Curves of letterpress sans

ovaalk's picture

What Evert Bloemsma said in this thread:
about concave/cupped stems in letterpress sans serifs puzzles me. Is it something that comes in the pressing, or are the curves already there in the metal type itself by the punch cutters, as I have always thought? I've never tried a letterpress myself.

bieler's picture


I found it very hard to follow that thread, and I'm an old letterpress dude, but Evert did steal my phototype is the dark ages of typography. Naughty boy. No problem though, I've changed my mind about that anyway.

I could not find the concave/cupped stems reference but letterpress is a physical sculptural relief, the concave or cupped stems would be part of the surface of the type as the relief shoulder is a subsurface ink drain and would "generally" maintain an outwardly growing angle for that purpose. Letterpress ink is quite viscous and has an attraction characteristic, so it is quite problematic as it will cling to the outer surface of the letterform if the presswork is not "careful." But to answer your question, this would not be part of the "pressing" (impression).

Problems can occur with press roller direction in regard to ink transfer (pushing of ink across the surface of the letterform). It is quite possible that a cognizant letterform design (concave/cupped) stems, would in some situations, provide a solution. But this would not have been something that would have concerned a punchcutter. Rollers were first used in 1812 and punchcutting had been going on for near four centuries prior to that.

ovaalk's picture

Thanks Gerald,

I meant the first post by Evert, starting 'A straight line is a dead line'... Yes, the thread is really winding.

Evert talks about how the tangible relief of letterpress printing gives the type more "tension", and if I understood it correctly, causes printed outlines to curve, and that he tried to emulate this effect in FF Legato by drawing curved outlines.

I think stems curved this way could be called flared?

When I said punchcutters, I meant the makers of metal types in general, sorry about the confusion.

My more accurate question would be: What causes the flaring seen in this Univers sample?

I guess it's the uneven pressure on paper that causes ink to spread more around large unprinted areas, than in the densely printed mid-line areas?

I also assume that rectangles in metal type were generally made more pincushion shaped, having cups and thorns, than what has been the norm in digital type...

bieler's picture


The "effect" is caused by impression and ink gain. Both are variable. Too much of either and you get this blobby mess.

I think though that a distinction should be made between punchcutters and those who later used the pantograph. There would be a natural compensation on the part of the punchcutter, though as Fournier is credited as saying, "It is not right to blame the letter for the fault of the ink." In other words, it is the printer's fault.

It would not be uneven pressure as caused by impression but more an unequal lay or charge of the ink on various parts of the form. Smaller letters would get more ink than larger letters, etc. Or the reverse, larger letters might be starved when smaller letters are printing well.

From what I can tell, very little in the way of ink trapping and letterform shaping was intentially done in type design specifically for letterpress (though it can well benefit from such concerns). There would have been an organic approach to punchcutting that might have naturally compensated but it is not until a good third of the way into the century that some thought was given to "designing" for the technical process itself. I think this comes more into play with photofilm, which presented unique problems, where optical compensation, thorns, ink traps, etc., were necessary to prevent letterform distortion during the photo process.

I suspect some curature would provide a form of legibility at small sizes, probably why Optima performed so well in its various mechanical configurations, Linotype, foundry...

I have rebuilt some faces specifically for letterpress. I worked on Crystal a while back. Quite a job as this particular face has optical wizardry builit into it (particularly in the way the inline curves capture the ink, and compensate with ink gain). This was taken from foundry printed specimens and these compared to the actual metal type face at 24-pt and then adjusted further to compensate for the pecularities of letterpress printing at a smaller size. I recently received the printed piece and was relieved to see it had performed quite well. An image of the before and after follows

Gerald Lange

Crystal reconfigured

bieler's picture

Oh, the image on the left is the foundry proof, the image on the right is the reconstructed letterform. I don't yet have a sample of the final printing and it might be hard to do as it was printed on colored stock.

ovaalk's picture


Oh yes, the inking makes a difference too, but does the inking process explain the consistently flared stems, being thinner in the middle? Roller direction perhaps?

I don't think it is a "blobby mess", it's a consistent fenomenon present more or less in all letterpress sans in text sizes that I have seen. I think it helps against optical diffusion. That's why so few people notice it.

And how about cups? Could they appear "by the process", or do they have to be in the metal from the start?

