Sawdust to Pixels: Creating a Digital Font from Wood Type

By Stuart Sandler

No matter how many times the ink hits the page, the thrill of letterpress printing I’ve decided is honest-to-goodness genuine magic! Watching the way the ink dances with the tooth of the paper or how the shape of each letterform reveals its unique personality leaves us messy apron bound with mouths agape in wonder. EVERY. DAMN. TIME.

For me, it’s those letters I fall in love with over and over again and my appetite is never quenched . . . Fortunately, I’m not alone in my suffering . . .

For the last few years we’ve gathered a small group of likeminded letterpress letter lovers each year at Hamilton to explore and deconstruct the beauty of these wonderful shapes and appreciate them in a brand new way as digital outlines.

For most graphic designers familiar with Adobe Illustrator, it’s easy to understand how a simple rectangle can be drawn as a vector shape with four small points in each corner that act as telephone poles connected by wire. Connect three of those rectangles and all of a sudden you’ve got yourself the letter H. And just like that, the world has expanded right before our very eyes as we connect the outline of a letterform shape to its digital counterpart.

Our approach to font making always has started with this basic concept of shapes and during our font making workshops at Hamilton, our students leave with an intense and rewarding creative experience.

Rather than start by overwhelming folks with all the bells and whistles of a learning brand new desktop application to make fonts, we start simply by drawing letters in Adobe Illustrator one shape at a time. With each letter we draw, the library of letterform elements expands and the DNA from the very first shape pulses through the entire alphabet. As the alphabet starts to grow, we become more acutely aware of the widths and color of each shape and continue to refine as we expand our alphabet drawings.

All of a sudden, hours become minutes and by the end of the day very few of our students find they’re able to tear themselves away form this addictive new challenge.

By the next morning with fresh eyes and a clear head, we introduce our favorite font making application Glyphs to the class and show them how to move each letter from Adobe Illustrator into Glyphs one-by-one. Once all the letters have been imported, it’s time to learn the art and craft of spacing and kerning ultimately resulting in an installable, typeable digital font made from scratch.

For some of our students, the satisfaction of having created their very first digital font is indeed an accomplishment. For the rest, so begins a new creative passion to study, improve and refine their fledgling efforts or let their inspiration carry them into their next font creation.

For us, we’ve helped them see type in a brand new way and that is undeniably magical. EVERY. DAMN. TIME.



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