Tools of the Hand Punchcutter in Steel

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1. Introduction

(If you just came here and are wondering what this page is about, click here for an orientation.)

Of all of the cast metal type maker's crafts, punchcutting is not only the oldest but also the one which may be easiest for a nontechnical amateur to set up in limited and nonindustrial space. There's no reason why a sufficiently motivated college student with no mechanical/technical background at all couldn't give it a try in a dorm room. I'm also setting up a punchcutting workstation in my own shop (though I've left dorm rooms behind decades ago). So I'll spend some extra time here describing quite fully both the specialized tools of the hand punchcutter in steel and the more general shop tools employed in this craft.

There is of course considerable overlap between the tools used in this and other areas of type-making. Most of the tools of the hand patrix cutter in soft metal, for example, are the same. Many of the general shop tools are the same in all shops - a workshop without a vise and some kind of bench hardly qualifies as a workshop. But punchcutting came first, so I'll identify them here and refer back to this section later.

I will exclude here the hand tools used exclusively by the related arts of:

My goal is to present enough information for each tool, either through citations of and reproductions from the existing literature or through new drawings and CAD models, that it might be constructed by an aspiring type-maker (or accurately purchased, in the case of commercially available tools such as files and gravers). I'll also try to provide evidence for each tool and each significant feature of a tool, and to place each tool within its relevant type-making tradition.

I'll also present a:

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Progressive List of Tools

Naming the punchcutter's tools in one order in which they are used (which therefore is one order in which they might be acquired).

In July 2016, I was fortunate to be able to take Stan Nelson's week-long class in punchcutting, taught at Wells College (Aurora, NY) as a part of the Wells Book Arts Summer Institute. The sections here will document the tools we used during that class and my own tools as I attempt to set up a punchcutting workstation in my own shop. For discussions of the actual use of these tools, see the several subsections of the Punchcutting by Hand in Steel section of this book (up one level).

Minor notes:

I don't wish to provide endorsements, but it may be convenient to cite sources for some of these materials. Except for those specialized tools which may not be purchased at all, pretty much everything here may now be purchased online - a luxury Moxon did not have.

This section is in-process and undergoing rapid change since I took Stan's class. As I work through my notes and photographs from that class, and as I set up for and attempt punchcutting in my own shop, I'll add new material. Basically, if the image for the link has a real picture in it, I've got something there. If it's a blank white square, then the entry is just a placeholder and the link won't work yet.

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A Gallery of Tools and Workbench Setups

The tools of maker of matrices are often very beautiful. Here, to whet your appetite, is a gallery of pictures (with brief annotations) of many punchcutting, patrix cutting, and matrix justifying tools, as well as a few workbench setups. Some of these tools are antique, some are standard modern commercial items, but many have been made by Stan Nelson to traditional designs.

2. CR OSHW Series TF

Many of the tools here are also CircuitousRoot Open Source Hardware projects in Series TM (Type Makers' Tools). For other projects in Series TM, see Patrix Cutting in Soft Metal and Electroforming Matrices.

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Series TM General Documents

Cover/Binder Sheets. Device List. Introduction.

The Series TM projects are split over three locations. This Notebook keeps the general documents relevant to the entire series in one location.

3. Tools Not Specific to this Craft

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A Forge

If you just want to cut a punch, in the 21st century, you don't need to set up a forge. Still, it is logically the most basic of all the tools and thus demands pride of place here (as Moxon says, the making of all tools depends "on the Smith's trade, and not the Smith upon them" {Moxon 1703} You only need a forge if you wish to emulate older hand methods completely. If you're just interested in the cutting of punches, it is much easier simply to buy modern high-quality tool steel in stock sizes. Even without a forge, though, the punchcutter in steel will require a small heat-treating setup (see below).

Moxon at times did forged his own punches, and so cites a small forge setup as the most basic of tools (while acknowledging that some find this "ungenteel" and, in modern terms, outsource this work). The forge for punchcutting does not differ from the ordinary blacksmith's forge, save only that it need not be as large as would be found convienent for general blacksmithing.

Fournier also presents the use of the (hand) typefounder's typemetal melting pot as an alternative to the forge for a heat source for tempering punches.

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Modern Simple Heat Treating Equipment

(That is, modern equipment which is simple and appropriate for the small shop. Heat treating is a specialized industry, and much of the equipment used today commercially is far from simple.)

If as a traditionalist you've set up a small forge ( see above), then you already have a heat treating setup.

The modern punchcutter, however, may choose instead to employ a propane torch or a kiln for hardening. Tempering may be done with a torch (difficult), in a kiln, on a hot plate, or with a bath of molten typemetal.

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A Heavy Vise

This vise is used for the rougher operations in punchcutting, such as cutting off stock. It may also be used for other operations, such as the forming of the hammer-end of the punch, but for that I prefer a a Light Vise. (For finer work with files and gravers the workpiece is held by hand against the bench pin.)

Although this "Heavy Vise" can be a relatively small bench vise, sources as early as the 1690s and as late as l'Imprimerie Nationale today show a substantial vise - sometimes even the blacksmith's post or leg vise. I doubt if any mechanic has ever complained that his or her vise was too solid.

