Friday, March 22, 2013
“Font” is a chameleon of a word – its meaning can change depending on who’s using it. When computer users or graphic designers talk about fonts, they’re referring to different styles of type, or typefaces. Font software packages featuring many kinds of type are available online or at any computer store.
When a letterpress printer talks about a font though, they’re referring to a complete set of all the necessary metal or wood characters in a typeface (letters, numbers, punctuation, or special characters). The number of each character in a printer’s font is based on frequency of use. In other words, there are lots more e’s than there are q’s .
A member of our letterpress printing group created a piece that captures a letterpress printer’s idea of “font” perfectly:
To illustrate the point further: a computer user can easily type, “The queen quickly and quietly quaffed a quart of quince juice.” Not that this is a likely sentence, but it shows there are no limits to the number of times a single character can be used in a computer font. A graphic designer can very easily type a character, “qqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqq” in any font they choose. In other words, the computer will generate an infinite number of any desired character.
Not so for the letterpress printer. Because handset letterpress involves putting actual pieces of metal or wood type into a composing stick to form words and sentences, there are only so many q’s. And so many A’s, a’s, and 1’s. That’s how handset typefaces are sold.
Typefaces are cast according to a font scheme. A good illustration of this is on the website of Skyline Type Foundry, a marvelous place to check out and drool over letterpress typefaces by the way. A diagram of Font Schemes explains how many of each character come with any font of type.
For a more vivid illustration: here’s what one font of Grimaldi, a charming old type face which we recently purchased from Skyline, looks like. You can see the varying numbers of each character in this 5-A, 10-a, 5-1 font of type.
Some letterpress fonts are larger and some are smaller, but they always have certain numbers of each character in them when they’re purchased new. When fonts are older or secondhand though, some pieces of type may have been mislaid.
Or in the instance of the very old 4 Line Pica Ornamented type below, some characters may be hard to use. Take a closer look at the two U's. Both are sunken due to a long ago flaw in casting. That means if you print a word with a U in it, you will have to work hard to get a decent impression.
My husband Bob and I recently experienced a practical lesson in the meaning of font. We purchased a secondhand font of Civilite jumbled in a case. I’ve long admired Civilite, and was thrilled to finally add it to our printshop. But when we sorted out the type, there was one capital A, no capital C, and worst of all, no lower case i’s. What can you write without lower case i? Not even a type case label for Civilite. Our font of type was pretty much useless.
Happily, my husband went onto the chat room of our printer’s group Amalgamated Printer’s Association and asked if anyone could spare a few characters. Two kind printers responded and offered to send the missing letters to us. With these “sorts”, as printers call small quantities of individual letters, we no longer had to be “out of sorts”. I’m not just making a bad pun here (though I am) -- that’s where that expression originated.
Now we can finally use our font of Civilite. And create a nice type case label. No more font frenzy for us – hooray!