26 October 2021

Interesting Jobs - Martyn King Signwriter

By Paul Knox-Johnston Sales & Marketing Manager (Marine)
Martyn King - Signwriter

We Brits have always been pretty good at building boats…. which is helpful when we’re an island! And it’s safe to say we’ve been doing it a while; in fact, a few years ago archaeologists discovered a wooden platform which is likely to have been used to build log boats in the waters around the Isle of Wight. It’s thought to be the oldest known boat building site in the world!  

The marine industry here in the UK still supports 31,600* people a year. That got us wondering…. what do they all do? So we set about finding out what the most interesting and unique jobs are in our industry… and sharing our interviews with all our lovely customers!

To kick off our “interesting jobs” series… we spoke to Martyn King. Martyn is the artist of the inland world who uses his talent and patience to bring narrowboats and barges to life. As a renowned signwriter, Martyn doesn’t just paint boats, but uses his skills to make any number of things stand out from the crowd! And if you’re interested in having a go yourself… he even runs courses. 

Hi Martyn, thanks for agreeing to talk to us today. For those of our readers who don’t know what a signwriter does, could you give us a quick explanation of what your day job is please?

Hi Sonia, of course. Signwriting itself is the production of signs/names on objects such as boats, vehicles, shopfronts, glass, etc; to show the owner of that object to other people. In the case of a narrowboat, it gives a sense of identity for the owner. Other objects are usually some form of business identity or association such as sports clubs. There are many instances where signwriting is used though, so it is quite adaptable.

Sounds like no two days are the same! How long have you been doing this for?

I have been signwriting since leaving school in the summer of 1973 and self-employed since the summer of 1978. My first self-employed work was writing coaches throughout south east London. The progression to working on narrowboats began in the year 2001.

How did you get into signwriting?

From school. Three weeks before I left I had never heard of a signwriter, but our careers master came into the 6th form and asked, “who is artistic?”… and the rest is history! 

Has demand changed over the years?

The demand has fluctuated over the years especially with the advent of vinyl lettering, but signwriting has always won out in the end. A good signwriter can produce what vinyl does, but vinyl lettering will never mimic signwriting. Plus signwriting is much more environmentally friendly than plastic!

You must have a lot of patience to get such amazing end results! How long does it take to do an average boat?

The time taken on each boat depends on the complication of the work, but if 3 days were put aside a completed project could easily be achieved.

So talk us through the steps 

Once a customer has approached me, I find a way of getting a few sketch designs to them or they may have their own wishes. Finding out where they moor their boat is important, but as I travel all around the country that doesn’t concern me much. I then put together a quote for them, and if their happy, we meet up to finalise designs. I suggest colours to suit, then just get on with it and hope I get paid for my work at the end of it! Hopefully the boat is, at least, on hard standing but preferably in a shed. The weather in this country can ruin a freshly signwritten boat!

You must have painted some very different designs in your time! Is there anything that you try to incorporate into your work?

I often incorporate a stylised willow leaf as many of my signwritten boats are painted by my partner Sally Tooze who owns Willow Boat Painting out of Swanley Bridge marina, Nantwich, Cheshire.

Talking about different designs… what’s the strangest thing you’ve ever painted?

The strangest request has not been on a boat, it was hand painting an AC Cobra car!

Do you have any top tips for an artist just starting out?

Don’t!! Seriously, if you want to learn then come on a signwriting course of the type I run in Cheshire. You need to have confidence and good people skills and the will to succeed, but mostly just love what you do as that will definitely shine out to your prospective customers. Don’t expect to be successful in the first 5 minutes of starting out, it is a slow build-up from little acorns. Work hard and believe in yourself.

Thanks Martyn!

If you’ve come across a job in the marine industry that is a bit different do let us know and we’ll do our best to find out a bit more about it!


If you want to find out more about Martyn or his work please click here to visit his website or call – 01782 771 727


*The UK Marine Labour Market, September 2016