Identifying Metal Type

Naming the Features of Types

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This Notebook simply names features. For more detailed discussions of these features, and illustrations of their variations, go up one level to the main Notebook on "Identifying Metal Type."

1. The Features of All Types

All metal printing types have the following features, called out in the illustration below using late 20th century American terms.

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The Face is the actual printing surface of the type.

The Beard, in American usage, is that part of the type which slopes nearly vertically down from the Face.

In general casting terms, the slope of the Beard provides the "draft" which allows the type to be separated from the matrix which molds it. There are a few instances where small portions of the Beard may be trimmed so that they are vertical, so as to allow some portion of the Face to come closer to the edge of the type Body, but generally the Beard must be at an angle. This angle varies between makers, but is generally around eight degrees.

In at least 19th century English usage, the Beard was called the "Bevel," and (confusingly) the Bevel and Shoulder together were called the "Beard." See for example {Southward 1884}, pp. 11-12. Some American authorities have also called the Beard the "Bevel"; see for example {Lawson 1971}, pp. 23-24. Legros & Grant called it the "Neck" (listing Beard as an alternative) {Legros & Grant 1916}, p. 11.

The Shoulder, in American usage, is the top of the Body of the type, exclusive of other features such as the Face, Beard, and those Counters which are not at full Depth-of-Drive.

The Shoulder is now generally flat for most types (though there are exceptions), and has been so since the early 19th century. Before then the shoulder was planed away as much as possible by the type founder so as to produce a type which worked better with the deeper impression then common. Flat shoulders were initially adopted to meet the requirements of plaster stereotyping. [1] Interestingly, flat shoulders were retained after plaster stereotyping gave way to flong-based stereotyping in the middle of the 19th century (which had no such requirements). We still think of flat shoulders as "normal" today, even though many printers have returned to the deeper impressions of earlier printing (and indeed gone beyond them).

Exception: In at least some sizes, and with appropriate mold equipment, the Monotype Super Cster casts an angled nick not unlike the 18th century and earlier planed nicks.

At least one 20th century American authority, {Lawson 1971}, p. 25, restricts the definition of the shoulder to "the non-printing area on the physical type between the base-line and the front of the type" and one other special case. This definition seems to me to be inaccurate and not in accord with type founding practice. It is better to think of the Shoulder as every part of the top of the Body which is at or beyond the Depth-of-Drive (see below) from the Face. Note for example that in the illustration above the Shoulder is well defined at the sides of the type.

Counters are those blank or empty portions of the letterform which are partially or fully enclosed by the letterform (as in the enclosed portion of the letter 'O' or the portions of 'h' between the lower stems). You will not find this term in the Oxford English Dictionary (and its definition in the American Heritage Dictionary is bizarrely inaccurate). I believe that it originated from the "counterpunch" used in one of the two main technical variations of hand punchcutting. The depressions in the punch which would produce the areas now known as Counters could be made in one of two ways: by digging them out with a graver or by punching them with an auxiliary punch called a "counter-punch."

The area within a Counter is not always at full Depth-of-Drive (that is, it can be higher than the Shoulder). This is for ease of matrix making and type casting (deep Counters are harder to work with). Aside from providing less space for the ink which tends to collect in counters, this reduced depth is not significant to the printer.

The term Counter is often used overly broadly to refer to other sections of the Shoulder which are neither enclosed nor raised. It is my opinion that this broad usage should be avoided.

The Body provides the physical mass which allows the type to be set. It also defines the basic dimensions of the type as it is set in a form (Body Size or Point Size, and Set Width).

Less anthropomorphically, the English call the Body the "Shank."

The Groove is a by-product of the type casting process. When the type is cast, it has a metal projection called the Jet (not shown here) which is the excess metal outside of the mold cavity. (In other kinds of metal casting, this would be called a "sprue.") This Jet is broken off, but a rough surface remains where it is broken away. Since this rough surface would prevent the type from standing up, it is plowed away to form the Groove. [2]

Some types, such as those cast on the Monotype Composition Caster, are produced with no discernable Groove. A very few type casting machines are designed to produce the Groove during the casting process (which allows the Jet to break off above the Feet of the type). The Grooves on type cast on these machines may not appear smooth as a plowed Groove would. The Nuernberger-Rettig, equipped with the right molds, is such a machine. Finally, types which have been cast over-height and milled down to type height (a common practice in Europe, where there are several type heights) may have their Groove milled away (leaving the bottom of the type completely flat).

