A Serious Attempt at Reproducing Gutenberg's B-42 Types


by Theo Rehak

Little did I realise, some twenty-five years ago that my waking life would simply become the accumulation of skills and opportunities which would enable me to attempt a re-cutting and casting of the types of the Gutenberg B-42 Bible. Such remote achievements are never apparent at the outset of the journey. Even now, when I reflect on the work involved for my part of the project, I doubt that I could have done as well, as late as five years ago. Frankly, there were times when I choked with fear, thinking that I could not finish at all.  I have often thanked Providence for having been trained by the best craftsmen at the American Type Founders Company; but I also know I could never have been successful without Mr. Waring's skills. The very existence of this design in metal owes that debt to him. Although we cannot claim an exact replication, it is his constant and unfailing desire to do it right, which has brought us to a state en facsimile, which I doubt can be rivaled by anyone. Reluctantly, we have both discovered a safe assumption: if it were to be done, we would be the ones condemned to do it. It still feels that way.
      There are two states of our version of Gutenberg's B-42. The first is that which we supplied by contract to the Tokyo Printing Museum. Born of a marathon of impossible workload and a suicidal deadline, the project has taken a severe toll, both economically and health-wise. The design's other state is that of an ongoing and perpetually improving one; with characters being re-cut, as new and better exemplars reveal themselves. All the characters for setting Anglo-American and the Latin text finished and accounted for, yet it seems the nature of this face to be ever considered a work in progress, and small details may still be improved and added to the fount as they present themselves. May we live to see it so.
      Risking the tediousness of a technical discourse, I have decided to describe my working procedures, especially some unique ones, used to produce this design. Many times I have regretted not being given a more detailed account of many of the protocols and apparatii of my fading craft; being left to struggle with speculation as to how something was accomplished. So it is for those who might come after, that I set down these words for publication.



         Our cutting blanks are called planchets. The material is cut from sawn billets [bars] of half-hard, free-machining alpha brass, as required by latter-day ATF standards. A range of sizes, keyed to the estimated set-widths of the job is prepared. They must be uniformly square in all directions, smooth and burr-free, with chamfered edges, which are "broken" by the mill bastard file.
     Preparation of the Benton Engraving Machine involves many adjustments [referring to Practical Type Casting, Oak Knoll:1993 will help with the specific details.] The adjustments control the height parallel [vertical size] and weight of the proposed cutting, and can be compared to data provided by measurement of each exemplar. In the case of the B-42 types there is no consistent stem weight and cap height, so the importance of Alan's work and his accurate reproduction of the printed documents was crucial to any success. This is indeed a "seizing of chaos," as we came to refer to it, because there are new parameters to be considered with every character. We were compelled to reproduce a floating ethereal standard. It is by the printed images of our new types alone, that we shall be judged. The ATF tolerances for reproducing a character from the suite of a specific design is .0002 inches, meaning thereby a plus or minus factor of just .0001 inches. Such demands make for tedium and stress. Fortunately the Benton system is perhaps the most thorough and accurate way of producing matrices for type designs that has ever been devised. The Engraving Machine itself is but one of five infinitely precise components. Properly adjusted and maintained, the measuring microscope, fitting machine, cutter grinding device, and the Barth Automatic Type Casting Machine, enhanced with many Benton-engineered patented improvements combine to create the finest printing types in the world.
      Cutting tools used in the Benton Engraving Machine, are called quills, and these assemblies must be prepared for every engraving project. They are ground to correct size, length and taper required. After tracing a light cut with no cutting oil, on a scrap planchet with the finishing tool, it is measured and the machine can be calibrated. The exact height parallel must be locked into the leverage gauges of the device, which will enable the engraved character to fill the available area on the body of the type. At nearly 19 and one half points, our computations of this type body dimension insure that 42 lines of our types equal 42 of Gutenberg's. Since the moulds we use create types with a .918 inch height to paper, we have decided to offer our B-42 at Didot height which is .928 inches, so I must add .010 inches to the rough cutting depth fixed in the Engraving Machine. One must always cut a little deeper to give some leeway for the fitter to adjust to the precise depth required by the mould.
     Counters must be cut where called for after the first roughing cut removes most of the unwanted material from each engraving. Ideally, the finishing tools do only a modest cleanup, just beyond the perimeter or extreme of the roughing tools. They produce a crisp, well-defined and matte-like casting surface, which is the hallmark of an ATF-cut matrix. Every character is cut following these precise protocols and is checked at each stage of the process. As they do less cutting in the planchet, the finishing tools stay sharp and usable for many matrices. It is the longevity of these tools, which provide a continuity of engraving quality. If they should fatigue and break however, their replacements, due to the accuracy of the Benton system, are virtually identical.
     From the first planchet, which is locked into the cutting-jig or holder of the machine, the cuttings proceed. In time, successful cuttings are completed, and the planchet, now containing the newly engraved character becomes a matrix proper. Matrices accumulate and are ready for fitting.
     Fitting entails the justification or perfecting the engraved character as its regard to all its fellow characters, as well as keying its orientation on the mould. This meeting of the mould and matrix must be exact but must also produce types which will print acceptably to the parameters of human sight. This not a mechanical perfection, but rather an artistic correctness, in harmony with the readability of the design as a whole. Subtleties prevail to an extent that even a nuance as small as 1/16th of a point [.00085 inches] is significant enough to show improvement in fitting.
     Using the fitting machine requires the careful removal of microtome-like slices of material from the body of the matrix bearing surfaces, providing adjustment toward the correct dimension for side-bearing, head-bearing and depth constants. Progress is checked with every cut taken, by means of a microscope measuring device built into the fitting machine. Burrs are removed from the matrix body with a mill smooth file to insure accuracy of cuts and settings. Air is constantly used to clean the matrix as well as all contact and working surfaces of the fitting machine. Air and de-greasing solvents are used in the final inspection. An important task at this stage is the trimming of the "eye" of the matrix with the fitter's hand-held three-cornered knife, which is used not unlike a jewelers graver, chamfering the area of the mould-matrix interface. This must be done with extreme care so as to prevent the sharp tip of the knife from striking the interior casting surfaces of the character, thus ruining the matrix. Holes must now be drilled in the side of the matrix, using a special jig for precise locating, so the matrix will fit on the shoe of the Barth Automatic Casting Machine. This shoe rides upon the matrix holder, and a dimple must also be drilled directly at the back of the matrix [at the approximate centre of the character] to accommodate the spur pin which will fix and hold the matrix against the mould during the actual casting of each type. Each and every matrix must be fitted observing all these protocols with no room for the slightest deviation or tolerance. The finished matrices are now ready for the castor.

