Wood Type Revival

Categories Articles, Web Design

Matt Griffin and Matt Braun have started a Kickstarter project to revive historic letterpress wood type as digital opentype fonts for designers.

I should tell you one thing at the outset: I’m a type nerd. I can spend hours mooning over the beauty and minutiae of letterforms, and nowhere is this proclivity more pronounced than with wood type.

Before the days of computers and digital type, letterforms were drawn by hand, cut into wood, and printed onto paper on grand machines: a process known as letterpress printing.

Wood type was for larger sizes than its metal counterpart, and therefore leant itself to display faces in an arms-race-style battle of typographic one-upmanship. Posters using wood type needed to grab the attention of passersby, so type designers concocted ever more fanciful typefaces to outdo their competitors.

These heady days produced type designs distinct from the bulk of modern digital faces: fanciful tuscans, outlines and inlines, multi-color chromatics faces, and some that seem unclassifiable. But these wild old faces exist still in basements, garages, and attics – occasionally gasping for air on Ebay, before being swallowed up again, away from the public eye.

This is why Matt Braun (a fellow designer and letterpress printer at Bearded) and I have begun a Kickstarter project to rescue select historic wood faces from obscurity, and bring them kicking and screaming into the digital age.

Once we receive funding, we’ll scour the globe for 10 of the most prized fonts of wood type we can acquire. We’ll print these faces on our trusty Vandercook proof press. Then with the help of our Wacom Cintiq tablet, we’ll redraw them as vector outlines, and assemble them as digital opentype fonts – a format that’s a little more useful for modern designers than wood blocks.

We will purposefully seek out faces with characteristics the digital world is lacking. We’ll include damaged letters (with telltale knicks, dings, and scratches) as alternate characters, to enable proper variation in typesetting. We’ll print each face using various levels of pressure, to get multiple textures inside the type, which we will package as multiple weights for the digital font.

To test our idea out, we created the beta version of our first font from our existing collection of wood type. It’s a gorgeous bold, extended slab-serif with the distinctive character of a hand-carved typeface. We’re calling it Fatboy, and the weight is Husky – you can download it on our Kickstarter page.

We’re compensating backers of the project with rewards like the final digital fonts, t-shirts, and limited-edition letterpress prints. Thanks to the enthusiastic support of the design community, we’ve already raised more than 75% of our funding for the project, and are really looking forward to creating a great new library of historical wood type-derived display faces for today’s modern designers. So please take a look at the project, and spread the word to your fellow designers.

Matt Griffin is one of the founders of the design firm Bearded. He also teaches letterpress printing to young designers at Carnegie Mellon University.