The personal website of Chris Coyier

A Trip to The Hamilton Wood Type Museum

The Hamilton Wood Type Museum in Two Rivers, Wisconsin is an amazing place. Miranda and I went up there for a weekend and did a full day tour/workshop thing.

Here’s a little story of the weekend through pictures.

This is a somewhat rare form of wood type, where the letterform was applied to the wood block as a thin veneer. Apparently it was only a thing from about 1880-1890, and was hugely successful for Hamilton. Shortly after, he had bought up all the competition and returned to making wood type the normal (higher quality) way.
The California Job Case is a popular layout, but apparently there are at least a dozen differnet formats. Why drawers like this don’t line at least one wall of my house seems like a temporary problem.
Wood type is with the grain going vertically, not horizontally like you might suspect if it was cut from a plank of wood. So the trees are cut into round slabs and then in half. These halfs are dried for 8 months to 2 years to harden.
This planer was built to accept the awkardly sized half rounds rather than planks of wood.
All wood type, all type in fact, is “type high” (although that varies by country, Germany’s heigh is differnet). Type here is 0.918″, which is the high of one shilling.
Wood type was sold in sets (like a “4 A” set, meaning you get four of the letter A and a number of the rest of the letters scaled appropriately). The master letters were pretty big. Smaller sizes were created by a fancy router on a hinged arm, where at the end you’d trace the letterform, and further down the inside arm a router bit would also be moving, but at a reduced scale.
This is some untrimmed wood type. Not this, but some wood type needs to be hand-chiseled as the original routing is sometimes not precise enough to get into super tight areas.
They work with all kinds of fancy typography people like Nick Sherman, Matthew Carter, and Erik Spiekerman
This is a linotype machine, otherwise known as the 8th wonder of the world. This is for setting metal type, not wood. But not just ordinary metal type. The linotype machine had a keyboard (!). You’d press a letter, and a brass master letter would set into place, then molten lead would cast that letter. Press another key, and another letter would cast into place right next to it. This allowed you create a sentence of type very quickly, which was vitally important for newspaper production. The sentences were one-use. After it was done, you’d just melt it down and re-use the lead, which all happened right on this machine. Insane.
We got to use a lot of their wood type and some of their stuff out of the “Globe Collection”, which was a lot of circus-themed wood block imagery. We used little proofing presses like this, meaning we didn’t really need to lock anything up, we just kinda placed type where we wanted and used magnets to hold stuff in place.
Rather than inking the presses, we just inked the letters directly.

Bay View Printing Company

Just a shout out to BVPC which is a letterpress shop that Miranda and I are members of right here in Milwaukee. BVPC does printing-for-hire, but also has classes, art shows, and sells stuff – just like Hamilton!


There is some stuff you can watch that is related to all this: