Page 1

a brief overview

alexis reid

Wood type is used in letterpress, which is a type of relief printing using

wood type?

a printing press. Individual letters, or pieces of type, are moved around the printing bed, and then inked, and paper is pressed against the raised surface of the letters, which creates an impression on the paper.

Chinese wood blocks date back to 868 CE, and were originally used as stamps, rather than on a press.2 Around 1450, metal moveable type was invented, and the industry would remain the same for the next 500 years. It wasn’t until the industrial revolution that wood type rose to fame, as more and more posters began to compete with each other for the public’s attention. The goal was to be louder than the poster next to you, so there arose a need for larger type. Until this point in time, typesetting was always done with metal type, but extremely large type couldn’t be cast in metal—it was too expensive and heavy.1 Wood was also readily available, and didn’t get uneven like metal often did. Thus wood type saw explosive growth, and in 1828, the first wood type catalog was published by Darius Wells.2 It is important to note that wood type manufacturers were never called foundries, as no hot metal was being cast. There were many prominent wood type manufacturers during wood type’s heyday in the nineteenth century, and often they would sample and even copy one another’s work, by duplicating, stretching, ornamenting, and reworking typefaces. This was very common, and even acceptable.8 “At this point in the development of our written language, most type design could probably be described more accurately as type stylization,” said Nick Sherman, who is currently a type designer and wood type expert in the design community. Throughout the nineteenth century, no more than three or four manufacturers were operating at any one time in America, and the major companies began to shut down in the second half of the twentieth century. Empire Type Foundry in New York halted

of wood type

metal plate, the need to set individual pieces of type fell away. People began burning their wood type, throwing it into rivers, and production in 1970, Hamilton Mfg. Co. in Wisconsin in 1985, and American Wood Type

otherwise finding any way to destroy their collections of wood type.1 Recently there has been a tremendous growth in interest in wood

Mfg. Co. in New York City shut down in 2001.5

type and letterpress, however. Much as art deco and art neuveau

Much of American Wood Type’s machinery and

became popular in contrast to the industrial revolution, this growth

type was acquired by Virgin Wood Type, however,

in letterpress could be a reaction to the popularity of computers

and is still in use today.3

in design today, and letterpress and wood type have become very

Aside from the manufacturers of wood type, many wood type printing studios existed in the nineteenth and twentieth century, and a few

popular in the design community and design education. In his popular letterpress blog, Woodtyper, Nick Sherman lists three reasons he personally prefers wood type specifically:

are still around today. Hatch Show Print is a letterpress studio still running today in Nashville, Tennessee, and in the 1920s-1952, Hatch created thousands of show posters for circuses, minstrel shows, and carnivals, as well as jazz,


The typical extreme scale of wood type intensifies the


Although it wasn’t invented here, wood type is very

figure-ground interaction and subtle contours of the forms.

blues, and country musicians. Hatch now prints 500-600 posters a year, and does work for art books and food packaging.18 Many other studios weren’t so lucky, however, as more modern printing techniques were developed in the second half of the century. It wasn’t until the 1960’s that offset lithography overthrew letterpress; with an etched

American in nature; it was in nineteenth-century America that the wood type industry became a huge phenomenon. Wood type’s large size makes it a great tool for


teaching. Its size makes it easy to convey typographic concepts and decreases the margin for error, as well as being easier to handle than small, metal type.16

wood type

Wood type is typically cut from end-grain maple slabs, which is wood that has been sliced across the growth rings, rather than along the grain.8 End grain is used because the tight end grain of the engraving block allows for a finer lines in cutting type. This end grain maple is then cut and cured and cut to type high, which is .921� ¹ .003.�3

The wood blocks are then cut down on a pantograph. This machine mechanically scales down the motions t a movable arm as a larger letter template is traced by the operator. A routing drill then cuts each letter at a smaller scale, and the letter is then finished by hand using smaller tools to gouge out areas such as the crotches of the M (see Figure 1).8 Aside from the end-cut method, the veneer method (phased out in 1890), and diecutting methods (phased out in 1906) were once popular, but were phased out because end-cutting was often more durable and cost-effective. Wood type can also be laser cut, or turned on a wood lathe.10

Those motions are scaled down mechanically to maneuver a routing drill.

