A2 & New North Press’ 3D-printed letterpress font

Type studio A2-Type and London print shop New North Press have created a 3D-printed letterpress font. With a film about the project premiering at London Design Festival next weekend, we spoke to graphic designer Richard Ardagh and A2’s Henrik Kubel about the process

a23d388_0.jpg - A2 & New North Press’ 3D-printed letterpress font - 6772

Image courtesy Adrian Harrison

Type studio A2-Type and London print shop New North Press have created a 3D-printed letterpress font. With a film about the project premiering at London Design Festival next weekend, we spoke to graphic designer Richard Ardagh and A2’s Henrik Kubel about the process…

The word ‘letterpress’ usually conjures images of vintage prints and wood type, but A2 and New North Press’s letterpress font looks almost futuristic – made out of pristine white ‘chemiwood’, the wire-frame font was 3D-printed by an architectural model maker.

A23D will be available for use at New North Press’s letterpress workshops and the studio is selling specimen posters on its website from Wednesday. Filmmaker Adrian Harrison has also made a film about the project, which is premiering at a free screening at the V&A next weekend (September 13), as part of the London Design Festival (details here).

Image courtesy Adrian Harrison

Richard Ardagh, a graphic designer and partner of New North Press (with Graham Bignell and Beatrice Bless), says the project was initially inspired by an exhibition the studio held in 2010 and a conversation with a commercial litho printer about 3D packaging.

“In 2010, we held Reverting to Type, a letterpress exhibition of all of the presses we’d heard of from around the world, and were amazed by some of the work on show, which got us thinking about the future of letterpress,” he explains.

Image courtesy Adrian Harrison

“I’d also been speaking with a commercial litho printer whose partner used 3D printing to make customisable dolls, and we discussed the possibility of creating packaging with raised type,” says Ardagh. “The conversation planted the seed of the idea in my mind: could we 3D-print a letterpress font, and connect the oldest and newest forms of print technology?

“There’s been some talk among printers about using 3D printing to fill in gaps in type collections and replace damaged letters, which I think is a great idea, but it was still looking backwards, and I wanted to do something looking forwards,” he adds.

Ardagh sought Arts Council funding for the idea and, with the grant, was able to commission type studio A2 to design it.

A2 partner Henrik Kubel says A23D is his first experience of 3D printing. “It’s one of the elements of the project that initially piqued our interest,” he says.

In researching the font’s design, Kubel and partner Scott Williams studied décor active wood type, including eighteenth-century examples of shaded, chiseled and chromatic fonts, as well as early attempts at rendering depth and three dimensions, before working on a more contemporary design.

“Another inspirational touchstone, one we returned to again and again, is the publication Architectural Alphabet by Johann David Steingruber, published in 1773,” he adds. “Many of our draft designs could easily have been produced fifty or 100 years ago, and by other technological means – [but this was] something we were striving to avoid with the A23D alphabet.

“It was important for us to acknowledge the 3D printing aspect in an appropriate and meaningful way, to see how far we could push the limits of this production process – and also to utilise the technology in a way that has not been done with wood type before,” he adds.

Williams and Kubel presented several design options to Ardagh, who opted for the wireframe aesthetic for its 3D look.

“When Scott and Henrik presented their solution of the characters as wireframes I knew this was new territory that felt contemporary and exciting. This was a design that worked large as a display font, but was also something you wanted to get close up to, to examine the precision of the detail,” adds Ardagh.

The design, however, posed some constraints: Ardagh says the main challenge was working out the minimum line stroke (around 0.3 millimetres). Finding a manufacturer was another challenge, with a confusing array of techniques and materials available.

“For this project, it needed to be able to withstand pressure and print in fine detail,” he says. “[We tried a lot of methods] – the first was ‘selective laser sintering’ [a technique which uses lasers to sinter powders such as metal to create a solid 3D object], which achieved great detail, but was very brittle and porous.”

He also tried ‘fused deposition modelling’, which lays plastic down like a coil, but its sensitivity to changes in temperature made it unsuitable. If there was a draft, it would just crumple, so achieving a flat surface was impossible. It also created a kind of grain, which I thought could be incorporated into the design like wood grain, but the detail just wasn’t good enough.

The final font was printed using ‘polyjet’ printing, which is similar to inkjet, but instead uses a liquid photopolymer. The machine drops a layer [of the photopolymer], then the bed drops, then another layer is laid on top, and so on, while a UV light cures it at each stage.

“In the film, we’ve done a time-lapse so it looks really fast, but there’s about 400 layers in a 3mm plate, and it was mesmerising to sit there and watch,” adds Ardagh. “A bed of eight characters took roughly two hours and 15 minutes to 3D print,” he adds.

It’s a far cry from Chalk‘s usual work – the studio specialises in making architectural models. “I knew they were the right people as soon as we met them, as they’re real problem solvers – they wanted to know how much pressure the presses would put on, and the minimum weight we could get away with,” he explains.

“The backing is made of chemiwood, which can come in any percentage density, and Chalk were really keen for it to be equal to wood – everyone who’s picked it up so far says it feels just like wood type.”

The finished design is a complete font with four A’s, six E’s, an ampersand, and two of every number, and is 18 line (216 pt). “It’s a really good size for us, as we do a lot of poster printing, and this is bold enough to attract you, but detailed enough that you want to get up close to it,” says Ardagh.