I also thought the punchcutters must have compensated the ink gain intuitively, but the example is Univers, which I guess wasn't handcut? Atleast the original drawings were quite geometrical.

I would like to see the final printed Crystal A, if it's possible.

bieler's picture


I haven't looked at any scientific studies on the dynamics of pressure flow but the cups and flared stems you are seeing could easily be accounted for by the amount of ink lay, roller pressure, roller direction... I doubt these features would have been incorporated in metal typefaces for technical purposes, and if they were, it would have been for aesthetic reasons.

I would imagine that Univers was cut with a matrix cutting pantograph (which first appeared in the late nineteenth century and fell into general use in the early twentieth). Wood type was cut from pantograph enlargements very early in the century, almost from the get go.

I scanned the piece (note this doesn't reveal the optical nuance of the relief impression which will often visually compensate for ink gain by adding dimension). This measures about 1-1/2 by 2-1/2 inches. So the type would be the equivalent of 14- or 15-pt. It is enlarged here which doesn't really reveal the intent. This was printed from a copper photoengraving without dampening the paper. Note the border rule was supplied to act as an ink support. The top A differs from the A in the second line because of its isolation, it takes the roller pressure hit all by its lonesome (and looks heavier as a result) whereas the second A has its neighbors to help it along. This problem can often be adjusted during presswork through careful makeready which may or may not have been done in this case. Basically the idea is to get the stuff to look a little better to compensate for expected anomolies, not to change the look of the face.

Crystal Titling

raph's picture

The evenness of stroke weight in sans letterpress printing depends greatly on the printing. At one extreme, you have the blobbified Univers linked above (are we sure that isn't flexo, incidentally?). At the other, you have the near-perfection of the 1912 ATF specimen book (to which this 200 dpi scan does not do justice). Even so, the latter is not quite as homogenous and colorless as we're used to in offset printing today.

I haven't seen explicit pincushion-shaped cups(*) and thorns in any of the metal type I've seen, but these features were quite common in the (bad) early days of phototypesetting, largely to compensate for fuzzy focus in the photographic reproduction process.

* Here I'm talking about inner corners joining at 90 degrees or so. For inner corners of significantly smaller angle, trapping is common and has been since the early days. Hrant will probably have something to add about this.

bieler's picture


re: "trapping is common and has been since the early days."

Actually trapping is quite uncommon in metal type. And the "early days" starts around mid fifteenth century. I had some metal Pascal that ending up in Hrant's hands and he was able to find evidence of traps but this was a European foundry face produced about mid-century (1960 I believe, which is quite late in metal production). Concern about ink trapping was not articulated in print until the late 1920s or 1930s (I can't handily find the reference). Any evidence to it prior to this time would likely be an inarticulated innate part of the punchcutting process. [Where is Giampa the Great when one actually needs him?]

bieler's picture


Back to your example, notice the difference in the lowercase "k" (the one on the end is splayed as the result of taking more of a hit). The exaggeration of the letterform here is the result of a roller/ink problem. Though it could very well be a worn character or one that is standing a bit high (improperly planed or something under the type).

Very nice lowercase "r" by the way, that widened gap between the stem and curve is quite necessary in letterpress. Someone on the PPLetterpress list was asking about a relatively new digital sans that would work well with the photopolymer process and in checking through possible faces that was the first thing I looked for.

Nick Shinn's picture

>Concern about ink trapping was not articulated in print until the late 1920s or 1930s

However, it has always been recognized by those who design type, and reflected in the basic letterforms themselves, not as a discernable added-on compensation such as the ticks and nicks of phototype.
Especially, trapping became a substantial feature of the major text style throughout the 19th Century, the "Modern".

Here, in CG Modern 20 (a fairly close approximation of the metal modern) you can see the way that the acutely angled insides of joints have been exaggerated in depth to form one of the distinguishing themes of the design.

The trapping function is integrated into the overall design, disguised, if you will.

ovaalk's picture


Yes, the other Univers k has grown bigger, but both of them are flared. Also the legs of the k's are wedge shaped. I think this kind of optical correction is common in digital type too. Both r's are also flaring more right than left. Notice how the i dots grow upwards...

