[Alyson Kuhn] I traded business cards with Bill Jones of Virgin Wood Type in an elevator, within minutes of arriving at the Ladies of Letterpress conference in Asheville back in August. Later, he was both anecdotal and perfectly linear about answering my umpteen questions. The pantograph (below) on which Jones makes new wood type for letterpress printers is 5 ft. long. As far as Jones knows, his machine is one of a kind. It’s certainly kind of amazing.
VWT’s pantograph is the only two-headed version Jones has ever heard of. “The two tan rectangles [top center] are the wood blanks, pieces of hard maple. The cutters are cutting while I am tracing. So my mistakes are made in real time!”
Can we start with the type on your business card?
Of course. It’s a new old typeface I’m working on, called Aetna. It used to be made in the 1890s, and the last catalog of Hamilton Wood Type in which it appeared was 1918. It was a commercial face I really like. Hamilton has an extensive collection of their production materials, including old patterns. A friend of mine has been helping them catalog these things, and this particular face hasn’t shown up yet. I really think it hasn’t been available new since the ’20s. And I made the @ from a digital font. My wife’s name is Geri. Widthwise, her name is within a millimeter of Bill, so her card works perfectly too.
What did you do in your pre-wood type life?
I studied at RIT, the printing school, and I stayed in Rochester. I gravitated toward metal type and typesetting. After I graduated, I had a few jobs and then started a letterpress printing business in the ’80s. I did that for a number of years, including setting lead type. When the Mac came out, I fell for the computer side of things. I got into desktop publishing and went to work for a large corporation. The company was an “early believer” in the internet, and I became the web guy. Eventually I got a severance package, and I did web sites for people.
VWT Aldine Expanded has been expanded from the original design to include a stellar star and an awesome arrow, both drawn by Wolske — who has also added a quality question mark (not included on the broadside, which is available at Smart & Wiley’s Felt & Wire Shop).
And when did wood type come into the picture?
A couple of years ago, Mitchel Cohen, my former business partner, started a community print shop, at the Genesee Center for the Arts & Education. I began organizing and proofing their wood type collection, which they were picking up from old print shops and other donations. I filled in whatever characters I could by making new type from photopolymer.
“You keep the four arms of the pantograph set up to form a parallelogram. You have one arm in your left hand and the tracer in your right.”
Then I got wind of this guy who was selling what used to be the American Wood Type Manufacturing Company’s stuff. I sent him a proposal … and got a truck and drove it all back from Cincinnati. My wife looked at it and said, “This is perfect for you.” Her agreeing that this was right up my alley is what pushed me over the edge. I’d always been into typefaces, I’d always made things, and woodworking was no mystery to me.
What exactly did you buy?
Basically, what I bought was the pantograph and a bunch of old patterns for making fonts. No manuals, no instructions. It took awhile to figure everything out. At this point, I’m pretty comfortable with what I’m making — though there’s always room for improvement.
Antique Extended: An alphabet commissioned by a repeat VWT customer, now available to the wider market in five sizes, from 4 line to 10 line.
Kiva Stimac ordered Antique Extended and provided VWT with the outlines. Stimac designs and prints posters to promote concerts at Casa del Popolo and La Sala Rossa, the performance spaces she runs in Montreal.
In 10-line Antique Extended, ABC doesn’t even fit on an 8.5-in. wide sheet. The word MOM is 11 in. wide!
Are you planning to acquire any more equipment?
Ah. Last month we bought a big Show Card sign press. Businesses had these simple printing presses that they used to make their own signs from metal or wooden type. Say a department store needed a sign above a display of socks, promoting two pairs for $1. This was way before laser printers and desktop publishing. The one we’ve just acquired is a monster! It’s 24 x 35 in. — that’s how big an image you can print. It sat in our driveway for a while because we didn’t have the space prepared. I took a four-wheeled mover’s dolly, and using a piece of pipe and wooden blocks, lifted it onto the dolly. Then I sat next to it for a while — it’s as big as a small kitchen table, but it’s a piece of iron. Later, my wife and I moved it up a ramp into our living room using a come-along and the metal pipe.
Mansard Extra Bold, a new revival font from Virgin Wood Type. The larger A is 12 line (2 in. tall) and the smaller is 6 line.
As it happens, A is my favorite letter. I’ve never heard of Mansard — is there a story?
Yes, a short one. I thoroughly believe that if someone else has done the work, why duplicate? Jordan Davies has a line of digital type fonts called Wooden Type Fonts. He’s digitized 100 alphabets, which you can buy online to use on your computer. So I bought Mansard, e-mailed Jordan that I wanted to make wood type, and a couple of days later, he sent an e-mail confirming that the license agreement indeed allowed me to do that. I credit him, of course, on my site.
“Right by my right thumb is the ‘cursor,’ which is a spike. If you have a big pattern and you’re making small type, you end up with a huge radius of the tracer.”
Do you think about your learning curve for mastering the pantograph, for figuring out where to put the sign press and how to use it?
Oh, yes. I learn something every day. VWT will celebrate its first birthday on January 4, 2012. I think it may take me two more years to feel really skilled on the pantograph — which isn’t to say that I’m not proud of what I’ve made so far. You know, really, I’ve been in publishing from the beginning. My role is to help truly creative people understand the tools they need to do their job or make their thing. I don’t make the posters — I make the letters that people use to make the posters. My wife makes beautiful visual images — I can’t do that. Put me in front of a blank piece of paper, and I’ll probably put an alphabet on it and consider it done.
Save the date: Calendar season is close upon us, and VWT has produced a perpetual calendar set, complete with elegant fractions for 23/30 and 24/31. Geri McCormick, Bill Jones’ wife, is coordinating a collaborative calendar as a fundraiser for the Genesee Center. Twelve artists, including McCormick, will each design and print a month at the center, using VWT Calendar. We will preview the calendar on Felt & Wire early in November.