Flawed Gems

If our type could talk, it would probably sound something like this:

“Ouch! Easy on the impression there, Tarzan. Ever heard of a ‘kiss,’ kids?”

But even without the gift of speech — and attitude (you have to remember that this ancient stuff has hung around in some pretty rough places in its day) — old type tells its story loud and clear.

Lead F, 36-point Bodoni bold: “Remember the time when the kerning needed tightening and the brute used a file to shave away part of my, uh, lower half? Well, that ain’t gonna grow back, my friend.”

Wood G, 54-point Gothic: “Yeah, or the day that numbskull apprentice dropped the ink can. My scar still shows after all these years.”

Ah, what characters. You can call them damaged. At Typecast Press, we call them distinctive, one-of-a-kind. We encourage the flaws in the type — whether created by wear and tear, carelessness or necessity — to make their presence felt. Take the logo Mary did for Woodberry Kitchen that can now be seen on menus, business cards, in magazine ads and, ahem, on the signage made by immensely cool architectural designer and sculptor John Gutierrez.

Anyway, the way we physically created it is, Shop Boy thinks, about as cool as the logo itself. See, we used incredibly old technology, mixed in a little new tech and the big bang theory. (“Ouch! You animals!”) And it was a fun break from our ongoing pursuit of the “perfect” impression.

First, you take a set of wood type, say 48-point Whatsitsface. In a complete set you’ll probably have a few of each letter, more if they’re key characters like E, A or O. Arrange them on the bed of a Vandercook proof press; ours is a No. 3. Add the appropriate wooden spacers and furniture, then lock the whole form into place so it won’t shift during printing. Get your brayer (a roller with a handle) and begin spreading the ink across the glass plate to get it warmed up — today’s color is black and soy-based.

Next, brayer the ink evenly onto the letters. Already, you can see that the impression won’t be uniform. Some letters have blemishes, scrapes or other flaws. Excellent. So now Mary ups the ante, getting all Jackson Pollock with a bit of scrap paper, randomly chopping at and blotting the ink. Once another, thicker sheet (for a bigger “hit”) is locked into the guides, just crank away and presto: a happy accident. We generally do five or so this way, then pick the example with the best lived-in look and feel. Remember to check your spelling and punctuation, students.

Great. So you’ve got a sheet of paper with 48-point letters on it. Fit that on a business card.

OK, we will. After the ink dries a bit, we slide the chosen sheet onto the scanner, then import it into the computer as an image file that can be shrunken or enlarged at will. And here’s the neatest part: The flaws remain perfectly consistent at any size. One set of old wooden letters has become five or six.

Next, turn the logo, now a series of files sized for various uses, into polymer plates. Start printing.

I know. Those in the letterpress printing business at this point are thinking: “Duh. What am I even reading this for?” Our eureka moment was theirs so 10 years ago or whatever. That’s fine. Typecast Press didn’t invent this method, but maybe someone will stumble upon this blog who hadn’t thought of it. We sure hadn’t. We’re already thinking of other ways to mesh old and new that might not be unique to us either, so there. Besides, anything that keeps these old cases of type together and alive — word is that wood type is being bought up, jumbled together and poured willy-nilly into hollow glass forms to make decorative coffee tables, among other things — is positively revolutionary at this point.

If our letters could talk they’d probably say:

“A-OK.”

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