What I Learned at Wayzgoose

I promised a more detailed run-down of the Wayzgoose, and here it is:

I decided to attend the event after my friend Rich Kegler (owner of P22 Type Foundry and founder of WNYBAC) told me that he’d include a snippet about my type project in his presentation on Friday night.  I thought the plug would provide me with the perfect opportunity to court all the experts and solicit advice – and I was right.  Over the course of the weekend, I was lucky enough to make the acquaintance and bend the ear of Bill Moran, Nick Sherman, David Shields, and Colin Frazer, among many others.

The person I was most excited to meet was Nick Sherman, a skate rat, typographer, artist, and tireless wood type advocate who worked painstakingly to produce the Intercut Wood Typeface in 2006.  Although his project was executed on a CNC router and involved a very different process, I still believed he’d be a great resource – and he is – not just to me, but everyone.  What on earth does that mean?  Check out his outrageously thorough and ambitious site woodtyper.com.  Nick’s understated and quiet demeanor belies the depth and intensity of his intellect.  He responded positively to my project, and after considering the prototype blocks I showed him, he voiced concerns about the height of the letterforms and the possible weakening of thinner sections of the letter, i.e., the serifs.  After assuring him that the final letterforms were to be twice the size (which would widen the serifs considerably), he was convinced that the project was a go and seemed excited about seeing the final results.  When I wrap this up, I hope Nick will find it in his heart to feature my meager achievement on Woodtyper!

David Shields, an Assistant Professor of Design at the University of Texas, Austin,  has an obsessively deep knowledge of a niche subject (wood type and typography) coupled with an amazingly warm personality (two things I don’t often find co-present in a person), and to boot, he’s the gatekeeper for the phenomenal Rob Roy Kelly American Wood Type Collection.  David was intrigued by the potential for cost effective creation of wood type that my project presages, as well as the simple mode of production.  We discussed how it might be possible to create a usable font for less than 200 dollars (at this point, this is a rough estimate of the final cost), and how experiments like this open the door for artists everywhere to begin producing something that hitherto seemed exclusively the privilege of people with access to professional wood shops or antique print shops.  We also briefly discussed the possibility of using laser-etching on a wood block to create ornamental frames and borders (akin to something that might now be achieved using photopolymer plates).  David also, almost immediately, urged me to build the blocks I brought with me to type height and print them – put them to the test, so to speak.   Meeting David was a great experience, and it wasn’t just because he was interested in my project.

Colin Frazer is the head of The Press at Colorado College, an amazing letterpress shop “dedicated to the art of making limited edition books and broadsides.”  We had plenty to talk about because, believe it or not, Colin is working on producing his own wood type.  He, like Nick, is using a CNC router to do the job, but he’s using the traditional material: end grain rock maple.  That is, if he can find it.  One of the biggest problems Colin’s run into is finding the raw materials he needs to finish his project, and the tools necessary to plane/sand them perfectly to type height.  As we walked around Hamilton, we both drooled over pallets of finished and unfinished end grain maple, but to no avail.  Colin was full of energy, full of ideas, great to work with in the pressroom, and the finished letter he showed me (apparently only a prototype) revealed unbelievable attention to design and detail.  To be honest, I was jealous.  Here I am super-gluing doo-dads together.  Did I mention the trip was as humbling as it was inspiring? 

Finally, I got to meet Bill Moran, Artistic Director and resident Renaissance man of the Hamilton Wood Type Museum.  Bill is to be commended, first off, for organizing an amazing event.  He is tireless in the way Rich Kegler is tireless, and his love of the space (and the idea of the space) is palpable (not to mention, contagious).  Bill had plenty to say about my project, but most interestingly he explained that what I was doing wasn’t new at all – in fact, it was exactly how Edward Hamilton had gotten his start back in 1880.  Hamilton produced composite wood type using a foot-pedal operated scroll  saw to create the letterforms out of holly wood, and then adhered those to a softer base wood, like pine.  He called his wood type “hollywood type,” and it became so popular that soon after its introduction he was able to quit his job and produce type full-time.  It was great to hear that there was a successful precedent for what I was doing, and to hear that the motivation (cost-effectiveness) was exactly the same.  I really admire what Bill, Jim Moran, and Jim Van Lanen are doing with Hamilton, and I hope to return soon.

Published in: on November 30, 2009 at 3:49 PM  Comments (1)  

Hamilton Wood Type Museum Wayzgoose

This past weekend I was fortunate enough to visit the Hamilton Wood Type Museum in Two Rivers, Wisconsin for its First annual wayzgoose.  The event featured an amazing array of lectures (Rich Kegler, Paul Brown, Juliet Chen) as well as some amazing demonstrations and workshops.  A veritable mecca for wood type enthusiasts (rivaled only by the Rob Roy Kelly collection at the University of Texas, Austin), Hamilton was the perfect place to go to get advice on my project.  Where else would I find so many people interested in the same print implements or who had considered so many of the same problems and possible solutions?

