Wood Type

15 March 2021

Carl Middleton

Letterpress type manufactured from wood is a natural, delicate resource. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to locate and due to its rising on-line value, has resulted in dealers separating out individual elements to maximise their profitability. This makes anyone who is a custodian of wood type aware that they have a responsibility to take the best possible care of it – increasing the life of the type and maintaining it for future generations to use and enjoy.

The largest proportion of wood type in circulation will be a minimum of forty years old. The patina and wear will directly reflect the age of the letters, its use and how it has been handled and stored. The following references are set out to help inform owners of wood type about some of the things which will help increase its working life.

Hand finished wood type
Above: Hand finished wood type dating from about 1865 manufactured by W. H. Bonnewell & Co. Caxton Letter Works, and Printing Manufactury. 85 and 87 Holborn Hill, London

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Some things to look out for include:

Damage and wear are the most common issues with wood type. Pitting, bruising, scratches, splits and dents, all cause inconsistencies in definition when printing. Dropping, mishandling or poor storage (with other items being positioned on the face of the letters) will result in some form of damage. Wood letters are delicate, so detailed cleaning and careful storage is key to extending its working life. Some people enjoy and like to celebrate the patina arising from wear but for the perfectionist it can be an issue and result in type not being selected for use.

Cracking can be the result of type drying out and in the worst instances the letters splitting completely. This usually occurs where cabinets of type have been relocated from cold workshops into centrally heated environments. The best option, in this case is to regularly print with the letters. Keeping the letters hydrated through the process of inking and cleaning – feeding the wood. Remember wood is a natural material and lasts longest if cared for and fed.

Rounding at the edges of the letter reduces definition and can be a result of a long periods of wear or compression. But also, can be a contemporary condition bought about through the poor practice of hand sanding. More common with on-line auctions where the type has been ‘restored’ or aggressively cleaned by a dealer rather than a printer. This type of damage is difficult to repair, but in certain instances the letters can be sanded beyond the damage (making the letter edges square again) and re-packing to type height. please note this process will impact of the nuances of the original design and is only carried out as a last resource.

Moisture and high levels of humidity can have a negative impact on wood type, resulting in the worst instances of fungicidal attack. If you find any discolouring of letters or spores (dark grey / blue in colour – with dry / wet rot leaving white or black deposits) you must remove the letters from the case, clean and apply a fungicidal treatment immediately. Also treat the cases and cabinets. Once treated, clean and fully dry the letters and cabinet to prevent the problem reoccurring. If possible, position the cabinets off of floors and slightly away from walls allowing air to circulate freely.

Woodworm is one of the biggest problems with wood type. A woodworm infestation, if not treated can devastate a case, and if not found in time a complete cabinet. Woodworm can appear in any timber species, reglets, type cases or individual letters. Luckily there are a huge range of treatments available to help eradicate woodworm and protect against re-infestation.

letterpress and woodworm

Rather than being a worm, a woodworm is actually a beetle-larvae that eats wood, (both in and outdoors). The most obvious and well-recognised indicators of woodworm presence are small holes. These are exit holes, indicating that the wood has been infested and the adult insect has already consumed and exited the area. Unfortunately, by the time these are found, the infestation will probably have already resulted in considerable damage. You may also see some sawdust or even dead beetles near the infestation confirming that the insects have already left. The size of the holes can vary, but typically they are between one and three millimetres in diameter. If the holes are in the face of the letter they will impact on the ability to print with it. Where the infestation is heavy the ability to treat and repair the letter becomes more difficult – in the worst instances where letters cannot be treated or repaired, they have to be destroyed.

woodworm
Above left to right: Anobium punctatum adult, typically from 4 to 6mm long / Tell tale exit holes / The woodworm life cycle begins when the eggs are laid into the timber and they burrow through, feeding off the cellulose in the wood.

