Choosing Typefaces

A starting point for the age-old problem of choosing a house face

Perpetua from Flickr
Perpetua from Flickr

In the letterpress world, the choice of typefaces was a very big consideration.  Remember that today we can download new faces and use them immediately.  In letterpress settling on one face meant a large outlay and physical space occupied by typecases and lead type.  It was no simple matter to adopt a new house face once all that money had been spent.

Printers seldom had the opportunity to start afresh so this article is somewhat idealistic, but all printers were encouraged to have a system or a house approach to types.  This article is based on a November 1957 article in Print in Britain, and is unusual because it wasn’t based on the self-interest of any one founder or composing supplier (like Monotype or Linotype).  The article assumes a smaller printing works where there could not be an endless supply of space or capital to spend on type.

The first concern is around the class of work that the printer would undertake and we can classify our small printer in to one of three groups —

  • Class A: All round small jobbing: commercial work, adverts, shops and tradesmen’s printing
  • Class B: Professional-class jobbing: brochures, leaflets and more ambitious than Class A
  • Class C: Further developed jobbing: an extension of Class B that might include colour work or some books

We also need to know whether the printer has chosen to be a Monotype house or a line-casting house (using a Linotype or an Intertype).  The faces available on each of these systems was different.

The Monotype House

Class A Printer

The recommendation here is that because Times New Roman (Monotype Series 327) is so ubiquitous, it does need to be included but should not be first choice.  An old face design like Imprint (101) might take the top slot in 9, 11 and 12pt.  The Gill family (262) would come next considering the many variants that might be used within this family and the fact that it can be supplemented with display faces.  Start with 6, 8, 10 and 12pt.  Finally, Times New Roman should be bought in 8, 10 and 12pt with 6pt an option for small advertising work.  The rule here (and for all other faces) is to get italic, then small caps, then bold if needed.

Class B Printer

The emphasis here is on the professional approach and so the choice of faces changes slightly.  Knowing that this work is to produce more lasting items (like brochures) rather than the throw-away circular the approach is a little more classic.

The recommendation is to use Baskerville (169) instead of Imprint (in sizes 8, 10, 12pt).  Plantin (110) (in 8, 10 and 11pt) would be used in lieu of Times.  Plantin is recommended because of its ‘august’ appearance when well-leaded and its economy of space when needed.

Gill is used again for the sans serif face.

Class C Printer

The Class C printer will also need to be able to tackle some book work, and we recommend Bembo (270) in 10, 12 and 14pt to supplement the Class B list.  One word of caution here, the italics and small caps will be critical in this work so need to be seen as integral with the purchase of the roman.  Bold might be bought at a later stage.  This printer might also buy Times New Roman as a fifth choice.

The Linotype or Intertype House

With a slightly more limited range of faces, there is perhaps less scope to discuss the various combinations.  One consideration is the faces to be duplexed that’s to say which two faces should appear on each matrix.  Some faces had no related bold so a bold from a similar face had to be supplied.  For most work the italic (rather than the bold) was best to be duplexed with the roman.

Class A Printer

  • Times (with italic and small caps) 8, 10, 12pt
  • Granjon (with italic and small caps) 9, 11, 12pt
  • Metroblack No. 2 (perhaps with Metrolight No. 2) 6, 8, 10, 12pt

Class B Printer

This printer would keep Metroblack as the sans serif but use some more traditional faces:

  • Granjon (with italic and small caps) 8, 10, 12pt
  • Times New Roman (with italic and small caps) 9, 10, 12pt
  • Plantin (with italic and small caps) 8, 10, 11pt

Class C Printer

  • Granjon (with italic and small caps) 8, 10, 12pt
  • Plantin (with italic and small caps) 8, 10, 11pt
  • Caledonia (with italic and small caps) 8, 10, 12pt

With a fourth face of Pilgrim (10 and 12pt) and a fifth for book work of Minerva (8, 10, 12pt).

Display Types

Types larger than 14pt are classed as display types and are usually used for headings rather than body text.  The choices here expand depending on the house.

Monotype House

The Class A printer is recommended to get the companion display sizes for his basic selection: so Gill and Times in display sizes.  Spreading further Headline Bold (595) or Perpetua Titling (258) might be used.

The Class B printer might use Albertus (481) and maybe Rockwell Bold (391).

Printers in Class C will need Perpetua for headlines, chapter openings and dropped capitals in book work.

