This brass plate has a copy of the original Declaration of Independence photo etched on it. It’s mounted on an old board and has been on the wall of my studio for over 40 years. It was used for ratio and proportions for the layout of my Calligraphy on the large piece of wood below.
During three consecutive all-night sessions in March, 1976, I lettered our country’s most important historical and important words on a piece of birch plywood. It has hung in my studio for 37 years. Since watching Henry Lyles, the local sign painter, hand-letter billboards and the sides of buildings in Hugo, Oklahoma, when I was a kid, I had always wanted to do something a bit larger than a piece of parchment paper. This was my project. Here’s how it was done:
My life-long friend and classmate, Wyndol Fry, was the Hugo High School shop instructor after he got his college degree and went back home. I enlisted him to find a high-quality piece of wood for the project. He came up with this piece of birch plywood. It had a bit of character to it with the large darker grain in the wood that reaches from top to bottom. I gave him the exact dimensions to cut it, based on the metal piece in the top photo. The original DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE resides in the National Archives Building in Washington, DC. Using that brass etching above, I had the board cut to the same ratio.
The next step was to prepare the wood for the ink. Raw wood is too porous for any ink. To seal the wood I used DEFT Clear Wood Sealer…about 6 cans over several days, letting each coat thoroughly dry before the next one was applied. With the wood thoroughly sealed, I wanted a surface on which I could do the lettering with india ink that would allow corrections if any were necessary. For that surface I used MOD PODGE. That’s a liquid polymer that looks milky…like Elmer’s Glue. Several portions were poured into a shallow bowl and applied with a 4″ wide foam brush. I made strokes in random places, covering the entire board over several hours. When one coat was dry, I’d apply another. When that step was completed, you could stand and look at the board at a certain angle and see the texture of the covering.
All the spraying and coating was done outside my studio, then the board was brought inside for drying a day or two. I had…and still have it…a professional architectural drawing table that could be adjusted from flat and parallel to the floor…to vertical. Both those positions could be raised and lowered 18 inches or so. When I was ready to begin, I used two giant ‘C’ clamps to attach the board at the bottom of the drawing table. I began in an almost vertical position so I could easily stand and reach the top for the lettering of the first two lines.
The next part of the process was by far the most time-consuming. The layout: Using the brass plaque, I determined the space allotted for the two large lines at the top. Then, I measured the main block of text and marked that area on the board. These markings were done with a frequently-sharpened 6B…very soft…pencil. Precisely spaced baselines were drawn with that pencil for every line of Calligraphy.
When those two areas were isolated, I determined how much space I needed for the names of the signers. With those three blocks of space waiting for lettering, I began the process of putting ink to board. The top two lines were done with Speedball C-0 and C-1 dip pens. The main body text was done with an Osmiroid reservoir pen whose size I don’t recall. Those pens are no longer available anywhere. The process of determining how to fit the copy is too detailed to tell here. The one interesting part is that each of my lettered lines has precisely the same words as the real thing in Washington.
Since I’m not much of a forger, it was never my intention to duplicate the original scribe’s work, nor the signatures of the signers. It’s all done in my hand, in my style of Cursive Calligraphy. I went to my set of encyclopedias and found the correct spelling of each name and the order in which they signed that hallowed original document that declared America’s independence in 1776. When it was all done…after about 40 hours of layout and lettering…it went back out in the back of my studio for another 6 cans of DEFT. So…the ink never touched the wood. It is firmly sandwiched in between MOD PODGE and a layer of clear wood sealer.
When all the lettering was done, it was time for the laborious task of removing many yards of pencil lines under the lettering. I used a white eraser…2 or 3 in fact…and removed every sign of a pencil mark.
To stand in front of it and look, you’d swear the ink is touching the wood.
The piece was quickly sent to Washington, DC, where another life-long friend and classmate (Class of 1959), Ceci Wolfe, was the administrative assistant for the then Speaker of the House of Representatives, the Honorable Carl Albert, from Oklahoma. Through the connection with Ceci, the piece was on display in the Sam Rayburn Office Building for much of the Bicentennial Year, 1976.
When it came back home, I shipped it to KOCE-TV in Huntington Beach, California, where it was used in a segment of my Calligraphy teaching series, KEN BROWN’S CALLIGRAPHY FOR EVERYONE, on Public Television. The first 13 programs were produced on tape at KOCE for national distribution. The next 13 were done in 1988 in Dallas, Texas. That series of 26 programs ran from 1984 through 1996 in over 100 U.S. television markets. If you ever watched my series on Saturday mornings, you may have seen the piece on one of the programs where I taught the process of lettering on wood.
As we begin downsizing our studio for a smaller location…and for the future public display of the piece….we’ll be looking for just the right new home for this largest production during my long history with pen and ink. Your suggestions are welcomed as we hope to find a great, permanent home for it.
Happy 4th of July! Think often how fortunate we are to have had the smart guys in Philadelphia who stitched this all together to achieve our freedom and independence 237 years ago this July 4th.