Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Cleaning Wood Type

I was recently on holiday but instead of sitting around the house in my underwear, one day I decided to get up at half past seven and head to the shop for some methylated spirits, rags, gloves, a mask, goggles and a couple of toothbrushes. With the final addition of some newspapers "borrowed" from outside the tube station I was soon ready for action.

You may be wondering the reasoning behind this unnatural desire for cleaning products. Well, a few months ago I was lucky enough to come across a couple of trays of wood type for sale. From the photos I could see that there were some interesting letters in the collection but it was only on closer inspection that I discovered two complete and two almost complete sets of a typeface called Poynder. Made by the famous English wood letter manufacturers Delittle of York, Poynder has the feeling of a classic display typeface, quite reserved for the most part but with some quirky characteristics that give it a hint of art nouveau style.

Having spent quite a few years on a garage floor, the type was pretty dirty, caked in grime and brick dust and with some pieces sadly broken. With press time booked in a couple of days I knew that I was going to have to do some serious cleaning to get this fount print ready once again. So, with my pound shop bag of equipment at the ready I got to work.

My method for cleaning type has evolved a bit over the years, I started off just using white spirit and although it works for removing fresh ink, I find it can't cut through the sort of grime that you get on type that's been living in a shed for thirty years. After trying a few things I've now settled on a method which I find works really well and I thought i'd share it here for anyone who might be interested. As always, I welcome comments and criticisms so if anyone has any alternative suggestions i'd be pleased to hear them.

The first set: caked in dirt, dust and who knows what else!

First to be cleaned was a 2 10/16" size set (sadly missing a handful of letters) As you can see Poynder has some real character - I'm on the fence about the uppercase A but the E, G and N in particular are really quite stunning, to say nothing of the ampersand that I dream about at night.  

Before beginning assemble your bag of supplies and cover a pasting table with a few layers of newspaper. Make sure to set up outside and wear old clothes as this has the potential to get messy. After laying your type out on the table, start with the toothbrush, using it to brush down the face of each letter to remove the excess dirt and dust. Being quite small, the toothbrush is ideal for getting into little cavities like the counters of the A as well cleaning up the beard in some of the tighter corners.

With the excess dirt removed, pull on your marigolds (rubber gloves to anyone from outside the UK) and pour some methylated spirits on to an area of the newspaper. Even though you're outside I'd recommend using a disposable mask and some goggles from here on in just to be safe. 

After pouring out the meths take seven or eight pieces of type and lay them face down in the spirit for about thirty seconds. This gives the meths time to penetrate the caked on layers of ink and start to break them down. The next step is to take each piece of type individually and give the surface a good rub with a soft, meths-soaked cloth. By this time the ink should have loosened up and will start to come off without too much hassle. I prefer to focus mainly on the face of the letter so that once you've finished you'll get a nice contrast between the clean face and the darker shoulder. Some pieces will inevitably come up better than others but you should start to get visible results quite quickly!

An uppercase U halfway through cleaning

After scrubbing the type down lay it to one side and repeat the process for the rest, making sure to top up the pool of meths and keep adding dirty blocks. Once you've cleaned and scrubbed all your letters, you'll notice that although they look much cleaner, the meths may have left some streaks and the finish on the face of the letter will be quite dull. You'll also find that they smell strongly of meths so for the next stage you'll need to wash them down.

Run a bucket of hot, soapy water and drop no more than 5 or so blocks in at a time. As water isn't good for your type, you'll need to make sure the blocks aren't submerged for more than 10 - 20 seconds to avoid any moisture getting into the wood grain. Quickly remove your letters one by one and give them a scrub with your trusty toothbrush on all sides, making sure to get right into the counters and tight corners of the letter face. Then, place the blocks face down on some fresh newspaper to dry and repeat the process.

After about half an hour you should find that the type is drying out. If you turn the letters over you'll get to see the fruits of your labour as hopefully the faces will have come up bright, with the patination of the wood visible in all its glory. As a final touch, take a soft, clean towel and polish the face of each letter to give it a subtle shine.

The finished result, dried out and ready to print!

The only thing left to do is take the blocks inside to finish drying out, though make sure to do this in a well ventilated area without too much heat - otherwise the quick change in temperature might split the wood grain. 

And that's about it! Hopefully now you should have a good looking set of type that will give you a much sharper impression when printing. And if you're still unsure; I offer you this final comparison - 


PS: Thanks is due to Paul-Robot47 for the basis of this cleaning method. Be sure to check out his ebay shop here

Monday, 17 November 2014

Alan Kitching at the RCA

Last week I was lucky enough to attend a subscribers event at the Royal College of Art organised by Creative Review magazine; a talk by the living legend of letterpress, Alan Kitching.