The Feet are those portions of the bottom of the type on each side of the Groove. Each type is a small male anthropomophic figure with flat Feet beneath a Body, a Shoulder at the top of the Body, then a Beard, and a Face pointing directly up ready to be pressed into the paper.

The Front of the type is the designations for the side of the Body which faces you if you look at a type in the orientation shown above. The Back is the side opposite the Front, of course.

The Nick is one (as shown here) or more channels cast or cut into one side of the Body. The purpose of the Nick is to allow the compositor to orient the type in the stick. In America, the Nick is almost universally on the Front of the Body (the exceptions are extremely minor). In Europe the Nick is often on the Back of the Body.

There is no consistent system or pattern of meaning for the Nicks of types. Generally, though, a particular font will have been cast with the same Nick(s), and this may be useful to quickly distinguish a wrong-font type in the stick. This method is not completely reliable, however, since many different fonts of type may be cast with the same Nick patterns.

In the period of machine typesetting (that is, the setting of already cast types by machine, rather than the casting of composed types or slug-lines by machine), types were sometimes nicked in particular patterns for use by these machines. These types are now rare.

See note [3] for a discussion of several terms from the literature which can cause confusion.

Most authorities add here various terms which describe visual aspects of the type's face which are reflected in the underlying metal: "serif," "bracket," "stem," "hairline," "ascender," "descender," etc. I have omitted them at this point in the discussion because they all shape or modify the more basic physical features described here.

2. The Dimensions of Type

All metal printing types have the following important dimensions.

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Type height (also known as "Height to Paper") has been standard in the United States since 1886, and is now taken to be 0.918 inches exactly. Prior to its standardization, it varied significantly from the products of one type foundry to another. England adopted American type height ( not without complaint) in the late 19th and early 20th century. In Europe, type height still differs from country to country.

The authoritative work on the establishment of the point system in America (which also established modern American type height) is {Hopkins 1976, 1989}. For Point and Pica conversions tables and for a discussion of the American Printers' Point expressed in inches to an absurd number of decimal places, see the Notebook on Measurement for Typefounders

The Body Size is now more commonly called the "point size," since it is measured in the US in American Printers' Points. Before the adoption of point systems of measure, it was expressed in conventional words (e.g., "Brevier," "Pica," "English," "Double Pica," and so forth). Very little pre-point system type survives, but it is still useful to become familiar with these terms. See the "Type Body Name Chart" in the Notebook on Measurement for Typefounders for a brief summary of some of them. European type founders may use other measures, such as Didot points.

Note that the Body Size is, tautologically, the size of the Body. It has no a priori relationship to the dimensions of any of the features of the Face. In particular, the Body Size is (emphatically) not the distance from the top of the highest ascender to the bottom of the lowest descender, as is often asserted by contemporary writers on "typography" who have never handled type.

The Set Width (or simply the "Set") is the width of the piece of type in the direction that a line of type is read. It is potentially different for each sort in a font. It may be measured by the type founder in points or in standard units (inches for the American type founder). It is rarely measured by the printer at all.

Various systems have been developed, with greater or (usually) lesser success to regularize the set widths in hand-set type. For a discussion of these ("Unit-Set" type, "Point-Set" type, and "Point-Set" spacing, see the Notebooks on those subjects in the section on "Set and Systemicity" in the Horizontal Alignment and Width of Type within the "book" Making Matrices . [NOTE: Actually, I haven't yet written all of the material there; this is a place-holder.]

Spacing material typically is treated in the textbooks as if it were of theoretically perfect set, but in practice in the 20th century the American Type Founders Company cast point-set spacing.

The "Depth of Drive" is the depth of the casting cavity in the matrix used to cast the type. It corresponds to the vertical distance from the printing face of the type to its shoulder. This is a critical measurement for type founders, but of little practical importance to printers.

The "depth to counter level" is never called out as an important measurement. While it is certainly important in the making of matrices, it is usually ignored even by type founders.

