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letterpress type

A Letterpress Lexicon, Part 3


A Letterpress Lexicon, Part 3

Hi, Friends of St Brigid Press!

Here is the third installment in our occasional blog series about the words and phrases that identify printing's particular tools and processes ~ A Letterpress Lexicon. Enjoy!

(If you missed Part 1, you can find it HERE. And Part 2 is HERE.)

Today's Words Are:

PIED  ~  Pronounced with a long “i”, as in "cherry pie." The term for metal type that has become all jumbled up, disarranged, mixed up.

HELL BOX  ~  The box or bucket into which is thrown metal type that is too worn or damaged to print well.

PRINTER'S DEVIL  ~  An old term for the young assistant in a printing shop who was given menial tasks or errands, such as sweeping floors or sorting type.

I had a completely different set of interesting words from the printing trade ready to share with you all. And then this happened:

Pied type on the floor at St Brigid Press.

I allowed myself to get in a hurry recently, while looking for a particular dash in the back of a typecase. I pulled the case out too far, without pulling the case below it out slightly (a safety measure, to prevent what happened from happening), and CRASH — a small tsunami of metal letters fell to the floor. The concrete floor. ARGH. There they stayed for a few days, until I could face the mess again and gently scoop up the pied type.

A 12pt letter "m" from the pile of pied type. It is, unfortunately, damaged and bound for the hell box.

Much of the type is salvageable, thank goodness. But there are still many letters, numbers, and punctuation pieces that were damaged. Type metal is soft enough to scratch or dent easily if dropped. Those pieces that are too damaged to print correctly will be weeded out and relegated to the hell box. When the box is full, a type foundry can melt down the metal and cast new letters with it.

The St Brigid Press hell box, into which we pitch metal letters that are broken, scratched, dented, or otherwise rendered unprintable. Grateful acknowledgement goes to the Shop Dog, Mira, for generously donating an empty biscuit tub for the task.

Obviously, sorting pied type is a time-consuming job. One that is at once drudgery and exacting — each letter must be inspected to see if its face is dented or scratched, or if it survived the ordeal unscathed. Since we are in the full swing of book production here at the Press, we decided to call upon our own printer’s devil, Julia Grammer, to help out. Julia is a student of typography and graphic design at an area college. Not only is she knowledgable about type, but she brings the kind of care, curiosity, and intelligent attention that are guiding principles at the Press. Here’s a case of type after Julia was let loose on it:

Ahhhh.... Order, wrought from chaos, thanks to the Press printer's devil, Julia Grammer.

Thanks, as always, for joining us on this journey, Friends! 

All best to all,

The Pied Typer of Afton


How Type is Made, Part 2


How Type is Made, Part 2

Traditional letterpress printing requires physical letters, cast from metal or carved from wood, which get inked and pressed into paper to make a print. In the last post, we took a look at the process of making type from metal (if you missed it, click here). In this installment, we’ll see how it’s created from wood.

Civil War recruitment poster.
From the International Printing Museum website.

Wood came to be used as a material for making letters for printing primarily in the 1800s, when the printing and advertising industry became more widespread. Imagine trying to lift a big “Wanted”-poster-sized chase of metal type — pretty darn heavy! (See the photo of a Civil War recruitment poster.) Letters carved and routed from holly or maple were MUCH lighter, and could be made MUCH larger than their metal counterparts. 

Here at the Press, we’re fortunate to care for and print with a nice selection of wood type, most of which was made between 1875 and 1910. If used with plenty of TLC, it’ll outlast us (just like our presses)!

Here's a slide-show of some of the materials and tools used to create wood type, along with some of the type in our collection here at the Press:

A lot of vintage type, however, either went to the scrap heap decades ago, is just too damaged to print well anymore, or is too scarce and expensive for most printers to purchase. Thankfully, there are a few excellent folks who are making brand new type from wood today!

Here is a great interview (4 mins) of Geri McCormick of Virgin Wood Type (Rochester, NY), by Frank Romano.

And another great short (1 min) video of Scott Moore, of Moore Wood Type (in Ohio), making new wood type:

Want to know more about the wonderful world of wood type?

Here are some great resources ~

Thanks for joining us on this journey into type! Please sign up below for more occasional dispatches from letterpress land!

St Brigid Press