CNC for cutting wood type?

This may be crazy, but is it a bad idea to try cutting wood type on a CNC machine? Some contractors I work with use CNC machines for cabinetry and they seem to be able to produce some pretty fine details. If they run off of vector files can’t we plug in some converted digital type and have them route a whole typeface? Anybody ever tried this?



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I don’t see why it wouldn’t work. Like with all wood type though, there is probably not a router bit or milling cutter which can make non-printing area which ends in a point, like the interior points of the cap N. Where the non-printing area actually comes to the point, has to be cut by hand.

The next thing you need to do is get dry, fine grained, end grain hardwood which is .918” high and has been perfectly surfaced and finished with shellac.

You have to go through the step of hand finishing wood type when it reaches those points. N, V, K and the like, as Geuffrey pointed out, have squared or straight angled points on a lot of faces, and so unless you were okay with that being slightly rounded you’d need to find a way to hand finish.

I work with a fella in Brooklyn who does very sophisticated things with a C&C machine, and even with all the bits he has access to he stated you’d still have to hand carve those specific areas. Even with a V bit, you’d still lose detail there and it’ll round out.

But, I do not see why that isn’t the same problem associated with pantographing type. In fact, C&C automation would be faster and possibly more accurate per piece than panto, depending upon how you clamped/held pieces. If you got ahold of a small machine capable of making pieces in sets or 12 and had a pretty accurate printers saw, I’m certain you could spit out fonts of type in pretty little amounts of time.

As I understand it, the biggest obstacles to making wood type are:

Raw materials, getting decent end grain maple blanks finished to type high (before cutting) is a long and laborious process.

And hand finishing, as any milling machine cannot create a square inside corner and that work must be done with various carving tools by hand, whether the type is created by CNC or by hand with a pantograph.

There is also the simple expense of purchasing a CNC machine that can hold suitable tolerances. The only reason the fellow currently making wood type is doing it is because he had the opportunity to purchase the key ready equipment and tooling of the old American Wood Type company. The machinery and tooling at Hamilton Wood Type is now part of the Hamilton Wood Type Museum (which also sells a few faces).

CNC would be a wonder for carving faces such as Brush or Kaufmann Script, which are all curves and probably a challenge to cut, but even those faces have some acute inside angles that need hand dressing.

It still seems like it could be a viable option, in theory. I appreciate everyone’s comments and advice. I am going to talk to the CNC cabinet makers I work with and see if they are open to the idea of it. I would hope that doing this myself would make it more affordable and convenient to own the actual wood type, and have certain typefaces that are hard to come by, but it may not prove cost effective after all the work is done. ??

Anyone know how the cuts would be determined to keep the spacing correct?


I’m the guy that is making wood type using a pantograph and patterns from the old American Wood Type company and I have a few thoughts on this.

I just came inside from an all day session of getting rough cut maple ready to make into wood type. It is not done yet but I made good progress. It will probably take another day or so before I can make any type out of the wood. Yesterday I drove 50 miles to a sawmill to buy wood—really cold out there—great wood.

I think that making the blanks is the key in this entire scenario. If you buy type high end grain wood, you pay a fortune. You need to have good wood and a jointer, thickness planer, quality table saw, and an accurate fence to get wood to type high. You also need to master making the wood as smooth as fine furniture. So add shellac and fine sandpaper.

It is also necessary to be able to cut everything square, so a type saw is a good addition to the table saw. Especially for tiny things like periods. Traditionally the body of the type is trimmed very tight to face on all sides. When I do that with lower case and set some type, I usually need to letterspace some like you do with capitals.

So, I use a pantograph and (old) wooden patterns for cutting the type. I know that the proper cnc machine and some good software would do a great job cutting type. In the future I will probably go in that direction. I am waiting for the Mac version (again).

So, I see there is no problem with cutting wood type on a cnc machine. It’s just all of the other things that get in the way.

It seems to me that for finishing the surface a thickness sander would be the ticket — maybe a medium belt for getting to within a new thousandths of the height and a fine belt for the finishing touch. The height should be tightly controllable and the surface about as smooth as it can be made.


I had a short discussion with one of my CNC guys and he’s willing to try it. I am pretty sure he has the right equipment to get most of it done but there will probably be a lot of hand finishing.

Bill where are you located? I’d love to see the kind of stuff you’re doing. I’m also waiting for a Mac version of autocad. I feel your pain.

And thanks for your input Bob. I’m glad to see some positive responses to this question. It would be great to be able to do this. Nowadays youre more likely to find someone with a CNC machine than a type cutter, unfortunately.

Thanks again for the comments!



Just checking in to see how this project is coming along.

I have been wondering the same thing for a few years now.