3. The Features of Some Types

Kerns: A type may be cast so that its Face and Beard overhang its Body on one or more of its four sides. This overhanging portion is called a Kern. The type is said to have been kerned by the typefounder, and the process may be referred to as kerning. The type illustrated below has a horizontal Kern which allows the next type set after it to fit more closely.

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Note that kerning is an operation performed by a typefounder (in any medium: metal, wood (rare), phototype, or digital). It is a manufacturing operation, not an operation which may be performed by the user of a type. The process now called "kerning" in the digital world is actually "letterspacing" (or in the case of negative letterspacing of metal or wood type, mortising). The shift in meaning of this term came about because of a series of ignorant mistakes by early computer programmers (even, alas, Knuth), who did not in fact understand type. [4]. To use the term "kerning" to mean "letterspacing" is an act of disrespect to the maker of the type, regardless of its medium, because it means that you have not bothered to understand the type itself.

Dressing the Beard: As has been shown above, the width of the printing Face and its horizontal position on the Body is mechanically independent of the Set Width. These are choices of the type's designers and makers. From the type caster's point of view, however, it is easiest to make type where the Beard's lower edge is contained entirely within the Shoulder. Typically, therefore, the Face is narrower than the Set Width and is slightly inset from the edges of the Body.

At times a type's maker may wish to bring the Face closer to the edge of the Body without actually creating a Kern. This allows tighter spacing without involving the various difficulties presented by a Kern. This requires making the Beard vertical in the area where it would otherwise project off the Body. It is possible to do this because while the Beard must in general be sloped to provide adequate draft to separate the type and its matrix after casting, you can get away with small vertical portions.

Type with dressed beards, where the Face comes right up to the edge of the Body, are particularly useful for connecting scripts and for running borders where the Faces of successive types must touch each other.

There are two ways to accomplish this. In the first method, a matrix is manufactured which has such a vertical section. This is a relatively difficult process. [5].

The second, and more common, method is to use a conventional matrix and cast the type from it with the Beard overhanging the Body. Then dress the type, by hand or (if possible) in the casting machine so that the Beard in the affected portion is vertical. This is shown in before-and-after views below. Note that as dressed the full Face of the type remains entirely on the Body.

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Mortises for Letterspacing. Given two pieces of physical type, the limit to how closely they may be set is of course placing them right next to each other. Usually this works well, but sometimes it may be desirable to set them closer. This can be accomplished by mortising the types, as shown below.

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Types may be cast as mortised types by the typefounder. This of course requires suitable mold equipment for the casting machine. Regular types may also be mortised by the compositor. A specialized machine was sold for this purpose (the Rouse Type Mortiser). It also may be done, although at some risk, using a printers' saw (the risk is that the type may come free and be fired across the room at dangerous speed). Given the difficulties and time involved, mortising by the compositor is usually done only for finer work.

[NOT DONE] Mortises for Ornamental Types.

Pin Marks. More fuss is made over pin marks than they probably deserve. Since they were not produced by the type casting machines which dominated the 20th century, they are of limited value for the identification of most printing types. Still, they are of great use when the do occur. They are also a subject of endless fascination and are often of considerable beauty.

The pin mark is a characteristic by-product of the use of one kind of type casting machine: the pivotal type caster. The pivotal type caster was the first successful type casting machine developed (in the late 1830s and early 1840s), and it remained in commercial use until the early 21st century. [6]. In operation, it is basically an automated hand mould. Its mold therefore has two parts: bottom and top. In order to ensure that the type sticks always to the top part of the mold when it opens (so that it may be reliably knocked out of the mold), a stationary pin (MacKellar, Smiths & Jordan called it a "stout wire") is fixed to the top half of the mold. This pin, traditionally called a "discharging pin" but better termed a "drag pin," projects a very short distance into the type. It provides just enough drag on the type to keep it stuck to the top half of the mold. [7]. The use of this pin causes a small (usually circular) depression in the type, and provides the manufacturer with a convenient place to engrave a logo which will then be cast into the type.

The pin is employed necessarily on most versions of the pivotal caster. It is not employed on any other kind of type caster. Certain casters, such as the Thompson Type-Caster, could be fitted with non-standard mold components which would produce a "faux" pin mark - a mark indistinguishable on the type from any other pin mark but not necessitated by the operation of the casting machine.

