Chromatic Wood Type Greeting Card

When does one plus one equal three? When a letterpress printer prints a chromatic font with two colors of ink to produce a three-color print. Today’s project features some very cool wood types and includes a bit of a tutorial on locking up a form for use on a circa 1863 Gordon Jobber printing press…and there is only a small bit of math involved.

William H. Page mastered wood type manufacturing in the United States and published the exquisite Specimens of Chromatic Wood Types in 1874. The late Bill Jones and Geri McCormick use an historic pantograph machine at Virgin Wood Type to cut new wood types, including the gorgeous 12-line Chromatic Ornate we are working with today. I will printing on Savoy’s Brilliant White 118 lb 100% Cotton Folded A2 cards from CutCardstock.com.

The two-block ampersand from the Virgin Wood Type 12-line Chromatic Ornate font.

The Virgin Wood Type website points out that, “Chromatic wood type is as legendary in the letterpress world as the unicorn was in Antiquity.” In a chromatic font, each character consists of two elements: the primary letter and a complementary decorative or highlight element. When used in tandem with two colors of ink, the two blocks combine to produce three colors on the printed page.

Let’s start with a basic lockup technique. I recommend reading General Printing by Cleeton, Pitkin and Cornwell to learn about lockup and then experimenting to determine what works best for you. I learned lockup from my dad at his shop, The Norlu Press (which, like Virgin Wood Type, was located in Rochester, New York) and I employ two simple rules to lock up a from: (1) Use as few pieces of furniture as possible and (2) make sure that two metal surfaces (like metal furniture, quoins and the inside edge of the chase) do not contact each other. Both rules produce sturdier forms that are less prone to slippage when placed on the press.

The “chaser” is a basic lockup technique. Place the form (in this case, a single ampersand) on your imposing stone inside of the chase area. Then, since the form is all wood, measure its height and width and place lead slugs approximately one to two picas wider than each dimension. Start with aligning the edge of the first slug with the edge of the form, then add the second, third and fourth slugs so that they “chase” each other around the form. Next, add three- to four-pica wood furniture that is slightly longer than the slugs in the same “chaser” manner. Place your quoins along one vertical and one horizontal axis of the form, and finally fill the form from the center out to the inside edge of the chase with as little wood furniture as possible to complete the form. The sequence of photos below shows the evolution of this lockup.

The “chaser” lockup technique.

After you have filled out the form to the chase’s edges, it is time to plane the surface down and to tighten the quoins. Be gentle, and do not use excessive force for either step. Slightly more than “finger tight” usually suffices and will prevent damage to the types, quoins and chase.

Tightening the quoins (in this case the Wickersham model).

One of the most fun aspects of working with a chromatic form is selecting the colors with which to print. Combining two colors of ink can be a process of elimination and sometimes the results are not exactly what you may have expected. My experimentation has revealed that two fairly light colors combine for the best effect. Today, I am printing the ampersand’s primary letterform in process yellow and the highlight/shadow area in process blue lightened with about 15% opaque white. I usually print the lightest form first.

Printing the lightest color (yellow) first, which today is also the primary letterform.

I almost always use a “dry-trap” technique when printing multiple colors on a platen press. This means I print the first color, allow it to dry, and then print the second color. This is how I am printing today’s card. When printing short runs on 100% cotton stock, the time required to wash up the press and lock up the second form (30 minutes or so, if one includes a quick coffee break) is usually an ample amount of drying time.

Printing the second form (blue) on top of the primary form.

As the photo above shows, the portions of the two letterforms that overlap have produced a green image area (yellow & blue), but the unique areas of the primary and secondary letterforms retain their original colors.

I am going to add three lines of text in black ink to complete today’s Chromatic Type Greeting Card. I want the visual emphasis on the chromatic ampersand, so my design will incorporate one of the simplest of fonts (News Gothic Condensed) hand-set in 14-point and 12-point metal types. This will eliminate any typographic competition for dominance.

Adding three lines of hand-composed text in black ink.
Extreme closeup showing detail of the chromatic effect.

Working with great materials like wood types from Virgin Wood Type, letterpress inks from Southern Ink Company and beautiful papers from Cutcardstock.com makes letterpress printing a highly satisfying hobby and potential business venture. Chromatic effects provide printers with an opportunity to be creative and to use colors in new ways. Thanks for reading this post, and be sure to check out the other creative things my fellow bloggers have done by following the Cutcardstock blog.

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  1. Surprised at how crisp the border is on the extreme close up. Interesting to see how the green shows up. Very neat!

    1. The green actually looks better in the “extreme closeup” than the printed piece. I love my composition rollers, but they are deteriorating and I will need to replace them with rubber. It is difficult to print solids right now. Nobody is making composition any longer.

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