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Wood type is back—and it's too heavy to go anywhere, anyway.
While there are collections throughout the United States, the most
formidable is housed at the Hamilton Wood Type and Printing
Museum, in Two Rivers, Wisconsin, at the site of what was once
the largest manufacturer of wood type in the country. Dedicated to
the preservation, study, production and printing of wood type, the
Hamilton is sure make an impression on any typography enthusiast.
And for the wood type lover, a trip to the museum is a must—the
perfect excursion for a spring or summer's day. To get an insider's
perspective, we spoke to Bill Moran, owner and founder of Blinc Publishing, in St.
Paul, Minnesota. Moran is a third-generation letterpress printer
and a printing historian who teaches typography at the University
of Minnesota and the University of Wisconsin-Stout. Through the UMN
a three-week European type history tour that showcases the
birth of printing and rare books in Spain, Germany and Italy. His
work has been published and exhibited nationally, and he is a
co-author of Hamilton
Wood Type: A History in Headlines.
An exterior view of the Hamilton Wood Type and Printing Museum,
in Two Rivers, Wisconsin.
Heller: Let's start with basics. What is wood type? And why
was it used rather than metal?
Moran: The first known wood type catalog to appear in the
U.S. was published by Darius Wells, in 1828. Wood type has been
used in various ways for hundreds of years, but the serious
production began in the States with the expansion of the American
frontier. Printers found that as larger type was required for
newspaper headlines and advertising, lead type was simply too heavy
to manufacture in larger sizes. So, using a router or a pantograph,
type makers would cut the type from a master template based on the
styles that were in vogue at the time (see
Heller: Tell me about the Hamilton Wood Type Museum. How much
type does it have, and how was it acquired?
Hamilton Wood Type's 1893 World's Columbian Exposition poster on
press at the museum.
Moran: The Hamilton Manufacturing Company was founded in
1880 in Two Rivers, Wisconsin, and the museum was established in
1999. They have 30,000 square feet of space and a 4,500 sq. ft.
printing studio, making it one of the largest working printing
museums in the world. Since opening they've hosted hundreds of
printers, historians and designers who are drawn to the million and
a half pieces of wood type in the collection. The type ranges from
a quarter of an inch to 5 feet tall. Hamilton has had many
donations and purchased large collections over the years, so
sometimes it comes one drawer at a time and sometimes one print
shop at a time.
Heller: Who brought the museum to life?
Moran: If you're going to talk about Hamilton, you have
to talk about the community that founded it. With sheer
determination local volunteers and the museum's technical director
Greg Corrigan have preserved and nurtured one of the most important
collections of printing history in the U.S. These are generous
people who host countless visitors every year. (And if you visit,
be sure to get an ice cream sundae across the street—it
was invented there.)
Heller: Cool (no pun intended). When we think about wood
type, often it conjures heavy slab serifs and ornamental decorative
material. Is there a standard the museum maintains in terms of what
is collected, or is the sky the limit?
Moran: Hamilton is open to wood type donations of any
kind. If they purchase collections, it's because of the quality or
quantity. A key development in the past few years has been the
acquisition of hand-cut, wood and linoleum advertising plates. In
2005 the museum purchased a 1,500-plate collection from a defunct
printer, and the array of sizes and subject matter rivals that of
Print, in Nashville. In fact, [Hatch Show Print manager] Jim
Sherraden has visited a few times to advise and help appraise the
collection. The typography and illustration captured in these
blocks are an amazing showcase of the commercial art of the 1930s
to 1940s. The skill of the designers, wood cutters and printers who
made and used these blocks is every bit as sophisticated as what
we're doing today in terms of trapping, overprinting and the
incorporation of lettering.
Wood type trials for Matthew Carter's Carter Latin Wide font
(above) and progressive proofs of Carter Latin Wide (top).
Heller: Wood type was reintroduced to designers by, among
other scholar/designers, the late
Rob Roy Kelly. Have there been any other breakthroughs since
his work in the history of the form?
Moran: I wouldn't say there have been breakthroughs, but
wood type has definitely attracted the attention of serious
typographers, including a cool project by Matthew Carter, who
a Latin-style face as a two-color font to be cut at Hamilton.
Matthew's technical demands for the face forced us to look past the
traditional pattern making and routing, and we've incorporated a
computer-driven router to achieve the optical effects Matthew was
looking for. Other than that, Rob Roy Kelly's American Wood
Type continues to inspire us with the talent and ingenuity
shown by the early wood-type makers like Darius Wells and George
Nesbitt. They made breakthroughs in styles that are still the
benchmarks that we look to today.
Heller: At Hamilton you work with students to create
specimens, but what other ongoing projects have you
Moran: The project I'm most excited about right now is a
first-time printing of an 1893 plaque that Hamilton made for the
Columbia Exposition in Chicago. It features 48 different wood
fonts, measures 51" x 22" and boasts the smallest wood type ever
made. The plaque is the only known copy that exists, and we needed
to print it without getting ink on it. After experimenting with
various offsetting techniques we settled on shrinkable window film
as a barrier and printed through it. It gives a bit of a ghostly
effect but the posters are really handsome and we are able to
preserve and share this treasure of typography.
Another exciting initiative is bringing in volunteer groups to
clean, sort and classify type from the collection. Over the
museum's 10-year history we've had a lot of type that's been
donated or purchased that we simply haven't had time to inventory.
