Technical lettering in the 1970s

A close-up of the Tecnostyl Lettering Set, a tool to draw letters, for architects, designers and engineers.

Writing has always been influenced by the tools we use. It can be a broad nib pen, a brush or a typewriter. It’s fascinating to look closer at how these devices work, and what in their construction, or in the way we use them, influences the form of the letters. Here, we will review the Tecnostyl Lettering Set, manufactured in the 1970s, an instrument used to draw technical, engineered letters. This genre started to become popular at the beginning of the 20th century, reflecting the sense of order and rationality that was looked for in architecture, design and engineering. There was a higher demand of precision and consistency, and new tools appeared that helped to standardise lettering. Before, text complementing a plan, or the section of an object, was handwritten in a variety of styles, often decorative, not fit for the industrial world that was being built.

The product we’ll talk about belongs to this tradition of technical devices. Equipped with a set of nibs and an alphabet in four sizes, it had everything architects, designers and engineers required to draw uniform, geometric letters. They just had to fill the pen with ink and start writing following the template. This set was a simple and effective answer to the need for precision and consistency. A clever alternative to handwriting and dry-transfer lettering, more affordable than electronic lettering machines.

The Lettering Set has a sturdy look. The packaging is compact, and after over four decades still robust. A thin brown box protects a plastic case, holding it from accidental opening. There is no ornamentation, just a utilitarian, grotesque lettering, on both the box and the inner case, telling you the specifics of the content. Once opened, we can see it has two compartments. On one side, we can access four lettering guides and the pen-holder. On the opposite side, the four nibs are kept in place by a tiny sponge.

The lettering guides work as a template. Letterforms are cut out in the Tecnostyl’s iconic green acrylic sheet. There are four sizes: 3, 5, 7 and 10 millimetres, as shown on the packaging, which refers to the height of the capital letters.

A white plastic frame surrounds each guide and keeps it at a minimum height from the artwork to reduce the chance of accidental slippage on the fresh ink. It is also useful to align the text being written: either visually, by using a drawn line as a reference, or physically, by laying the frame on top of a ruler.

Opening the case on the opposite side gives access to the nibs, known as funnel pen or tube pen. There are four sizes matching the four templates. Their structure is simple. The body, made of the same green acrylic, is a funnel-shaped ink tank. At the bottom of the funnel there is the tip made of a metal tube. The ink flows through it, drawing a line of constant width.

The funnel pen (tube pen) draws a distinctive monolinear line that distinguishes the letterforms from the one used in the decades before, when it is common to find examples of pointed nib pen handwriting.

The tank is refilled from the top. This can be challenging without the use of a syringe. A metal case surrounds the body and holds a mini-device made of a button, a spring and a needle. The needle rests in the middle of the tip and assures a constant and precise flow of the ink. Pressing the bottom forces the needle through the tube and cleans the nib in case it gets clogged.

The base of the nib is part of this metal case and extends at an angle of 45 degrees from the body. As a result, we can hold the pen comfortably and keep the tip of the nib perfectly perpendicular to the paper.

The pen-holder can be found on the side of the box, next to the lettering guides. It’s a plastic stick with a cut on the tip where we can slide in the nib’s shank.

The tool is easy to use. First, we assemble the pen and refill the nib with ink. Then, we position the template on the artwork and we follow the stencilled guide of the letter. Once we finish the letter, we reposition the template to draw the next one.

With some practice, the Tecnostyl Lettering Set guarantees uniform and consistent letters, but with a distinct flavour. The analog warmth shines through the technical letterforms. They always have a touch of imperfection in them, whether it’s the density of the ink, the firmness of our hold on the template, or inconsistencies in letter spacing; as you can see in the examples below.

These examples are clearly not made by an expert hands, but help us understanding the variables that affect writing. 1- The density of the ink, depending on the speed of writing (the slower we go, the more ink is absorbed by the canvas) and on the quantity of ink left. 2- The hand that slips while following the template (specially for those lines that interesect on a diagonal, see M, N, W and w for example). 3- Letter spacing: both vertical alignment of letters, and horizontal space, are prone to imperfections.

The Tecnostyl Lettering Set occupied a narrow window in time, just before digital technology made true machine lettering widely available. Now, letters are engineered to infinite precision, always perfect and sharp. Looking back on this window in time, and the tools they used, we realise what we gained: consistency, efficiency and speed. But we also realise that we lost some of the character that these letterforms carried with them.

Typeface designer, researcher and educator at cinetype.com

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