Ardagh says it will be treated “like all of the other fonts at New North Press”. The studio houses thousands of type sets in wood and metal, and will be available for people to use at the studio’s monthly letterpress workshops. “It had to be a working font; otherwise, it becomes something else, sort of art for art’s sake, which just wasn’t the aim of this project,” he adds.

To celebrate its release, A2 designed specimen posters, which Ardagh has letterpress printed 200 copies of in fluoro ink – the posters will be available to buy at New North Press’ online shop from Wednesday, September 10.

Kubel says the idea behind the poster was to combine “both digital and analogue processes”. The design features one character up close, imposed on a full A to Z. “The large wireframe letters that appear as background are digital artwork, printed offset (reminiscent of an architects plotter print), and the alphabet specimen is overprinted in letterpress using the 3D printed letters produced by Chalk,” he adds.

While the project is, for now, New North Press’ only 3D type, Ardagh says he would consider working on another in future.

“There’s so much you can achieve with it now and it’s developing so fast. I’d be fascinated to find out what’s possible in five or ten years time.

“Before this, I was interested in 3D printing, but the majority of uses (apart from some fantastic medical ones) just seemed unnecessary, like desk toys and novelty items for your shelf. The world doesn’t really need any more of that, so it was nice to make something with a real purpose.”

More of A2-Type’s work at a2-type.co.uk. The film, A2/3D: A 3D Printed Letter Font, will be screen on September 13 at the V&A Museum as part of the London Design Festival – more details at vam.ac.uk.

  • Henrik Kubel has made me jealous again!!

  • Travis

    Interesting article, a novelty in classical methods is always a curious topic. One aspect of design I take interest in is an appreciation of past methods with a modern twist to create a working art piece. This is a great example of such; it is also a perfect display of how 3d printers can be used through out many disciplines for a wide range of applications. The future of 3d printers has been a hot topic for many years now. Although assumptions have been made about the involvement of the printers for consumer use and within industries no one can tell for sure what their ultimate use will be. There was a comment about the implementations of 3d printers at this time that stated the use of the product was almost pointless aside from the medical industry. This may seem to be true because of the recent birth of the invention and lack of wide applications. I assure you rapid prototyping has revolutionized the design industry creating better product advancements for all industries.
    My taste in fonts is not one that has matured, that being said I do not prefer reading this one in particular, in smaller text it seems to stress my brain. The larger print in the background of the posters is much more intriguing to look at as well as less painful. Even though the graphical quality of the text may suffer in my opinion, the inspiration and dedication to a unique typography is much appreciated. Anyone who can tell a passionate story behind his or her work can sell it! Respect goes out to the team for their background research in depth and strong will to create a unique letterpress front traditional methods could not. Often in business a fresh idea pushes a company or individual forward, when that idea is backed with the passion to stand out success is reached. For example the creation or a 3d printed letterpress font was different to begin with but the designers new they wanted to push the envelope further to create an eye catching type face. This has motivated me to not only seek the right answer and novel methods but to follow through on my passionate ideas in my industry.
    Lastly I’d like to add that I enjoyed reading about the choice of 3d printer to use, I have personal experience performing the same tasks and often people do not realized there is more to 3d printing than making a model and pushing a button.

  • Bob likes type

    Feels simultaneously both contradictory and complimentary to use such a new technology as 3D printing to make a typeface for letterpress to me. Must have been a really rewarding project to work on.

    I hope this might be the sort of service we see becoming more wide spread in the future? Certainly would be a cheaper, faster way to get that ‘authentic’ letterpress feel for modern typographers without having to go the trouble of, you know, hand carving a bunch of woodtype letters.

    Exciting possibilities ahead.

  • Neil Stewart

    I like the design here but wonder why this could not have been
    cut directly in the composite material using cnc technology.
    I cut brass type this way with excellent results.
    Is “3D printing” just a buzzword? Still has to run from a vector file.
    End result is a 3D object.The other simpler way is to mount conventional
    Photopolymer plates to blocks.Fast and easy although a film stage is required.
    Film is disappearing as it gets replaced with complex,expensive,
    proprietary technologies.

  • holly

    Similar to what Neil is talking about with photopolymer plates, it seems like you could print the top thickness of these for mounting on a different surface. I am curious to know how much time it took to print the type-high block compared with how much time it would take to print a thinner layer to be mounted on 3/4″ MDF, particle board, or even hard wood.

  • Interesting. As a letterpress we have been toying with this idea, but an even more helpful application would be 3D printed graphic blocks that could be done to replace the need for engravings. Type we have, but we’re always in need of graphics, many times for short runs never to be used again.

  • Nice idea and finished product. We had considered using our standard method of photopolymer plates to create a full alphabet for larger scale work. Because unfortunately, wooden type has become unaffordable as it is now being glued together and popped into a frame for the mantlepiece. I think we will stick to using photopolymer for our smaller scale, letterpress business cards. 😉

  • This is pretty solid work and I look forward to seeing it developing further – well done all involved . . .

  • Awesome

  • Tobias Wilbur

    I worked on a similar project while in school http://vimeo.com/58798697, it’s really nice to see how this was realized.

  • Connor Broaddus

    “I worked on a similar project while in school http://vimeo.com/58798697, it’s really nice to see how this was realized.
    Tobias Wilbur”
    Yeah, we actually achieved perfectly adequate strength and stiffness with FDM, and the 3D printed “grain” does indeed show through wonderfully. By printing the backing as well, we were able to reduce material consumption by making it hollow with internal bracing, and the piece coming out of the printer was ready to go.