Tag Archives: font

Nicolas Jenson

Nicolas Jenson

The mechanized printing press and movable type were such radically different new technologies that printers had to soothe and reassure their customers by making their books’ text look like old-fashioned calligraphy. The metal letters mimicked the way letters are created by a pen or brush. It would take a bit of time before a typefounder said, “Oh, the heck with it” and finally designed a typeface that was meant to be printed on a printing press. No more phony hey-this-looks-like-it-just-rolled-out-of-the-scriptorium fancy-pants calligraphy.

That happened in ad 1470 and the type designer was Nicolas Jenson (zhen-SŌN). He was a Frenchman living in Italy.

Here’s a site with his beautiful type designs. You can download the typeface and there’s even a box where you can keystroke in your name or a phrase and see what it looks like a la Jenson. https://www.dafont.com/1470jenson.font

You can get Jenson’s font from these guys, too. Image credit: https://fontmeme.com/fonts/1470-jenson-font/

Jenson’s type design is inspired by old Roman majuscules for the capital letters. His lowercase letters are sorta-kinda inspired by uncial minuscules (notice Jenson’s lowercase u doesn’t look like a v). We’ll be calling capital letters ‘uppercase’ and little letters ‘lowercase’ now because that’s where they are kept in a job drawer.

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This ink is all wrong

What about ink? Writing ink is water-based and designed to flow freely from a pen or brush. Water-based writing ink doesn’t work on metal type—it either puddles or runs off the surface. There’s no adhesion.  Johannes Gutenberg needed to come up with ink that sticks to metal and covers it evenly. Luckily for him some artists in the Netherlands were experimenting with a new kind of paint.

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Composing type

Now we have type. How do we put a bunch of type together to print a page?

We cast all the letters we’ll need and sorted them in a type drawer or job drawer. Back in the olden days a printer (or printer’s apprentice or printer’s devil) had this drawer memorized—every letter, every bit of punctuation. https://marktwainhouse.org/about/mark-twain/biography/

We’re ready to compose the type. We get a composing stick—a small hand-held tray with a clamp—and put the words and sentences together upside-down and backwards. Set the clamp to however wide you want the column. The length of a line of type is measured in picas but the height of a column is measured in inches.* Don’t ask. I don’t know why. Between every line of type you put a slice of lead called leading (sounds like bedding). Leading comes in different thicknesses, measured in points. When your type is composed, you slide it out of the composing stick onto a flat stone slab and put a square metal frame called the chase around it. You can add artwork in there, too, like a linoleum block print. To keep it in place inside the chase, we grab some blocks of wood called furniture. These are shorter than the type so they won’t get ink on them. Leave room on 2 sides for quoins. Quoins are metal wedges you can tighten against each other to tighten the type, linocuts and furniture inside the chase. Now that it’s locked up into one whole unit it’s called a form. Okay—we’re ready to print!

Look at this heavenly place! Her composing demo starts at 8:30. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4pg8A0ab6S4

* I’m an old graphic designer. I like to measure in picas when I design something. There are 6 picas in an inch. You can easily divide an inch by halfs, thirds, fourths, sixths and twelfths. Each pica has 12 points.

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Remember me to Em Square

Great merciful Zeus! It looks like Gutenberg got his own musical. I wonder if the lead actor felt typecast for the role? (sad trombone)


Casting metal type

Let’s cast metal type of this Gothic M

Gutenberg was trained as a goldsmith, so he knew all about how to work with metal—even how to make the tools. Here’s how Gutenberg made type: he got a super-hard metal (steel), a medium hard metal (copper), and a soft metal (tin/lead/antimony).

The punch is tempered steel. The matrix is copper.

Gutenberg shaped letters on the butt-end of a short steel rod—maybe he used tempered-steel files or chisels on the carbon steel rod (steel has different hardnesses depending on how it’s treated). When the letter was shaped he got the steel rod red hot then tempered it by dunking it in cold water so it would be really hard. Now he had a steel punch. He hammered the punch into a piece of copper (softer than steel) so there was an impression in it shaped like the letter.

This is a super-simplified drawing, just to give you the idea.

This copper matrix was fitted into a 2-piece mold that got clamped tightly together. Gutenberg could cast copies of the letter by pouring molten tin/lead/antimony into the mold.

The type.

Watch the videos below to get a better idea:

A demonstration of how copper can be shaped by steel (skip to the 1:00 mark): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tXbUDCfreqE
It’s the molds which were the true technological big deal of this process. If you want to get into the details, here’s everything there is to know about them: https://www.circuitousroot.com/artifice/letters/press/hand-casting/literature/index.html

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What’s metal type made of?

A little melting pot and 3 lead musket balls from my dad’s collection.

