The House Font, Please

Well, I’m back from a busy week spent mostly out of the studio. Since becoming involved with a graphic designer, and henceforth with graphic design and typography, I have come to notice type everywhere, in all of its manifestations. Street signs. Restaurant menus. Our new Mini Cooper’s owner’s manual. It really is everywhere. In the words of poet and scholar Robert Bringhurst, typography “with anything to say” should rise to “a kind of statuesque transparency.” It’s supposed to be subliminal.

When encountering type, we meet it face to face – literally. Type is recognized by its faces. It can possess arms and legs, a neck, a head and feet (or foot for those monopod characters out there). A particularly jaunty character might wear a cap. I don’t think this vague anthropomorphism is accidental; our relationship with written language has pagan roots, quite clearly visible on the walls of pharoahs’ crypts and less overtly in the origins of the Greek alphabet. There’s a lot of heavy history in a letterform.

So when a letterpress printer sits down and must decide how he or she will proceed with type, it’s serious stuff. First off, it’s not easy to get lead type. You can’t saunter down to the local type foundry and place an order to be delivered to your shop. As I speak, there are only half a dozen places in North America where you can buy new type, and most of that is not foundry type – hardened by the inclusion of stronger alloys – but rather mono type, from casting machines and not meant to live long in a high production environment.

As an alternative, a printer can turn to used type, which exists in abundance if you know where to look, but risks abound with this choice – choice being the operative word. There isn’t much choice if one is pining for an elegant text or proper book face. Some one else snapped that up the minute it came on the market. On the other hand, if one’s printing plans involve a myriad of funky advertising display faces, then used type is a viable direction.

There are two types of letterpress printers: the specialist and the typophile. The specialist has one kind of product in mind, and acquires just a handful of fonts to achieve that end. The typophile, as you may have already surmised, wants it all, and will fill warehouses with banks of type cabinets in his or her quest to never be without 42 pt Marble Heart or whatever, should it be called for. And why not? Letterpress printing probably attracts [more than?] its fair share of obsessives, so chasing type might be an outlet for some.

I fall into the former group, for the most part, because I do not have room for 100 type cabinets. I barely have room for two, so early on it became clear that I would have to chose a house font, meaning a single face in multiple sizes, both roman and italic, and this face would characterize all the work on Greyweathers Press for the next several years. No pressure. None at all.

On one of my early visits to Don Black Linecasting in Toronto, Ontario, I bought just enough used type to get me started: one tray marked Goudy Handtooled, and another drawer brimming with 18pt Canterbury. At this time, Don sold me McGrew’s American Metal Typefaces of the Twentieth Century, an invaluable reference book in which I learned that my very attractive sounding Goudy Handtooled was in fact a rather less elegant and quite worn face called Cheltenham. So it goes. Hardly an auspicious start but you have to learn on something, and it was with the faux Goudy Handtooled that I set first type and printed it on my own press in the late fall of 2004.


Note the capital T and e in ‘test’, and the capital V and a in ‘Vandercook’. Some faces nest well, snuggling up together in spite of the inherent differences that set them apart, literally. Cheltenham is not one of those faces, or at least, not the version in my type drawer. Such a gap between letters requires kerning, something now done automatically on most computer fonts of any worth, but requiring metal files and much time and labour in letterpress.

The terms ‘time’ and ‘labour’ are well matched with letterpress, so after the type on your bible is set, and you take the first impression, and you hear that inaudible splat of disappointment hitting the floor of your stomach… well, you just want to avoid that right from the start.

In my case, I involved Holly and we looked at dozens of faces, eventually settling on Garamond, a classic democrat of types. It was all things to all jobs well before Times came along. When you don’t really know what you’ll be doing with your type, versatility is a strong selling point. I preferred more classy and artful faces like Centaur and Bembo. Holly and I printed out samplers of a variety of faces, stripped off their bias-inducing monikers and tried to look at them with fresh eyes. In the end, a long-shot called Italian Oldstyle came from behind and finished by several lengths. Being a great conciliator, Italian Oldstyle embodied some of the Italian Renaissance styling of Centaur but remained versatile – and has proven so for me to date. For three consecutive years I placed orders with Swamp Press in the USA for monotype, giving me a workable quantity of 12 pt Roman and enough Roman and Italic in others sizes to cover titles and sub-heads. I’ve added a few other bits and pieces to the type collection, but that’s about it.

A year ago I lucked into a type tray brimming with Italian Oldstyle 12 pt, and fortunately it matched my set from Swamp, so now I have enough 12pt to set about 800 – 1,000 words. My next project is just over 1,000 words, so we’ll see what happens.

A note of interest – both Centaur (Bruce Rogers, designer) and Italian Oldstyle (Frederic Goudy, designer) are based on the very early Venetian roman types developed circa 1470 in reaction to the heavy, rather illegible Germanic blackletter faces like Gutenburg’s. With just some refinement over the centuries, the Roman typeface has remained our essential interface to books and documents in the Western world to this day.

Type Samplers:

Italian Oldstyle: noble pedigree, mostly reputable, but slightly aging Bohemian, spreading a little around the waist but still youthful in spirit, and check out the beret on the capital A! C’est bon chapeau, heh heh heh…. (The cap A was what sold me on Italian Oldstyle in the end.)


Centaur: Don’t mess with this classically trained vicar. Most famous for giving voice to the Oxford Lectern Bible.


Garamond: this versatile gentleman is as comfortable with the company of a King or a pauper, singing a hymn or a bawdy sea shanty.


Bembo: a tall and elegant figure.


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