Type In Your Hand

A subjective guide through fascinating places in California where you can experience typography without pixels


So yeah, okay, on-screen typography can be a lot of fun. From writing algorithms for proper quotation marks to fighting obscure type bugs, or even just exploring modern digital fonts. But sometimes it’s good to step outside and smell some antimony.

This photo essay talks about four fantastic places in California (San Francisco + Los Angeles) that allow you not just to observe, but experience pre-digital typography.

Are you ready to actually touch type? Wait, that came out wr


International Printing Museum

Los Angeles, Calif.

Website · open Saturdays and by appointment

Viewed from the street, the boxy building of the International Printing Museum is just as uninteresting — but also as exciting — as an empty sheet of paper. At least the parking lot entrance promises some type-related stuff inside:

One weekend morning I signed up for a guided tour, which included a few demonstrations of printing process. The first one started not with setting type, but even earlier — with casting it:

Then Peter, the tour guide, moved on to setting and inking:

He then used a replica of a Gutenberg-era press to produce this glorious blackletter print… including space for a hand-drawn initial, in this interim age where some things were still not mechanized:

Elsewhere in the museum, we travelled a bit forward in time to a newspaper printing office… the printing part of it still functional.

I don’t know how much of it is idealized Back to the Future-like nostalgia, but it was pretty amazing.

Another room transports us to an even newer era of printing, which only gained a name — letterpress — as we started inventing other techniques.

Also, please don’t tell me what a “spaceband cleaner” is, since there’s no way it can live up to my imagination:

Yet another room welcomes us to a functioning setup of one of the last pre-computer technologies to aid printing, Linotype:

I have been fascinated with Linotype for a decade or so, and even more since watching the excellent eponymous documentary. This was the first time I’ve ever been next to a functioning Linotype machine, and I decided I couldn’t lose an opportunity like this — I somehow managed to charm my way into typesetting something simple on my own.

Holy shit. It was quite an experience to finally touch the infamous etaoin shrdlu keyboard, and put together my own line-o’-type using a machine that was stamping and melting type inside it just as I was pressing the keys.

Here are some other gorgeous printing artifacts in the museum:

I also spotted a poster for the typeface we treat as the most mundane of them all… even though at some point it was the new metal hotness:

Stanley Morison, the font’s creator, put it together after complaining to The New York Times about the shitty quality of its typography. Times New Roman was first user by the newspaper in 1932. Many years later, “new” in name only, Microsoft domesticated the font on their Windows machines, and it became the serif your boss uses to write his inane memos.

What a ride.

Speaking of bosses, this crazy monstrosity scared my camera out of focus. Can someone tell me what this is?

The International Printing Museum was under expansion when I was there in the middle of 2014, so it might be thoroughly more impressive today. I’d check it out if you’re ever in L.A.


Arion Press

San Francisco, Calif.

Website · tours available every Thursday

Arion Press coexists with Mackenzie & Harris Type in the beautiful Presidio in San Francisco. They offer tours once a week, and I took one in late 2013.

While International Printing Museum was boring from the outside, this place immediately communicates shit’s going down here. Look at this chimney!

The first thing I noticed after entering was an old-timey brag. “We still make type the old-fashioned way: We pour it.” And, indeed, they do. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

The lobby touts all sorts of beautiful past printing projects. I visited around Christmas, so I was subject to this bad-ass festive printing press with an eagle.

After the tour started, we entered the inside area. It was quite an interior. Look at all these drawers of fonts! I also particularly liked the white string on the left just waiting for some nice type compositions to be put and tied together.

Two bikes enter a type shop.

“Where’s the nearest rack?”

“Just roll yourself past all the rollers.”


Oh, yeah? Well, I’d like to hear your typography joke. Shut up.

I don’t know Japanese, but I bet Assorted Symbols and Other Weirdness is the literal English translation of emoji:

The place has a pretty industrial look. You know your job is interesting if you need to have not one, but two hammers handy.

This floor is where people put together compositions out of characters, and ink them on the presses. All these drawers of type filled with fonts would usually be filled with fonts coming from elsewhere. But here, that elsewhere is just a different part of the building where Arion Press ends, and M&H Type begins.

