Making wood type

We are currently involved in a project trying to make new large wood type for P98. P98a is a letterpress workshop in Berlin. Run by Erik Spiekermann and Jan Gassel. Read about it here.

Making new large type for letterpress For over a year now, we’ve been experimenting with making new type to print on old letterpress machines. I designed a typeface specifically for the process of cutting with a pantograph at Hamilton Wood Type & Printing Museum, called HWT Artz. We have that in 16 cicero (or almost: exact measurements have turned out to be a little slow to achieve with that process) and printed quite a few of our posters with those letters. We have them in caps only and while that makes for strong messages, it doesn’t work for everything.
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We’ve also had some type cut by pantograph here in Germany. Michael Linke is a retired schoolteacher whose pantograph work is outstanding. He has a yard full of mature pear trees and that wood is perfect for the job. He cut us a reproduction of Berthold’s Block Eng (Extra Condensed). Unfortunately he lost the wobbly outlines which are so typical for that style. Perhaps the person who made the templates for him thought that those were imperfections and made all the lines straight.
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Ultimately, however, we don’t want to reproduce old type, nor only make type which allows for the imperfection of wood and the manual pantograph tool. So we set out to try other methods: 3-D printing, CNC routing and laser cutting. We supplied data for three characters of my Real typeface to people in Romania, the Netherlands and Berlin.

Tudor and Delia Petrescu have been cutting reproductions of old wood type for a while. Most of their customers come from the US and making a new typeface from data was a new challenge for them. The first attempt wasn’t quite good enough, but when their reset their CNC machine, used a smaller bit and adapted the speed of the spindle, the type turned out as good as the historical predecessor. They’re busy making us a full set once I’ve sent the revised data.

The reference is still Berthold’s poster type cut in Plakadur, a resin supplied by Dynamite Nobel in the 60s, called Trolon (the factory is in Troisdorf, Germany). Plakadur carries ink very well, is resistant to oils, cleaning solution and other solvents used in letterpress printing. The sharpness of the outlines and especially the counter spaces and corners have yet to be matched by wood type.

Printing a resin like Trolon on a 3-D printer is an option, but not while the material alone costs more than wood from trees. When that process becomes a reasonable alternative, we’ll be on it. Meanwhile, our friends at Fab Lab Berlin are keeping an eye on those developments but went ahead and cut my letters with a laser, into acrylic. They were then mounted onto wooden blocks. The outlines are perfect and acrylic type has been proven to print well and last, but mounting the thin layer of acrylic and cutting a perfect wooden block for the base are still challenges.

We also had Rutger Paets in Holland cut the same three letters into wood. He uses a CNC router directly from our data and cuts pear wood, into the end grain. That makes his type very hard and the outlines precise. Once we’ve tested Rutger’s type under real conditions, we may ask him to supply a complete font in 16 cicero.

For now, I have to adapt the font data for Real to the requirements of the tool, i. e. incorporate the dimensions of the body around the characters. Large type is cut very tightly around the image with no real sidebearings. Spacing is done in the press, and kerning means cutting up letters, something not readily done. The screen grab below shows how tightly the body is marked around the letters (it shows FontLab data for HWT Artz). Too tightly for somebody cutting with a pantograph, but a computer can cut to smaller tolerances, providing the material will take it. Soft wood is obviously at a disadvantage.
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Precision is the name of the game. As you can see from the image below, not everybody comes to the same result as far as what 16 cicero should be. Exactly 72.2044 mm, by the way. There’ll be wear and tear enough later during setting and printing these letters on our presses, so we may as well start with as little tolerance as we can get. We are not after that “letterpress look” of distressed type, showing blotches, holes and woodgrain. There are Photoshop filters for that already. We intend to make good new type in large sizes for today’s type designers.
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