Adopt-a-Font: Spring cleaning at the RIT Cary Collection

[Alyson Kuhn] You might be thinking, “Why, Y-E-S, I would love to adopt a font. I would give it a great home.” But the gorgeous font of wood type above already has a great home, in the Cary Collection at the Rochester Institute of Technology. “Adopting” in this case means volunteering to clean a font of wood type, giving it some TLC on behalf of RIT.

The Arthur M Lowenthal Memorial Pressroom is home to many typographic treasures. The room beyond the doors is the Cary Collection Reading Room.

Amelia Hugill-Fontanel is the assistant curator at the Cary Collection, home to more than 400 fonts of wood type. Adopt-a-Font is her project.

What gave you the idea for Adopt-a-Font?
We had recently liberated a large collection of wood type from a storage area at RIT—over 100 fonts. This collection had been acquired in 2007, but it hadn’t been cataloged, cleaned, or printed. It was filthy, as it had been stored by its previous owner in a barn or garage. Some of the fonts were in typecase drawers, and some in old boxes that had originally held 16 x 20-in. photographic paper—which actually was a good way to store them. We don’t have enough typecase drawers to store all of the fonts, so some will go into archival boxes that can be stacked. Anyway, the type was grimy and dusty, and I couldn’t integrate it into the Cary Collection without having it cleaned. I didn’t have the people-power to do it with our limited staff and student employees.

Student Carol Pan and RIT alum Tony DiPietro share some Gojo.

And what are the official tools of the wood type cleaning trade?
Gojo Hand Cleaner, which contains nothing abrasive. It’s a mild hand cleaner for people who get grease on their hands. It looks like lotion in a tub. It’s got a little bit of petroleum to cut through the grime and grease—but the most important part is that it has mineral oil in it. Wood type is like furniture—the oil humidifies the wood. Introducing the oil remoisturizes the type and safeguards it against cracking.

Note the beautiful dollar signs (lower right).

We apply the Gojo with automotive shop towels. We rub it around the face, and the sides tend to be pretty dusty as well. Then all the excess gets wiped off. You don’t want the type to feel oily, and when you print, you need a clean surface. We have Q-tips for getting around the serifs and indentations. You might think we would use dental tools or something, but we don’t. Nothing pointy at all—even a pencil could scratch the face of the type.

Justin O’Connell, student assistant to Hugill-Fontanel, gives new meaning to ragged left and ragged right.

Have you toured other big collections of wood type?
In the summer of 2012 I visited the Hamilton Wood Type Museum in Two Rivers, Wis., and I was inspired by their hands-on approach to getting the public interested in wood type collections. This was during TypeCon MKE SHFT 2012. And speaking of wood, some friends and I rented a Frank Lloyd Wright house in Two Rivers. It was one of his Usonian homes, not Prairie Style. I slept in one of the sons’ bedrooms, which was like being in the cabin of a ship. The terrace around the house was fantastic.

Justin O’Connell helps Jung Soo Kim and Seth Gottlieb set their specimen page.

So I decided to crowd-source the restoration of this collection by inviting volunteers behind the scenes at the Cary Collection to spend a little time cleaning up their own adopted font, and then have the opportunity to learn how to typeset and letterpress print a type broadside. We had been looking for a way for students to come in and print anyway, since letterpress is not in any arts curriculum at RIT.

A simple form for recording the pertinent details

How did you publicize Adopt-a-Font?
I had all these plans to do a poster and FB page, but it turned out I didn’t need to. My colleagues and I announced it in classes and demonstrations. I sent out a few emails to faculty, and I mentioned the project at the opening event for my recent exhibition on Wood Type [which is closing this weekend]. Adopt-a-Font has taken off by itself.

The poster for the recent wood type exhibition was, of course, printed using freshly cleaned Adopt-a-Font typefaces.

How extensively have you cataloged the Cary Collection’s wood type holdings?
Ours is a very large institutional collection. Certainly print shops and book arts centers have their stocks of excellent wood type, too. But I know of only one other place that treats their wood type as artifacts and actually catalogs it as such—the Rob Roy Kelly Wood Type Collection at the University of Texas.

This trade edition presents reductions of about 300 prints made by former RIT printing student David Wall.

Manufacturers of wood type—they were not foundries, because wood type is cut, not cast—issued specimen books showing their available typefaces. We are very fortunate to have A Specimen Portfolio of Wood Type in the Cary Collection, based on the master thesis work of David Wall, a printing student at RIT in the ’90s. He proofed and identified all of the fonts and letterpress printed them. We later had the idea to make a trade book with reductions of his prints.

Dan Liu (left) prepares to print her freshly set specimen page under the watchful eye of Justin O’Connell.

Pages 198–199: 20 line No. 59, Hamilton Manufacturing Co., 1880–1889. Page 198 shows the type at actual size; page 199 is a reduced print to show the entire alphabet (minus the A).

