Wood Type: A Bold Legacy of Typography in the Press Collection

May 21, 2021 | Sam B.

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Toronto Public Library’s Special Collections are home to some of the most dynamic and well-made proponents of print and book culture. If you have an interest in design, typography, or history, chances are something in the Private Press and Fine Printing Collection will capture your curiosity. 

Wood type in a type case, from my personal photos, taken at Massey College, Toronto.
Wood type in a type case, from my personal photos, taken at Massey College, Toronto.

For me, it's the endless examples of printing with wood type that stand out. "Type" here refers to movable type, which predates digital book design and makes up individual typefaces or fonts. Each letter or punctuation element in that style has its' own individual piece (aka a "sort"). The type would be set in the bed of a printing press, ink would meet paper and voilà: a printed item.

Smaller typefaces commonly used for printing books were typically made from lead, however wood type became popular commercially in North America during the industrial revolution. It had some benefits over its lead counterpart since it lends itself well to large format printing due to its light weight. Large posters (called "broadsides") were synonymous with concert posters, advertisements, events (think of that classic circus font!) and more. Another pop culture example would be the iconic “wanted” posters for criminals often seen in western films. Big, bold and varied is what comes to mind when I think of wood type. 

However, as design shifted into the digital era, wood type became less common on the commercial front. Today it survives along with the craft of letterpress printing and design found among small presses and artists. Loved for its unique characteristics and vintage aesthetic, it is often used to create striking visual and textual effects, developing layers of meaning within artist’s books or broadsides. Other times it used to create purely visual effects where artists use the letters themselves to create experimental patterns and designs. 

A lot more than meets the eye goes into type design as you’ll see here. The variety of faces is immense, from height and width, to characters, numbers and ornaments, every face is different. There are serifs to consider, kerning, and every part of the alphabet must be accounted for in the selected language. On top of that, many faces include decorative elements as part of a type specimen or as stand alone for printers to incorporate into their work, as seen in the following examples.

These books are all reference only. They can be used at Toronto Reference Library when permitted by COVID-19 restrictions.


American Wood Type by Rob Roy Kelley (1964)

Wood type specimen of a sans serif upper case alphabet with floral ornaments

Wood type specimen of a sans serif upper case alphabet with a star and manicule ornament

American Wood Type  by Rob Roy Kelley (1964) is the quintessential book on wood type. This large format collection of type specimens is a joy to look at, and gives a very good introduction and overview into the world of wood type. There are pages upon pages of original letterpress type specimens in all their glory. The above examples nicely illustrate the dynamic ornament and decorative elements that are crafted for printers to use alongside type.


This Book by  G. Brender à Brandis (Brandstead press, 1976).

Inner page of "This Book" by Brandstead Press displaying large format type

Inner page of "This Book" by Brandstead Press displaying various fonts

This Book by  G. Brender à Brandis (Brandstead press, 1976). Printed by master wood engraver, Gerard Brender à Brandis of the Brandstead Press, this book is a perfect example of wood type and ornament, and just how striking they can be visually when combined. This Book is a meta display of the beauty inherent to the form of the book. Brandstead Press was based out of Carlisle, Ontario and Brender à Brandis continues his work out of his present day studio in Stratford, Ontario.


Letters by Tim Inkster (Black Moss Press, 1976). 

Front cover of "Letters" by Black Moss Press 

Inner pages showing a variety of ampersands

Letters by Tim Inkster (Black Moss Press, 1976).  A look at how letter forms and type can be appreciated by standing alone and contrasting characters. This Ontario based press uses wood type as expressive poetry with some great examples of how characters, such as the ampersand, are effective vehicles of design in their own right.


Takao Tanabe: Sometime Printer by R. Reid (Alcuin Society, 2010).

Poster by Takao Tanabe

Pamphlet designed by Takao Tanabe

Takao Tanabe: Sometime Printer by R. Reid (Alcuin Society, 2010). This volume contains facsimiles of Takao Tanabe’s letterpress work, including many expressive examples of wood type and how it is used in combination with lead type to create vibrant broadsides and other ephemera. The examples above demonstrate the many ways wood type can be presented. Whether it's a complex and layered broadside, or a minimal and elegant pamphlet, Tanabe uses wood type in an original and striking way.


DeLittle 1888 - 1988: the First Years in a Century of Wood Letter by Claire Bolton (Alembic Press, 1988).

Decorative wood type face shown in an advertisement
Example of type from the Alembic Press

DeLittle 1888 - 1988: the First Years in a Century of Wood Letter by Claire Bolton (Alembic Press, 1988). The commercial uses of wood type are on display here in Claire Bolton's authoritative book on DeLittle's wood type. Robert DeLittle was an English wood letter manufacturer and this is one of two of Bolton's works covering his legacy. The book includes some lovely fold out samples of DeLittle's type and demonstrates how their decorative nature was ideal for the advertising industry. Advertisements using wood type like these are the precursor to modern day commercial graphic design. 


Tout est faux, c'est le paradis by Claude Haeffley (Éditions du Silence, 1990). 

Large format wood letter "H" on a front cover

Multicolour type face on title page

Tout est faux, c'est le paradis by Claude Haeffley (Éditions du Silence, 1990). The cover art is a captivating wood letter H, presumably for the author here. The cracks and nicks, customary of wood type, also gives it unique charm and texture. The title page of this work uses wood type and two colours of ink to create a visually interesting shadow effect, meaning the page would have passed through the press twice (once for each colour). In the next example we'll see another exceptional use of multicoloured wood type letterpress printing. 


A Love of Letters by Abraham Abulafia (Aliquando Press, 2013)

Book covered in colourful printed letters

Sample of fold out page with colourful letters

 A Love of Letters by Abraham Abulafia (Aliquando Press, 2013). This book printed by Ontario based press, Aliquando Press, demonstrates how wood type can be used predominately for form and aesthetic versus simply function. Wood type is playfully layered and arranged to create dynamic shapes in this accordion book. You can appreciate how much work this must have taken because, as I mentioned in the above example, the piece would have to pass through the press every time a new colour was applied. The printer here abstracts the type and uses it as the main feature of the book, expressing "a love of letters."


If I've managed to pique your interest and you want to learn more, some great online resources include the Hamilton Wood Type Museum. You can also watch their documentary, Typface, which is available as a DVD. There's also the  Letterpress Commons website, and, of course, there are lots of great videos on YouTube like this video from Brightwork Press. Lastly, Amos Paul Kennedy Jr. is one of my favourite people working with wood type right now, and something of a celebrity in the letterpress community. 

Although our Special Collections are currently closed to visitors due to COVID-19, the collection contains some amazing samples of small and fine printing. These will be available to view in our reading room at the Marilyn and Charles Baillie Centre once we reopen.  For now I hope you’ve enjoyed some of my favourite examples I’ve come across while working with this beautiful collection. These books are just the tip of the iceberg and I hope you'll feel inspired to learn more about the craft of printing in your community.