Making type by hand

One letter at a time…

Letterpress type was traditionally manufactured (and in some places still is) by a casting process. This is used for the smaller sizes of lettering (up to 72pt) but the larger sizes were predominately manufactured from wood, using a routing machine attached to a pantograph. Each letter would be carefully traced and finished by hand.

Currently as more wooden type is dispersed and separated (predominately through online auction sites and antique shops) it has now become quite difficult to obtain a full case of usable type. Therefore letterpress printers are always looking for methods to replace damaged letters and to generate new type for use.

Our recent studio experiments include a number of attempts to make our own ‘hand cut’ wooden type. The first experiments were a number of years ago using medium density fibreboard (MDF), carving some very large letters and a complete poster design by hand.

The experiments worked well and resulted in some very big type, a range of ornaments and a completed poster layout. The large type was ideal for motorway signage but not very useful when all we owned at that time was a very small, table top Adana printing press.

The MDF worked well but after a lot of printing began to degrade, so we elected to source some solid wood and attempt the process again. Our first experiments used a small section of Douglas Fir (a UK grown softwood). The wood has an open enough grain for carving and is strong enough not to degrade when compressed during printing. Rather than begin with a small letter we elected to start (again) with a slightly oversized numeral. Luckily for us we now have a huge proofing press for printing at such a scale.

With a little time, adjusting packing and getting through quite a lot of makeready we were very pleased with the final, printed outcome. Quite good for our first attempt with real wood.

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Stage three – an electric pantograph – text and images to follow…

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Studio B – Milverton – Somerset – TA4 1LA – UK

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© Middleton – 2018

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