Making Woodblock Type — Part 1

Leaving Wood Behind

The Printmaking Department at Maine College of Art (MECA) acquired a number of incomplete drawers of woodblock type in the summer of 2014. To increase the number of completed sets for student use, Mark Jamra, Associate Professor of Graphic Design and typeface designer, worked with fellow MECA professors Pilar Nadal and Steve Bowden to create a half-semester-long project in his Type Studies class. After having worked together to make typefaces from scratch at University of the Arts in Philadelphia andDartmouth, Mark and Steve used their combined skills to teach MECA students about the anatomy of typography while building typefaces which would eventually be translated into woodblock type. 

    This project began with students spending a day in the printmaking studio where Pilar taught everyone the nomenclature of physical type; how over time the names translated to digital formats, how to set and lock-up the type, how to use various letterpresses. We then chose four of the incomplete typefaces to print and use for the project, printing them on newsprint paper. The four faces would eventually become known as the Bold, Regular, Condensed, and Serif faces of the type family we were to create called “Plywood.”

    The class was divided into four groups, and I was in the group which would complete the Bold face. This faceis physically the largest at more than 4 inches tall. Our group began by scanning the prints, combining the various scans, and taking careful measurements of the type’s dimensions – translating these measurements into guides in Adobe Illustrator. The existing letters were then vectorized and the various anomalies (breaks, chips, and bends which came from decades of use) were corrected. The next step was the most difficult – creating new letters from scratch. The Serif typeface was the most complete and therefore had the smallest number of people working on it, but Bold was missing nearly half of its letters and required more people (the largest group at six students) and coordination to keep the new letters consistent. We spent weeks making, re-making, and tweaking the letters with direction from Mark and Steve. During each class period, we printed out the entire typeface and placed it on the wall so that Mark could meticulously review each letter, explaining the anatomy and rules of typefaces while instructing us on how to adjust parts such as overhang, x-height, stems, bars, loops, etc. The project led up to spring break - the semester’s halfway point. At that time, files were finalized and uploaded to a shared folder so they could later be used to cut the letters with the school’s Shopbot CNC programable router. More on this process in the next post.

For more, please click to read Part 2: Returning to Wood