     The alloy for casting our type is made from primary elemental metals by outside contract. Gone are the days when we would struggle to smelt spent used type, other kinds of secondary and even tertiary waste metals, vainly trying to maintain percentiles and quality. Our purchased alloy, based on the best of the ATF casting recipes, melts like butter, casts hard as stone and carries very little dross.

     Originally we were compelled to cast the B-42 on an oversized body [24pt]. A holding-jig capable of milling three inches or so at a time of the oversized casts was fabricated. When the reality and hardship of attempting to mill down every piece of type to 19 and 1/2pt set in, a suitable 18pt Barth mould was obtained from our friend and colleague, Greg Walters of Piqua, Ohio and we invested much time and effort converting it to the B-42 body size. Without the skills and resources of a first-class tool and mould-maker, we would never have been able to convert the mould. Master machinist, Harold Love rose to the occasion, as he always does, and produced the most difficult piece of engineering of the entire Barth Machine: a new bodypiece. Historically, it was this very component, which confounded the use of the few imported Barth Casting Machines at Stephenson-Blake. Their problems were not lack of skill, but lack of a strategic materiel: a special chrome steel alloy developed by the ATF in-house experimental materials department which could never work-harden; and they enjoyed no access to the proprietary manufacturing technology required. Our success was only possible by having acquired what is probably the last billet of this alloy, rescuing it from the demise of the ATF Company in 1993.
     Dedicating a Barth to a specific design had not been seen since the halcyon days of ATF and the covering of the earth with faces like Century Expanded. Since type founding has once again moved from an industry of great proportions, back to that of a cottage craft, such extreme measures became at this point a simple and logical step. At its peak, no one in the craft would have ever wasted any time or resources on such an unprofitable venture.
     The fitter brings the justification of the design to a uniform and unsophisticated condition. This is but a point of reference. Type now cast is called the First Trial. Only a single line, and in some cases half-lines are continuously proofed and examined. Normally the grade characters, H,m,O,o are made acceptable and perfected first, but with the B-42, the tallest cap and several lower-case characters were used instead. It is the extremes of these, which are the reference point for all the remaining characters. Peculiar groups of similar characters were isolated and had to be fitted with great care, following the printed documented evidence of Gutenberg's impressions. A second casting is also evaluated; a third and fourth as well. Characters that responded and obeyed our adjustments fall into line with the rest, until only a few stubborn holdouts remained to vex and confound us. They fell eventually, one character requiring eight trials and adjustments, and the design was ready for use.
      In some cases, due to the demands of the use of this type in composing Gutenberg's style, we were forced to create a few logotypes. This was necessary because of the many variant kerns and the sometimes impossible array of that kerning, most of which defy the automatic casting machine and must be dropped out to be hand-finished. Indeed there are few characters of this design that "walk through the ways" of the Barth, but require such finessing so as to work properly with their fellows. One is reminded of Moxon's admonitions about the need of "picks, bodkins, burins, files, saws and chisels," required by the accomplished compositor of his day. Gutenberg's compositors bear witness to this, as the often unsubtle use of their hand-files is evident throughout the pages of his Bible. Those pages taken as a whole look splendid; it is when we delve too deeply that we lose the perspective of their beauty.
     What will never perish however, is the remarkable effect of the types: forms within formes, perceived by many generations of mankind. While at once among the first examples of our craft, their proportion and grandeur have rarely if ever been equaled throughout all those long centuries since.
An additional account of the project has appeared in the newsletter of the American Typecasting Fellowship, No.26:11/00, entitled Diary of Two Madmen.

Theo Rehak, Typefounder
Howell, NJ