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