An oversized letter template is traced with the control arm.

pressure metal die

only the non-depressed surfaces print

wood blank

die-cut method

Die-cutting is done by compressing the

non-printing areas of a wood block. Making the metal dies is expensive, however, especially because you have to make a new set of dies for each size of type. In 1889, however, George Setchell created a modular variation, where different shapes were mixed and matched and used for more than one letter. For example, the curve of the O, could also be used to create the curve of the C and G.8 Die-cutting still became less and less popular, and is rarely used today.

veneer method

End-Cut Method

celluloid method Wood type can also be created

through the celluloid or enameled production method, which involves attaching a thin sheet of celluloid to a wood block to create a coated printing surface. This was done by either fusing the wood block to the celluloid and then routing through both, or by die-cutting and hotFigure 1: The fine

pressing the celluloid into the surface of the wood block

details of letters are

to both cut and seal the surface at the same time.5

finished by hand

shimming Adjust height of the printing plate to create a gradient

adhesive foil Adhesive foil allows different shades by adjusting the height of the printing plate

and techniques

end grain wood Pros: highly resistant to pressure; wood species strongly impacts visibility of its structure in the printing process

linoleum Pros: cheap, handles ink well, handles pressure well Cons: Fine detail eventually lost due to deformation

long-grain wood Varies widely in quality and price range; print quality depends on species of wood, its cut, and printing pressure

Wood is definitely a superior texture for printing on. In her project, Wood Type Now, Dafi K端hne experimented with making type out of other materials, to mixed results.

medium density fiberboard Pros: handles ink well, cheap, easy to handle Cons: limited resistance to chemical solvents and water

cardboard Pros: cheap, easy to treat Cons: nearly impossible to clean (low number of print runs), fine detail breaks away

plexiglass Pros: durable Cons: does not handle ink well on large surfaces, expensive

collections & manufacturers today

Hamilton Wood Type began in 1880, when the editor of the Two Rivers newspaper needed type for posters, and didn’t have time

wood type

to order it. Edward Hamilton quickly made the type himself, and thus was born Hamilton Mfg. Co. By developing a business model that relied on a national network of local distributors, and by producing wood type using holly wood—which is cheaper than other wood, such as maple—Hamilton was able to sell his type at half the cost of competitors.2 However, after becoming a force in the market and acquiring five of its largest competitors, Hamilton doubled the price.1 Hamilton originally produced the type in a different fashion than is used today, by using a foot-powered scroll saw to cut the letters, and then mounting them onto another block of wood before sandpapering and polishing the surface, rather than using the traditional end-cut method. Later he began making type cabinets and other furniture, before expanding his business to the manufacture of other goods, including the first gas-powered clothes dryer.2 After being acquired by Thermo-Fischer, Hamilton today has become Hamilton Scientific, manufacturers of scientific fume hoods and lab furniture, and has been relocated to Mexico. Two Rivers is small, but has five museums, including Hamilton Wood Type. Their goal is to get more young people involved in the museum—as the people who work there get older, much of the process and history remains undocumented.1

wood type collection

Rob Roy Kelly originally began collecting wood type in the 1950s to use at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design with his students. He began his lifelong research on the history, manufacture, and printing of wood type in order to answer questions from his students. “[s]earching and collecting led to identifying and recording, and, for me, that was the foundation for research and everything else became elaboration.”5 In 1963, he was asked by the Director of the Walker Art Center to write and design an issue of Design Quarterly dedicated to American wood type. During this process, Kelly found many shortcomings in his own research, and decided to continue his work and publish a definitive book on wood types. In 1964, he published the first and most comprehensive history of American Wood Type, called “American Wood Type 1828-1900 Volume One,” which set off the revival of interest in American printing types.5 In 1964, Kelly was named the new Chair of the Department of Graphic Design at the Kansas City Art Institute, but rather than moving more than two tons of wood type, Kelly decided to complete his book before moving to Kansas City. Two years later, in 1966, the Museum of Modern Art in New York acquired Kelly’s collection, and later sold it to the University of Texas at Austin, where it resides today. In the years following, Kelly wrote and contributed to many more books on printing and wood type, and in the 1990s, was asked to participate in the Adobe Originals program, focused on developing digital revivals of historic fonts. Around that time, in 1990, David Shields began cataloguing the collection in Austin, and discovered 60 undocumented types, thus expanding the collection from 100 to 160.5 Today, only 27 of the 45 original copies of “American Wood Type 1828-1900 Volume One” have been accounted for.

collection specimens

font characteristics • Print in two or more colors


• Produced in register as corresponding pairs, were • Designed so that one color would overlap another in certain places to create a third color • Type specimen books of the 1840s and 1850s

• Nineteenth-century Old Style revival

roman old style

• Reaction to the Modern style letter so predominant at the time

• Exaggerated stroke contrast

roman fat face

• Thick strokes were made dramatically fatter and the thin strokes remained hair-line

• Block-like rectangular or slab serifs with

antique egyptian

• Unbracketed (abrupt right angle) joints and a • Heavy, uniform stroke lacking significant contrast.

