General Letterpress Information - History

Letterpress Printing FAQs

We have constructed this section to highlight some of the everyday printing questions, with an emphasis on educating the general public on a few basic letterpress facts. There are many great letterpress resource web sites available. Please visit our Links pages were we have provided a wealth of helpful links, as well as our favorite links.

Brief History

The birth of letterpress printing in Europe came in the 15th century. Although printing with wood blocks has deeper roots in the Far East, Johannes Gutenberg developed “reusable movable type”, the basic principle that was used well into the 20th century.

The invention of movable type allowed Gutenberg to print the first historic 42-line Bible in 1455. This was the first Western mass-produced book, also known as the Gutenberg_Bible

Letterpress printing became the method of choice, and for the next four hundred years continued to evolve until the introduction of the linotype machine in the late 19th century. Linotype machines soon replaced letterpress as the primary printing method.

Letterpress printing today is thriving with a great number of individuals personally dedicated to the preservation of this historic art-form. Visit some of the links and you can see some of the important people maintaining this art-from, hopefully for generations or even centuries to come!

Wood Type

Hand Carved Telegraph Wood Type Print Block

Primitive hand-carved woodtype printers block

Our “Western” affair with wood type began in 1827 by Darius Wells of New York. He created a process to draw the letter on a wood block and then carve around the letter with hand tools. He later introduced the basic invention of a Lateral Router. Along with the Pantograph introduced by William Leavenworth in 1834, they now had the essential materials for mass-producing wood type.

Following his initial presentation of wood type in 1827, other designers and manufacturers began producing wood type blocks.

In 1868, James Edward Hamilton moved to Two Rivers, Wisconsin and went to work in a chair factory. An editor at the Two Rivers Chronicle needed letters for a rush project. Time did not allow him to order and have them made. He then asked Hamilton if he could make them for him. Hamilton made them on his mothers back porch using a foot powered scroll saw.

The blocks printed so well, Hamilton went on to establish the J. E. Hamilton Hollywood Wood Type Company, later to become Hamilton Wood Type Factory. Within twenty years they became the largest wood type provider in the United States and they produced more than one-thousand styles and sizes.

Today the original Hamilton factory in Two Rivers, Wisconsin has become the Hamilton Woodtype Museum.

Printers Blocks / Cuts

Although there are many sites with letterpress resources, the graphic blocks seem to be well hidden. The main focus in letterpress is movable type printing with various fonts ( founts). Our goal is to preserve and display early woodcuts, line-cuts and other 19th and early 20th century graphic blocks. Included in our collection are many great examples of Stereotypes and Engravings.

Hopefully our web site will prompt others to create web sites with much better collections for everyone to enjoy. We know they’re out there and we look forward to viewing them. Although our collection is modest, we feel they are worthy of sharing and preserving.

Thanks to the good folks at Stanford University, we have this descriptive manufacturing history for early wood cuts through halftone graphic blocks.

Types of Blocks / Cuts

Line Blocks are made from copper or zinc and are approximately 6 points thick.

Halftone Blocks are made from zinc or copper and are approximately 6 points thick. The image is broken up into small dots.

Electrotypes have a copper printing surface backed with stereo metal and are approximately 12 points thick.

Stereotypes are made from plastic, rubber or an alloy of lead antimony and tin and are approximately 12 points thick.

Note: Stereotypes and electrotypes can be nickel faced for longer life. To identify each, compare the non-printing areas. The stereos usually are rough in these areas and electros are usually quite smooth.

Types of Block Faces

Information courtesy of Steve Sylvester

Zinc: all zinc plates are originals, since they are produced by an acid-tech process from a photographic negative. They are usually glued to the wood base, which is either plywood or solid, occurs about half and half. Sometimes nails are used, but this is not normal. Metal is light in color, not as dark a grey as older cuts, and they are light in weight. There are almost always small overlapping circles following the image area, made by the router used to remove excess background material. Metal is consistent in color and tone throughout its depth, rather like aluminum.

Modern-day cuts are often magnesium, which is even brighter and lighter, glued only, no nails. Zinc is usually corroded at some place; white, powdery residue. Corrodes VERY easily. Zinc cuts may or may not have a color on their surface, most commonly blue, green, amber, or red, depending on the amount of use they received. The color is simply that manufacturer's choice and does not apparently relate to the quality of the cut. It's there to help increase the life of the material.

Stereo: made from a mold, no machine marks on the surface. Consistent dark grey throughout material thickness, image area has a "sculpted" look to it, as if carved from butter and shaped by modeling tools. Most always mounted to a solid block, usually hardwood: oak, maple, etc. by nails. In the middle third of 1900's was sometimes glued to the block. Heavier than zinc or magnesium, solid "feel" or heft. Thick is older than thin, the heavier, the older. Supposedly, the first experiments in stereotype happened in 1683, but it did not become common until the mid-19th century.

Electro: identical in manufacture and physical characteristics to the stereo, except that the surface has been electroplated with copper to increase useable life. Examining the edge of the cut through a 10-power loupe, the copper plating is easily seen. As before, thicker is older. Consistent color, usually dark grey, throughout material depth. Also as before, darker is older. Virtually always mounted with nails to solid wood base. Some electros were designed for very heavy use and are made of solid type metal with an electroplated copper surface. Common for newspaper production work, where the type and cuts really took a beating daily, especially in the 19th century.

Copper plate: generally not used in letterpress work, but more for music engraving and art prints. They are not mounted to a base, as a general rule, and are most often used in a copperplate press. Thin material, engraved on one side only, copper throughout, generally not an alloy. A real treasure if you find one. Used from beginnings of printing right up 'til today. Easily damaged.

Type Size

Foundry type is measured in “points”, wood type is measured in lines or picas. Graphic blocks can be measured by either.

1 inch = 6 pica = 6 lines
1 pica = 12 points
72 points = 1 inch
Standard Type Height = .918 inches

Foundry PIN Marks

Pin marks on foundry cast type were originally a “pin like” mark left by the early type casters, as the type was removed from the mold. With the advancement of casting equipment in the 19th century, the pin was no longer required.

The pin mark evolved into an identifying mark by the producing foundry. For detailed information, We host our collection of early pin marks used through the 19th and early 20th centuries at the following link: Foundry I.D. and Pin Mark Library

Cleaning Print Blocks

We are often asked how we clean the surface of these very old printer's blocks. We do not recommend the use of abrasive cleaning solutions. The product we use is Nev-R-Dull. A lot of elbow grease could be required for some very oxidized surfaces. However the rewards far outweigh the effort. This product can be found at most Hardware and some Grocery stores. If there is a tough ink on the surface, you could use a paint thinner to remove most prior to cleaning with the Nev-R-Dull.

Please visit our link page to view additional printing resources.