29 July, 2008
Photos: Left: Johan de Zoete, Stichting Museum Enschedé; Right: James Mosley
Four hundred years after Gutenberg’s death, “metal type” was still being made the way he made it. Using files and gravers, a steel rod was cajoled into the shape of a backwards letter; this steel ‘punch’ was struck into a brass blank, called a ‘matrix,’ which would serve as a mold for the casting of individual pieces of lead type. (The term ‘lead type’ is a convenience: the material of printing type is more accurately called ‘type metal,’ as it contains a special typefounders’ blend of lead, tin, and antimony.)
This elaborate pas de cinque requires five different materials, each chosen for a different metallurgical property. Steel’s tensile strength helps it hold small details and resist the blow of the hammer; the malleability of brass makes it a good candidate for receiving the steel; lead, cheap and abundant, has a low melting point; tin is more fluid than lead when molten (yet more durable than lead when it hardens); and antimony is highly crystalline, giving printing types more crisply defined edges.
The few typefaces that have departed from this process have done so for very good reason. Common were large typefaces that would have been impractical to cut in steel (and impossible to strike into brass) which were instead made as wood forms, which were pressed into sand molds from which metal type was cast. But a lingering mystery are the Chalcographia in the collection of the Enschedé foundry in Haarlem, said to have been made with ‘brass punches.’ James Mosley corrects the record on his Typefoundry blog, explaining the types’ unusual gestation through a convoluted five-part process. The photographs, like the types themselves, are marvelous. —JH
14 July, 2008
Spotting the Long-Necked Kern
This publicity photo, from the Berthold foundry’s Specimen No. 525B (late 1950s?) shows the foundry type for Arabic Shaded No. 50. In addition to demonstrating the maker’s facility with both non-Latin scripts and elaborate ornamentation (this is an outline face with a drop shadow, produced at 30pt), this diagram shows an interesting technique for kerning Arabic’s many delicate features.
A kern, in the literal sense, is any part of a character that extends beyond the body. The more delicate a kern, the more likely it is to break off during use, and Arabic is among the world’s most sinewy scripts. To compensate, this typeface was cast with an especially long neck — the distance from the top-most printing surface (the face) to the non-printing surface below (the shoulder) — so that kerns would be stronger, and more fully supported by adjacent characters. A clever, simple solution.
Pop quiz: Arabic reads from right to left, and printing type is always reversed. Which end is the start of the line? If you’re disoriented, imagine the sixteenth century French and Flemish typefounders who produced some of the world’s finest Arabic typefaces, three hundred years before the invention of the mass-produced silvered-glass mirror. —JH
11 June, 2008
Designer Randy Pfeil wrote to ask the burning question, “what the heck is the favicon for typography.com? All I can see is a pixelated masked-man. What's the story?”
In a signature bit of H&FJ atavism, it’s a sort, otherwise known as a piece of printing type, seen in profile. The printing surface — uncoincidentally called the “type face” — is at the top. Below are the “feet,” separated by a “groove,” accentuated in our tiny icon. At left is the “nick” that appears on the front edge of a piece of type, a detail that helps establish that type is correctly oriented in a composing stick.
As a sort of typographic Easter egg, hunt around the character set of any H&FJ font and you’ll see an image of a sort lurking somewhere inside. —JH
6 December, 2007
Typographic Gifts for Designers, Part 3
Much nattering takes place on this blog about the distinction between lettering (letterforms rendered for a particular situation) and fonts (sets of type designed for reproduction.) Edible lettering is an ancient tradition, but edible fonts may be something new: our designer Sara Soskolne discovered this marvelous set of Movable Type in Chocolate, created by Sandra Kübler and Christine Voshage.
I have to commend the duo for including a broad character set, including accents and punctuation. (The Droste company, which makes the chocolate initials given to Dutch children for Sinterklaas Eve, doesn't produce even the letter I, presumably because it's challenging to design a chocolate I that matches the weight of the M or W.) As we know, children are a stickler for fairness, especially when it comes to chocolate, just as typographers are a stickler for fidelity, especially when it comes to chocolate. —JH