Type and Typography

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

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