I’ll skip the laundry list for now, but I will come back to it.  Until then, some pictures from the event and of the wood type collection.

Published in: on November 25, 2009 at 6:19 AM  Leave a Comment  

Laser Cutter in Action

Today Luke and I hit up the laser cutter in the UB Architecture Department to cut some letterforms out of hardwood.  The Universal laser cutter worked really well even on maple and walnut.  I’ve decided that maple will probably be the way to go – but I still may test the sheet of cherry wood I bought.

Soon I’ll be adhering these letterforms to a block of the right height to make them type high, then a few more test prints.  After that, the files will be scaled up and the actual production will begin.  Until then, look for more entries on the artists and craftsmen involved, and check out this video of the laser cutter in action!

Published in: on November 19, 2009 at 8:58 AM  Leave a Comment  

The Glue Sticks!

After getting the advice about the Polyacrylate glue, I set up shop and tested it out.  The glue is ideally suited for the purpose:  thin, clear, fast-tacking and fast-setting. It was easy to use; I simply placed a few drops on the back of the letterform, flipped it, held it in place until it tacked.  Then I ran a thin line of glue around the edges where the letterform edge met the base wood.  It took the glue a few minutes to set up completely, and then I let the pieces rest for about an hour.  At that time, I lightly sanded the face of the letters to remove excess glue.  Since these were prototypes, I didn’t bother removing the excess from around the edges.  The plastic tipped applicator is far too large to be exact – when doing the final pieces of type, I’ll be using a syringe.

Once the glue had set, I realized it had definitely plasticized the wood (seeped into the grain and actually stiffened and reinforced the thin areas).  It held fast, and even when I attempted to pry it off with a pen knife, the letterform wouldn’t separate from the base wood, the wood itself simply chipped.

Although this run-through was hardly scientific, it led me to believe that the Polyacrylate was a very feasible option.  In order to wrap up this test, I took the block to the print shop, doused it in all of the available solvents to test its resistance, and finally built it to type height and printed it.  Check out the results!

Published in: on November 17, 2009 at 4:38 PM  Leave a Comment  

Poplar Letterforms and Cyanoacrylate

After cutting the chipboard letterforms, I decided it was time to test the Winchell font in wood.  I discussed some possibilities with Luke, and he told me that cutting hardwood up to a 1/4″ is feasible on the laser cutter, but thinner is better.  I opted for a few different hardwood choices in 1/8″:  maple, walnut, cherry, and mahogany.  We’ll cut prototypes out of each of these, then make decisions about quality, grain, hardness, and once we know which wood works best, we’ll stick with that.  For now, because Luke had it hanging around the wood shop, we cut some letterforms out of 1/16″ poplar.  If you look closely, you can see the burn/smoke marks on the backs of the letters.  IMG_5171

Poplar is one of the the softest hardwoods (for a complete list of woods and their hardness, check out the strangely intriguing Janka Hardness Scale).  It made clean letterforms quickly, but the thin sections were extremely fragile.  1/16″ inch is simply too thin.  These letters are also about 1/2 the size of the intended final product, so it’s important to remember that as we scale up the letter in height, the width of those thin sections will increase as well.IMG_5175

In addition to the poplar prototypes, I had a chance to visit a local woodworking shop and inquire about adhesive possibilities.  As I said before, adhering the letterforms to a substrate is going to be one of the most challenging aspects of the project.  We need an adhesive that is thin, works well on a porous surface, is easy to manage, and forms a bond impervious to solvents.  After a short consultation, I was led to Titebond’s Instant Bond Wood Adhesives.  Titebond’s wood adhesives are pure Cyanoacrylate, which is a really cool form of super glue that starts off as a monomer and uses the moisture in the air to polymerize.  It’s an acrylic resin (essentially a plastic) that can seep into the capillaries of a substrate (like wood grain) and form a deep, lasting, plasticized bond.  I’ve looked at the solvent list of chemicals that decompose CA (as it’s commonly called) and none of those are normally present in the print shop.  I’ve test-glued two letterforms to a substrate, but have yet to be able to expose them to a solvent or print them.  I guess I’ll find out soon enough if all these fantastic claims are true!IMG_5172

Published in: on November 13, 2009 at 8:35 AM  Leave a Comment  

Meet the First Font

As I said before, technical concerns did take some precedence, but that doesn’t mean that I’m going to make any old typeface.  I’ve selected three local artists to help produce the fonts:  Mike Basinski, Rich Kegler, and Hyeyoung Shin.  In addition to those three, I will be attempting to design my own font as well.  In the coming weeks, I’ll introduce each of the artists, show some of their work, and explain why I chose them for this project.  But for now, let’s take a look at the first font: Rich Kegler’s  Winchell.


