Letterpress, Typography


It is the way of things that many old books are disassembled in order sell off individual engravings. These were taken from such a book “Britannia: Or A Chorographical Description of Great Britain and Ireland, Together With Adjacent Islands” by William Camden from 1722.

These are the first few pages of dedication, of almost no value to the bookseller/framer, but have so much charm to us almost 300 years later; they wear the traces of their construction in their slow decay and offer us a small window to peer through to consider the things that have happened since its publication…

It is worth noting here that the printer was one Mary Matthews (one of a number of female printers in London at this time) who was eventually hanged for printing seditious political pamphlets.

Hard to imagine that these few pages (approximately 390 x 250 mm) have survived 292 years.

The full book can be viewed online here – it is really fascinating, but I wonder how may pages were discarded just for the maps? Also, if you like looking at old books, take a look here and here.

Again, many thanks to Nick for loaning these to me and for allowing them to be posted here.


For Pin Money


A little impulse buy recently- two tiny tin boxes with typographic markings. this one measures just 46 x 32 x 13mm as was empty…

LESTARET-pin-box-2 LESTARET-pin-box-3

This one was a little larger at 64 x42 x 15mm and contained needles, not drawing pins…


and a tiny little envelope too…


A little basic internet research came up with the following (via rootsweb.ancestry.com)

Name: Solomon SHRIMPTON, Sex: Male, Birth: 25 April 1784 in Long Crendon, Bucks., England
Occupation: Needle Maker, employing 11 men (1851)

This advertisement appeared in the Illustrated London News dated Saturday, February 2, 1856,
and subsequent editions, read as follows:


“Lieut.-Col. Phipps has received the commands of His Royal Highness the Prince Albert to thank Messrs. Shrimpton and Hooper for the very curious specimens of the perfection to which has been brought the art of making the eyes of needles.- Buckingham Palace, July 18, 1851.”

On the 5th May, 1854, Messrs Shrimpton and Hooper obtained an Injunction from his Honour the Master of the Rolls against a Manufacturer at Redditch for imitating the Labels of their highly-approved Needles.

None but First-class Goods made by SHRIMPTON and HOOPER.

Established more than a Century.

Albion Works, Studley; and 12, King’s square, London.

I do hope it was sufficiently kitted out with multitudinous typefaces, swashes and swirls.

What makes this great is its size – it is an envelope folded down to just 33 x 22mm!




Mmm, Mmm

I took the kids to London earlier this year for a bit of sightseeing and happened upon the latest temple to retail worship – M&M’s World in Leicester Square. It is purely an opportunity to purchase sugar coated peanuts and chocolate at hugely over-inflated prices, but it was filled with typography of a sort. Well, one letter dominates, but you get the pricture!

But cascading down the feature stairway is this huge lighting piece – down four floors! I couldn’t miss the opportunity to capture an additional M or three though…


Open Call: Typography Showcase

Some of you may be aware of my other blog and may already be regular visitors or even contributors. I want to publicise an open call for submissions to showcase new unpublished typefaces. This will happen each month when I will update the header in a different face, followed by a promotional post with links and information!

I’m starting this off with a great hand made face called “Silver Premium Instant Shoe Shine®” by London-based designer Trevor Mill

Go there now, and seek out your own designs…


Making Faces

I recently bought a copy of the film ‘Making Faces’ – a documentary about the Canadian type designer, typecaster and printer Jim Rimmer (who sadly died before the film was finished.) I have watched it three times already!

Jim was one of those types of people who the words passion and dedication are often used to describe, and rightly so. His life’s work had revolved around typography in some way. He has been involved in just about every stage in the design, development, manufacture and distribution of type, as well as being an accomplished graphic designer (commercial artist back then) and letterpress printer. In short, he is the kind of bloke I’d like to have a beer with, and to work with!

The film shows the development of a new typeface “Stern” from the original drawings with a marker pen, through several detail variants (watching a lower case g being revised and redrawn is a bit like type porn!) and into the  pencil line developments.

