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Ancient art of gold leaf becomes computerized

July 15, 1999|By RICHARD F. BELISLE, Waynesboro

GREENCASTLE, Pa. - The 23-karat sheets of gold leaf that sign painters like Jim Wertner and Andy Barbuzanes use in their Greencastle sign shop are so thin, it takes a stack of 1 million to make an inch, Wertner said.

Gold leafing, an art that's been around since the days of the Egyptian pharaohs, is still in great demand today, but the techniques used to apply it have entered the computer age.

Unlike most sign shops, the floor of Wertner's Signs on Stonebridge Road is not splattered with paint. It's covered in wall-to-wall carpeting.

While Wertner and Barbuzanes possess the ancient skill of laying down gold leaf by hand - they did the larger-than-life statue of Benjamin Franklin that stands in the vestibule of the Franklin County Courthouse in Chambersburg, Pa. - 80 percent of that work is done by computer today, Barbuzanes said.

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"We still apply some gold leaf the old fashioned way," he said. "We're one of the few shops still doing it."

Wertner, 44, retired as an art teacher from Greencastle-Antrim High School 10 years ago to open the sign shop. Barbuzanes, 31, a former student of Wertner's, was hired in 1992 and has since become a working partner in the shop.

Barbuzanes spends much of his day at the computer, designing signs that are cut from sheets of colored vinyl that for the most part have replaced paint.

"The design and thought process is the same whether a sign is hand-made or made by computer. You still need artistic ability," Wertner said. "That's why I enjoy this business. It allows me to use my artistic ability in a very concrete way."

Another antique skill, carving letters and designs into sign boards with a hammer and chisel, is also still practiced at Wertner's, although there have been material changes there, too. High-density urethane has replaced wood on sign boards in recent years. The man-made material lasts longer than wood and is easier to work with, Barbuzanes said.

Most of the shop's work is in business signs and 75 percent or more are made for Tri-State Area customers, Wertner said. The shop also paints signs for vehicles.

There is some travel for the shop's three full-time and three part-time employees. On Thursday a crew was sent to Erie, Pa., to install 350 room identification signs that the shop designed and made for a new dormitory at a local Penn State campus there.

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