Guideline for amount of type to purchase?

Hi all,

I’m currently researching the purchase of several fonts to use as I learn hand setting with my two presses. One question I don’t know the answer to is ‘how much type should I buy’?

The answer, of course, depends upon several variables including font size, what is being printed, usual paper size, etc. I don’t know what a good baseline is — a business letter printed on A4 paper using primarily 12pt text? A poem on A5 with lots of whitespace and a mix of text and display sizes? You get the idea. I don’t want to get into a debate as to which fonts I should choose, nor should cost necessarily enter into the equation (although saying things like ‘buy 40 full sets’ without qualification seems…counterproductive).

I suspect I’ll start learning by setting letters to send to people (let’s say on 8.5 x 11 paper) or notes (let’s say on A5 paper). I’m OK with only having one chase going at a time (for the 8.5x11 example I’d use a 10x15 windmill and for the notes a 6.5x10 table top). Ultimately, I’d like to develop enough confidence in hand setting that I could try more ‘exciting’ uses of the metal type and, as such, wouldn’t want to have to find additional lower case sets down the road, for example.

I’ve seen mention of ratios of lower case to capitals ranging from 2:1 to 5:1. 5:1 makes a bit more sense to me, especially if I’ll be learning by setting large blocks of copy such as correspondence. What seems a reasonable ratio of figures? (again, I know the copy will determine this to a non-trivial degree, but…) How concerned should I be if I am only able to get one or two weights for the font I chose? (e.g. a medium and bold or a medium and a light)

I’ve noticed several different schemes in place (Skyline, M&H, Dale Guild, etc.) so if you do have suggestions, please qualify your answer in terms which I (and others) can use to translate between the different schemes, if applicable.

As some people are critical in nature (which isn’t a bad thing…), here is what I was thinking on starting with:

1. A 10 or 12 pt gothic, preferably in two weights (e.g. regular and light or regular and bold). I’m not sold on needing a condensed version at this point, although many of the gothics have them. I’d definitely take a regular italic over a condensed to begin with.

2. A 16 or 18 pt gothic of the same family in 1., above. Same preferences, although I may opt for just a regular weight.

3. A 36pt-ish slab serif/Egyptian (think Clarendon). Just for fun.

I prefer sans serif fonts generally speaking although I realize their readability (especially given what I indicated would be my vehicle of choice while learning to hand set type) may be a liability. Assuming the resources exist to purchase both a sans serif and serif family, do the preferences/breakdown of sizes in 1., and 2., above, still seem reasonable?

I realize I’ll need to buy spacing for the sizes I purchase, so have tried to limit it to three.

Thanks for reading this far. I know I’ve asked a lot of questions, but I’m pretty sure I’m not the only beginner trying to make a wise investment in metal type.

Thank you all,

Log in to reply   14 replies so far

When i was learning to set type i couldn’t afford foundry type at $10.00 a font so i found a place that cast monotype for less than half that price, they also sold 10 lb fonts which were great for setting lots of type, they are still in business Quaker City Type in Pennsylvania, there info is in the yellow pages on this site. Their type seemed to last a long time and by saving some money per font i could buy a few fun fonts. Around 1970 after almost 10 years of setting hand type a broke down and bought a ludlow, now i cast new type for every job and never run out of letters. Good luck Dick G.

If I were you, I would concentrate more on what STYLE rather than the AMOUNT.

Also, consistency of style. So, if you have access to purchase 10 point sizes in a couple variations of the same face, I would think this would be better than having 10 different faces, each one a different point size, some of them italic, some bold, maybe a shaded.

It just strikes me as more useful, compositionally, to be able to consistently adjust the size of the face, maybe apply an italic every so often of the same face, etc.

Just food for thought. When I was starting out, I bought type from a really nice man who had a rather large amount of Perpetua. So much, in fact, that he published and printed under the name “Perpetua Press”. So I ended up with a pretty decent amount of it and I find it useful that I can use a size up or a size down or an italic, all in the same family.

You seem logical and sensible though, so I’m certain you’ll figure it out.

Good luck.

Normally a font of foundry type, with variable numbers of different letters depending on usage, has 2-3 times as many lc as caps (26A, 46a is about right for 12 point). If you look at a font package it’s 6 inches by maybe 2-1/2 to 3 inches for a font of 12 point. Figure you can’t use all the type in a font to set something because you’ll run out of sorts in one letter first. So for an 8-1/2x11 page with 1-1/4 inch margins and a 6 inch long, 36 pica line (probably too long for easy reading of 12 point) you’d need maybe 3 to 4 fonts of whatever type you choose. You won’t ordinarily use as many caps in regular text, so I’ve had pretty good luck with buying 4 fonts of lc for every font of caps, for text setting. Figure about $50-60 per font for foundry.

That should be in the ball park.



Best way to figure out what you need, is to figure out about what the largest page size is that you will set in one setting.

Then, type that page into your computer.

Then run a program that counts the characters in the file against that file to find out how many of each character is in the average page.

Then give yourself about a 20% margin of error because your sample page may be low on a certain character.

