Woodletter or Poster Types

Woodletter in Case
Woodletter in Case

Small printers would be asked to produce all manner of work, and one part of their service would be to produce posters.  Naturally they needed much larger type than used for books or jobbing work and poster types emerged as a class of type of their own.  Beyond 72pt (1 inch) it was usual for type to be made of wood, and it was measured in lines, 1 line being equal to 1 pica or 12 points.  So, wood letters 1 inch tall would be 72 points called 6 line.

Woodletter is traditionally stamped with the maker’s name on the top of the capital ‘A’.

Poster Type Makers

Robt. De Little of Vine Street, York are perhaps the most famous makers of woodletter.  Established in 1888 they ran until 1997 when demand fell to make the business unsustainable.   Their equipment went to the Type Museum, London who presumably have the equipment in store.  They were able to supply plastic-faced woodletter to improve the quality of the print and wear.  Claire Bolton of the Alembic Press researched their history and published accounts of their enterprise.

The famous metal typefounder Stephenson, Blake of Sheffield originally supplied wooden type made by another firm.  In 1907 they established a Woodworking Department and began producing woodletter a year later.  SB’s 1910 catalogue was the first to include their own poster type.

Both of these firms seemed to concentrate on servicable types; rather than the exotic, multiple-colour type that you could see on circus or theatre posters.

Renovating Woodletter

While today’s printers enjoy the unique effect that comes from slightly worn wooden type, earlier printers were keen to print a pristine image.  An article in the Small Printer in the mid 1980s suggested this —

  • Fill any cracks in the letter with a wood filler and allow this to dry
  • Place an empty chase on a perfectly flat surface.  Prop each corner of the chase with two or three layers of board.  This  thickness will be needed later to be applied to the back of the letter.
  • Place the letter in the chase face down and lock it up.  The result should be a face-down letter with a slight gap between the chase edges and the surface
  • Using a very fine abrasive paper, lightly sand the face of the letter until the chase and the abrasive paper meet: at this point you should have a smooth letter face, but not quite type high
  • Apply the same thickness of board to the back of the letter that you used to prop the chase up.  This should bring it back to type high

I personally would prefer not to do this sort of thing, but the demands of the moment often made printers do strange things with woodletter.  I’ve seen Vs become As by the addition of a cross bar and being turned over; and also the backs of seldom-used letters (like Zs) become new letters through hand carving.

Buying and Selling Woodletter

The market today is one area of letterpress where prices bear little relation to the value or original costs of the type.  There are three big consumers of woodletter: ebay sellers who occasionally break up large founts to sell individual characters; furniture makers who want to use it within pieces of furniture, for example a coffee table; and small printers who are keen to use it for its original purpose.

If you’re selling poster type, consider using the British Letterpress Classifieds service to reach printers directly; or contact me for specific advice.

Current Practitioners

There’s a wonderful charm to letterpress posters, and many contemporary letterpress printers still enjoy working with letterpress posters.  The grandee of woodletter printing is Alan Kitching who produces energetic letterpress posters — I can almost guarantee that you’ve seen them in popular circulation.  He claims to hold the largest collection of wood letter in the UK after he took on the types from a theatrical printer poster.  Ian Mortimer of IM Imprimit also claims to have Britain’s largest collection of woodletter and prints servicable posters on his Albion presses.  Also in London is Phil Abel at Hand & Eye currently selling posters through his online shop.

Justin Knopp’s Typoretum uses woodletter to produce excellent cards and posters.