At least one old source (the Académie Royale in the 1690) and one modern one (Rudolf Koch) show punches being held by their sides in a vise while being counterpunched.

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Common Bench Tools

Moxon cites the "Hand-Vice, Hammers, Files, Small and Fine Files (commonly called Watch-makers Files)," "Gravers, and Sculpters [Davis and Carter presume he means the engraver's Scorper], and also "an Anvil, or Stake, an Oyl-stone [oilstone], &c." All of these may be purchased today, but not all of them are familiar now and they cross modern disciplines.

The punchcutter's bench pin (called by Moxon the "Tach"), while a variation of the common jeweler's bench pin, seems typically to have taken a distinctive shape. It will be considered separately.

Files and gravers, while readily available today, can be difficult to understand and order properly. This is due primarily to the tradition of opacity in the jewelers' and watch-repairers' supply industry. I'll consider them separately, as well.

Moxon goes to some trouble to describe the minor features of convenience of his bench: the "Tin Pot" containing small files (blades upright), the "shallow square Box" to hold tools in use, etc. These are details, but type-making is all about details.

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Files

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Gravers

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A Fine Scribe

A scribe for laying out the design of the face on the punch. The scribe is a general shop tool, but the one for this use should be a little finer (and treated with greater care) than those used generally.

Stan Nelson suggests making them out of steel phonograph needles, which are still available commercially.

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Squares

Moxon does not show a square. Neither does Fournier, although his Bevel (Beveau, ou fausse équerre) could of course be set to 90 degrees. Fournier, Pl. III, Figs. 3 and 3.

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Bevel Gauge

Fournier calls this the "Beveau, ou fausse équerre" (Google Translate recognizes "fausse équerre" as bevel, but not Beveau).

Fournier, Pl. III, Figs. 3 and 3.

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Compass

Mentioned (exensively), but not illustrated in Moxon. Illustrated in two forms in Fournier, Pl. III, Figs. 4 and 4.

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Protractor

(Actually, I'm not sure that a protractor is shown, explicitly, in any source.)

While Moxon does not use a protractor, he describes in detail the more basic procedure of laying out angles with the straightedge and compass.

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Improvised Tools

Moxon uses "a peece of well-Temper'd broken Knife" to drive a crossbar into his counterpunch for 'A' ("Letter-Cutting," Section 2 "Of Counter-Punches"; p. 108 of the Davis & Carter edition).

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Miscellaneous Tools and Supplies

Basic cleaning equipment. A marker for writing the alloy designations on steel and copper bar stock.

4. Specialized Tools of the Hand Punchcutter in Steel

(Note that many of these tools would be used in engraving patrices in soft metal, too.)

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The Facer (Facing Gauge, Flat-Gage, Equerre à polir)

This is not a "gauge" in any modern sense of that term (it is not a measuring device). Rather, it is a work-guiding tool with which a punch blank or punch can be held vertically (and squarely to the stone) while its face is polished on an oilstone.

The naming of this simple tool is complex. I was first taught to call it a "Facing Gauge" in Stan Nelson's class in 2016. Moxon calls this the "Flat-Gage," which comes to much the same thing. Fournier calls it the "Equerre à polir," which would translate literally as something like "square for polishing" - a nicely descriptive name. Carter translates Fournier's term in blunt English as "Facer." In the circa 1919 Williams Engineering catalogue of typefounders' tools it is called a "Jointer" (presumably by a rather stretched analogy to the jointer in woodworking). Otto Furhmann, translating Paul Koch for an article in The Dolphin in 1933, calls it a "Facing Square." I like the simplicity of Carter's term, and will use it here (unless specifically referring to some historical tool called something else by its maker).

For as simple a tool as it is, it has also taken a wide variety of (admittedly similar) forms. I've been so bold as to add my own to these.

See also the Joynt-Flat-Gage in Moxon .

The Facer should not be conflated with the Face Gauge (in fixed or adjustable forms), which is a tool for an entirely different purpose. (Note that in his commentary to the modern edition of Carl Dair's film shot at Enschedé, Matthew Carter calls the Adjustable Face Gauge a "Facing Gauge.")

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The Punchcutter's Bench and Pin

While every workshop must have a workbench, the precise form and configuration of the Punchcutter's Bench and Bench Pin are specific to this craft. They are most similar to related benches in jewelry making and (especially) watch making and repair and bench pins in jewelry making.

The "Tach." Moxon, Sect. XII, para. 9.

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[Fixed] Face Gauges (Roman & Italic)

Face Gauge (en), Calibre (fr). For Roman and Italic types.

A fixed gauge, created for each individual font of punches, to measure the vertical dimensions within the type (e.g., x-height). Attested in German, French, and English sources prior to Not found in the 20th century literature. (Note that Paput uses "Calibre" to refer to a different kind of gauge entirely.)

Moxon, Pl. 10, Fig. C. Kurtze ... Anleitung, Fig. 12. Fournier Pl. III, Fig. 1.