Then buy fonts based on the A/a count against your largest page.

By the way, your page should be set on the computer in the same point size you would use to set type. e.g. If you’re setting a page in 24pt it is going to use a whole lot less than 12pt. Also set your margins in the word processor to what you think your margins might be on the page.

I wrote a shell script which works on macs or linux or unix systems to give you a count of the individual characters but it only works on text files. you’d have to export your word doc as text to use it.

email me off list and I’ll send it to you. I tried to post it here, but it makes html cough and hack, so I’ll have to email it to you.

Not an easy answer, but an accurate one hopefully.


p.s. I ran the script against the text in this message above the line and this was the output:

alandye$ ./sortcount al.txt
Character 2 is represented 3 times.
Character d is represented 15 times.
Character e is represented 96 times.
Character 4 is represented 1 times.
Character f is represented 15 times.
Character g is represented 28 times.
Character h is represented 44 times.
Character i is represented 52 times.
Character k is represented 5 times.
Character l is represented 32 times.
Character m is represented 18 times.
Character n is represented 49 times.
Character o is represented 82 times.
Character p is represented 22 times.
Character r is represented 49 times.
Character A is represented 3 times.
Character s is represented 54 times.
Character B is represented 2 times.
Character t is represented 100 times.
Character u is represented 46 times.
Character v is represented 6 times.
Character w is represented 18 times.
Character x is represented 5 times.
Character y is represented 29 times.
Character z is represented 2 times.
Character I is represented 5 times.
Character N is represented 1 times.
Character is represented 225 times.
Character T is represented 4 times.
Character % is represented 1 times.
Character ? is represented 4 times.
Character , is represented 6 times.
Character . is represented 6 times.
Character / is represented 1 times.
Character a is represented 74 times.
Character 0 is represented 1 times.
Character b is represented 11 times.
Character 1 is represented 1 times.
Character c is represented 25 times.

assuming you wanted to set this briarpress response you would need a font with 74 lc a’s with about 20% for margin of error, or a font of around 88a.

One other thing to think about is whether you want to have multiple pages composed at once. If so, multiply your output by the total number of standing forms…

By the way, the reason I wrote the script is that sometimes I want to use a font of type, but the font might be thin and not have enough so before I go setting type and come up short, I run the text through this little utility and then check the highest count sorts against the case to see if I’m going to waste my time…

Thanks for all the wonderful responses!

Alan, I honestly hadn’t thought about such a simple approach — type out a page and determine the letter distribution! I’m a software developer by trade, so it will be fun to write up something to replicate what your script does. But, again, a good approach.

I can see from the comments that the quantity I’ll need to do what I said (full A4 pages) will be non-trivial. Which is fine but brings to point the need to be happy with the style of fonts one choose…I may be looking at them for a long time after such an investment! Or, at the other extreme, perhaps I should just find someone with a large collection of a given family and learn to set with that (helimited — you could have done a lot, lot worse than Perpetua!)

Thanks again all,

Matthew, where are you located, if not too far from me you could use my ludlow to set type, you never run out of letters and always have new type. Hanson, Massachusetts. Dick G.

Hi Dick,

Thanks for the kind offer, but I’m in Canada (admittedly closer to MA than most being in southwestern Ontario).

I tried to crunch the numbers for a Ludlow but can’t justify it (yet). Need to spend more time learning the basics before I start keeping hot metal in the garage! But the numbers are one thing…the wife is another (although she’s been a great supporter, once I showed her a Ludlow in operation and explained how it worked I think I lost the argument..something about two little kids running around in the garage…).

Thanks again for the offer,

Hello Matthew,

I do pretty much what Alan does. Here are two websites I use to count sorts:
(This one outputs the counts in descending order.)
(This allows you to count ligatures, too.)

Fonting schemes are created for general use, but everyone’s writing is different. For example, the letter frequencies in Faulkner’s and Hemingway’s works will be “visibly different” (see the Wikipedia article on “Letter Frequency”). I have found that my type is far more useful if I order extra six-inch lines of certain letters. Sorry to repeat this from another thread, but to ascertain which sort lines I need, I prepare tables and charts comparing the letter distribution in the fonts with the distribution I will need. Here’s an example; with this particular face, lowercase fonts were not available, but the same method can be used for whatever fonts are offered. I will be happy to send you the entire spreadsheet via email.


Dick, I want to come use your ludlow to set type. I’ve never cast on a ludlow and have long considered getting one.

helimited, ludlow is fairly easy to use, i have two, one electric and one gas, i like the gas better. if you would like call me and we could set up a time. The machine has a great safety so you don’t get squirts, also maintenance is fairly simple. My twelve year old was setting type with a few minutes instruction, the best thing is you never run out of letters and you recast to do multiple up forms. I’m in the yellow pages under Kay Printing. Right now i know of 2 ludlows for sale cheep. Dick G.

Dick, are you in NJ?

Or somewhere else?

Nevermind, I see Hanson, MA

Does that mean you don’t want to come over and play? Dick G.

No, it’s just gonna take a moment to organize it ;-)