Having started his career as an apprentice compositor, Alan Kitching is known today as one of the worlds leading letterpress practitioners. His bold, vivid and occasionally political work is instantly recognisable from numerous commissions for the likes of The Guardian, The National Theatre, Dazed & Confused and The Financial Times. He's also the owner of what is rumoured to be the largest collection of wood type in Western Europe, so it's fair to say I was pretty excited to hear the man himself discuss his life and work.

Taking the stage in front of an eager crowd, Alan humbly talked us through his career to date, with a specific focus on his time at the RCA, where as a lecturer in 1988 he started a letterpress workshop for students. Describing his motivation and the culture of the RCA at the time, he mentioned that it "wasn't the sort of place where you asked permission - you just kept doing it until someone told you not to".

Though initially attended by a few students, over the years the course grew in popularity, with students producing innovative, satirical work using a range of wood and metal type, old magazine printing blocks and linocuts. Alan believes that the quality of this work and the enthusiasm of the students was responsible for saving the college's extensive, pre-war letterpress collection from being thrown into the skip; a sad fate that befell many a typeface in the dark, early days of design's digital switchover.

An example of work produced by students of Alan's letterpress workshop at the RCA

Alan also discussed how around the same time, he set up his own printmaking venture in Clerkenwell: The Typography Workshop. After hearing that Stephenson Blake, the famous firm of British typefounders, was shutting its doors for good and having a sale of all its remaining stock - he went to meet them and bought the lot. This was one of several large letterpress acquisitions for Alan, who by all accounts has rescued huge amounts of type from destruction or being made into pieces of furniture over the years.

As the evening continued Alan talked us through a selection of his work. I was particularly impressed by his series of Broadsides, chaotic sheets of printed type which he described as "typographic blasts" featuring explosions of fonts and colour, showcasing some beautiful faces of hand cut wooden type. In these Broadsides you can see the beginnings of his more well know series of London maps, where street names are rendered in colourful type while landmarks and famous former residents are marked in roundels of metal type inspired by London's blue plaques. (As a side note, they have a print of one of these maps in a great little pub called The Royal Oak near Borough station. They also do a mean Imperial Russian stout. Just in case you're ever in the area...)

The Obama Speeches, spread for G2 magazine. Source here.

For me the most exciting work of the night was a Guardian newspaper advert from 2003 protesting the Iraq war, entitled 'Why Iraq, Why Now?'. A full page ad in the old-style broadsheet Guardian, it features an extremely clever collage of wood type designed to be read three ways and ask three different questions. The type is inked just enough to reveal the wood grain, the distressed surface furthering the urgency of the message. Best of all, it was designed to be cut out and used as a banner which many protestors adopted during the vast anti-war protests in London at the time. As an example of hand printed, hand set type having relevance in the modern world it takes some beating.

Finally, Alan gave us some insights into his printing process. Taking inspiration from the paintings of Paul Klee, in the last few decades he has been attempting to build increased surface and texture into his work. Although trained in classic letterpress techniques, this idea has seen him experiment with alternative inking styles such as brushing the type unevenly with a roller or applying ink using a palette knife.  Describing himself as a fan of imperfection, he sees this approach as a move away from the traditional idea of the kiss of the press and the perfect print . Some of the best examples of this technique are visible in his work for the Guardian, particularly the magazine cover 'Amis on Porn'.

The evening concluded with a tour of the RCA's latest exhibition, GraphicsRCA: Fifty Years by designer, author and RCA tutor Adrian Shaughnessy, which featured some of the work produced by students of Alan's letterpress workshop in the eighties and nineties. A comprehensive exhibition featuring some brilliant letterpress pieces, it runs until the 22nd of December and is definitely worth a visit.

Overall it was a fantastic evening, an inspiring opportunity to hear from one of my design heroes and a great start to Creative Review's CR Club events series. Oh, and they had free beer too which always helps.

Now, where did I put my quoins...

Saturday, 26 July 2014

The First Proof: Welcome!

Welcome to Woodtyping!

My name's John. I'm a Graphic Designer from Scotland and this is my first serious attempt at a blog.

Woodtyping is dedicated to one of my biggest passions: wooden letterpress type. Since discovering wood type during my art school days I've been fascinated with it; the typefaces, the history and the printing processes and here I hope to share my obsession with other like-minded folk.

Over the years i've built up a small collection of type but I've rarely had a chance to print since graduating back in 2009. Hopefully that should be about to change and Woodtyping will become an informal document of my attempts to start printmaking again. I'll also discuss the current state of letterpress printmaking to highlight how such a formerly huge industry, made totally obsolete by technology, has risen from the ashes to undergo a welcome revival in recent years.

So, with the introduction out of the way there's nothing else to do but get on with it! I hope you enjoy reading and drop me a line or leave a comment if you want to get in touch.