The nature of metal type and typefounding:

a brief introduction

Ccjournal.naturemetaltype.caslonpunches 1400 xxx q87

A box of punches from the Caslon foundry. They are Trafalgar No. 1 Roman Open cut by King in the 1830s. St Bride Library.

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Ccjournal.naturemetaltype.2linegreatprimeritalian.selkirk.before1839 1400 xxx q87
A steel punch cut by Selkirk for Caslon, Son, and Livermore before 1839. Two Line Great Primer Italian. It has a slight sheen of grease to stop rusting. The sides are slightly bevelled to make the punch easier to handle. St Bride Library.
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Ccjournal.naturemetaltype.twolinegreatpimer.s.matrix.figgins 1400 xxx q87
Two Line Great Primer (around 36pt) Copper Matrix from the Figgins foundry. St Bride Library.
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Today the methods of making, using, and viewing type are mostly digital processes. We made all of the faces in the Commercial Classics library digitally from start to finish. However, the originals they were based on were made in the traditional analogue method that had been in use since the fifteenth century, when Gutenberg invented movable type. These processes output a physical product—as the famed typographical writer Harry Carter wrote, “Type is something that you can pick up and hold in your hand”A view of early typography by Harry Carter is an excellent source for information. When it was published in 1969 by Oxford University Press, not only was letterpress still a viable method of printing text, the Press still cast type by hand on a limited basis. Carter quotes from the earliest trustworthy account of making type, Dialogues francois pour les jeunes enfans, published in 1567 by Plantin. In a dialogue between the editor ‘G’ and experts subjects are explained. In the case of printing:
G. Let us begin with the letters, since you set them first. How are they made?
E. First they make the punch, a long piece of steel with whatever letter is wanted cut or engraved on the end.
G. What is the object of that?
E. When it is finished they strike it in copper and so make a matrix, which is simply an impression of the letter that has been struck in, like the mark made in a seal in sealing wax.
G. Of what use is the letter struck like that in copper?
E. It is useful, because the metal for making type, lead or tin, is poured into the matrix in a mould.
G. I understand so much; but I should think it is very difficult to make the letters exactly alike in size so that they fit together side by side accurately.
E. That is done by means of the mould, an assemblage of several parts, which makes all the letters alike, being as they say, of one fount.
G. So the mould may have a matrix at one time for an A, at another for a B, fitted to it, and therefore the A and the B are made of the same size?
E. Just so.

Pierre-Simon Fournier, Manuel typographique, 1764 & 1766 is one of the most detailed accounts of typefounding made. In 1930 a translation was made by Harry Carter, Fournier on typefounding: the text of the ‘Manuel typographique’. This was then republished in 1973. In 1995 a facsimile of the Manuel typographique with Carter’s translation was produced edited by James Mosley.

In recent years the Dutch type designer Fred Smeijers has written and practiced the art of punch cutting (though not the casting of type) to gain a better understanding of the craft, particularly in the sixteenth century. This has been extensively recorded in his book Counterpunch, Hyphen Press, London, 1996 and revised edition 2011.

All of the above editions offer bibliographies which list other key works. A collection of references to typefounding and its literature can be found here:
—and these processes continued at an industrial scale into the twentieth century.


