What wood to use to make my own type?

It seems difficult and expensive to find what I want as a complete set and I thought it might be nice to go on the horribly long journey of making my own.

When I was in uni, one of the grad students made a full set of glyphs as part of his thesis by hand, but I don’t remember what hardwood he used.

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usually, end grain cut, hard wood maple.

Just quoting from the Rob Roy Kelly book on wood type, page 50: “Cherry, apple, dogwood, pine, boxwood, mahogany, holly, and maple were preferred woods.” I would add to that list birch, which I have used to make some replacement sorts. Just echoing the previous post, rock maple is considered the most commonly used wood then and now.


It all depends on how you plan to cut the letters.

We used a laser to cut blocks for a number of years, and found that cherry produced the cleanest end product, but maple also worked well. It really didn’t matter if it was end-grain or sawn on plank. It worked the same. There’s a write-up about the process here on Briar Press somewhere.

For hand-cutting you want a softer wood, since cherry / maple are a pain to work with hand tools. Poplar works well, as does select white pine. They are soft enough and have fine enough grain to cut well, but are strong enough to print well if you don’t abuse them. I’ve got hundreds of letters, do-dads, and illustrations that were hand-cut…. and some of them are ~40 years old.

IF you are goinf to hand cut, there are a few things to keep in mind:
1- use good tools. Speedball cutters are not up to the task. I use Pfiel palm tools.
2- keep them sharp. Expect to spend 10 minutes sharpening for every hour spent cutting
3- use a bench hook. Hand-holding a small block is a recipe for injury.
4- use leather finger tip guards. They’ll keep your fingers from getting pressure sore.
5- End grain is hard to cut…. plank cut wood works just fine
6- relax and have fun.

aka Winking Cat Press

I’m pretty sure the legend that is Mark McKellier uses end-grain Beech and sometimes Hornbeam (Carpinus betulus) https://mckellier.com

Just FYI- Bell Forrest Products sells a number of hardwoods that work extremely well for lazer cutting, CNC carving, and hand carving. I buy a LOT of materials from them.

of special interest is their 15/16th thick Red Leaf Maple blocks are so close to type-high that they work without any adjustment to my press. https://www.bellforestproducts.com/guitar-neck-blanks/

But it’s rather expensive. I mostly use their .5” thick x 3 x 6 Cherry blanks, glued to a 3/8” piece of birch plywood. The blanks cost ~$2.25 each….. they carve nicely, and stay flat for years.

Dunno where you are located, but if you can somehow visit the Hamilton Wood Type & Printing Museum in Two Rivers, WI (https://woodtype.org) , they have a demonstration on wood type making. Their methodology uses a pantograph, which is a device that uses a parallelogram to hold a tool with a powered cutter head. Here is a link to a video I took when I visited a couple years ago: https://www.amazon.com/clouddrive/folder/1fIRDcHJTE6nu8fe3Xr9bw/fQgtA0cs...
I dunno if the link will work for you. If it doesn’t then lemme know and I’ll try to put it somewhere you can get it.

The pantograph they use is kind of overkill for most of us, but I would think it would be possible to contrive something similar that would hold a Dremel or something. To use a pantograph, of course, you need a pattern to follow, and I see no reason you could not use the first character in the font that you make as your pattern. This way, all your characters would be identical.

Carving wood suitable for type is really a b**** because of the hardness. With the cost of a Dremel tool at less than a hundred dollars these days, I would steer anyone away from hand tools except for possibly a single-use item like a woodcut illustration… and even then, type high linoleum blocks are MUCH easier to carve.

There is also a device called an overhead router that could potentially be used. I don’t know much about those. Whatever methodology you use, as others have done here, I cannot stress enough that your tooling must be SHARP. Sharpen knives often and change cutter heads often. If your tool is smoking, stop, as something is very wrong.

Another thing about wood type is that you really can’t make it very small with conventional tooling and even if you could, you wouldn’t want to. Build time… which is a term normally applied to folks who are trying to build nanotech devices… for an entire font of something like 14 point type would be enormous. Depending upon what kind of printing you do, this may or may not be relevant to you.

You can find type at reasonable prices out there. An entire font of wood type though, if you want it new, (and you do want it new) is going to cost a significant figure. Used type is also available. If you are new to this (and you seem to be), buy from reputable dealers. Type that is cast from a good alloy and treated well will last a long time, but nothing lasts forever.

Wood type eventually wears out as well, though if you know what you are doing, it CAN be resurfaced and built back up to type-high. I understand the principle(s) involved in this, but I’ve never actually attempted it. You need some pretty good equipment to do this well, and plan for a scrap ratio of at least 10% or so.

Good luck and welcome to the proverbial “rabbit hole” that is letterpress!