Not that Rimmer was completely tied to the past; once drawn the characters were then ‘scanned’ into a (rather old) computer using an odd plotting device that draws vector points much like Illustrator does,  to create an editable glyph.  

Further critical developments and refinements are done here, but the real design work was done with the marker on paper earlier.

Rimmer demonstrates the process of converting a computer image into a finished size matrix (mould) using a pantograph, a mechanical scaling device invented in the 1600’s and (non-laser guided or jet propelled ) mechanical milling tools:

It is then a matter of casting the individual letters using molten metals.

Incidentally, it is worth mentioning here that ‘Stern’ is the first typeface that has been specifically designed and produced for metal type and digital release!

Rimmer is naturally enthusiastic and very knowledgable (there are plenty of additional scenes included of some of the less edited interviews ) and he comes across as someone who has long known that his approach had become outmoded and a little archaic, but didn’t really care much because it worked for him. I also got the impression that he was wondering why it had taken so long for people to get interested in these processes again. 

Well, we know now. The old saying that “you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone” sounds very true. This guy didn’t stay in the past. He brought the past with him, using whatever was best for the job in hand, and focussed on the quality of the type, not in the technology that produced it. I like that.

My recent reconnection with letterpress makes me feel a little more connected with people like Jim and some of the processes he kept alive, albeit in a very tenuous way, but I feel it.

My copy of the DVD came with this spiffy little catalogue from the Rimmer Type Foundry, showing samples of some of the typefaces he has produced.

As well as the catalogue, I also got piece of type – a lower case ‘k’ from the typeface that was designed and produced in the film. Such a beautiful little touch – I have lots of metal type in a variety of faces, but this is a little special.

Ok now go buy yours here.

Watch a trailer.

Read the blog

Read Jim’s Obituary

Read tributes to Jim

Jim’s Typefaces

Look how the film got started

And if that’s not enough, look out for another film scheduled for release later this year – I will…

(PS If you like this, then you’ll like this too)


A Genesis Of Sorts

On Friday 20th May I set out for Norwich in the glorious early evening sunshine. Nothing particularly special about that, but for me, after another week of work, sweltering in the computer suite, I was feeling rather excited about this little excursion.


I had found out the previous day that Norwich Cathedral was hosting an exhibition and a  series of public lectures celebrating the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible.

One of those lectures was specifically about the typography – and was also being repeated the following week at the St.Bride Institute in London. As I couldn’t make the London event…

The speaker, Stan Nelson, is Museum Specialist Emeritus in the Graphic Arts Collection, Smithsonian Institution, and very knowledgable and experience typefounder.

After a short introduction by the Canon Librarian, Reverend Dr Peter Doll, Mr. Nelson began by observing a strange parallel occurring this year, in that the US is celebrating 150 years since the start of the Civil War, whilst we are celebrating 400 years of the King James Bible. He began his lecture by explaining some of the processes and idiosyncracies of typecasting, composing and printing, as well as a brief history of the typefaces involved.

He made the point that the rate of technological development was much slower in those days, and that the technology that was used by Gutenberg (above left) in the 1450’s was still essentially the same as Robert Barker used for the King James Bible (above middle) in 1611, as was the Eliot Indian Bible (above right)  in the 1660’s. Indeed, apart from the improvements in quality, speed and manufacture, this technology was dominant right up middle of the nineteenth century.

After careful examination of the original typography, Nelson concluded that the blackletter fount was probably a common English style that hand been in use since Caxton and Wynken de Worde, and many examples still existed that were very close.

It is worth noting here that up until the mid 1600’s blackletter fonts were often used in preference to the roman style. In northern europe, gothic letterforms were taught in schools before introducing roman lettering.

Once suitable reference material had been established, Nelson needed to make a punch for each letter:

This was carved into a hard steel block using a multitude of tiny files. Impressions were made to test the accuracy by smoke testing – holding the end of the punch over a flame until it blackened with soot, then pressing it onto paper. Each letter was made in reverse, so this stage was exceptionally important.

