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.