Woodletter or Poster Types

Big­ger type to pro­duce those won­der­ful inky let­ter­press posters

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.

Robert Lee from Uni­corn Graph­ics in the US has been in touch to share his Amer­ic­an Wood Type You­Tube chan­nel.