• Variation of the Antique style in which the serifs are

antique clarendon

bracketed—with a soft transition at the stroke joints • Higher contrast between thick and thin strokes

• Originated as wood type

antique tuscan

• Contrasted strokes • Rounded or pointed terminals, with bi- or trifurcated serifs (the serifs are divided into branches) • Often a medial (mid-stem) decoration.

• Sanserif letters have no serifs

gothic lineal

• Simple, low-contrast strokes • In America the term used for sanserifs was Gothic

• Created in 1840 and unique to wood type

gothic modulated

• A sanserif style with higher stroke contrast

• Rounded or pointed terminals that are often bi- or trifurcated

gothic tuscan

(divided into branches) • Medial (mid-stem) decoration. • A majority of Gothic Tuscans produced in the second half of the nineteenth century originated as wood type in America • Tuscans originate from both Antique or Gothic styles, since reducing from or adding to the visual form can produce similar resultsany Gothic Tuscans could also be categorized as Antique Tuscans

• Broad-pen scripts developed in the Middle Ages

script blackletter

• Darkness of the letters overpowers the lightness of the page

• Based on cursive handwriting with a brush rather than a

script brush

flexible steel nib or a broad-edged pen • Brush scripts tend to be informal designs and often resemble sign-painter’s lettering • Minor presence in wood type catalogs



• By the early-1860s all wood type manufacturers showed


border material in solid, grooved and ornamented styles

wood type The pantograph Virgin Wood Type uses was entirely custom-built sometime in the 20th century for American Wood Type, and when Virgin Wood Type acquired the pantograph, it had no manuals, and no one around who knew how to use it. Virgin Wood Type began after wood type manufacturing was halted in 2001 by the American Wood Type Manufacturing Company, and all of the equipment and templates were sold off. Bill Jones and Geri McCormick travelled to Ohio and bought 100 crates of original patterns as well as a pantograph, and then travelled back to Rochester, New York, where Virgin Wood Type was born. The remaining equipment most likely remains in Ohio, but some is rumored to have been donated to the Smithsonian and Yale University.


Included in the purchase were the rights to Shadow, Gill Sans, and other American Wood Type originals that are now sold in the Virgin Wood Type shop today, along with revived Victorian faces and brand new faces that have never before been sold as wood type.3

Bill Jones simply worked with the machine until he understood the basics, fiddling around in order to learn. “For example, written on the front of a small letterpress notebook Bill wrote, “Lower ruler settings make smaller type,” VWT wrote on their blog. “This likely was a light bulb moment, and he wrote it down, not IN the notebook but ON the cover of the notebook.” After Bill Jones passed away in 2012, VWT went on a hiatus, and began retracing Bill’s footsteps, using notes and files he’d left behind to figure out how to do things like adjust the pantograph settings and cut the the wood blanks down to typeheight. Until his death in 2012, Bill had been cutting down the wood blanks to type high—which is exactly .921” ± .003”—with a band saw, which is incredibly difficult to do, and after his death, VWT began working with with a local carpenter to accomplish this.3 Today, VWT is still perfecting their wood-cutting process. After a letter is cut and its edges (where there are wood shaving “cuticles”) are filed down, it then goes to be hand-trimmed, where smaller details are cut out with traditional wood carving tools, such as the deep crotches and apexes of the A’s and M’s. VWT then proofs the letters on their own Vandercook 3 press before shipping them out, in order to check type height, dings, etc. But Virgin Wood Type is known for selling “virgin” type—that is, type that has never been inked before. So in order to proof the freshly-made type, a piece of carbon paper is placed between clean pieces of paper, and rolled through the press, thus creating an inkless impression.3

some virgin faces offered

Virgin Wood Type offers revivals of historic fonts, American Wood Type originals that Virgin acquired,

Virgin Wood Type’s Modular Wood

and “extra virgin” faces that are

Type is based on a 1920s Italian

unique to Virgin Wood Type. A few

design, Fregio Mecano, whose

are documented here.

designer is unknown. With multiple pieces, you can create your own

modular type

wood type, making different versions of a letter, patterns and experimental letterforms.