When woodworms emerge from their holes, they can travel to other areas in the workshop infesting further wooden elements, so it is important that once found it is treated straight away. There are a number of different products to address this – Most come in liquid form which is applied directly to the infected area with a brush. Follow the specific instructions of the products you elect to apply. It is advisable to treat all wood type with some form of anti woodworm product. Especially when introducing new type to an existing collection (even if there are no signs of woodworm). This ensures the type is protected from infestation. It is also advisable to re-apply any anti woodworm treatment annually.

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Steaming damaged letters

The steaming process affords a non-invasive method to repair damaged type. The process makes the surface of the letter malleable and the increased humidity helps to expand compressed or damaged wood fibres. This process is fine for small dents and creases in wooden type. It does take time and must be carried out without applying too much moisture (which can result in twisting  / cupping of letters or heat, which can scorch the face of the letter).

In terms of materiality, all timber species have an inherent ‘memory’ – the ability to return to an original shape. For small impressions or dents resulting from impact or compression, this quality is very useful. Steaming works incredibly well with the common defects found in old, wood printing type.

The process is quite simple – the following is a step by step guide:

To increase the ability of the steam to penetrate the letter, any ink build-up on the face of the letter needs to be removed prior. Cleaning must be carried out without damaging surface of the letter – only the ink or materials that have built up, need to be removed. One method is to apply white spirit to a sheet of thick paper or card, then softly rub the face of the letter on the paper following a circular motion. Repeat the process replacing the paper and white spirit until you are comfortable that the letter is clean. The process should polish the letter clean rather than erase the surface in any way.

To generate the steam for the process you can use a household, electric steam iron.

  • Fill the iron with water and turn on.
  • Set the temperature to the highest possible setting.
  • Lay an old towel or cloth on a flat surface or ironing board.
  • Position the letter in the centre of the cloth.
  • Spray a mist of water across the face of the letter.
  • Cover with a dampened cloth and apply the steam iron directly to the cloth.

Hold the iron it in place for about thirty seconds actively releasing steam. Set the iron to one side safely and inspect the face of the letter. If not repaired repeat the process, regularly inspecting the letter as you go.

Wet the letter / Cover with wet cloth / Apply heat / Steam / Review / Repeat

Some smaller sized indents will repair in fewer passes others may take higher numbers. Once completed wipe any excess moisture off of the letter, dry with a paper towel and set aside to fully dry out.

Steaming Process
Left to right: The damage / indent in the letter is clearly visible / The surface of the letter has been cleaned – exposing the wood grain which enable the steam to penetrate and lift the crushed section / After about five minutes of continual wetting and steaming the crushed section begins to lift, restoring the letter into a functioning component.

Printed Letters
Left: the printed impression prior to repair Right: the printed impression after repair

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Purchasing Wood Type

There are a number of dedicated dealers and on-line platforms specialising in letterpress equipment and type affording an opportunity to invest in complete cases usable type. There are also, a rising number of dedicated professionals manufacturing, selling wood type and providing a service to complete founts of missing or damaged letters – these include:

Hamilton Wood Type & Printing Museumwoodtype.org/pages/

Marko Drpićwww.tiporenesansa.com

Mark Mackellierwww.mckellier.com

Moor Wood Typemoorewoodtype.com

The Petrescu Press initiativewww.woodtypecustoms.com

Virgin Wood Typewww.virginwoodtype.com

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The information provided here is for reference purposes only. As an outline guide introducing a number of different approaches to help support letterpress enthusiasts maintain and take care of their collections. Letterpress Workers cannot be held responsible for any loss or damage resulting from activities described within this fact sheet. All activities relating to maintaining, cleaning or repairing wood type are carried out at your own risk.

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Reader Interactions

Comments

  1. Thank you for this interesting article, Carl, and to include my name in the list of wood type makers.

    Here’s some personal experience. To eradicate wood worm and protect against re-infestation I use Silvanolin, a product of a local company that is proved to be one of the best and most efficient. Here’s the link to English description. Should anyone need assistance in case of buying let me know. http://en.silvaprodukt.si/silvanolin

    I also use nitrogen gas based chamber at a local museum. It’s non toxic, kills the worms but does not prevent re-infestation.

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