For all of these groups, a useful script would be Klang (593); but this will need to be contrasted with the rest of the piece.

Linotype or Intertype House

Again, we have the issue around a more limited number of faces.  Some faces also had variants or sizes missing in the series.  For the Class A printer, Century Bold, Metromedium and Granjon should be used, with Pabst Extra Bold as a fourth choice.  Class B printer should use Memphis Bold, Plantin and Times New Roman.  Printer C should use Minerva Bold and Scotch Roman No. 2.

Because line casting houses typically included a Ludlow machine, Ludlow faces in sizes 36 to 72 should be reviewed: Tempo Heavy, Bodoni Bold, Franklin Gothic, Caslon and Garamond are candidates.

Founders’ Types

Regardless of the house approach to typesetting, some more exotic types could be employed that have been bought from typefounders.  This list should be strictly limited, though, considering the expense and space that these less-used faces would need.

From Stephenson, Blake the recommendations are: Grotesque No. 9 and italic; Chisel, Old Face Open and Franchesca Ronde; along with an antique face like Consort (or Antiques No. 3 and No. 6 from Stevens, Shanks).

Continental founders’ might supply Mistral, Sapphire Initials, Studio, Holla, Paris Weiss and Stop.

Ludlow Typography

Just as competitors wanted to improve typography generally, Ludlow also took on the challenge

Ludlow Type Specimen Book
Ludlow Type Specimen Book

From the 1920s, Monotype took the challenge of improving typography very seriously and embarked on a programme of developing new faces and reviving classic faces so that the world might be rid of faces like Cheltenham.  Intertype and Linotype were slow to follow and concentrated on speed of production rather than quality.  My view is that Ludlow took typography seriously, but their smaller market share meant they didn’t have the same impact.

The system itself had some advantages as well as the italics (mentioned below), the same degree of control was available over spacing as in hand composition.  Contrast this with linecasters using adjustable spaces that sometimes led to rivers of spaces following through work.

The name R. Hunter Middleton is synonymous with the Ludlow Corporation, and he designed some of the firm’s most successful faces including Deplhian Titling, Tempo (sans serif), Karnak (slab serif), and a Garamond


Ludlow Italic Matrices
Ludlow Italic Matrices

Because of the simplicity of the Ludlow system, they could make amendments to the operation of the machine relatively easily.  Once such change was to introduce italic matrices, and a special italic stick.  A difficult problem for line-casting is that italics have a tendency to encroach on the area of the preceding and following letters: take the f for example, which will hang under the earlier character and over the following.  Because most other casting uses rectangular mats, this cannot easily be accounted for and so the face has to be adjusted and weakened to fit within the confines of the mat.  In 1913 Ludlow decided to go with the italic wholeheartedly and developed matrices that slope at a 17° angle and are held in a stick with ends at the same angle.  The result is that an f, for example, can be cast at that angle and fit neatly with the other types at the same angle.  By means of triangular spaces, roman and italics can mix on the same line.

Ludlow took full advantage of this and developed some beautiful italics to go with their faces.


Knowing that they were keen to attract the jobbing printer, Ludlow set out to make the printing of ruled formes very easy.  Jobbing printers had to produce invoices, bills, account sheets and so on, and traditionally had used metal rules sat between lead types to create the right pattern.  This approach tied up material and took a vast amount of time: imagine setting multiple horizontal and vertical rules with some type to create a petrol station receipt, for example.

Mr Merrill of Ludlow developed Ruleform in 1923.  The approach was to create uniform-width matrices and exploit the slug by casting overhangs and underhangs at the top and bottom of the same slug.  Using the repeat casting function meant that one line could be set and duplicated, and the underhangs and overhangs would mesh with each other to create a whole, solid lump for printing.

Stephenson, Blake

The famous Sheffield-based type founder

This article is about the traditional type-founding activities of Stephenson, Blake. In late 2005 Thomas Blake sold the original site and a new firm, Stephenson and Blake Limited, continue the brass rule and other brass products from Effingham Road, Sheffield

Stephenson, Blake Card Fount Catalogue
Stephenson, Blake Card Fount Catalogue

The now defunct, but still famous name of Stephenson, Blake (SB) was created when James Blake and John Stephenson signed a partnership agreement on 25 September 1830 to last until 1840. The agreement was renewed, and the name persisted, absorbing many other type foundries in the intervening years. The foundry had always been based around Upper Allen Street in Sheffield

The foundry had been in Sheffield in one form or another since around 1797 when a local bookseller (John Slater) and a bookseller-printer (William Bower) joined forces with a printer (Clay Bacon) to cast type, issuing their first specimen in 1809. That founding work had persisted under many names until taken on by Garnett and Blake, and then becoming Stephenson, Blake.