Buffalo was originally a part of Photo-Lettering’s film type collection, designed by type design legend Ed Benguiat in the 1960s. House Industries purchased the

preissig scrape

Photo-Lettering collection in 2003, and the wood version was created in 2014 in a collaboration between House and Virgin Wood Type. Typefaces historically have begun as metal or wood type, and are eventually digitized, but Virgin Wood Type is leading the

Preissig Scrape was originally cut into linoleum

way in bringing digital faces to the world of wood type.

by Czech designer Vojtech Preissig. It was digitized in 1997, and then cut into wood by


Aldine started out as 20 characters

Virgin Wood Type in 2011—a strange sequence

found in a pile of junk in the basement

compared to the evolution of most typefaces.

of the Genesee Center for the Arts in Rochester, NY. Virgin then redrew the font, and cut it into wood, and created special glyphs made from the counters of the letterforms.

aldine expanded

wood type

cleaning & identifying type Gojo hand cleaner is used to clean wood type. Used to get grease off of hands, Gojo is non-abrasive, and additionally contains mineral oil, which

Scott Moore taught high school Industrial Arts for 35 years before retiring and becoming interested in the production of wood type. When Scott Moore’s daughter was given a letterpress as a wedding gift, she asked her father to make a few wood ornaments for her. Moore became interested in building his own pantograph, and made several trips to Two Rivers, Wisconsin to study under Norb Brylski, a retired wood type cutter at Hamilton Wood Type. He spent eight months modifying an engraving machine in order to make a reproduction of the pantograph at Hamilton. Later, he designed and built a Type High Surfacing Machine in order to easily cut down the end grain maple to type height, and is currently in the process of building a border stamping machine.10 In addition to these, Moore Wood Type also uses a Vandercook Plate Gauge, Type Trim Saw, Showcard Proof Press, and various hand tools in the production of their wood type. In the beginning, Moore cut, dried and cured the maple wood himself, but he now relies on the local Amish because of the time and expertise the process requires. After acquiring the wood, Moore uses Illustrator to create vector files to use in cutting the type, which can be used to make large patterns for the pantograph, or to control the laser cutter that Moore Wood Type also owns. Located in central Ohio, Moore Wood Type now sells historic-based ornaments, catchwords, and replacement letters to letterpress printers everywhere.

rehydrates the wood, thus safeguarding it against cracking. Automotive shop towels and Q-tips are typically used, as anything more pointy could scratch the type. Cleaning a font takes around 2-5 hours, and an additional hour is needed to print an ABC specimen of the font. Many wood fonts have the manufacturer’s information printed somewhere on the type, usually on the uppercase A, which can help you find the name of the typeface and the year it was issued in the manufacturer’s specimen book.15

adopt-a-font The Rochester Institute of Technology Cary Collection is home to more than 400 families of wood type, 100 of which have recently been liberated from storage. The Adop-a-Font program was designed in order to recruit volunteers to clean and catalogue these type families. In the 90s, printing student David Wall created a Specimen Portfolio of Wood Type in the Cary Collection as his master thesis, proofing and identifying all the fonts in the Cary Collection and incorporating them into the specimen book. After the additional 100 fonts were rescued from storage, they also needed to be catalogued. The goal of Adopt a Font is to identify each of these fonts and to incorporate them into the specimen book.15 In exchange, volunteers are taught how to set letterpress type and print a broadside.

There are hundreds of letterpress studios operating today, and wood


type is still alive and well. Fonts that have never before existed in wood are being cut, and places like Hamilton Wood Type are

of wood type

working hard to keep the history of wood type alive. Innovations are still being made in the industry: Nick Sherman has talked of plans to retrofit a Vandercook with an electromagnetic press bed. If type is mounted with magnetic material, the blocks

where it once was, wood type

could be freely pushed around

all over the world is being

without the need for a lockup, and

rescued and documented

experimentation could become

today, and with places like

quicker and easier—your lockup

Moore, Virgin, and Hamilton

would stay in place until you

creating and preserving wood

turned the magnet off again.

type, it still has a place, even in

Although it will never be back to

the ditial world today.

