Chromatic Type

I tried to keep my plate relatively free this quarter at the School of Visual Concepts (SVC). I’m taking a single class, and while I printed three separate items last quarter, I felt I needed to have the time to work on the keepsake and the book. But I wanted to make at least one thing in class, learn to use the largest platen press on site, and produce something wee and refined, as all my first-quarter projects were relatively coarse or large. I settled on a business card.

From an 1874 specimen book considered the epitome of chromatic wood type shown in print.

In looking at type for the card, I realized what an opportunity I had to use chromatic type, which are typefaces designed in variants that can be overprinted exactly in place with different colors, allowing for insets and knockouts and other neat effects. This kind of design was found particularly, though not exclusively, in wood type, and you might be most familiar with it thinking of old circus posters, or new ones that reference the past.

Wood type is almost always large and was designed mostly for advertising. As such, it could be wackier and more interesting than metal type, most of which was designed and sized for text and headlines. (There are plenty of metal faces designed for ads, but they're a modest subset of all faces designed for metal.)

The Hamilton Manufacturing Company cornered the market on wood type in America in the late 1800s, and remained in operation until the 1970s. The Hamilton Wood Type & Printing Museum preserves the former company’s collection and actively uses it, and has worked to cut new faces and push forward to keep this history alive. As part of that, they worked with the digital type foundry P22 to create a series of faces based on and referencing classic wood type. One of them is American Chromatic, and that's what I picked for the type for my name on the business card. It has eight styles that can be used together and some separately. Per my previous discussion about the cost of licensing type, the Hamilton faces are part of Adobe TypeKit, making them viable to use for a modest, one-off project.

An image from the PDF.

The printed version. This one is overinked on the black, although it still reads fine. Later in the run, the inking is much better.

Now, I designed it small, and my mentor was rightly concerned the tiny details of stars (inset and printed) wouldn't come through. I thought that was okay, because the brain fills in details, and except for designers and printers putting their nose up the cards, people would perceive the bits as stars because that's what they expect. I learned quite a bit about the limits of registration (lining up multiple passes) and overinking on a platen press, and my next job on a platen will be so much the better for that.

I've printed the first side with American Chromatic produced as photopolymer plates. The opposite side will have my contact information, and I'm using metal for that, including a dial telephone that's a two-piece chromatic item! The front is classic Americana colors; the back will be 1950s goldenrod and avocado.

By the way, one of the technical reasons wood was used is that you need an even printing surface at an exact height with letterpresses; it’s 0.918ʺ in the U.S. and many other places. Metal type works up to a certain size, at which point it becomes unwieldy: the amount and cost of metal, its weight, its behavior. As the Hamilton Wood Type Museum notes, “large letters used in printing were carved out of wood because large metal type had a tendency to develop uneven surfaces, or crack, as it cooled.” Properly aged wood can be planed and sanded to exactly the right height and kept in fine fettle for many years — some is still printable after well over a century.