To bring a handcrafted feel to digital design, try type that began life as a block of wood, like the one shown in this photo.

Bringing Wood Type into the 21st Century

By Angela Riechers

The distressed look of 19th-century wooden typefaces can bring a welcome touch of the handmade to digital design. Until recently, you needed access to printing presses, the training to use them, and a lot more time than today’s jobs allow to use these special typefaces. Fortunately, the Hamilton Wood Type & Printing Museum has been working with the P22 Type Foundry to create digital versions of fonts from an extensive collection of 1.5 million pieces of wood type.

Along with revivals of existing fonts, the museum also collaborates with modern designers and typographers (including Matthew Carter, Louise Fili, Nick Sherman, and Erik Spiekermann) on the Wood Type Legacy Project, creating new typefaces designed on computer, cut in wood, translated into digital versions, and made available in both formats. 

Woodtype work by (clockwise, starting in top-left corner) Erik Spiekermann, Nick Sherman, Matthew Carter, and Louise Fili.

QUIRKY ORIGINALS

Type designers at Hamilton (which is in Two Rivers, Wisconsin) weigh a number of considerations when deciding which typefaces are good candidates for digitization. Many of the ornate historical alphabets have a limited usefulness today, but others are more versatile.

Transforming a 100-year-old wooden typeface into a digital version that feels like the original is a complex undertaking. Richard Kegler, lead designer, founder of P22, and director of the Book Arts Center at Wells College in Aurora, NY, says, “If you only have five letters to start with, you have to imagine what the rest of the alphabet is going to look like, and there’s so much quirkiness in the original designs. Some of that is due to cross pollination between wood type manufacturers untrained as designers, who created letterforms by looking at sign painters’ reference books for inspiration, and the sign painters who referred back to printed wood type posters for inspiration and tried to emulate those styles. We look at as many historical printed specimens as possible and then work from at least one actual woodtype specimen as well, because having that actual physical piece of wood type helps in figuring out certain design aspects.” 

Hamilton Wood Type's American Chromatic

So there’s a certain degree of interpretation at every step of the process. It’s worth noting that the issue is not unique to the world of wood type; in digital re-issues of early typefaces, such as the 16th-century’s Garamond, versions produced by different foundries (such as Adobe) all have their own idiosyncrasies that cause the hand of the maker to remain visible in the work.

The original wood type creation process used a pantograph, a wood router adjusted to cut type at varying levels of reduction. Human type trimmers then refined and finished each letter by hand; for instance, the negative space inside an antique Tuscan number 9 was too small for a machine, so the trimmers used a specific tool to create the gap. The slender triangular counterspace within a capital A also had to be done by hand, using an awl, a drill, or stamping and cutting tools. 

Legendary type designer Matthew Carter, one of the last generations trained to cut punches for metal type production, has also designed type using every 20th- and 21st-century technology. However, he never tried wood type until 2009, when the Hamilton Wood Type Museum ran a Kickstarter campaign to produce one of his designs as a chromatic font, Van Lanen, using 19th-century technology that came with its own set of unique limitations. 

When the museum embarked on the project with Carter, all the typeface templates were cut by hand using a band saw, and a single saw blade width could impact how the letters fit together when set up for press. Bill Moran says, “Sometimes you would want a point or two points of trap so that you had some wiggle room, and other times you’d want the letters to nest perfectly so you didn’t create a halo where the two letterforms would overlap.  You really were trying to go for that clean fit.” The technicians experimented with making the templates using a CNC router and then cut the type on a pantograph from those templates, which worked fairly well. (Hamilton’s pantographs date from the early days of the company, circa 1892.) A second set of trials, where everything was CNC-cut directly into the wood, produced somewhat better results.

“One of the things that Matthew liked the most was that he had never seen anyone work with a font of his in the physical world,” says Bill. “You get used to seeing the printed results of your typeface design in publications, but to watch his letterforms in action being adjusted and manipulated was incredibly exciting to him. There’s quite a thrill in seeing a font come alive, to see this thing being built and used and dismantled and reused in such a myriad of ways.”

Click here to read the story behind HWT Archimedes.

OLD GUITARS, NEW SONGS

Bill and his brother Jim, the Hamilton Museum’s director, grew up taking part in the family business, Moran’s Quality Print Shop. Whether they were working on the offset press or setting metal or wood type, they got as close to perfection as possible while accepting that there might be an unavoidable flaw in a piece of type. “You would simply say, ‘Well, we can’t help it, we don’t have an A anywhere in the shop without that ding,’” Jim remembers. “Letterpress attempts to create a perfectly beautiful print, but there’s something of the human hand in the end result because the type is always distressed in one way or another.”

The process of transforming wood type to digital is like playing a new song on an old guitar. “You still have to tune that guitar properly, so there is a richness in the sound, the way there is a richness to the look of wood type,” Jim continues. “We’ve learned to appreciate that perfection isn’t always attractive. Even if we’re starting with classical music, we can take some of its theories and pieces and begin to play around with them a bit. It’s not damaging, it’s just taking them into a new realm, in the way that R&B is such a wonderful successor to gospel. You aren’t harming gospel, you’re merely saying, ‘Let’s take those principles and create a new thing.’ When you see the abstractions that come from letterpress printing, I think it’s like saying, ‘Okay, now let’s put some jazz in it.’”