Those nicely packaged fonts below are waiting to be shipped to customers. This is still the era when a distinction between typefaces (abstract designs) and fonts (their physical manifestations) made sense. Today, normal people say “fonts,” and “typefaces” is somewhere next to “leading” and “mortising” in the Pretentious Typographical Glossary of Past Pretentiousness.

As “everybody” knows, metal type is usually put together from a carefully controlled mixture of copper, tin, lead, and antimony. (Also good nicknames for band members in The Beatles.) M&H Type have been perfecting their mixture for 50+ years, and they say they’ve added two more, secret ingredients. I guess one must be people, but what’s the other one?

Ah, T-1000, your career looked so much more promising.

This is where the place lives up to the earlier “we pour it” brag. And I don’t mean what I imagine must be the best happy hours in town.

The casting process used to be controlled by rolls of paper, but eventually it was upgraded to a more modern, digital technology! A MacBook that’s… carefully pretending it is rolls of paper through an elaborate interface.

Mr. Moore would be proud.

Lastly, no printing could happen without something to print on, and we’re back to Arion Press where the custom-made paper enjoys its last moments of whitespaciness.

Oh yeah, I just coined that and you can’t do anything about it.

And then there’s binding, which deserves its own rooms, artifacts, and conventions — and also tons of machinery and tons of time for chemistry to do its thing:

On my way out, I spot a motivational poster that inspired that awful Roland Emmerich movie.

That whitespace here must have gone to many of those happy hours.


San Francisco Center for the Book

San Francisco, Calif.

Website · various workshops available

SFCB is quite a San Francisco institution. I took a letterpress workshop there in 2008. This year, I invited the design teams at work to join me at SFCB’s newer, better location.

My leading theory is that “typeface” was replaced by “font” because that’s what you shout when you drop the entire drawer on your feet. “Foooooont!”

Actually, moving stuff around is not that much pain. The pain is picking the tiny letters one by one from the case and not screwing up:

Since the letters don’t magically come back to where they belong, you are fighting against entropy and the laziness of every human that preceded you:

Also! Surprise, you pixel lover. Letters are made of atoms! And atoms do can do whatever the hell they want. That includes moving on to greener particles.

Eventually, letters actually die. Pour one out for that uppercase Q you liked so much and overused in every project. Then, go to M&H Type and pour yourself a new Q, since you’ll need it again.

Done? Grab a composing stick, and start putting together your words… in reverse. Try not to mix your qs with ps or your bs with ds, or it’ll be a qretty dab bisaster.

Whitespace doesn’t come for free, either; you have to figure out which one you need (both in width and height) and carefully place it where it belongs, even after the sentence is over… so that it’s all held in place as you move it around.

Please endorse my friend on LinkedIn for having a great talent for picking spaces that I never had:

Just in case this is not clear: All spaces look exactly the same and you feel like an absolute idiot and also there’s no web inspector to help you.

But it all works out, somehow.

After that, you can try to move your composition to one of the presses and not drop it again and shout “Kiiiiiiiiiirk” or “Foooooont” or whatever it is you shout in situations like this.

But then, after all this trouble, something amazing happens.

Haha, psych! More fucking spaces, this time made out of wood.

Actually, those are cool. They are called furniture and help keeping your stuff in place as the press is working:

No colour picker! You mix your own colour.

And then ink the rollers, which is actually kind of an amazing process to watch.

You messed the colour? There’s no undo. You can fix it… tactically. Then claim it was the plan all along.

I liked all of these moments that have no equivalent in the digital universe, for example seeing your composition inked for the first time:

Then, there’s the best toggle you’ve ever toggled. Take that, 3D slider on Nintendo 3DS:

You go from trip to print and you’re ready to roll. Get it, because rollers. It’s hilar

Seriously, though, there’s nothing quite like picking your printout for the first time.

(On an unrelated hypothetical note, turns out shouting STOP THE PRESSES off the top of your lungs probably won’t win you any new friends.)

You should check out San Francisco Center for the Book workshops. They are super fun.


