These days, typefaces are designed using computer programs such as Macromedia Fontographer, but in the early days of type, each was made by hand using basic tools. There were three products that together formed the backbone of the process by which type was developed: the mold, the matrix, and the final piece also known as a "sort."
To create one letter, a basic punch in the shape of the letter was chiseled into some kind of pliable metal, usually copper. This formed the matrix for one letter and could be used over and over again. Many such matrices packed a mold.
Essentially, a mold contained many matrices for different letters in a grid pattern. The bottom part of the mold housed all the letter matrices and the top part locked over them leaving only the letter shapes exposed. To create the type, a molten alloy was poured over the mold - this alloy made most commonly of lead, antimony, and tin, would fill the interstices created by the matrices in the mold. Once cooled, the letters were popped out. Different typefaces required chiseling different patterns of letters in the copper block.
All the letters and characters from a typeface were sorted and stored in cases for later use. Capital letters were stored in the top or "upper" cases (hence the name "uppercase") and the others in the "lowercase".
Many years ago when I was the editor for my college magazine in India, I remember visiting the local printing press to supervise technique and correct page proofs. To print a page, Lanka Printers composed each line using physical type from these cases. A printer had to make sure to have enough of commonly used letters so as not to run out. One page contained blocks of lines in a set pattern - this could be used as a template to run off many copies of that one page. During my press runs, the most frequent errors used to be interchanging the "p"s and the "q"s for obvious reasons.
To print a page, the type was inked and paper passed over it in a mechanical printing press. Before large numbers of copies could be run off, one checked for inaccuracies, which could be easily corrected.
Letterpress printing is enjoying a revival of sorts these days. The National Stationery Show, a major trade show held in New York City every year, showcases gorgeous letterpress work by new and upcoming stationery designers.
Top image: metal type sorts arranged on a composing stick
Bottom image: printing matrices loaded in a matrix-case
This article was originally published in November 2011, and has been updated for the
September 2012 paperback release.
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