[1] Typeface. Dir. Justine Nagan and Gordon Quinn. Prod. Maria Finitzo Finitzo. Perf. Dennis Ichiyama, Greg Corrigan. Kartemquin Films, 2009. Amazon. Typeface. Kartemquin Films. Web. 10 Apr. 2015. <>. [2] “Hamilton Wood Type & Printing Museum.” Hamilton Wood Type Printing Museum RSS. Hamilton, n.d. Web. 10 Apr. 2015. <>. [3] Crowe, Derek, Geri McCormick, and Matt Rieck. VIRGIN WOOD TYPE. Virgin Wood Type, n.d. Web. 10 Apr. 2015. <>. [4] Shields, David. Web log post. Wood Type Research. David Shields, n.d. Web. 10 Apr. 2015. <>. [5] Rob Roy Kelly American Wood Type Collection. University of Texas at Austin, n.d. Web. 10 Apr. 2015. <http://www.utexas. edu/cofa/rrk/index.php>. [6] “Letters, Wood, and Other Cutting Edge Technology.” The Detroit Wood Type Co. N.p., 2015. Web. 15 Apr. 2015. <>. [7] “Good Wood.” Good Wood. Vote for Letterpress, 2014. Web. 15 Apr. 2015. <>. [8] Sherman, Nick. “Intercut Wood Typeface Project.” Web log post. Nick Sherman, 2006. Web. 15 Apr. 2015. <>. [9] Nagan, Justin. “Typeface.” Kartemquin Films. Kartemquin Films, 2010. Web. 15 Apr. 2015. <>.

[10] Moore, Scott. “Process.” Moore Wood Type. Moore Wood Type, 2015. Web. 16 Apr. 2015. <>. [11] Wolske, David. Letterpress Daily. David Wolske, 2009. Web. 16 Apr. 2015. <letterpress.>. [12] “Frank Romano Visits Virgin Wood Type.” Interview. Virgin Wood Type Mfg Co, Dec. 2014. Web. 16 Apr. 2015. < HG2aThke5tojKcgpQ>. [13] Thompson, Jim. The International Printing Museum. The International Printing Museum, 2015. Web. 14 Apr. 2015. <>. [14] Kühne, Dafi. “Woodtype Now!” Woodtype Now! Visual Communications Zurich, 2009. Web. 14 Apr. 2015. <>. [15] Kuhn, Alyson. “Adopt-a-Font: Spring Cleaning at the RIT Cary Collection.” Felt & Wire. Mohawk Connects, 27 Feb. 2013. Web. 14 Apr. 2015. < feltandwire/2013/02/27/t-a-font-spring-cleaning-at-the-rit-cary-collection/>. [16] Woodtyper. Ed. Nick Sherman. Nick Sherman, 2010. Web. 14 Apr. 2015. <>. [17] “Art Boards™ Wood Engraving Supplies Wood Engraving Blocks of End Grain Maple.” Art Boards™ Archival Artist Panels. Art Boards, n.d. Web. 20 Apr. 2015. <>. [18] “History of Hatch Show Print.” Hatch Show Print. Country Music Hall of Fame® and Museum, 2015. Web. 10 Apr. 2015. <>. [19] Heck, Bethany. The EndGrain. Bethany Heck, 2009. Web. 12 Apr. 2015. <>. [20] Knopp, Justin. “A Cornucopia of Wooden Types.” Typoretum. N.p., 2011. Web. 12 Apr. 2015. <http://blog.typoretum. [1]>. [21] “Wood Type Impressions.” T.26. T.26 Digital Type Foundry, n.d. Web. 13 Apr. 2015. <http://>. [21] Wilson, Doug. “Doug Wilson.” E-mail interview. 6 May 2015. [21] “Adam Bowlin.” Personal interview. 5 May 2015. Photos courtesy of Eric Pervukhin, Missouri State University

library of wood type

30 line

gothic condensed

7 line serif

30 line gothic

missouri state wood type 8 line


Missouri State University has eight full alphabets of wood type, seven of them uppercase, and one lowercase, in addition to seven sets of numerals. Some numeral sets correspond with alphabets, some do not. Much of the wood type at Missouri State was acquired by Maria Michalczyk around 2000, but one or two fonts were donated by John Horn of Shooting Star Press in Little Rock, AR in 2004-

6 line


2005. The 70 line Gothic Condensed was acquired by Adam Bowlin from Hammerpress Print Shop in Kansas City in 2015.

14 line

slab-serif uppercase

actual size Type is named based on its type (usually serif or sans-

70 line

gothic condensed

serif, otherwise known as Gothic in the letterpress world), and on its line height, measured in picas. A 30 line letter measures 30 picas high. All type represented on these pages is printed at actual size.

14 line

slab-serif lowercase

1 pica

thatâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s all!

Wood Type : A Brief Overview  
Wood Type : A Brief Overview