New Bohemia Signs

San Francisco, Calif.

Website · various workshops available upon request

The last thing I did was a weekend sign lettering course at New Bohemia Press. That seems far removed — hand lettering is a very different beast than typesetting — but actually ended up being all about fonts.

New Bohemia Press is in the sketchy SoMa, but it doesn’t matter since you’ll inhale so many paint fumes it’ll feel like the Presidio anyway.

There’s an entire science to choosing a brush, holding it, grabbing paint, applying to paper, cleaning, and then practicing over and over again.

Imagine a version of The karate kid, but with paint fumes.

Wait, that’s just a regular version of The karate kid.

I started with the simplest letters of this alphabet, and finished with G and S, which are like the hardest letters to draw ever and I refuse to ever use them again even in my writing.

God dammit, I already failed.

Shi

Then we moved on to a more geometric alphabet which is harder because we are not computers and our hands are not geometric.

Which was explained slightly better than how I’m doing it here.

You’d think an I would be a simple thing to do, but you’d be wrong. Practicing Is was like an hour. Now you know why there’s no I in T·E·A·M — all the Is came here for the weekend:

After you master simpler letters, you can move on to others, or even some experimentation. I drew the world’s ugliest numero, and my friend was playing with half-serifs:

By the way, the place is kind of amazing-looking:

This was the end of day one.

For the second day, the goal was to actually paint a sign on a board. I designed something using my favourite Toronto Subway font:

You start, as always, with practice. You can do as many runs as you want on paper, but once you put the brush to the board, there’s no coming back.

Which is fucking scary.

Here’s my trials. You can see that my trial Ss and ampersands did not really get any better with age:

And then, the craziest part. Everybody meet the electropouncer.

What electropouncer does is uses electric arcs of science to burn little holes in the paper that has your design on it. If there’s one message we’ve heard over and over again, it was to not touch an electropouncer with your finger. Have I possibly touched an electropouncer with my finger and screamed like a 33⅓ rpm record played back at 78 rpm? There’s really no way of knowing.

Also, who the hell understands vinyl metaphors these days.

Here’s me electropouncing them tiny holes:

And this is the final result. My hand is so steady after all the happy hours at Arion Press that only the most eagle-eyed readers can tell the difference between the lines where I used the ruler, and the lines I just freestyled.

But, wait. What is all this for anyway?

The point of making those mini holes is that then we can align the paper with the final board, and dump some chalk on. The chalk will be transferred to the board and create guidelines you can later use while painting.

Admit it, your guides in Photoshop are now looking much more lame.

No colour picker! You mix your own colour.

Actually, wait. There is a colour picker, and it is awesome:

And then, you paint. It’s scary. There’s no undo. Your life flashes in front of your eyes, although some of that is probably still the side effects of that electropouncer incident.

Here’s other workshop attendees finalizing their designs:

If you’re brave enough, you can even attempt to freestyle a border, which is the most nerve-racking of it all, since you can’t go slow, otherwise the paint creates blobs. Imagine a version of Speed, but with paint fumes.

Wait, that’s just a regular versi

Please endorse my friend on LinkedIn for drawing straight borders with the sheer power of her will:

Then, some people went on to do embellishments, which in the civilized world is known as “CSS 3.”

And that was it. This is the last photo I have of my board, before dusting off the chalk. If you look very closely, you can even see my amazing “earthquake antialiasing.”

Oh yeah, I just coined that and you can’t do anything about it.

I’d rather if you looked at my friend’s much more awesome board:

To book a spot at a workshop, which I couldn’t recommend more, get in touch with New Bohemia Signs via email. The workshops sell out months in advance, so plan ahead.

That’s it for our little journey through physical type places! We visited a museum, a foundry, an educational institution, and a lettering studio.

Wait, those are also good nicknames for band members in The Beatles.

Let me know what other places like this are there within, or without California.


The International Printing Museum photos are from April 2014. Arion Press photos are from January 2014. New Bohemia Signs photos are from June 2015. San Francisco Center for the Book photos are from April 2008 and April 2015. Thank you to Dustin Senos and Audrey Yang.