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  • Naomi Kent

Making wood type

I love wood type. I like the look of it, I like the feel of it, I like the mystery of history behind it and I like to print with it. Maybe part of the allure is the scarcity of it.

Every letterpress studio I visit has me drooling over the wood type, weather it’s a huge font,  a tiny font or a super fancy font.  Every letterpress studio is unique in that it owns at least some incredibly rare or interesting type that no other letterpress studio has.

The problem with wood type is that it’s not being made anymore (At least not in the UK), there is simply not a high enough demand for it. Any type that is for sale comes with a big price tag attached to it.

Influenced by seeing the work of Geri at Virgin Wood Type and my time working at Birmingham City University, it had me wondering with all the available technology it boasts, if it would be possible to try and make our own wood type.

In 2014 I experimented with laser cut type, I don’t know if it was our lame laser cutters or what but it took forever. I had to keep sending it through so that the cut was deep enough.

I needed a faster method than laser cutting, I also wanted them a little prettier looking. There was lots of research to do. Since we don’t have a pantograph at BCU I chatted to the wood work technician who suggested cutting out letters on the laser and then sticking them onto a wood block or we could try the CNC router which would mean we could cut down into the block keeping it as a whole. I much preferred the sound of this. As with every experiment there are questions to be asked. What are the limitations of the CNC router? The smallest drill bit BCU use is 3mm. But that wouldn’t get near enough detail into a letter as I would like. I’d have to buy a 1mm, but with that comes the risk of it breaking as it’s so small. What type of wood do you use? It had to be a hard wood so that the wood wouldn’t get compressed over the years through the press, causing it not to print. Geri over at Virgin Wood Type & Scott at Moore Wood Type use end grain maple, but I couldn’t get hold of that and the CNC couldn’t have coped with end grain. Instead I ordered some American Ash.

I also had to enlist the help of product student Beau Birkett, as I had no idea how to work Auto Cad and all these letters needed to be in a file the CNC router could read.

Here’s an image of our first test and the 1MM drill bit didn’t break – wahoo!!

Just to make sure we were all good with the drill bit, we did another few tests

With the all clear from the 1mm drill bit it was full steam ahead! I ordered 6 1mm drill bits (Not cheap either at £23 a pop!) just incase it did decide to break. Because if it did we would have to replace it there and then so that we could carry on. So as not to wear the drill bit out we decided to do the outlines with the 1mm then the insides of the letter could be taken away with a 3mm.

The letters were then cut on a band saw and sanded down by hand around the edges. The type face was then sanded down on a very fine 400 grit piece of sandpaper until it felt as smooth as glass. A sanding sealer was then applied with a rag rather than a brush so as not to leave any raised brush marks which may be visible when printed, they were left over night, sanded down again and a 2nd layer of sanding sealer was applied, left over night again, sanded down lightly and then a layer of shellac was applied

A huge thanks to Beau for his excellent Auto Cad skills and for being insanely precise and patient sanding every individual piece down and making sure they were all 0.918″ heigh. And also Rowan for his advice & operating the CNC Machine. Without these guys there wouldn’t even have been a project. Collaboration makes so many things possible!

1st test print! I love the wood grain coming through in the print!

Don’t they all just look so yummy inked for the very first time?

Now to make MORE!!!!

(Type designer? Want to see your work in wood? Get in touch!)

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