in South Kona—even though Neill’s sign is made of wood and the original is neon. Most paintings (and most modern billboards) are rectangular, but when it comes to Neill’s work, the shapes of the signs and the shapes of their images complement each other: A sign featuring a hula girl or a pineapple, for instance, is likely to be a vertical oval while a Pan Am sign featuring a flying boat will often be a horizontal oval. Or something more complex: One faux Pan Am sign features an image of a flying boat passing above Diamond Head, and the board that holds it is a modified rectangle, with a concave curve cut out of each corner and a dome at the top to accommodate a logo.
A Neill sign starts with either a sheet of Masonite or a plank of wood as well as a paper template called a “pounce pattern,” on which artwork and lettering are outlined and lines are perforated with small holes. Neill applies a base coat of paint, then lays the pattern over the board and rubs it with a “pounce bag,” a cloth bag loaded with powdered charcoal, to transfer the design. Then he paints or airbrushes in the lettering and artwork and applies a layer of clear, waterproof sealant. (Sign of the times: When he called up a sign maker’s supply house recently to order more charcoal, the woman who answered the phone had no idea what a pounce bag was.)
Once the sign is made, it is aged. Neill has developed his own nine-step system to artificially age each sign, and the end products look remarkably authentic: Each sign has a stained patina that really appears to be the result of years in the sun and rain—complete with subtle little runnels where water, over time, appears to have worn through an outer layer of faded varnish and ingrained grit. “People have tried to copy this effect,” he remarks. “They always end up so junk that I don’t worry about it.”
But there are two ways to tell at a glance whether a sign is a real antique or a Neill sign. First, Neill always signs and numbers his work on the back. Second, as the last step of his antiquing process he always makes an angular scratch “at about the 11 o’clock position on the sign.”
In terms of their workmanship, these are real, functional signs built to stand up to the weather. They may already look fifty years old, but they could hang outdoors for another fifty if need be.