Letterpress Type - Fact and Fiction


A very brief discussion about the who, what, why and how of type.


I have been an avid (some might say obsessed) letterpress collector for over 25 years, so in an effort to “lighten my load” I began selling some of my excess stock about three years ago.  As with many best laid plans, this didn’t actually take care of my type issue but rather led me to justify purchasing more.  Sigh. 

There are basically 4 types of letterpress type – wood, brass, foundry and aluminum.  Though I covet brass and wood type I predominately sell foundry type that is from the late 19th to mid 20th century in my Reminiscence Papers shop, so that is what I will focus on in this article. 




Foundry type is made from a combination of tin, antimony and lead and each foundry has slightly different “recipes” for their type.  The metal tin, not to be confused with the metal used in “tin” cans, is somewhat rare and used primarily in alloys (bronze) and for electroplating.  Antimony is a brittle metalloid and it is also primarily used in alloys such as pewter or type metal.  Let me explain a little more about the third element, lead.  Lead is a soft metal that has had a wide variety of uses over the ages, and to spite its reputation lead as a solid is not toxic (in fact you probably get more lead exposure from working in your garden than you would from working with or wearing lead type).  I have worked with it nearly every day for 20+ years and the only time I use precautions is when I am drilling out type, and then I wear a mask and use an exhaust fan.  So as long as you don’t grind it up and sprinkle it on your corn flakes or snort it, you’re good.  Briarpress has some good information on the reality of working with “lead” type and I love the take from the Ladies of Letterpress


s/is-lead-type-dangerous .


While foundry type is great for printing, clay stamping, ink stamping, hot stamping and even leather stamping it is too soft for metal stamping.  For that you need to seek out special stamps (steel) made for stamping on metal.  When using letterpress type as a “rubber” stamp I recommend that you stamp on a surface that has a slight give to it – like a firm”ish” mouse pad.  Even then, don’t expect your results to be just like those you get when using rubber stamps.  I often like a bit more of the rustic look that letterpress stamping gives, but that depends on the job.  For clay stamping a deeper cut (distance between the type face and the block) will be much easier to work with and will allow for a deeper imprint.  I am not really familiar with leather stamping but I do have several customers who buy the type for just that purpose.


Many folks like type simply for the look of it and it certainly does have decorating potential.  I have seen small collections on shelves, desktops and in shadow boxes.  In my own home I keep some of my favorite dingbats and an assortment of letters in a printers drawer that has been turned into a small table.  The collection changes frequently and yes, I do use them as well.  This table also houses a few vintage suitcases (full of knitting and yarn in case you need to know) and holds pride of place in a wide hallway between living room and kitchen.


 When packaging I like to leave the type with it’s residual ink and patina, though I do polish the typeface on the small pieces that are drilled out to wear or sometimes on dingbats/ornaments that are sold in small collections. You can maintain that polish by rubbing the typeface on any jewelry polishing cloth from time to time. …not too much, remember this is a soft metal.  Occasionally I obtain type that has not been treated well and is covered with a lot of dirt and/or oxidation.  In that case I’ll clean it in an ultrasonic jewelry cleaning machine.  If you want to clean your type more extensively I recommend a product called Never Dull, probably difficult to find in your local hardware store but try an auto parts store or online.


Initially I began selling letterpress since I use the type only with a hot stamping machine. My stamping machine is as vintage as much of my type and allows me to print only short lines of type or single ornaments. For my needs I keep a large variety of ornaments/dingbats/fleurons (see definitions below) and condensed alphabets in many different fonts.  When buying a particular font you get a massive number of letters but since I only need a small percentage of those I am able to pass on the rest for others to use and enjoy. I have put together some unusual mixed font alphabets and single letter collections and find that there is quite a bit of interest, so I’ve just kept collecting while also making type available to crafters, printers, altered artists, collage artists, decorators and more.  Visit Reminiscence Papers (see above link) or contact me if you’d like to start a little collection of your own.


dingbat |ˈdi ng ˌbat| informal


1 a stupid or eccentric person.

2 a typographical device other than a letter or numeral (such as an asterisk), used to signal divisions in text or to replace letters in a euphemistically presented vulgar word.



noun ôrnəmənt|

a thing used to adorn something but usually having no practical purpose, esp. a small object such as a figurine.


fleuron |ˈfləän; ˈfloŏr-|


a flower-shaped ornament, used esp. on buildings, coins, books, and pastry.


If you would like to know more about the history and/or styles (font) of type I recommend American Metal Typefaces of the Twentieth Century by Mac McGrew.