Winchell is the only typeface known to be designed here in Buffalo, NY (prior to the formation of P22 Type Foundry).  Rich Kegler, owner of P22 Type Foundry and head of the WNYBAC discovered a 36 pt. drawer of this font and used that, as well as many other extant samples, to digitally craft an updated version of Winchell.  Read about the history of this font, as well as technical and artistic decisions that Kegler made, here.

If it looks familiar, that’s because it’s the font we used to cut the chipboard letterforms!

Published in: on November 9, 2009 at 10:15 AM  Leave a Comment  

Testing, Testing, 1, 2, 3

The Q

Letter Pile

Published in: on November 8, 2009 at 12:53 PM  Leave a Comment  

The Early Stages

Even before making decisions about which fonts to create, I had to decide how to make them.  Most wood type is made using a pantograph router, which utilizes a traceable pattern and a mechanical arm to duplicate an image in wood.  In the case of type, a letter could be modeled in any material, then used as the pattern for the pantograph router.  The advantage of the router is that it can quickly and easily remove all of the other unwanted material (wood) from the face of a piece of type – this eliminates any hand carving that might be required to remove excess wood.  However, router bits are round and often reasonably large compared to the elements of a typeface, so one of the major disadvantages of using a router is its inability to generate sharp inside corners.  Many such details would have to be hand carved.  A modern incarnation of the router was also an option, namely, a CNC router.  The CNC would have allowed me to work from computer generated templates, but it still would have been susceptible to the same problems as the pantograph (round bits, no sharp inside corners, scale restraints, and hand carved details).  The third, and final option (I discussed hand carving all of the blocks with a few people and was strongly advised against so ambitious and undertaking), was to use a laser cutter to slice the letterforms out of thin hardwood, then adhere those letterforms to blocks that would make them type-high.  The laser cutter boasted a number of benefits:  sharp corners, speed, no hand carving, fine details.  But it did have one major drawback:  it couldn’t produce a single letter out of a single block of wood that was already type-high, because the laser wasn’t suitable for removing the excess wood on the face of the block.  This requires that the letter itself be adhered to a substrate; this two-piece construction may be a major weakness of the final product.  The type will be subjected to repeated use and repeated pressure, as well as constant exposure to ink solvents.  In order to resolve these issues when the time comes, a number of different adhesives will have to be considered.

After deciding on the third option, I was lucky enough to connect with Master’s candidate Architecture student Luke Johnson here at SUNY at Buffalo, and he’s been helping me convert Illustrator typeface files into Autocad files for the laser cutter.  In fact, we’ve run a test typeface through some chipboard and produced some amazing prototype letterforms.  Tomorrow we will be testing different types and thicknesses of wood, and then I’ll be adhering those wooden letterforms to a substrate (after I find suitable wood and get it planed to height) – soon we’ll have our first testable mock-up.

Check out the pictures, more to come soon!



Published in: on November 6, 2009 at 12:59 PM  Comments (2)  

First Things First

A little background:  I’ve been printmaking in one form or another for over ten years; I’ve been letterpressing for four.  My interest in typography and mechanically assisted handmade objects has consequently led me to want to produce not only letterpress documents, but also letterpress implements – in this case, wood type.

Why wood type?  Because of my love of wood type, letterpress, and all things uniquely functional.  And because I thought it would be easier (albeit slightly) than casting metal type.  I also enjoy the particular “feel” of wood type, both as a physical object and as a printmade index (or visual trope).  I had tossed around the idea in the past, but because of lack of technological resources and collaborators I had to put those plans aside.  At the moment, I’m in a particularly good position to realize this project:  I have full access to University labs and tools, I have a group of dedicated advisers and technicians, and finally, maybe most importantly, a few artists willing to lend their creative energy.

Over the coming week, I’ll be introducing each of the people involved in this project, as well as fleshing out the details.

Stay tuned, get to know the people who are doing the work, and see how it all transpires.

Published in: on November 5, 2009 at 9:11 AM  Leave a Comment  

Wood Type? Are You Crazy?

Possibly.  But that remains to be seen.

This blog will detail the daily trials and tribulations of creating a series of wood type fonts for letterpress use.  The project is the brainchild of artist, poet, letterpresser, and bookmaker Chris Fritton (me), and it is based in Buffalo, NY.  This is a labor intensive project (also broad in administrative scope and creative ambition), but I hope to draw together a number of different artists in order to utilize their specific skills and execute the work in a timely, efficient, and cost effective fashion.


The project will be funded by me alone, but the man-hours donated by all of those involved will also constitute a massive contribution to the end result.

Stop back and check the progress each week as we make technical decisions, seek advice, go to production, and eventually (I hope) put our newly constructed wood type to use!

Published in: on November 3, 2009 at 4:11 PM  Leave a Comment