The illustration below shows the location and general appearance of a pin mark on a type (in this case the mark is fictitious). [8].

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4. Unusual Type Bodies


ATF Wing-Body.

Angled Bodies for Italic.

ATF "Double-Angled" Bodies.

5. Other Typographical Materials, Type-High


(Just a quick visual summary for identification.)


Numbering Machines

Cuts (Stereotype, Electrotype)

6. Other Typographical Materials, Not Type-High


(Just a quick visual summary for identification.)

Spaces and Quads

Leads and Slugs

Furniture (Metal and Wood)


Perforating & Cutting Rule; Punches (above type-high)

Scoring Rule (above type-high)


7. Notes

[1] Famously, it was the refusal of American type founders to cast flat-shouldered types for stereotyping which prompted David and George Bruce to establish their own type foundry around 1813 . Their firm went on to become one of the major type foundries of the 19th century.

[2] Legros & Grant call the Groove "the heel nick or groove," but I find the term "heel-nick" to be confusing (and not used in American type founding). {Legros & Grant 1916}, p. 11.

[3] In addition to the confusion caused by the two meanins of "Beard," the literature contains other examples of terms used in different ways.

The term "Stem" in {DeVinne 1900} means "... the thick line of the face which most clearly indicates the character and the height of the letter ..." (p. 30) In {Southward 1884} it means "... the whole outline of the type [face] ..." (p. 11) But in {Legros & Grant 1916} it means the Body or Shank (p. 11).

[4] Computer programming has been my family's business since my late father started in 1958. It pains me to see programmers make errors which mislead generations of users.

[5] The general procedure is first to make a conventional matrix with sloped walls. Then cast a type from that matrix with its beard overhanging the body. Dress this type so that the Beard in this section is vertical. Then electroform a new matrix from this dressed type. The late Jim Rimmer is noted for having used this process at times.

[6] American Type Founders used pivotal type casters until its demise in 1993. In the final auction, 17 percent of the casters on auction were pivotals, and certain sizes of type could by that time only be cast on pivotals. Stephenson, Blake in England used pivotal type casters until their demise in the first years of the 21st century.

[7] The discharging/drag pin does not move. The idea that it does is a fiction which dates to a 1922 article by Henry Lewis Bullen, who wrote many of the fictions now taken as the history of type. It neither retracts to let the type fall out (as Bullen claimed) or extends to push the type out (as many now believe). It is stationary, and often fixed to the mold with a set screw.

[8] On my pivotal type caster, the pin is fitted to the top half of the mold (of course) and the type is cast nick-down in the mold. So the pin is on the left as you view the machine from the front. But the orientation of the type results in a pin mark on the side of the Body which is to the left as the type is held in a composing stick. On my Thompson Type Caster, for which I have an ex-Typefounders, Inc. of Phoenix Type Body Piece equipped with a faux pin, the pin is at the right-hand side of the machine as viewed from the front, but the type is cast nick-up. This therefore also results in a (faux) pin mark in the same location: to the left as the type is held in the stick.

8. References

{DeVinne 1900} DeVinne, Theodore Low. The Practice of Typography ... Plain Printing Types. NY: The Century Company, 1900.

This has been digitized by Google.

{Hopkins 1976, 1989} Hopkins, Richard L. Origin of The American Point System for Printers' Type Measurement Terra Alta, WV: Hill and Dale Private Typefoundry and Press, 1976 and 1989.

This remains the definitive work on its subject. The contents do not differ substantially between the two editions.

{Legros & Grant 1916} Legros, Lucient Alphonse and John Cameron Grant. Typograhical Printing Surfaces. London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1916.

This is a monumental work. But note that Legros was an engineer with a general background and Grant was a poet. Their work therefore at times contains curious differences - one would not go so far as to call them errors - from standard typefounding practice. It must be read carefully and cautiously. It has been digitized by Google from the University of Michigan copy, but that digitization is viewable only within the United States. An independent digitization, viewable worldwide, is available.

{Lawson 1971} Lawson, Alexander. Types: An Introduction Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1971.

{Southward 1884} Southward, John Practical Printing London: J. M. Powell & Son, 1884.

This has been digitized by Google.

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