History of Lettering

The Punchcutter

When printing was first invented it was no accident that those skilled in engraving and metalwork came to pre-eminence. To create a metal type a punch first had to be made, requiring exactness and fine dexterity. Each letter was cut, in reverse, into a metal bar, which was then struck into copper from which the finished type was cast in lead alloy.

Until a machine was developed to do this job, the skill of the punch-cutter was highly sought by typophiles in the late 19th and early 20th century. Edward Philip Prince was an Englishman who cut most of the punches for the private press movement, Morris’s Kelmscott, Ricketts’ Vale Press and Walker’s Doves Press, for instance. He was also commissioned by Updike in the US and Kessler in Germany.

To give some idea of how long it would take to produce a complete upper and lower case alphabet, in one size, it took Prince a day to cut one punch. Few though survive, for once the face was done the punches were thrown away, or if thought to be needed again ‘sealed in earthenware pots’. He was well paid, however: earning up to three times the then national wage.

Somewhere, years ago, I picked up a book about Prince (from which the illustrations and quotes are taken) – privately printed in an edition of 1000 by FC Avis. (His address was given as London, SE4, which is where I then lived.) Anyhow, Prince is described as a modest man, a ‘superlative craftsman’ and ‘possessed of that gentleness of spirit which becomes greatness in a man’.

6 replies on “The Punchcutter”

I found a copy of this book at a fair in Boston last year, with the smoke proofs largely still intact. (A previous owner just couldn’t resist touching the lower case m.) The man was outrageously prolific, though a lot of the private press faces are somewhat crude and betray a certain haste. Punches are quite a thing to behold. I have a handful that are curiously right-reading that nevertheless were cut the same way as typographic punches. I’ve always wondered how the early hand type casters achieved an accurate and consistent depth of drive. Someone should write a proper biography of Prince. Just saying.

A biography of Prince might be a challenge as I don’t think there is too much material to work on. Indeed the photograph of Prince in the Avis book is one of the few surviving. How interesting that this book turned up in the US though. I agree about the typefaces – to our eyes they seem crude, but then we are used to the perfection computer-aided design brings.

The best way to be sure that anything survives is to have plenty of copies. If a really good computer scan of the pages that you have could be made and then distributed that would ensure Prince’s image would survive at least another 50 years.Thank you for sharing this piece from your collection.
~ a new typography student (second time round)

Thanks for your kind comments. I hope you enjoy pottering in the site. John

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