The next stage was striking the punch to create a matrix, which then required further filing and fettling:

He estimated that it took about four to six hours to create each punch, and two to four hours for each matrix, including ligatures, long s’s and punctuation!

Long s’s? The long s is often miftaken for f these days, and often caufes much mirth and merriment from graphics students when they are faced with this relic from hiftory!

My own understanding of how this character was used was based upon a snippet of information from the past – it can be used at the beginning or in the middle but not at the end – but on further inspection it is less defined and more complicated than that.

FACTOID: The long s was last used by The Times newspaper in 1803!

Nelson also had this exquisite initialed leather box on display, with these oversized punches, matrices and type. Typography as jewels. Nice.

Also on display were the hand moulds used for the casting of the type. The moulds are two in two parts – shown at the foot of the image below. A matrix is inserted into the base of the mould where the wire handles are and molten metal –  a mixture of lead, tin and antimony (a recipe hardly changed since Gutenberg) is poured in where it quickly sets. The matrix at the bottom of the mould has a perfect impression of the punch and forms the actual ‘type’ part that will make the eventual print.

The mould is sprung open a moment later and out comes a ‘slug’ – an individual metal rectangle, exactly ‘type high’ (0.918 inches) with the reversed shape of a letter shaped at one end:

Nelson made some very interesting comments describing the process of making and setting this type. Firstly he explained that he made it in an unheated garage (I know that feeling!) during the winter, which would have drawn some parallels with the conditions that the original typefounders would have experienced. Secondly, he spent a great deal of time retouching enlarged photocopies of the illuminated initial and floral decorations by hand (not a PhotoShop kind of guy!)  – these were eventually photoengraved, which is not exactly historically accurate, but actually engraving these blocks would be another project in itself.

He also described his experience of setting the type to achieve a good likeness of the original. Firstly, the type was set solid – without any leading (actually, lead strips were not used at this point in time, but Diderot’s encyclopaedia [1750’s – above] stated that card or wooden reglet was used.) Many adjustments were made to individual slugs using a file in order to get them to fit. Nelson noted that as he was making these alterations, the original typesetters would have needed to make the same adjustments, and felt a great affinity with these unknown artisans as he replicated their work.

On the larger type for the headings, a further adjustment needed to be made to improve the print quality. As the paper would have been individually made, the  presses used to make the prints were pulled by hand, so there would have been plenty of scope for variation in quality of the results. One of the problems was that the shoulders of the type sometimes picked up ink and left lines around the letters. This was addressed by filing off the top and bottom shoulders to remove the offending edges:

Ok, ok! So what did all this work produce? A replica of the first two pages from the King James Bible:

These will be on sale in the Cathedral shop soon… (an undisclosed technical error prevented them from being on sale on the night, but I’ll pop back and get one soon!)

Now there are some people who know that I actually own a page from a first edition King James Bible. It is hung in a frame above my desk, directly above my computer. I took this along to the lecture and showed it to Mr. Nelson, who showed great enthusiasm – he had mentioned how much effort and paperwork it took to see the full bible in the Library of Congress in his lecture. Fancy travelling halfway around the world to East Anglia to have some bloke pull a page out of a bag!

Although not particularly religious, I very much respect the role that organised religion has played in the development of many parts of my chosen profession. After all, in the early days, the church was the biggest patrons of printed matter, and without them, many of the technologies that have directly led to those lovely ‘magic boxes’ on our desks may not have ever happened…

So here are a few close-ups of the typographic details on my original first edition…

There are lots of instances where roman is used within the blackletter type; this is to indicate where a direct translation from the original Hebrew could not be made.

There are lots of examples where the long and short s’s are used together, and a fair few examples of how the letters v and u were interchanged…

As well as the long s, the r rotunda is also used. In the example below, the same word is repeated on the line below and allows for some comparison between individual letters…

In the first edition, the margin notes are set in italic, for which Nelson used Caslon as his model.

