A timeless tradition
Simple tools used for generations
A chisel and a dummy (a special letter carving mallet). It is these simple tools that have allowed letter carvers to cut letters precisely since the first century AD. It’s a skill the Romans passed down to us over millennia, allowing artisans to leave marks, phrases, dates and names that resonate through the centuries to the present day.
It’s a timeless art that starts with drawing or tracing letters carefully onto stone. Then steadily and carefully, the letter carving artist works with a sharp chisel and a dummy to cut a letter. This can take 30 minutes for one letter. Sometimes longer. It’s worth the time, as the final inscription is livelier, crisper and sharper than any machine cutting-tool can produce.
Most letter carvers are both artists and carvers. Their skill ensures that the design of the letterforms, their spacing, rhythm and variation are perfectly legible for hundreds of years to come. The letter-carving artist uses a dummy to strike the chisel to cut a V-section in stone, wood, or marble. This is varied in width, depth and angle depending on the letter and the artist’s style.
For thousands of years, people have used calligraphy to inscribe books, glass, wood, and stone. All master letter carvers employ calligraphy to ensure that each letter, each line, is perfectly and beautifully spaced on stone. It was Edward Johnston who revived the teaching of calligraphy in 20th century Britain, ensuring that this most beautiful of art forms is as alive and relevant today as it was thousands of years ago.
"Contemporary letter carving is really a form of visual poetry” Jonathan Foyle, the Financial Times
Due to the nature of the material, linoleum is often seen as being more suitable to fairly simple designs, in contrast to the level of detail that can be achieved in a wood engraving.
Compared to stone cut letters, linocut letters can be carved relatively quickly. Experimentation is one of the joys of the linocutting process, as different coloured inks, papers and surfaces mean myriad designs and editions can be made from just one linocut. Carving letters into lino takes a bit more knowledge than simply carving images, as the letters must be cut in reverse. This additional artistic challenge means the letter cutter has to look at the letters as a pattern rather than simply reading words.
I love working with lino as it has great similarities to letter cutting. In both mediums the quality of the line created is so important if you want to produce beautiful and legible lettering. — Louise Tiplady, letter cutter
As the letter carver pushes down with a gouge into the wood, a golden curl of wood curves away as the shape of the design of the incised letter is revealed. Cutting into wood by hand means every letter is different, and every finished piece has its own warmth and particular character.
For 500 years the staple of the printing industry, is now practised on a small scale by artists and printmakers.
Manufactured metal or wooden units with a relief image on one face are assembled to make the desired words and sentences. The raised surface is then inked with a roller, paper laid on top of it and pressure applied to transfer the ink to the paper.
Letterpress, unusually, places constraints on the use of letters. The units of type are rectangles so they are often arranged in straight lines and right angles.
"MANY LETTERPRESS WORKERS ENJOY THESE CONSTRAINTS, AND FINDING ATTRACTIVE WAYS OF WORKING WITH THEM IS BOTH ABSORBING AND SATISFYING." - Phil Abel, Letterpress artist
"The edged pen has been THE letter-making tool." — Edward Johnston