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I‘ve always wondered why more research hasn’t been done on alternative methods for creating movable type. Photopolymer plates have done a lot in the way of breathing new life into letterpress and giving printers more options. But at some point, the already limited amounts of wood type that remain are going to wear down or become so fragile that they have to be retired.

This fall I started research on possible methods of creating new movable type. The advantages of creating new blocks, as opposed to plates, would be the modularity of individual letters and the ability to set type without the need for a special base. The type would need to be durable and print at least as well as wood type. The solution I and my professor settled upon would be to use a thin material for the face of the letters, something that could be lasercut, and to mount it to a base that would bring the face to type height. We ended up using an acrylic for the faces, and a thick plywood for the slugs.

Here’s a shot of the two parts of the process before they are combined.

These are the blocks after the faces were glued on with super glue.

We started off trying to complete a set of Futura condensed that was missing several characters. We set up vector files with the reversed outlines of the characters we needed, then set up a separate file to etch into the plywood. To ensure that the letter would have an even baseline on the slugs, that there wouldn’t be an extraneous space on the sides, and the letters would be glued straight, we laser cut the outlines of each letter and cut the guidelines for the slugs into the plywood. The plywood was then sliced to create the slugs, then the acrylic was glued into the appropriate piece of wood.

Here are a few blocks and the hand pressed prints I got out of them

Here are the wood types and the plexi type in one case, an interesting sight.

6 Comments on “Futura Condensed”

  • kvh

    Bethany – this is really great and very inspirational.

    Any chance you would part with some of the details on this? Plexi thickness and particulars on plywood? I think I have most of the necessary tools at my disposal at the school I work for.

    and P.S. – I’m about to include you on a post here: http://www.baltimoreprintstudios.com

    02-15-10 » 6:59 pm »

  • melanie

    Why did you opt to attach the plexi to the plywood? Since you lasered an outline on the plywood, why not just leave a raised letter on the plywood? I do not know much about laser cutters and their limitations- can you expand on your process?

    04-06-10 » 5:40 pm »

  • Bethany Heck

    Melanie, etching into plywood is both more expensive and creates more airborne waste, because you have to burn away the shoulder area instead of just cutting it out. It would also be much harder to get plywood at type height, it would need to be planed down. There is also the issue of the plywood not being hard enough to make a good block. It would quickly wear down.

    Does that answer your questions? The combination of materials made for a type high block that had a hard printing surface and didn’t put too much ash and debris into the air that is both unhealthy and risks damaging the laser cutter.

    04-06-10 » 9:40 pm »

  • melanie

    Thanks for the response. I know of new produced wood type made with endgrain and flatgrain blocks- cherry, i think. I suspect they are made with a laser cutter rather than router or die.

    04-07-10 » 6:43 pm »

  • Patrick G Clark

    Hi Bethany,

    Whenever I’ve cut chip board with the laser cutter, I have to clean the edges thoroughly with a grey gummy eraser or a paper towel.

    Do you have to do the same with plexi?

    05-31-10 » 3:41 pm »

  • Bethany Heck


    While we’ve had occasional areas that didn’t quite cut all the way through, they are few and far between, we’ve never had to do any significant cleaning after cutting plexi.

    05-31-10 » 6:37 pm »

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