Type made of wood.

by David Shields. Average Reading Time: almost 4 minutes.

The following entry was originally published in John Luther Ringwalt’s 1871 American Encyclopedia of Printing{1}. Ringwalt describes the early production process employed by Darius Wells, the first wood type manufacturer, and details an important distinction between the wood type templates of William Leavenworth and those of Edwin Allen. Most interestingly Ringwalt explicitly names the first recorded competitor to Darius Well in 1830.

Wood Type — Type made of wood; generally of cherry, cut end-wise; nearly every imaginable size, from two- or three-line Pica, up to one-hundred-and-fifty-line Pica, and of a great variety of shapes and designs, being now manufactured in the United States. The only establishments now in active operation in this country are those of W.H. Page & Co., of Greenville, Connecticut. and Vanderburgh, Wells & Co., of New York, which not only supply the home demand, but also export large quantities to Europe. The Monthly Review says that the first font of wood type cut on the section of the wood was made in 1827, when Darius Wells, a New York printer, after making several fonts for his own use, commenced manufacturing wood-type as a distinct business. The tools, patterns, and processes used by him at first were of the most primitive kind. The simple slide-rest and chuck were employed to reduce the wood to an equal height; and first paper, then sheet brass, and afterwards cast-brass patterns with raised outline, were successively used to secure the delineation of letters upon the face of the blocks. Then, to cut away the surplus wood (outside and counters) the mallet, gouge and chisel, and finally the more delicate chisels, gravers and files, were used in finishing up the face of the type.
     Soon another improvement was invented by Mr. Wells. It was the application of a revolving, vertical spindle, carrying a cutter, by which the surplus wood was speedily and neatly cut away. To this process Mr. Wells gave the technical term of routing, a term now universally known among printers and wood-engravers.
     It will be seen that the process of turning down blocks to an even height for type would be equally adapted to preparing blocks for wood-engravers and stereotypers. This also was soon adopted by them, and this may properly be denominated an era in the progress of that kindred art. Hitherto each wood engraver had been content to purchase of the dealer in boxwood, a log, which he usually took to a cabinetmaker, by whom a slice was sawn off and planed down as well as it could be. But it would so happen, in many instances that these blocks would be thinner on one side than the other, and defy the best skill the printer, by overlays or underlays to do justice to the engravings.
     The blocking of stereotype plates upon blocks thus prepared, for like reasons, immediately followed, thus every branch connected with the printing-business fully participated in this improvement.
     No young printer, who now witnesses the use of wood type, and is accustomed to turn the ample pages of the existing wood type specimen books, can appreciate the difficulties which at time stood in the way of an introduction of hitherto untried article. A few individuals only could at first be found who would venture to their use. But the great consequent superiority their posters, soon compelled others to imitate their example, and thus the use of wood type soon became universal.
     About the year 1830, an Englishman named John Lomax, became a competitor with Mr. Wells, so far as to make regular fonts of type on side-wood, but they never attained much popularity. In 1834, William Leavenworth commenced the manufacture of wood type, in Allentown, New Jersey. He was a man of decided genius; but not being a practical printer, he did not succeed in giving his type all the requisite qualities, and he finally disposed of his business to Mr. Wells. He introduced the pentagraph [sic.] {pantograph}, which was a most important improvement, both for marking and routings, as it obviated the necessity of making patterns for every size, as formerly.
     The next effort to manufacture wood type, after that of Mr. Leavenworth, was by Mr. Allen, of Norwich, Conn., who copied the most of Mr Leavenworth’s methods, except that of facing the wood. The only characteristic difference, perhaps, was that, instead of the grooved pattern of the former, Mr Allen adopted a raised pattern being of easier execution.

This entry and the entire American Encyclopedia of Printing can be found archived online.

  1. Ringwalt, John Luther. American Encyclopædia of Printing. Philadelphia: Menamin & Rinwalt, 1871. pg 502–503 []