Wood Type Spacing Material

What do you wood typists use for spacing material with wood type? Thus far, I’ve only used single words on a line or maybe a couple words and could improvise something.

Soon (I hope) I will be receiving some lower case letters and numbers and have some potential plans to print something that will need more spacing material than I have on hand.

Can I go out to the shed and rip some mahogany blocks into thin strips for leading, then cut some of them off for spacing? If so, how do I determine proper thicknesses for the different quads and spaces?

Is there some kind of industry standard or is it by “guess and by gosh”?


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I use wooden furniture and reglet, so your idea of ripping mahogany sounds good. Just be sure to cut consistent typographically useful widths.

Those widths would be in picas - suggest 1, 2, 4, 5, 10, and maybe 20 pica widths.

Thanks. I guess my methodology would be to rip the 3/4” blocks into strips that are the width of the type, rip those strips into 1, 2, 4, 5, 10 and 20 pica widths, then set up a jig to cut the strips into uniform lengths that are equal to the height of the type body. I’m guessing I’d need some “leads” that would be about 6 points and some slugs around a pica.

Should be manageable.

Your methodology sounds reasonable, and by the time you’re done, you will have figured it all out. That’s how these things go… You might also want to use heavy cardboard or binder’s board for thin spaces.

You may need to put spacing material between some of the letters within words as well, to make the words look balanced. Some letter combinations result in letters which are farther apart, like AT, AW, etc., and some look like they are closer together like IK, IE, HE, etc.

When you get a word where some letters are close and some are farther apart, it looks better to put spacing between some of them. Like the word “THE” where the TH looks farther apart than the HE, so you would put a little space between the H and E, so all of the letters in the word look equally spaced..

To make a line of type look good and balanced, with the letters and words spaced in a pleasing manner, it is more a visual thing than a technical thing.

There are a number of guidelines which come into play when doing typesetting, and correct letterspacing is one of them.

It is not uncommon to find wood type letters where printers have “mortised” them so they can fit closer together. Letters with diagonals in them are most likely to have had some the blank part of their blocks notched out.

Sounds like a huge amount of work to me!
Just give me a call. I have huge boxes of reglets in all thicknesses ready to go as well as wood furniture strips in 24” lengths that you can cut to size if desired.
Both options inexpensive so call and we can discuss.
American Graphic Equip. Corp.

Well, probably an hour or so. I, like many, have just a bit more time than I have money. I’ve also got a bunch of mahogany blocks out in the woodshop that aren’t big enough for much else. Also, I don’t really need much as I suspect that most of my printing will be done with photopolymer plates for the near future and possibly 3D printed plates toward the end of my life.

Thanks though.


Well, I suppose it’s about time I posted my experiences with this endeavor. I have a little time now and will post some pictures later.

OK, spacing… it took me a while to see just how simple it was. We have em-quads, en-quads, 3-to-em, 4-to-em & 5-to-em spaces. The first thing to do is to determine the size of the em in your font. It’s pretty simple; it’s the size of your type. Wood type is generally given in “lines” with six lines to the inch. If you don’t have a ruler calibrated in lines, no worries, just pick up one of your letter blocks… an “M” works nicely and set your table saw such that it will rip a strip exactly one em wide. This is your basic unit of measure. Cut several strips of wood one em wide.

To make em-quads, just cut the wood into little blocks that are as long as they are wide. So for a 5-line font, you should have a block that is 5 lines x 5 lines x (whatever thickness your original board was… usually 3/4”). Now you should have a hand full of em-quads.

Next, take another one of the em-wide strips and rip it such that it is one-half an em thick. This is the thickness of your en-quad. You should now have a strip that is one en thick and one em high. You cut this strip into blocks that are as high as the type body… though this is not critical. They can’t be type high, but they can be shorter than the type body. My em-quads are all about 3/4” high, which works well enough.

You can set up a jig on your rip fence to use the crosscut guide if you want to, but those little blocks have a tendency to fly, so be careful. You need the saw blade to be very sharp, and you need a GOOD quality crosscut guide, not one of those plastic things that are not worth the plastic they are made from.

Repeat the process for the remaining spaces you need, ripping the strips to the correct thickness. This thickness, in my estimation, is not really critical for most work. Make a guess, but stick to it so they are all the same.

The thinner strips can be cut with a Rouse “Forty” lead and rule cutter. This works for me with oak strips that are 1/32” thick. You can also use leads and slugs to make your spacing material using the slug cutter in lieu of a saw. These would be the wood type equivalent of coppers and brasses.

You don’t normally find wood type smaller than six lines, so really thin spacing material is not needed.

If the font you are using has descenders, you will also need some strips that are ripped the thickness of the length of your descenders. This will vary with the type size.

Get yourself an old Sears Craftsman miter box if you can find one, as if you do any amount of printing with your wood type, you will need to cut pieces of this descender strip to the needed length. If you are using one of those inexpensive miter boxes made out of maple not normally supplied with a saw, you will need a tool called a “backsaw”. The backsaw must be sharp and set properly.

You can also use the miter box to cut your spacing material to length. Again, the saw has to be sharp.

Did I mention that the saw has to be sharp?

You could, in theory use any kind of wood. I used some black walnut and some mahogany I had in the wood shop. There might be some advantage in using the same kind of wood your type is made from, i.e.: hard maple like Hamilton made their type from and like Virgin Wood Type still does. If you do that, when the wood expands and contracts with the humidity of the room, it will all expand and contract at the approximate same rate. In practice, this might not be much of an issue.

Did I forget to mention that your saw should be very sharp?

You can use the same leads and slugs as you use for lead type, though if you want, you can certainly use wooden ones.

Make sure the saw is sharp.

Thanks for all that.

I’d probably do much of the work on a band saw (with a sharp blade :) ) since it has a smaller kerf than most circular saw blades. OTOH, using a band saw needs a better fence and guide than most of them have.

For larger size quads, maybe 10 line and up, consider using high layer count (11 or more ply) 3/4” plywood; it’ll have compressive strength in both directions and is going to be a sight cheaper than solid wood. It’s also often easier to find scraps….

Think about whether you want to cut slightly oversize and lightly sand, or to leave the cuts as the are. A dull blade or one that doesn’t run true can leave a nasty edge.

Pulled out the old Sony Mavica and took a few shots today. I finished my spacing material with boiled linseed oil, but realistically, no finish is really necessary for this application. They’ll likely get inked up over the years anyway.

Modern circular saw blades that run at a very high RPM produce a finish that was almost unheard of when I started woodworking in the early 1970’s. Carbide blades weren’t generally available back then… at least not to me. Now, as you are using a band saw, maybe cutting larger has some merit, but my saw makes a pretty nice cut. The miter box and backsaw, not so much, but those surfaces are not really critical.

I did this with scrap I had on hand, so it basically cost me my time. If I had to do it again, I would probably avail myself of Larry’s offer of pre-cut reglets. As he observed, it was quite a bit of time… and reglets really are not very expensive.

Tomorrow I will lock some up and maybe print something… more photos to follow.

image: They all fit into the type case.  This is Windsor Light Condensed in 5-line by Virgin Wood Type.  As I picked a smallish scheme, there is plenty of space to "share" for the larger quads.

They all fit into the type case. This is Windsor Light Condensed in 5-line by Virgin Wood Type. As I picked a smallish scheme, there is plenty of space to "share" for the larger quads.

image: R to L: 4M-quad, 3M-quad, 2m-quad, M-quad, N-quad, 3-to-M quad (standard space) and thin spaces.

R to L: 4M-quad, 3M-quad, 2m-quad, M-quad, N-quad, 3-to-M quad (standard space) and thin spaces.