See also the Calibre de laiton pour la musique in Fournier (Pl. III, Fig. 7)

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Face Gauge (Adjustable)

This is an adjustable gauge used to guide the scribing of lines on the face of the punch blank to assist in drawing the type on it. Shown in use by P. H. Radisch in Dair's film (minute 10:22).

Note that in the commentary to the modern edition of this film Matthew Carter calls this the "Facing Gauge." I do not know if this is an actual translation of what it would have been called at Enschedé or if Carter simply meant "Face Gauge." It is confusing, however, to call this a "Facing Gauge" when that term is already well established (even though somewhat inappropriately) for the tool which holds the punch blank upright so that its face may be polished on a stone (see Facer, above).

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[Fixed] Standing Gauges

These are made to represent the angle of italic type. Moxon, Pl. 10, Fig. D. Fournier, Pl. III, Fig. 2.

Moxon also uses a "Standing Gauge" for checking the angles of his counterpunches ("Letter-Cutting," Section 2, "Of Counter-Punches," which is on p. 107 of the Davis & Carter edition).

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Liner [Straightedge]

This is simply a straightedge (though as shown in both Moxon and Fournier it bears a suspicious resemblance to the modern letterpress printer's "make-up rule." Moxon calls it a "Liner." Fournier says "Jetton servant de niveau pour l'alignement des Lettres, &c."

In a modern shop equipped with machinist's squares, one arm of the square may conveniently serve the same purpose.

Moxon, Pl. 10, Fig. E.

Not to be counfused with the typecaster's Lining Gauge.

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Signature Jig (Bevel Jig)

This is the device for easily positioning the "signature mark" (a line) which distinguishes one side of the punch for orientation. It is not an essential tool, but it is convenient. Stan Nelson calls this tool a Bevel Jig.

CircuitousRoot 15TM Signature Jig (after Nelson).

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Dair film (10:27). Nelson (2009 videos).

5. Materials for Punches (Steel)

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Historical Steels

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Historical Punch Blank Shapes

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Modern Steels

We're in a better position today than historical punchcutters were, because excellent tool steels of consistent and uniform quality are readily available in convenient stock shapes and sizes.

W-1 (used by Nelson). Note on new possibilities, e.g., S-7 impact-resistant tool steel.

6. Additional Tools of the Hand Punchcutter in Steel for Music Types

Fournier paid particular attention to cutting types for setting music.

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[Fixed] Face Gauge for Music

Calibre de laiton pour la musique. Moxon translates this as "Brass face-gauge for music."

Fournier, Pl. III, Fig. 7.

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[Fixed] Gauges for Staff Lines

Fournier shows a steel gauge for tracing staff lines. Pl. III, Fig. 5, "Calibre d'acier à pointes pour tracer sur les Poinçon les barrs du plain-chant"; trans. by Carter as "Pointed gauges for marking the staff-lines for plainchant or music on the punch." He also shows a similar gauge combined with one for marking the intervals between note stems (see below).

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[Fixed] Gauges for Note Stem Intervals

Fournier shows gauge, presumably in steel because of its similarity with his standalone Gauge for Staff Lines (q.v.), which combines a gauge for tracing staff lines with a gauge for the intervals between note stems. Pl. III, Fig. 6, "Calibre pour la musique; un côté est pour tracer les barres, l'autre pour la distance des queues des notes"; trans. by Carter as "Gauge for music. One side is used for marking the staff-lines, and the other for the interval between the stems of two notes."

7. Unusual Tools Not Generally Used

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Flat-Table [Moxon Only]

This tool, which is a small elevated flat surface, is used by Moxon to ascertain whether the surface of the punch is perpendicular to the face. Moxon's punches did not have squared sides; this tool is not necessary when punches with squared sides are used.

Moxon, Pl. 10, Fig. F.

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Joynt-Flat-Gage [Moxon Only]

This gauge serves the same purpose as Moxon's Flat-Gage or Fournier's Equerre à polir (Facer)

Moxon, Pl. 10, Fig. A. Fournier, Pl. IV, Fig. 7.

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Sliding Gauge [Moxon Only]

Davis & Carter note that Moxon is the only authority to show such a guage.

Though different, the Facing Gauge shown in use by P. H. Radisch in Carl Dair's film (minute 10:22) is used for the same task.

Moxon, Pl. 10, Fig. B.

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Wooden Models of Punch Blanks [Moxon Only]

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Moxon's Gauge Blocks

Moxon never call them "gauge blocks," but the method that he describes for originating accurate end-measures from cast spacing for subdividing the faces of his punches anticipates Carl Johansson by two centuries. It is really very sophisticated.

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[Rimmer's use of] Photoprintable Transfers

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Orientation: If you just came here from some other part of the Web and are wondering what is going on... This is a small part of a series of pages describing my own experiences in making typographical punches by hand (to be used in the process of making printing type for traditional letterpress printing). This is part of a larger online "book" (of a kind) devoted to Making Matrices. For a list of all of the places on CircuitousRoot where typographical punchcutting is discussed, including an extensively annotated bibliography, see Hand Punchcutting in Steel.