These blocks were originally individually carved – Nelson made small improvements to ‘clean up’ the details and went for photoengraving to create them. He estimated that there would be sufficient reduction in quality under the hand printing conditions that  this process would not be too ‘perfect.’

And then to the letter w, which to Nelson’s understanding (and I am not one to question such an authority) is special. Many of the characteristics of this blackletter fount survive today in various digital examples, either whole or in part, but this w appears to be unique in its use of two tall and one short stroke.

Finally, this curious little symbol appears many times and I can only assume from its placing in sentences that it is an ampersand.

There is a fully digitized and zoomable version of a complete 1611 King James Bible here – these pages are Ezekiel Chapter 40 if you want to check!

Apart from its religious importance as the first official translation of the Bible into English, this book also played an important part in the development of typography and printing in England. There is a very accessible overview of the process here.

I have had my page above my desk for the last few years and always enjoyed the juxtaposition between this fragment of paper; the result of years of intense craftsmanship and labour, hanging over my computer, where I can make endless changes with impunity… It will continue to hang there as a reminder of where I came from.

Thus endeth todays blogeth. Go in peace.


Careless Type Costs Lives

What did you do in the war Daddy? Well, I worked in the Ministry of Design producing visual materials to help the war effort. You know, if it wasn’t for our handy guides, we might have allowed Jerry to infiltrate our plucky island with his dashed blackletters!

This post was originally titled ‘Loose Lips Lose Legibility’

Letterpress, Typography

And Carry On

The impulse to print came upon me this week. I decided to have a dig around my metal type to see what I hadn’t used before and see if anything presented itself.  There is nothing quite like a bit of Gill Sans to get the creative juices going is there?

Taking my theme directly from the recent poster trend featuring the WW2 slogan ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ I set up an alternative using 48pt Gill Sans for the main line and followed this with a 12pt Gill Italic in a very light grey.

And once printed on the Adana 5×3, hung overnight to dry…

A closer inspection showed that I had got a good ‘bite’ and that the small text held up good and sharp.

Using the smaller Adana HS1 I set up a little crown block that I’ve used a couple of times before. Using a ‘straight-from-the-tin magenta, each card received its crown to complete the postcards.

The cards had already been printed with the postcard block some time ago (I need to print some more now in case the mood takes me again!) and some were heavily impressed like the one shown above, but I think that adds to the overall quality. This image shows that I need to make some adjustments to the tympan as I am not getting an even impression across the whole card – the centre is less imprinted than the edges.

Oh well, keep calm and carry on as they say!

Bookbinding, handmade, Letterpress, Typography

Back To The Books

I have been making some new books in between all this printmaking. I had been meaning to get booky for a while but got caught up in the print stuff. I aim to combine the two a bit more and produce a limited edition unique book, but for now, I am happy to be folding, cutting, sewing, gluing and pressing again.

I actually made a batch of eight books for this, two of each, but with different colour combinations except for the black one.

The type was printed onto the cover paper before being glued to the bookboards. This allows for a better impression and more solid colour, especially on the more textured papers like the yellow ribbed stock below. The type is, of course, 48pt Gill Sans.

The rest were printed on a linen embossed ‘buckram’ style cover paper kindly donated by a local commercial bookbindery.

I did re-ink for a short run of blue prints too, this time in Thorowgood Italic…

The black one was the hardest to photograph, but I think you get the idea of the black on black print in two weights of Rockwell:

And a combination of Univers Bold Condensed and my unidentified woodtype:

These are much less solid because they were printed using the nipping press rather than on the Adana, but I rather like the texture of the paper coming through. I may explore this further at some point…

Each of the books measures a compact 107 x 76mm and are handily sized to slip comfortably in a pocket or handbag. Blank inside with 80 pages of good quality white cartidge paper,  these will soon be on sale in my (soon to be) revamped shop, hopefully in time for Christmas…