Since the earliest times SB had worked to 1/5000th of an inch as a matter of course: the type they founded was considered the most precise in the UK.

A London warehouse was opened in 1865 to supply the demands of Fleet Street newspapers. Business was so good that they removed to larger London premises on Aldersgate Street in 1871.

The next major change was the move to the American Point system which had been adopted by America in 1886. Some firms in the UK were quick to adopt this change-like Caxton in 1895-it was a further four years before SB renewed their moulds and matrices to work on the point system. A key advantage for customers was that type and spacing was now interchangeable between suppliers: printers having a uniform system to measure size.

A rival founder, London-based Charles Reed and Sons hit financial difficulties and was sold in 1905 to Stephenson, Blake who offered £5,000 for the foundry, matrices and the 82 tons of stock. The purchase was effective from 1 January 1906 and the firm was known for a time as ‘Stephenson, Blake and Company and Sir Charles Reed and Sons’. The work of the Reed foundry and some equipment was shipped to Sheffield where an almost self-contained foundry existed alongside the SB equipment.

In January 1907 a Woodworking Department was established over the road from the foundry to make furniture for composing rooms and type cases. A year later the production of wood letter was brought in-house and examples first appeared in the specimen books of 1910.

All type founders were affected by the Great War of 1914-1918 and this led to further rationalisation in the industry. Discussions began with H W Caslon about an amalgamation, but this did not reach a successful conclusion at this time. Caslon’s factory had been used to manufacture items needed for war, and this provided financial help to take them out of the financial problems. Building on this, Caslon issued a booklet called Two Centuries of Type Founding which the wider industry admired.

Stephenson, Blake reacted by engaging Robert Fishenden to produce the most ambitious specimen book ever devised. Seven hundred pages were hand-set in London, shipped to Stephenson Blake and then to West Street where the printer-J W Northend Ltd-had the task of taking proofs. These were inspected by H K Stephenson and R G Blake before being committed to print on two hand fed quad-demy Miehle machines. The quality of the result was highlighted when the book was reviewed by the Times Educational Supplement. J W Northend was told that SB would take their business elsewhere if they moved to mechanical composition, and Northend resisted this until the 1970s.

In 1936 SBs main competitor-H W Caslon-had again met financial difficulties and went in to voluntary liquidation. Stephenson, Blake bought the goodwill, assets and punches of Caslon, and retained the name by calling their Sheffield premises The Caslon Letter Foundry.

World War II had a great effect on the foundry: not only because many men were called up, but air raids disrupted the business. In December 1940 air raids meant that gas, electricity and water were lost to the foundry in Sheffield. R G Blake had ensured that casting machines were ready for work at his home, and these were used for casting until mains services returned in January 1942.

Post 1950 the Woodworking Department had expanded to provide a full service to composing rooms and many prestigious orders were executed including the Sunday Times’ composing room in 1973.

Following the trends of the industry Stephenson, Blake found it difficult to remain a letterpress business in face of competition from litho machines. They diversified by offering the ‘Letterphot’ system of photo typesetting; and turning the wood operations to the manufacture of precision instrument cases. The firm’s precision engineering team was used by Rolls-Royce Olympus to produce moulds for parts for Concorde.

The firm found it difficult to pay business rates on the sprawling collection of buildings around Upper Allen street and began to divest themselves of them, including knocking some down. Re-location was considered to Derbyshire to avoid this overhead.

Just before 2000 the firm sold its non-printing businesses and Thomas James Blake looked to re-launch the firm. For a time the firm remained producing related items for the non-printing market: brass rule for plastics firms; Mazak type for hot-foiling and cabinet making for museums. The collection of historical matrices and punches went to the Type Museum in London with assistance from the Science Museum.

By December 2004 this final element of the business had ceased, although the firm’s website ran until March 2005. The site is currently being re-developed with the historical building being turned to flats. The scheme will be called Impact after SBs 1965 face designed by Geoffrey Lee.