My goal for the Adopt-a-Font project is to identify the types reclaimed and get them into our purple specimen book. So I hope there will be a second edition party of some sort, but that is a bit into the future.

Pages 162–163: top, 6 line Chromatic Antique Tuscan Shade Nos. 1 & 2, William H. Page & Co., 1857–1859; middle, 6 line Chromatic American (one color only, actual size), William H. Page & Co., 1857–1859; bottom, 8 line Antique Tuscan Outlined ef. Hamilton: No. 416 (actual size), manufacturer and date unknown. Page 162 shows the type at actual size; page 163 is a reduced print to show the entire alphabet.

In addition to the Adopt-a-Font typefaces, how else has the Cary acquired its collection?
Most of it has been donated to us. Bob Bretz, one of the previous Cary librarians, was a great collector of wood type. Professor R. Roger Remington donated his collection of wood type to us. Several other collectors have donated their collections as well.

Manufacturers generally die-stamped their names into the side of the type, usually on the uppercase A. This can help you find the name of the typeface, the year it was issued and so forth, in the manufacturer’s specimen book(s).

Let’s get down to the nitty-gritty! How long does it take, on average, to clean a font?
Depending on the number of characters in the font, the size of the type and how intricate the font design is, the cleaning takes from two to five hours. Then the volunteers spend some in the pressroom, typesetting their wood type specimens and printing them. We require that the print be a straightforward ABC specimen, and it takes about an hour to set and print. But some volunteers stay after they’re done and set various words in their font to pull their own special prints.

Yevgeniy Parfilko (left) and Carlos Filho have an office with a view.

What’s next for Adopt-a-Font?
Right now, we are planning to design a wood-type-inspired T-shirt for all volunteers. We don’t have a specific shindig planned yet, but maybe at the end of the school year. The Adopt-A-Font project has already really worked out on so many levels: A collection is being restored, we’re getting help identifying the type, students are learning about letterpress, and the Cary has made some new friends.

All photos courtesy of the Cary Collection.

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Comments (9)

  1. Posted by Allan Haley on 02.27.13 at 12:20 pm

    What a wonderful idea! – and a great way to spend a cold snowy afternoon in Rochester.

    Love all that wood type! Wish I could be there to help out.


  2. Posted by notely on 02.28.13 at 1:00 pm

    Fantastic project~ thanks for sharing!

  3. Posted by Giant Squid Press on 03.1.13 at 11:50 am

    I’m confused. Did the liberate 100 fonts or 100 typefaces… I would think the assistant curator of a wood type collection would know the difference

  4. Posted by Amelia Hugill-Fontanel on 03.4.13 at 11:03 am

    Hello Giant Squid Press,
    Thanks for your interest in the article.
    As you know, a font is 1 size and 1 variation of a particular typeface. RIT’s collection of wood type is very random, with no holdings of complete typefaces in all their sizes and styles, so it’s really a collection of fonts of wood type. Hence the use of the word “fonts” in the name of the project and all along.
    All best, Amelia

  5. Posted by A Kuhntributor on 03.5.13 at 1:25 pm

    Amelia – Thanks for the clarification. I think the distinction between “typeface” and “font” is murky to many people today. To me, a non-designer and non-printer, it seems that it’s a “typeface” when it’s being designed…and a “font” once it’s been fully digitized to live in your computer. Kuhnfusing indeed.

  6. Posted by Allan Haley on 03.5.13 at 2:00 pm

    Fonts and typefaces are very different things, even though people tend to use the terms interchangeably. Typefaces are designs like Bembo, Gill Sans or Papyrus. Fonts enable the imaging of a typeface design.

    The 18th century printer and designer John Baskerville created the typeface that now carries his name. Over the years, there have been hand-set fonts, machine-set fonts, phototype fonts and now digital fonts of the Baskerville typeface. Currently there are TrueType, PostScript Type1 and OpenType fonts of Baskerville. There are Latin 1 fonts of Baskerville, used to set most of the languages in Western Europe and PRO fonts of Baskerville that have enlarged character sets that include small caps, old style figures, ligatures, etc. There are also Greek and Cyrillic fonts of Baskerville, which enable the setting of these languages. All these fonts are of the Baskerville typeface design.

  7. Posted by Amelia Hugill-Fontanel on 03.21.13 at 9:54 am

    About the cleaning product: I’ve had some great questions from readers about the Gojo cleaner. First: please don’t buy any product with pumice or grit–that would be too abrasive for type cleaning. We use Gojo Creme which is advertised like this: “GOJO Creme hand cleaner is for removing grease, tar and oils. This cleaner does not contain the pumice scrubbing particles, however it is still tough on hard-to-remove elements. This cleaner does not contain harsh solvents.”

    Secondly, someone asked about the water content of Gojo as possibly affecting the varnish on wood type. I have not seen any degradation of types after applying the cleaning creme. We are applying such a small amount and wiping off any excess that I think the application is benign.

    I’d love feedback from anyone who is restoring wood type as we are always looking to improve our process. Thanks!

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