Making Matrices: Foreword

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... whereas the records of all other arts and trades are effected by means of typography, yet the records of its own progress are singularly deficient, and, for a trade of such antiquity, the data available are most meagre. - Legros. "Typecasting & Composing Machinery" (1908)[1].

The metal relief type used in letterpress printing is cast using letterform molds called "matrices" ("matrix" in the singular, "mat" colloquially). [2] These matrices have been made in many ways: by punching using hand-engraved punches, by punching using counterpunched and hand-engraved punches, by punching using punches cut by pantographic rotary engraving machines, by electroforming from existing types, by electroforming from hand-cut pattern types (sometimes called "patrices"), by electroforming from patrices cut by pantographic rotary engraving machines, by direct pantographic rotary engraving, by direct hand engraving, by CNC milling, and in rare cases by other methods including mixed casting & punching and hand-cutting laminations. Moreover, each of these methods of matrix making usually admitted of many variations. Each manufacturer using pantographic rotary engraving machines, for example, seemed to use a different kind of intermediate working pattern. In the future other methods are likely to be adopted; stereolithography ("3-D printing") shows promise. If a method works, it is a valid method. There is no one right way to make type, and although this can become an area of passionate enthusiasm, no one method holds any moral high ground.

This present study is written by an amateur who, like Goudy, came to matrix-making midway through the journey of his life. It is an attempt by an outsider to learn and to document a craft which, while it has never been lost and has been practiced continually for over 550 years, has never been properly recorded in full technical detail.

Indeed, it is also an attempt to record every scrap of information about every method by which matrices were made. Yet for the most part it simply identifies where we are missing information. The fact that it can be done by an individual at all, and in one book, is deeply depressing. If one were to undertake the same study of any other basic technical component of modern civilization (the lathe tool-bit, for example, or the transistor) the result would take many people many years and fill a medium-sized library. Matrix making was the core technology which enabled printing and the modern world, yet to a first-order approximation we know nothing about it.

It doesn't really matter whether or not I manage to make matrices and type (although I am enjoying the attempt). The craft is over five centuries old. It's been done before. [3] What matters is that it is done again - that others continue to make mats and type in the future, especially using the traditional hand and manual machine methods documented here.

Work safely, and have fun.


1. Lucien Alphonse Legros. "Typecasting and Composing Machinery." (1908)

2. US pronunciation:

3. "It's all been done, 300 years ago, by men wearing wigs." - Frank Zappa.

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