Ccjournal.naturemetaltype.punchcutter.revised 1400 xxx q87
The punchcutter at work using gravers and files to shape the steel punch. Using an eye piece the punchcutter is cutting a punch for a text size. Illustration by Joe McKendry.
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Ccjournal.naturemetaltype.cutpunch.revised 1400 xxx q87
A punch after cutting and hardening, the sides are bevelled to allow easier handling. The punch is a reverse image of the letter, and this is the image that will be on end of the type. Illustration by Joe McKendry.
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Ccjournal.naturemetaltype.punchbeingdrivenintomatrix.revised 1400 xxx q87
The hardened punch is driven squarely into piece of copper. This is the moment when the punch may break wasting hours of hard work. Illustration by Joe McKendry.
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Ccjournal.naturemetaltype.unfinishedmatrix.revised 1400 xxx q87
When the matrix is first struck the impact displaces copper. The matrix must be squared up so it can fit perfectly into the handmould. The image of the letter is the reverse of the punch. Illustration by Joe McKendry.
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Ccjournal.naturemetaltype.finishedmatrix.revised 1400 xxx q87
The matrix is now justified and for casting, from this the image of the letter can be produced thousands of times. Illustration by Joe McKendry.
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Ccjournal.naturemetaltype.finishedtype.revised 1400 xxx q87
The type cast in type metal (an alloy of lead, tin and antimony). The nick in the type is to make sure the type is the right way up. Illustration by Joe McKendry.
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Before the digital age, type was a piece of cast metal where every individual character was a raised reversed image of a letter (or any other image). When type was combined together, they made a composed forme, from which copies could be made by the process of letterpress printing. Today type is digital and can be scaled on a computer with no effort at all. From one design, many sizes can be created, ranging from sizes so small we can barely see them to the largest billboards. Metal type as a physical object, on the other hand, only existed in the size it was created and cast. Type size was described not by the size of the letter image, but the body that the letter sat upon. Even when type no longer is physical it is still described by the virtual body.Traditionally the size of letter was described by a name, rather than by point size as it is now. Larger sizes were described in units of pica (12 point), and then in multiples of pica, so 120 pt would be Ten Line.
• Diamond 4½pt
• Pearl 5pt
• Ruby 5½pt
• Nonpareil 6pt
• Emerald 6½pt
• Minion 7pt
• Brevier 8pt
• Bourgeois 9pt
• Long Primer 10pt
• Small Pica 11pt
• Pica 12pt
• English 14pt
• Great Primer 18pt
• Paragon 20pt
• Double Small Pica or Two Lines Small Pica 22pt
• Double Pica or Two Lines Pica 24pt
• Double English or Two Lines English 28pt
• Double Great Primer or Two Lines Great Primer 36pt
• Double Paragon or Two Line Paragon 40pt
• Two Line Double Pica 44pt
• Canon or Four Line Pica 48pt
• Five Line Pica 60pt
The largest size of metal type shown appears to be thirty line (360 point) by Blake and Stephenson, 1839. Trafalgar appears in some Caslon specimens; as it is between Two Line Double Pica and Canon, it must be assumed to be around 46pt.
 This made making type a time consuming process, but also made the form and design specific to its size.

Metal type was made through a process called typefounding. More specifically, typefounding describes the end of the operation, when molten metal was used to cast the physical object (type). The original form of the type was cut as a punch, which was then used to form the matrix. The matrix had the punch’s letter embedded on its surface, then was used to cast the metal type, copies of the original punch with the letter on their tips.In the early nineteenth century, a new method of fabricating matrices was created. Devised by William Caslon IV, the Sanspareil matrix was where the letterform was cut into a thick sheet of brass. When this was perfect, it then had an additional sheet of brass was soldered onto the bottom of it, creating a matrix from which type was cast. This allowed larger and larger type to be cast, leading to the explosion in display faces in the second decade of the nineteenth century. Previously, large type could be cast in sand, but we presume this method would give better results. This was later superseded by cutting the punch in the much softer and easier to cut type metal. This so called Patrix would then be electrotyped from to make a matrix. In turn, this process was updated when the patrix was cut by the pantograph directly.

By the eighteenth and nineteenth century, the process of typefounding was mostly separate from the activities of the printer. Type foundries, such as Caslon, would commercially sell their cast type to any printer who wanted to purchase it. These foundries would either employ or hire skilled craftsman to create the punches. Some specialised in cutting punches, others were simply skilled freelance engravers who would engrave any letter or image onto objects. Starting with a shaft of steel with a flattened end, they would use various tools (gravers and filers) to create a raised and flat reverse image of the letter the size of the final piece of type. As you can imagine, while large sizes of type would have been clear to the naked eye, for smaller and smaller sizes, the use of magnification tools and a bright light was necessary.

As steel is hard to cut, you can imagine that this was a slow, laborious process. Electrotyping, invented in the late 1830s, allowed punches to be cut in type metal, which was much softer and easier to mould, so one or two punches could typically be made in a day. (In recent years, Fred Smeijers has suggested from personal experience that the number is higher than this.) As the punch cutter became satisfied with the letter they would make a smoke proof of the image by taking an oily candle that would transfer soot to the end of the punch. This was then pressed into paper and made a fragile image of the letter. As more and more characters were created they could be compared to each other.Various films exist that chronicle both punch cutting by hand and the production of matrices: Giuseppe Brachino, the former head of the engraving department of the Nebiolo Company from Turin is shown cutting a punch 
Giuseppe Brachino cutting a punch
Carl Dair at Enschedé, is a film that shows Carl Dair’s experience of making metal type at the Dutch type foundry, Enschedé in 1957. Narrated by Matthew Carter, who had spent a year at Enschedé during this period learning the craft of typefounding.
Carl Dair at Enschedé

The number of punches they produced for a typeface depended on whether the form was for text or display. If it was for display, the number of punches were minimal: sometimes simply A–Z with basic punctuation, sometimes with numerals and currency (in nineteenth century Britain, the sterling was essential for lotteries and auctions in playbills). In text sizes, the character set was generally larger with the addition of asterisk, daggers, section marks, small capitals, and ligatures. Accents may have been added, but compared to even the most modest of modern typefaces, these were small character sets.