And with the help of friends, and current and former students,
we've embarked on a large-scale effort to dig into boxes that have
been unopened for 30 or 40 years. The exciting thing about this
initiative is that not only do we have a clearer idea of the extent
of the collection, but we're also labeling and storing the type in
a way that will be easier for folks to access the type, who want to
print with it later.
Auto races broadside detail, a restrike of a 1950s advertising
plate, from the Globe Printing Company collection.
Heller: How do you feel about the digitization of wood type?
I mean, as with the letterpress purists, is there a line in the
sand between the real thing and the approximated thing?
Moran: Well, I think there's a broad spectrum of
practitioners who are reviving wood typefaces. On one end you've
got Jonathan Hoeffler and
Tobias Frere-Jones, who've elevated the classic families of
wood type to a suite of fonts that not only acknowledge where they
come from but also bring a level of discipline and beauty to a
craft that wasn't possible when type makers were working in wood.
On the other end of the spectrum you've got websites that encourage
visitors to download copies of specimen sheets and do it yourself.
The struggle between "authentic-looking" and authentic is an old
one, and the presence of the internet has only served to broaden
I'm glad you mentioned the letterpress purists! As a
third-generation letterpress printer and a printing historian I'd
like to consider myself a purist. But I do have a problem with
designers/printers who bad-mouth polymer plates as being the demise
of letterpress. These are individuals who have large collections of
type at their disposal and/or have a selective view of printing
history. Plate-making to compensate for a lack of type goes back to
the Renaissance, and much of the best letterpress produced in the
20th century was made with wood or magnesium plates. I've been
printing since the early 1970s and have used all of these media,
and at the end of the day—with budgets, deadlines and clients
looming—you use the tools at your disposal and do the best work you
Heller: One sees bits and pieces of wood type at flea markets
all over the place, but how do you acquire full alphabets?
Moran: Mostly with sheer luck. The collections that come
available via the web are scooped up quickly by folks with money to
spend. Watching listservs and websites like the Briar Press gives you an idea of
what's out there, but it also illustrates how great the demand has
become. I guess the best strategy is to make your interest known
and enlist other letterpress enthusiasts in your search. Small-town
newspapers seem to be a common source for printing equipment, and
many of these newspapers needed wood type for headlines. So that
might be a good starting place.
Pre-1826 hand-cut letter by Darius Wells, at the Hamilton.
Heller: Who in the past produced the most impressive lots of
Moran: The work of Darius Wells, and the David Knox
Company deserve mention, but for sheer beauty my vote goes to
William Page, of Norwich, Connecticut. Between 1856 and 1891 his
company made some of the most ambitious and visually stunning wood
type designs we've ever seen in the U.S. His company was bought out
by Hamilton in 1891, and Hamilton phased these designs out as the
demand for them was limited and they required more skill to make
than Hamilton could afford to invest.
Heller: Is there anyone actually making wood type
Moran: Hamilton has the capability to make wood type, but
we only do so on a limited basis. We have working pantographs and a
large supply wood, but the number of people who have the skill to
do it is quite small. Many of them are retirees and there's a
critical need to get younger people trained to use the equipment.
But even with the training, much of our work is done on a volunteer
basis, so having the time and money to make type is really
Stills from Justine Nagan's documentary Typeface (Kartemquin
Films): a case of ornate wood type (left) and pantograph
demonstration by Norb Brylski.
Heller: Nearly all of the museum personnel are volunteers,
and yet the upkeep and funding for such a collection must be a
burden. How do you do it?
Typeface film poster by Dennis Ichiyama, printed at Hamilton
Moran: Once you set foot inside the museum it's hard not
to be inspired by the legacy of Hamilton and the community that
hosts it. That inspiration has brought dozens of local and national
volunteers back, year in and year out, to help out in small and
large ways. The work of board member Jim Van Lanen and pantograph
operator Norb Brylski and a host of others serve as a great
motivation to pitch in and do what needs doing. Recently we've had
the hard work and creativity of filmmaker Justine Nagan, who works
for Kartemquin Films (Hoop Dreams). She made an outstanding
documentary called Typeface that
chronicles the museum's history and challenges. When you see this
film it's easy to want to get involved.
Heller: What else is in store for the Hamilton?
Moran: Lots of exciting stuff. We're having our first
major poster exhibition and open house this Memorial Day to
celebrate our 10th anniversary. Jim Sherraden, of Hatch Show Print,
is leading a workshop in May, with all proceeds going to benefit
the museum. And we're having our first Wayzgoose this fall.
It's a printer's celebration where we'll feature demonstrations,
workshops and posters for sale. To help with funding we've
established membership levels that allow individuals to donate
online. We're also working on a corporate sponsorship program and
are building up an inventory of posters for sale.
On the personnel front, our long-time technical director Greg
Corrigan is stepping down this spring. We'll really miss Greg's
expertise—his years of hard work have helped make the museum what
it is today.
Steven Heller has immortalized our graphic past and made coherence of our present. He is the author, co-author, or editor of more than 60 books on design-related topics. A journalist, critic, and commentator, he has written for a wide array of publications and has been the editor of AlGA's journal of graphic design, Voice, since its inception in the early '80s. In addition, for 33 years he was an art director at the New York Times, originally on the OpEd Page and for almost 30 of those years with the New York Times Book Review. Currently, he is co-chair of SVA's “MFA Designer as Author” department and a special consultant on new programs to the president of SVA, and writes the Visuals column for the New York Times Book Review. In recognition of his role as the ubiquitous, tireless chronicler of our design times, he was awarded an AIGA Medal in 1999.
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