Johannes Gutenberg was a goldsmith. He knew how to work with metal, so he developed cast-metal movable type. He used an alloy of antimony, tin and lead. Type metal has a relatively low melting point—probably you could melt it on the stovetop DON’T DO THIS YOU GOOFBALLS I DON’T NEED MORE ANGRY PHONE CALLS FROM YOUR MOMS.

On the other hand, this site says you need 1980°F to melt type metal. That’s hotter than I expected. A stovetop only achieves 350° but lead melts at 621.5°. Tin melts at 449.5°. Antimony melts at 1,167°F. I dunno—I can melt solder (lead/tin) with a propane torch to join copper pipes.
Soldiers in the 1700s cast lead bullets in the field using a campfire. Here’s a scene from the movie The Patriot—Mel Gibson melts tin soldiers to make musket balls (I know, I know, old Mel probably has a blowtorch off-screen fired up to 3,000 on the Kelvin scale). When your great-grandfather was a boy, kids used to cast and recast their own tin soldiers. Maybe the antimony gives type metal a higher melting point. As a jeweler, Gutenberg had stoves and kilns in his shop designed to generate plenty of heat.

You can use this kit for cold-casting: https://www.hobbylobby.com/Crafts-Hobbies/Clay-Molding-Sculpting/Casting/Mini-Casting-Kit/p/22251?gclid=CjwKCAjwzruGBhBAEiwAUqMR8LvgJH4XhS98M-pZUqhaEPE-KWDQQ-2RNBaSmplBNAmv_s4KQ0HIjhoCS8IQAvD_BwE

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Thanks, Phoenicians!

By the 1400s movable type had made its way west along the Silk Road. Like the compass, movable type wasn’t a big deal in China. But when Johannes Gutenberg got ahold of it, movable type changed Western Civ. Why? The Phoenicians, that’s why.

Those Phoenicians left us a gift: a tight, efficient little alphabet of only 26 letters to represent every sound in any language. Our alphabet is ideal for movable type. You only need 26 upper-case and 26 lower-case (capitals and small) letters, numbers 0-9 and punctuation marks to print an entire book.

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The Chinese invent movable type

If you’re printing something with words, like a poster or an announcement or 95 Theses, every letter of every word needs to be carved out of your wood or linoleum block. Carving blocks for pages of an entire book is a king-sized headache.

Way over in China in the ad 1000s, printers got tired of having to carve every stinkin’ character on a block. One printer, Bi Sheng, thought: “Why not make individual characters ahead of time that you can mix and match to make paragraphs and pages?” That’s what he did. He made teeny little blocks with only one character. They were interchangeable. You arrange them together in a frame for printing. This idea is called movable type.

Bi Sheng’s characters were made out of fired clay so they were kind of fragile—they chipped easily. In the 1200s another Chinese printer, Wang Zhen, introduced characters carved out of wood which were less likely to chip. Around the same time Korean printers were using characters cast in bronze or iron.

Believe it or not, movable type didn’t make books in Asia any cheaper. It was actually less expensive to carve an entire page of characters from one block. The reason could be this: the Chinese written language has over 3,500 characters. It was maybe too time-consuming to organize thousands of characters into an efficient sorting & printing system. By the time you finally locate the characters you need from a supply of 3,500, the guy with the chisels has a page carved and ready to print. So movable type didn’t take off in Asia back in those days. There’s at least one Chinese printer today that still uses cold type, though (see the links below).*

* The type was stored on big lazy-Susan-style discs that rotated so they could get to all the characters (kind of funny: food used to be served in Chinese restaurants this way). Chinese printers used a rhyme to remember where all the characters were. I’m not a Chinese speaker so I don’t know what the rhyme is, but it’s the same kind of rhyme you use to remember which months have 30 days—a mnemonic.

Dig the sneer quotes around the word ‘invented’—like they finally brought that wily rascal Gutenberg to justice:

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And more Goth

Lately Goth is become a fashion adopted by art students: pale skin and dyed-black hair, heavy on the eye liner and black lipstick, black leather jackets and black skinny jeans.

My pal Chuck Dillon is an illustrator and art teacher. You’ve seen his work in Highlights magazine. He let me include his drawing of a typical Goth art student in today’s post.

If you think that’s funny, he has a whole book of art student types he’s taught over the years. It’s titled ‘Which Art Student Are You?’ and you can get your own copy here.


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Last night I dreamt I read Manders’ blog again

Run away, girl!

Side note: The Gothic novel is a genre of 19th-century literature that is dark, moody and creepy-romantic. Horror novels like Frankenstein and Dracula fit into the genre. Gothic stories often take place in castles (a ton of them feature a young woman who comes to live in a remote, haunted mansion full of dark, shameful family secrets), so maybe that’s how the genre came to be named. Lots of dark shadows, lots of bats. Not for nothing does Batman operate out of Gotham City.


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