I am not saying all these things have to be in the metal itself, but if not, there has to be a logical reason in the process, because it's obviously not just random bubbling. My guess is that it has more to do with paper than ink...

I notice the two crystal A's have quite different impressions. It would be interesting to see those together in big size, like the source and the ideal A's above.


> are we sure that isn't flexo, incidentally?
I don't know, what makes you think so?

That ATF specimen looks very clean, but it would be interesting to see some of the smallest sizes enlarged.


Were the flared stems of Brown Gothic inspired by letterpress sans like in FF Legato?


Here are some samples of AG in text and display sizes:

The text size shows heavy flaring, round endings with no cupping. The display size has distinct cups on tops and bottoms, and slight flaring. Notice how the crossbar of t seems pincushioned. Neither of the prints have a tangible relief.

bieler's picture


Yes, paper could have a lot to do with it. Generally the best impression/inking is going to come from careful work with a dampened handmade sheet. But in most cases that is not what you are going to find. Commercial grade papers with external sizing will resist absorption of the ink, with the complication that progressively ink will remain on the form, and accompanying ink gain.

The titling I furnished was printed dry (I assume) on Inveresk Somerset (not a paper I am all that familiar with). The printer was Sebastian Carter at Rampant Lions Press (UK). But the intention was to have the type remain open at the smaller sizes, and Sebastian did a remarkable job of holding that. It really does not provide much useful information to blow up smaller letterpress type to examine the distortions of presswork. Essentially we would be back to our specimen (which was sort of the point). The idea is to minimize distortion so that to the viewing eye the types look crisp and clean at the size intended.

Raph's ATF specimen would likely have been printed by some very seasoned printers on a large cylinder press with a very smooth stock paper, which would greatly have diminished the kind of problems facing contemporary fine letterpress printers who are not so well equipped. You won't really see much of this kind of quality in commercial letterpress printing in the post-Depression years.

That little halo of lighted color that you see ringing the samples you have provided is carrier separation. The roller pressure is a bit high for the stock, and the ink is a tad too loose. This can usually be prevented by using a higher viscosity ink which will resist this tendency. Easier to say by looking at the sample though rather than having to deal with the actual configuration of the job.

bieler's picture


The only problem with your "The trapping function is integrated into the overall design, disguised, if you will," theory is that it is not even consistent in the examples shown.

Nick Shinn's picture

>not even consistent

It is consistently applied, in the sense that where there is an opportunity to exaggerate the acuteness of a joint (to "dig it deeper"), it is taken, although the manner in which this is done it is not identical in each instance, as the ticks and nicks of phototype are.

The joints at the top of the 'M' are between straight stems whereas the joints in the 'b' are between a curved bowl and a straight stem, which is truncated at the bottom, necessitating a different arrangement than at the upper part of the join.

ovaalk's picture


What do you think about the cups in the k-t-m sample. AG was hand cut I think, so they could be in the metal already? The sample is 42p.

Here is a smaller text type sample on coated paper, with alot of that carrier separation halo.

It seems to show up in places where there is alot of white space around, whereas counters and edges close to eachother seem to be immune to it. Flaring shows up in the same places.

bieler's picture


The effect that you term cupping and flaring is normally just considered swelling. The ink has traveled beyond the letterform and the dynamics of that flow in combination with the pecularities of the letterform, isolated stems, curves, angles, forms these oddities. In your latest example, look at the fill in the bottom angles of the lowercase w. There is surface flow contributed by the angled strokes whereas in the lowercase k there is less incidence simply because of the further flow down the stem. Another example is the narrow curve of the lowercase f compared to the wider curve of the lowercase r. With inappropriate presswork the shapes of the letterforms themselves contribute to the problem. If the roller direction was reversed or printed from the side the patterns would change. At the microcosmic level here, the flaring/cupping is the result of minute isolation. Note how the lower truncation of the lowercase e does not seem to suffer because of the proximity of the top curve/crossbar junction.

Letterpress is a real pain in the •••.

bieler's picture


There is a small photo essay in Richard-Gabriel Rummond's _Printing on the Iron Handpress_ in the chapter on inking. This reveals many of the common problems associated with type and presswork. It does not get into it at the much deeper level that you are concerned with but it could help you with some of the rudimentary principles of the why. This book is still in print and likely in the collections of most University libraries.

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