What is Wood Type?

The Logical Material

Content Courtesy of David Shields (currently at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond and formerly of the Rob Roy Kelly American Wood Type Collection in Austin, TX)

Wood has been used for letterforms and illustrations dating back to the first known Chinese wood block print from 868 CE. The forerunner of the block print in China was the wooden stamp. The image on these stamps was most often that of the Buddha, and was quite small. Provided with handles to facilitate their use, they were not unlike the modern rubber-stamps of today. In Europe, large letters used in printing were carved out of wood because large metal type had a tendency to develop uneven surfaces, or crack, as it cooled.

In America, with the expansion of the commercial printing industry in the first years of the 19th century, it was inevitable that someone would perfect a process for cheaply producing the large letters so in demand for broadsides. Wood was the logical material because of its lightness, availability, and known printing qualities.

Mass Production

Darius Wells of New York invented the means for mass producing letters in 1827, and published the first known wood type catalog in 1828. In the preface to his first wood type catalog, Wells outlined the advantages of wood type. Wood type was half the cost of metal type, and when prepared by machine it had smooth, even surfaces, where the possibility of unequal cooling caused large lead type to distort.

Up until that time, the usual procedure was to draw the letter on wood, or paper which was pasted to the wood, and then cut around the letter with a knife or graver, gouging out the parts to be left blank. Wells, however, introduced a basic invention, the lateral router, that allowed for greater control when cutting type and decreased the time it took to cut each letter.

In 1834, William Leavenworth made his contribution to the wood type industry with the introduction of the pantograph to the manufacturing process. He adapted the pantograph to the Wells router, and the combination formed the basic machinery required for making wood type on a production basis.

Designers & Manufacturers

From the initial presentation of wood type in 1828 by Darius Wells, there followed a group of designers and manufacturers of wood type, including Leavenworth.

Edwin Allen, son of a cabinetmaker, set up shop in South Windham, Connecticut in 1836. Interested in developing the equipment and machinery of production, Allen developed a pantograph-router method of cutting type independently of Leavenworth when he came upon some crudely cut type in a local print shop. By the early 1840s Allen was producing type in such quantities that he began looking for new markets, and expanding his production to include Allen's Education Tables, and later to the manufacturing of wooden spools.

Many employees of Allen's went on to found their own type companies. William and Samuel Day set up their type production in Ohio after working for Allen until 1845, and employed inmates at the Ohio State Penitentiary to cut type for a time when their employees went on strike. Horatio and Jeremiah Bill, also employees of Allen, set up their production in 1850 in Lebanon, Connecticut and exhibited their type at the 1853 New York World's Fair.

John Cooley, who started as a newspaper publisher and job printer, actually purchased Edwin Allen's entire type production business, including Allen’s factory in 1852 when Allen went on to other projects, . The factory was later leased to another wood type manufacturer, Charles Tubbs in 1878. Tubbs’ American Wood Type Company produced wood type in South Windham until 1903 when he sold the company to four employees. The renamed Tubbs Manufacturing Company was moved to Ludington, Michigan. Tubbs Mfg Co was the last wood type business purchased by Hamilton in 1909.

Morgans & Wilcox was founded, originally as Young & Morgans, by William T. Morgans in 1876 as a natural extension of his printing business and his interest in improving the process of printing in general. Wilcox came aboard, in 1880, as an investor when Morgans had to rebuild his factory after it burned to the ground. Eventually, Hamilton bought their company in 1897.

Ebenezer Webb, who had purchased Leavenworth’s operation in early 1839, entered into a partnership with Darius Wells later that year, and became the successor to Wells' operation in 1854. Webb died in 1864 and his entire inventory of wood type was bought by Hebert Wells, youngest son of Darius. This company was eventually sold to Hamilton Mfg Co in late 1899.

William Page, after working with John Cooley, started out with the equipment he bought from the Bill brothers in 1856, and founded Page & Bassett. During the Civil War, Page perfected his equipment, eventually developed a method of stamping or die-cutting type in the late 1880's, and became the leading manufacturer of wood type. Page sold his business to Hamilton in 1891 to focus his energies on his steam heating business.

The Hamilton Advantage

A major step in the manufacture of wood type was the introduction of holly wood type in 1880 by James Edward Hamilton. This less expensive production method gave Hamilton an economic advantage over his competitors. The Hamilton Mfg. Co. was able to acquire all of its major competition, including Page, Morgans & Wilcox, and Heber Wells, during the 1890s. Tubbs Mfg Co, the last major competitor from the nineteenth century, was acquired in 1909. Hamilton added the end-cut method to their production in 1888, and phased out use of the veneer method around 1890. After the acquisition of the William H. Page Wood Type Co in 1891, Hamilton gained the machinery to produce type with the die-cut method. They continued using this method until around 1906.

Though the demand for wood type started to wane in the 1920s, Hamilton continued to produce wood type until very close to the end of the 20th century.

Below is a diagram outlining all of the major type manufacturer's in the U.S.