Type founding and manufacture
The manufacturing of type in metal and wood for letterpress printing.
|Historic area of significance||Fleet Street, London|
|Area currently practised|
|Origin in the UK||15th Century|
|Current no. of professionals (main income)||Hand casting: 0
Machine casting: 6-10
Wood type: 1
|Current no. of professionals (sideline to main income)
||Hand casting for education or research purposes: 1-5
Part time wood type makers: 1-5
|Current no. of trainees||0|
|Current total no. serious amateur makers
|Current total no. of leisure makers
|Minimum no. of craftspeople required|
Letterpress printing was the normal form of printing text from its invention by Johannes Gutenberg in the mid-15th century until the 19th century and remained in wide use for books and other uses until the second half of the 20th century. Letterpress printing remained the primary way to print and distribute information until the 20th century, when offset printing was developed, which largely supplanted its role in printing books and newspapers, but letterpress has survived thanks to small presses and artisan printers.
A significant barrier to the continuation of letterpress printing is the increasing scarcity of new type and the breaking up of sets of old type.
Metal type comes in several forms:
- Punch cutting – transferring letters from design to physical punch
- Manufacturing of brass matrix for printing (from the letter punch)
- Using a brass matrix casting individual letters one at a time by hand
- Individual letters cast one at a time by machine (Montotype / Ellrod / Ludlow)
- Sets of letters cast one at a time by machine (Monotype)
- Sets of letters cast in a line (slug) time by machine (Linotype)
- Manufacture metal spacing materials (leading / quots) cast in as individual and in lengths: Ellrod / Ludlow
- Manufacture of wooden spacing materials (reglets)
- Manufacture of image plates – traditionally made from magnesium, zinc or copper (halftone blocks); now commonly made from a photopolymer / plastic materials.
- Manufacture of text plates. Note, many letterpress printers use plates for text, which has reduced the demand for moveable metal type.
- Preparing timber to be made into wooden letters – block levelling (now only three known machines across the whole of Europe).
- Manufacturing letter forms for tracing – currently all done digitally, making forms from laser cut Perspex patterns.
- Manufacture of wood type – using and pantograph copier / tracer. Note, due to the lack of equipment laser cutting and CNC routing is more commonly used. There are very few pantographs in operation.
- Letter finishing – trim and shellac. There are no known people doing this as a single, dedicated occupation.
Hand processes – These include the hand processes of making type from punch cutting to type casting. They are virtually extinct in the UK but are still practised in France by only a couple of people.
Machine processes – This includes type produced by machine using Monotype /Linotype equipment. There are a large number of Monotype machines in the UK but many not in use – they are heavy, take up a lot of space and when not working correctly spit out molten lead, so can be very dangerous – plus there are open pots of molten lead which is very poisonous.
Wood type (larger sized display type) – at present this is:
- Made by hand (carved)
- Made with a pantograph router following a guide
- Manufactured using CNC routing technology with hand finishing
- Manufactured using laser cutting (from single blocks)
- Manufactured using laser cutting from composite (Perspex) then bonded to a base
- Manufactured using 3D printer (see P22 Blox)
Issues affecting the viability of the craft
It is difficult to make a viable living from letterpress or from type founding as the market is mostly limited to small runs of artisan publications.
Entry routes are limited and there is little training available.
Many letterpress printers are now using photopolymer plates for printing, which replaces the need for metal type.
Availability of equipment and keeping the materials, presses and type together and in working order.
COVID-19 has had an effect on Letterpress generally as print fairs have been cancelled
Oxford Guild of Printers
The Fine Press Book Association
St Bride Printing Library
The Anchor Press Museum Project
The Type Archive (formerly The Type Museum)
Craftspeople currently known
- Stan Lane, Gloucester Typesetting – casts type
- Brian Horsfall, Supertype
- Whittinton Press
- Carpathian Press – casts type and borders for sale
- Caslon Typefounders
- Matt McKenzie, Taniwha Type Foundry
- Nick Gill, Effra Press
- Harry McIntosh, Speedspools – has now retired and passed on equipment to Matt McKenzie at Taniwha Type Foundry
No longer practised commercially but there are some people who are practising for educational or research purposes. These include:
- Nick Gill, Effra Press
- Lune Press – Typofix letter reproduction
- Alan May
- Hugh McFarlane
Stan Nelson is a US-based practitioner.
It is no longer being practised commercially in the UK but is taught by practitioners such as Nelly Gable at the Imprimerie Nationale in France. Richard Ardagh at New North Press has done some punchcutting.
International woodtype makers include Ryan Molloy, Dafi Knhune, Guillaume Bétemps, Marko Drpić, Virgin Wood Type and Wood Type Customs.
The Type Archive (London) holds all the necessary machinery to create type using Monotype casters. Russell Maret recently created Hungry Dutch (a new face inspired by the Fell types) with the Archive’s assistance.
There are accessible overseas resources (note, US type height is the same as the UK). There are active foundries (two or three) there along with individuals. In Europe, Patrick Goosens in Antwerp preserves typefounding. He has acquired the remnants of type foundries from the US and India and is actively restoring them to working states. He is keen to preserve the arts of punchcutting, both hand and with engraving machines.
- Archer-Parré, Caroline, and Mussell, James, eds. (due 2021) Letterpress Printing: past, present, future (Peter Lang Ltd)
- British Letterpress – Type Founders
- The Type Archive – Collections
- Ryder, John, Printing for Pleasure (Bodley Head/Private Library Association)
- Lindley and Maggs, Basic Printing – Letterpress for the Beginner (British Printing Society)
- Simon, Oliver, Introduction to Typography (Faber & Faber/Penguin)
- Atelier Press making type on YouTube
- Fry’s Metal Foundries Ltd (1956) Printing Metals (London: Fry’s Metal Foundries Ltd)
- Huss, Richard E, (1973) The Development of Printers’ Mechanical Typesetting Methods 1822-1925 (Charlottesville: The University Press of Virginia)
- Legros, Lucien Alphonse, and Cameron Grant, John, (1916) Typographical Printing-Surfaces The Technology and Mechanism of their Production (London: Longmans, Green, and Co)
- Southall, Richard, (2005) Printer’s type in the twentieth century: Manufacturing and design methods (London/Newcastle: The British Library/Oak Knoll Press)
- United in Isolation Festival