"He Wears Black and Has a Beard"

Geek Toy: Movable Type

Toby Roworth

Feb 25, 2013

For a guy who has a bedroom full of PA gear, tools and coffee making devices it doesn't bode well when I think I've made an exceptionally geeky purchase.
I've slowly been finding myself getting more interested in typesetting over the last year or so, and felt that there could be a lot to learn from doing it the old way.
As a result I was googling letterpress when I found a small chest of drawers full of type on eBay, and it took mere seconds to decide I wanted it. Quite why, I don't know, but it was beautiful and must be useful sometime!
I won, just, and the package arrived to work last week. The seller had kindly fitted a packing peanut into each drawer compartment in the hope that it would stop the courier unleashing the type everywhere, but to little avail - I need to timetable in an evening to sort through a few hundred letters! They tried...
The drawers are quite lovely, looking suitably old for their age. They're quite clearly handmade, which is nice.

Four typefaces are present, two of which are quite complete.
On the point of uppercase, everyone knows that uppercase is so called because it was in the drawer above the other one. Unfortunately one of them only fits in the bottom space, so might need some slight sanding!
At the time of writing, I've sorted the first of the 6 drawers, which took several hours, over two days:

The italic "f"s are really nice, as they show an example of actual real old-school kerning, where a "kern" was a bit of lead extending over the side of the block - you might just be able to make it out below:

A little easter egg was a few letters tied together reading "the promoter", presumably one of Stan Lee's less popular superheroes.

Ideas for use:

Business cards - if I machine up a plate with my logo on I could print the black text and logo, and then add a spot colour for some groovy lines. Although I'm also tempted to go two-process and engrave the lines. Dissertation - the amount of design cred I'd get for hand typesetting a dissertation... Might just do an essay! Christmas - I have a plan for some awesome personalised Christmas presents, which need labeling somehow. Display - the case looks so good, I could just leave it on show in my room with some nice lights.

The Future

Next step is to build a press! I'll probably make that a project once I'm back at uni with a machine shop.
I'm also tempted to try and mechanically implement TeX, to beautifully justify movable type. Quite how I'm still working on, but it could make a fun project.
I've also been tasked with producing something to make some pretty special business cards for a colleague. I'll keep details on that as a commercial secret.
My last type-based project might be a bit of a pipe dream. I was reading about how Linotype machines worked, and have now decided that one day I'll have either a real one, a replica or a Linotype-inspired hot metal type machine.
Hot metal type was really cool - you typed a letter on a keyboard and that letter would fall into a channel. Once a whole line was made it would use those letters to cast a lead "slug" which could be used to print multiple copies of the line. This was automatic - you press enter and the machine instantly casts some lead! Makes 3D printing look a bit boring! The machine then used magic to sort the letters out.

So yeah, I want one!