Further Information

Type and Typography

The building blocks of the prin­ted word and today’s graphic design

Let­ter­press print­ing depends on a raised image, it’s known as a relief pro­cess. Mov­able type was the break­through that allowed print­ers to use and re-use indi­vidual char­ac­ters. When you prac­tice let­ter­press print­ing it’s easy to for­get just how dif­fi­cult it must be for type founders to cre­ate tiny pieces of cast metal hard enough to with­stand a tre­mend­ous force that are made to tol­er­ances of less than one thou­sandth of an inch.


Guten­berg of Ger­many is cred­ited with the inven­tion of move­able type around 1450; but records show that both Chinese and Korean invent­ors had used the idea before the time. Gutenberg’s inven­tion was the first to be exploited and the idea spread rap­idly. There are three key stages in found­ing type –

  • Punch­cut­ting: cre­at­ing a three-dimensional rep­res­ent­a­tion of the let­ter in the end of a bar of metal. This skilled work requires a num­ber of other punches and tools to be used to cre­ate the punch, and then it be sub­ject to harden­ing. Modern-day equi­val­ents of punches can be seen in DIY stores to mark metal equip­ment with initials.
  • Cre­at­ing the Mat­rix: this step takes the punch, and strikes it in a softer metal to make a neg­at­ive mould. The metal is usu­ally brass
  • Cast­ing: this is filling the mould with mol­ten type metal and remov­ing the cast type

Type Found­ing in the Print­ing Eco­nomy in the UK

Type found­ing is a spe­cial­ist industry need­ing artistic and design skills in equal meas­ure with engin­eer­ing prowess and abil­ity to work in some of the very heavy aspects of industry. The industry was centred around the demand in Fleet Street, Lon­don; but other sig­ni­fic­ant type founders worked where tech­nical expert­ise was greatest-for example Steph­en­son, Blake of Shef­field.

The key con­straint for print­ers was that type from a foundry had to be assembled by hand before print­ing could begin. This com­pos­i­tion activ­ity took a great deal of time and tied up cap­ital in the type needed. As the 19th cen­tury grew to a close people we very keen to auto­mate this part of the process-work began to look at pro­du­cing type in the order it was needed. That’s to say go dir­ectly from the copy to the metal type with no sort­ing or com­pos­ing pro­cess in between.

There became two fam­il­ies of type: foundry type (gen­er­ally harder qual­ity) that was pro­duced in the great foundries; and com­pos­i­tion type (slightly softer qual­ity) that was pro­duced from copy either by a spe­cial­ist firm, or even by the printer himself.

UK Type Foundries

The UK had a num­ber of very influ­en­tial foundries. While early metal type from the con­tin­ent (in par­tic­u­lar Dutch type) was con­sidered super­ior, the UK caught up and great names like Caslon, Fig­gins and Steph­en­son, Blake were estab­lished. The large num­ber of small foundries gave way to a smal­ler num­ber of large foundries. The last of the Eng­lish Foundries, Steph­en­son, Blake of Shef­field stopped trad­ing in Decem­ber 2004. That foundry alone had acquired Charles Reed and Sons in 1905, and H. W. Caslon and Co in 1937.

Com­pos­i­tion Type

Allow­ing print­ers to cast their own type was a key driver behind devel­op­ments in com­pos­i­tion type. There were two broad approaches: build a com­plete line of type from a machine; or build indi­vidual char­ac­ters in the cor­rect order from the machine.

Lino­type and Inter­type took a sim­ilar approach: the oper­ator sat at a key­board and typed the copy. While copy was being typed the matrices (type moulds) were assembled within the machine. Once a line was com­pleted the moulds were filled with hot type metal and the res­ult­ing ‘slug’ was forced from the machine, being trimmed and shaped in the pro­cess. The Lud­low Typo­graph was sim­ilar, but the matrices were assembled by hand.

Mono­type adop­ted a dif­fer­ent tack. They split the oper­a­tion between key­ing the copy and cast­ing the type. Copy was typed on a Mono­type Key­board powered by com­pressed air which punched holes in a paper tape. The tape was then taken to a cast­ing machine  which used the paper tape to pos­i­tion a case of matrices and cast a single piece of type for each key­stroke on the paper tape. The advant­age of this approach was to allow for cor­rec­tion after com­pos­i­tion had been pro­duced by the machine.

In mod­ern times, Mono­type machines can be con­trolled by com­puter–allow­ing the dir­ect pro­duc­tion of metal type from a com­puter keyboard.

Fur­ther Information