Finding Second-Hand Type

Adana's Selection of Stock Blocks
Adana’s Selection of Stock Blocks

You might be lucky enough to acquire type during your letterpress career-local printers closing down, perhaps some comes with the press you’ve found, or perhaps from other hobby printers.

There’s some advice for you here — second-hand type can be a blessing and a curse. Remember that our current, UK founders are only in business while demand exists so you should use them while they are still around. There’s truth in the claim that your printing will be better with new type. Letterpress Alive lists the UK founders still in business.

Remember also that type — being predominantly lead — has a scrap value. While it’s not as valuable as pure lead it does command high prices. If you are looking for type you are competing with the scrap man.

Looking for Type

Places to look are —

  • Local printers might direct you to letterpress shops closing down
  • Small Ads in the BPSs Small Printer Magazine
  • eBay occasionally lists printers who are loooking to get rid of their letterpress outfits

The type will mostly be available in jobbing cases — these can take up a lot of room, so bear in mind how you will store them in your own shop.

Buyers’ Guide

The quality of the type will depend on the way the shop was run. Some places know that they will not use lead type again and so do not distribute it back once a printing job is complete. This leaves cases with gaps in the most common characters. Some compositors take a more personal view — that the type should not be used by hobby printers — and so remove all of a given character to prevent re-use.

  • Type Synopsis: how complete does the case look? Are there gaps in some letters? Have a look at a low-quantity compartment (like q, z or x) and see if there are enough of those characters
  • Quality of the Type: is the type worn? Does it look free of corrosion? Has it been placed back in the case or thrown?
  • Cleanliness of the whole thing: is the case and contents dirty? Is it covered in dust or ink? In some ways, well-used type is protected against corrosion. It might also mean that you have to clean it up before use

If you have type to dispose of, please look at disposing of equipment

Alignment: Important!

When type was cast by a traditional foundry, like Stephenson, Blake, they maintained alignments between castings. Each piece of type was a certain size and crucually, the alignment of the character on the type was consistent. This meant you could buy, say Modern No. 20 from them in 1905, mix it with type cast from 1950 and the two would look correct sat next to each other.

When printers began to use Monotype (and smaller founders used the system, too) there was a much larger number of people casting type, and each could have their own variations. One key difference from foundry type was that Monotype could be aligned on the body just as the founder wanted. This means that different castings of 12pt Gill Sans will always have a body of 12pt, and will always have the same design, but the characters may not line up because the character is not positioned in the same place on the body.

For this reason, you should not mix different Monotype founts (except where they are from a recognised founder). If you do, you will find that some characters ‘jump’ around the line reflecting the different castings of type.

Inspiration and much of the content of this article comes from J. Stafford-Baker of the Happy Dragons Press