Wood type is old and very cool!

Matthew Doherty


his past April, the Society of Typographic Arts sponsored two type and typography related events. The first, an evening examining over 60 poster-size printouts of new type designs from designers around the world, followed by a “roving discussion” led by chester, type designer and partner at thirstype. The second event was a field trip to the Hamilton Wood Type and Printing Museum in Two Rivers, WI, for a tour followed by a presentation and discussion with artist/ designer-in-residence Dennis Ichiyama of Purdue University, followed by dinner and more discussion. Many stayed over in Two Rivers and picked up the discussion the next morning!

John M. Wing, the subject of the latest Caxton Club publication, would certainly have been familiar with wood type as a typesetter, and as a reader of late 19th Century printed communications, including posted notices, headlines, and broadsides announcing theatrical productions and public notices. Many of us, on the other hand, have only seen wood type loosely tumbled into bins in gift and specialty shops, individual letters for sale, priced according to size — not point size or line size, but small, medium, and large. This implies wood type has gone the way of other artifacts from industrial and manufacturing processes that have been eclipsed by newer technologies. Has it passed from being valued for its intended utility — printing broadsides and notices in a job shop, headlines at a newspaper, and announcements and posters at a show print printer — into becoming a collectable? No. The idea in Two Rivers is one of “how to preserve the past in a way that invigorates the present.”(An observation made by Robert Campbell in a NYT Book Review regarding Howard Mansfield’s exploration of similar subject matter in The Same Ax, Twice: Restoration and Renewal in a Throwaway Age.)

Dennis Ichiyama and The Hamilton Wood Type and Printing Museum are putting wood type back on press, and rediscovering the dignity and delight “old technology” inspires. Although Dennis and the Hamilton have been collaborating since 1999, what connects them goes back decades for Dennis and over a century for the Hamilton.

Some time around 1880, Lyman Nash, Editor of the Two Rivers Chronicle needed letters to print ”Grand Ball” at Turner Hall. The story from the museum goes on to say that with no time to order from Chicago he asked Edward Hamilton if he could make them. Mr. Hamilton used his foot-powered scroll saw on his mother’s back porch to produce the required letters, and mounted them on another block of wood, [making them “type high” for the printing press,] then sandpapered and polished the surface.

The technique Hamilton used resulted in wood type that printed so well he made a few samples and sent them to nearby printers. After receiving his second order he quit his job at a chair factory where he was employed, and started the J. E. Hamilton Hollywood Type Company. An innovation of Hamilton’s, hollywood was used instead of maple because it was half as expensive. According to the museum, the Hamilton Company began producing type in 1880 and within 20 years was the largest wood type provider in the United States.

The Hamilton Wood Type and Printing Museum is the successor to its namesake, opening in 1999, occupying part of the Hamilton factory, and operated by volunteers of the Two Rivers Historical Society. Many of these volunteers were employed by Hamilton over the previous 50 years producing wood type and furniture. These volunteers are the folks who gradually took a liking to the first artist/designer-in-residence to work with the collections of the museum. Dennis Ichiyama had been invited to the museums opening in the spring of 1999, and began his residency in December of that year.

Dennis’ early connection to letterpress and wood type began during his studies at both Yale and Basel, starting in the 60s when he was introduced to color theory, letterpress printing, bookbinding and typesetting. While in Switzerland, he expanded his knowledge of type and letterpress while working on various typographic projects. Having taught design and graphic arts for almost 30 years, the last 20 at Purdue, he has continued to cultivate an interest in book arts, letterpress printing, and typography. When the opportunity to work with 1.5 million pieces of wood type and more than 1,000 styles and sizes of patterns presented itself, it did not take much more encouragement to commit to the residency. Hamilton’s collection is one of the premier wood type collections in the world.

In the Spring of 2000 Dennis took a leave from the university and began in earnest to learn more about wood type and set about working with the collection at Hamilton. With support from Mohawk Paper he completed two major projects over a seven-month period. The “Pure Type Forms” experience brought back memories of his earlier education at Yale and Basel and produced 18 prints of which 14 are part of the edition portfolio. The individual prints were overprinted many times using transparent ink. Colors were tinted and individual prints include over six to eight overlays. The result produced distortions and fragmented typographic shapes, which became the theme of the project. The individual letters were selected for scale and simplicity; the images that were produced reveal complex relationships between shapes and colors. In June 2000, Dennis began the production of the volume of “The Hamilton Type Specimen Sheets,” which are based on the collection of type that is currently on display in the museum.

When first beginning work at the Hamilton, Dennis noted some of the fonts had incomplete sets, so rather than design printed matter to be read, he began to work with the letter forms themselves. The wood type — in a variety of sizes from 4 line (approximately .75 inches) to four and a half feet (the numeral 2 carved in two pieces of wood…another story) — has names like Tuscan, Gothic, Egyptian, and Antique, and includes hundreds of patterns of other type faces, styles and alphabets including Hebrew and Cyrillic.

“Producing a print at the Hamilton Museum is a truly challenging but highly satisfying experience. I had the immense resource of the collection at my disposal, which was overwhelming. The scale and styles of the typefaces created further challenges. The process began with one letter and another and another. Before I knew it, I’m mixing the inks and producing an image. Then the focus of the process unfolds. The work continues with no thought of success or failure; just a sense of adventure and play. Colors and shapes emerge that create wonderful patterns I never thought possible.”

This “old technology” allowed Dennis to connect familiar creative expectations with new (and old) experiences in a very tactile process. Working with wood type develops skills that were part of the craftsmen’s experience one hundred years ago. Now, however, Dennis comes to it with a life of art and design to draw on and from, as he responds to the shape of the type, the rhythm of the press, the smell of the inks, and impressions on paper.

The experience Dennis had was liberating in a way, but not unique. During visits the past three years he has included graduate and undergraduate students from Purdue. He explains that during the week they spend at the museum “the students’ initial reluctance to work with low-tech processes immediately disappears the moment they hold a piece of wood type in their hands! After a few hours of training they’re ready to assist me or begin production of their own projects. They are constantly astonished by the beauty and the craft of wood type and the physical and sensual character of the material.”

During the STA visit, Dennis commented several times how rewarding it is to feel the papers available for work on the press; the patience necessary when mixing inks to match the color you have in mind; letting go a bit when the unexpected presents itself on press; and the meditative value of the clean up rituals with letterpress. (The role of the student becomes clearer.) In an ironic twist, this low-tech immersion is an outstanding antidote to the dominant digital environment of most professionals and students in the creative and graphic arts today.

Two new students will be joining Dennis at the Hamilton Museum to learn letterpress, about inks, and the use of wood type this summer. One project in the works is the second volume of type specimens based on the 15 or so complete alphabets the museum acquired a few years ago. Some specimens will occupy three sheets because the characters are so large. Experiments on Mohawk Paper in the “Pure Type Forms” series will continue throughout the summer as well. There will also be an accordian brochure of keepsakes produced at the museum. There is no end in sight for research and creative development using wood type collections and presses at the Hamilton Museum. If you plan to stop in during the coming months, call ahead and let them know you’re coming, and ask if Dennis will be working at the time you plan to visit. The volunteers are happy to show you around and share what they know of the life of Hamilton Wood Type, many first-hand.

The Hamilton Wood Type and Printing Museum, 1619 Jefferson St., Two Rivers, WI 54241, 888 85703529, www.woodtype.org.

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