Ccjournal.naturemetaltype.18ptornamentedno.26.revised 1400 xxx q87
A smoke proof of 18 pt Ornamented No. 26, from the H. W. Caslon foundry, 1893. St Bride Library.


Though the technical process of making punches is chronicled, we do not know how the form of the letter was chosen. We have records from the sixteenth century of Plantin, the famous printer of Antwerp, ordering punches from Granjon; but while the specification relates to the size and function of the letter needed, it does not specify how it should look. Once letterforms were well established, one can imagine that new punches were cut to replace old punches that had worn out or to fill the need for a certain size of type, and that the form followed contemporary styles. Each size would differ as they were handmade, but stylistically they would still fit together. It was only when styles changed that the form would be discussed, whether it was copying another foundry’s style or a form of contemporary lettering. For example, how did the visual shape of John Baskerville get decided? Did Baskerville supply his punchcutter, John Handy, with detailed instructions or visual notes? With drawings of the letters? Or was it a much more casual process? One can imagine that founders would often give direction to punchcutters: ‘We need a new face in a shaded Egyptian style for double pica’. The cutter would understand these terms, and create something stylistically following this, but in the details would simply do what they thought best. We can see from proofs from the Caslon foundry that comments were made on proofs, but these are not extensive. Was this because by this point the face had been already discussed and commented upon (they are often part of a series of styles or sizes), or because they simply didn’t make that many comments on proofs? Compare the number of comments on a proof then to those we see of contemporary designers; the commentary you would find on a proof today seems much more prescriptive and detailed.

Once the punchcutter’s task was completed, the punch was hardened by heating it and then dunking it into cold water. The steel punches were then used to create an impression into the surface of a piece of copper. This impression was the mirror image of the punch. Striking the punch into the copper was a skilled job; the punch had to strike it square on and cleanly to make a perfect impression. Every strike of the punch was also fraught with danger—the punch, though made of hardened steel and pushed into the softer metal of copper, could still be damaged, often beyond repair. Half or a day’s labour could be lost. Though a punch might make multiple matrices, the number of punches of each letter was often singular.

The copper matrix would be distorted by the impression of the punch, spreading out and losing its flat sides. These bulges were then removed to make a matrix that was justified and true. This would then be fitted into the hand mould (or later, a casting machine) and from this, type would be cast. The punchcutter, who made the shape of the letter, was not responsible for how the letter would be cast on its body, how much space would be on the left or right of the letter, or of how much space above and below. The punchcutter would know how big the the size of type would be and make adjustments; he would decide how large the relationships were between capital height and the lower case was (if he was cutting one), of how large ascenders and descenders were, but its final placement on the body of the type would occur later when the matrix was being made. The quality of a typeface is not simply the letter itself, but how these letters fit together. Today type design is a unified activity; the drawing of letters and the spacing of them happen simultaneously.

Ccjournal.naturemetaltype.caslonbrevierdoricspacing8pt.revised1 1400 xxx q87
Spacing document for Caslon Doric No. 4 Brevier (later cast as 8 point). Lower case cut between 1878-1895, the capitals are from Caslon Doric No. 3 cut at an earlier date. St Bride Library.


By the end of the nineteenth century, a new method of making punches was being pioneered. A pantographic engraving machine cut the steel. Multiple sizes and quantities of punches could be made from large scale drawings, largely making the punchcutter obsolete. With the new technologies of Monotype and Linotype casting machines, the old foundries lost much of their trade. In Britain, this lead to the disappearance of Caslon in the ’30s, Miller and Richard in the ’50s, and Stevens Shanks by the ’70s.At St Bride a photographic record exists of the Caslon foundry at the beginning of the twentieth century, both at its original location on Chiswell Street and later at Rothbury Road, in the East of London. A more readily available document is vom Schriftgiesen Porträt der Firma D. Stempel, Frankfrurt am Main, 1987. With photographs taken by Ronald Schmets, it records the final days of the Stempel foundry which was still producing metal type for hand composition in 1986. The material of typefounding had limited values: the price of the scrap steel for the punches and a lower value for the copper of the matrices. Handmade matrices could be reengineered to fit Monotype machines, but they were mostly scrapped. However, much survived in Britain: Stephenson Blake, which was the last foundry in existence in Britain, sold its type material to what is now the Type Archive in Stockwell, London. Some of the matrices and punches of Stevens Shanks, the successor to Figgins, were saved by James Mosley’s efforts, and are at St Bride Library. Caslon’s foundry was sold at auction; Stephenson Blake purchased what was useable and useful (such as Caslon Old Face), with the rest sold as scrap. The main body of punches (over a thousand boxes, dating back to the beginnings of the foundry in the eighteenth century) was purchased by Monotype as a source of potential designs. These were donated to the Oxford University Press and eventually found their way to St Bride.