Engraving on Metal Plates Drawing on Lithography Stones
master palying cards

engrave process
Engraving: ink is deposited into engraved lines, then paper is rolled over with pressure, forced down into the lines.

Lithography at Te Kowhai Print Trust van de velde

Metal Engraving/
Intaglio Printing, 1500's

As with punchcutting, type engraving has its roots in goldsmithing and jewelry engraving. The mechanical difference is that punchcut letters are cast and printed in relief while engraved letters are scratched below the surface of a metal plate and printed from the recessed line. Engraving requires much more pressure than relief since the ink is held in recessed grooves instead of on the surface of the plate.

Early practitioners, including the unidentified, Master of the Playing Cards (c. 1425, work shown above, click image for complete work at larger size) used hundreds of fine lines to create gray tones from solid black.

engraved detail

1 Image source

Engraved Letters

The engraving of lettering was a specialty and often done by someone other than the pictorial engraver. 2

The refined lines of the images printed from metal plates were lighter than those from wood blocks and consequently needed to be balanced by lighter type faces.

engreved letters

Engravings were initially made using copper plates but during the early 19th century steel was found to be more durable. One disadvantage, books combining engravings and letterpress needed a separate press for each process, thus a single sheet had to run through the press twice.

Alois Senefelder, 1796
Lithography, “stone printing”

Alois Senefelder, the inventor of lithography, was an actor/ playwright who wanted to print the playbills for his productions. His technique utilized a greasy pencil drawn onto the surface of a smooth, flat limestone. (Above you can see the thickness of the heavy stone as lithography prints are pulled at the Te Kowhai Print Trust in New Zealand.)

"Lithography uses simple chemical processes to create an image. For instance, the positive part of an image is a hydrophobic, or "water hating" substance, while the negative image would be hydrophilic or "water loving". Thus, when the plate is introduced to a compatible printing ink and water mixture, the ink will adhere to the positive image and the water will clean the negative image. This allows a flat print plate to be used, enabling much longer and more detailed print runs than the older physical methods of printing (e.g., intaglio printing, letterpress printing)." 3

View a YouTube video for clarification of the lithography process.

Lithography and Type

Lithographs often required typography in headlines or informational copy. Type was often added as hand-drawn letters, allowing for all sorts of curves and formations that metal type could not replicate—a whole new genre of letter forms was born.

"Lettering drawn for lithography in the nineteenth century displayed an eclectic and inventive mixture of styles (including sans serif), which German typefounders made it their business to emulate by cutting imitations of the many lithographed letterforms. 4

All type had to be written in reverse, transferred from a right reading image. The sampling of letters shown above were drawn by Henri van de Velde in the late 19th century, reportedly drawn as therapy while he recovered from a nervous breakdown. Below, click on van de Velde's cover for Friedrich Nietzsche's Ecce Homo, 1908 to see large.

van de velde

The Pantograph : Replacing the Punchcutter's Hands, Eyes, and Aesthetics with a Machine.
pantograph Pantograph

Christopher Scheiner
, 1603

The pantograph was originally invented as a means to trace original art and then scale it up or down in size. "One arm of the pantograph contained a small pointer, while the other held a drawing implement, and by moving the pointer over a diagram, a copy of the diagram was drawn on another piece of paper. By changing the positions of the arms in the linkage between the pointer arm and drawing arm, the scale of the image produced can be changed. " 5


Benton Pantograph

American typeface designer Linn Boyd Benton created the Benton Pantograph, an engraving machine capable not only of scaling font design patterns to a variety of sizes, but also condensing, extending and slanting the design.

Mathematically, the pantograph works in affine transformation which is the fundamental geometric operation of most systems of digital typography today, including PostScript.
Aesthetically the machine was incapable of replacing the punchcutter's intuitive balancing of line weights, counterspaces and proportion as the type was scaled.

Beatrice Warde remarked on the invention of the pantograph, "The operator, by the way, is likely to be a young woman, as the work requires a combination of manual dexterity and almost hypnotic concentration, to which any flash of creative, independent thoughts would be a positive handicap."


The Huge Impact of the Typographic Pantograph

In an interview by Mark Solsburg, Mathew Carter remarked on the repercussions of the pantograph on the typographic community. “A Milwaukee engineer named Linn Boyd Benton put the first 'nail in the coffin' of local foundries in 1884 when he invented a pantographic punchcutter, a router-like engraving machine for cutting the steel punches for type. That was the most important technical development in typography since Gutenberg’s invention of variable-width type molds in the 15th century.”

"The machine age in the form of the pantograph and mechanical typesetting was beating against the door of hand-work. By the 1920's the whole process of type manufacture had been taken into mass production, and carried out under factory conditions." 6

Typographic Novelty and Systems via Pantograph

"The programmatic shifts in scale enabled by the pantograph encouraged an understanding of the alphabet as a flexible system, susceptible to systematic variations divorced from calligraphic original. The swelling population of typographic mutants —compressed, expanded, outline, inline shadowed, extruded, faceted, floriated, perspectival bowed—signaled a shift in typography. The notion of letterforms as essential, archetypal structures gave way to a recognition of letters as units within a larger system of formal features (weight, stress, cross-bares, serifs, angles, curves, ascenders, descenders, etc.) The relationship between the letter within a font became more important than the identity of individual characters. The variety of 19th century display faces suggested that the "alphabet" is a flexible system of differences, not a pedigreed line of fixed symbols." 7

Click here to Skip to Advances in Type Casting
Wooden Type

wood type


Advantages of Wood Type

Metal type casting was limited to just a few inches in height due to difficulties of casting larger type, the weight and the cost. Wood, however, had been was used for lettering and illustrations dating back to the first printed documents in China in 868.

When advertising demanded larger type, wood was the answer.

See a YouTube video of wooden type being cut with a pantograph. (warning turn down your volume first)

The Lateral Router

In 1827 Darius Wells invented the lateral router, a saw that could cut curved outlines in wood, allowing for the production of a lighter, larger and cheaper letterform. The router combined with the pantograph made the manufacture of wood type practical.8

“The usual procedure was to draw the letter on wood, or paper, which was pasted to wood. Then cut around the letter with a knife or graver, gouging out the parts to be left blank. Wells, however introduced a basic invention, the lateral router that, in combination with a pantograph constitutes the essential material for mass produced wood type.” (Quote source, The Hamilton Wood Type Museum

Rob Roy Kelly
American Wooden Type

Rob Roy Kelly (1925–2004) was an American educator and wood type collector, best know for his 1996 text, American Wood Type, 1828–1900: Notes on the Evolution of Decorated and Large Types and Comments on Related Trades of the Period.

His vast collection of type is currently housed at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center (HRC) at The University of Texas at Austin (link) where you can see many specimens and explanations of how wood type was made.

Image Source, Antique Prints Blog.

Grove Encyclopedia of Materials and Techniques in Art, Gerald W. R. War,, page 195-197.

3 Wikipedia, "Lithography."


Source currently unknown, sorry...

Wikipedia, "Pantograph."

Counterpunch, Fred Smeijers, Hyphen Press, London, 1996, p72.

Laws of the Letter, Design, Writing, Research, Writing on Graphic Design, Lupton and Miller, Phaidon, 1996. p 53.

American Type Design and Designers, David Consuegra, Allworth Press, NY, 2004.p. 254.

creative commons copyright ©Designhistory.org 2011 For Permission Info click here