how to choose typefaces? what to start with?

I’m picking up my first press today! Just a little Kelsey 5x8, but i’m getting a really good deal on it.

But now I’m wondering how to decide which typefaces I should get to start out with? Do I just buy whatever I like on eBay, or are there some good basics I should be looking for. Being a graphic designer, I know I should get some serif, some sans serif, and varying sizes - but just starting out, I feel a little confounded on where to begin.

Right now there is some 12pt Helvetica on eBay I may bid on because I would love to have that, but beyond that I do’t know what to get.


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As a designer, you would be the best one to decide what type of printing you hope to do on the letterpress, and pick faces which make sense for that work.

I think I would start with a couple sizes of a style you would enjoy using, and grow from there. Rather than buying on eBay, however, I would start with new type from one of the suppliers listed on the Briar Press site. There is nothing worse than buying a font of used type and finding out that some letters are totally missing, or are worn beyond all practical use. If they are antique faces in good condition, you might still be best to begin your printing experiments with new type which is readily available and can be easily replaced if smashed under a gage pin or gripper.

If you did get a good deal on the press, spring for a couple good faces of new type to get started and expand from there as your skill and experience increase.

Choice of type is entirely subjective. As mentioned, deciding what work will issue from your press is a first step is selecting your house type. “Type must be read - but not seen’” is a standard from years past. As example, Old English might well hold appeal for you, but it is very difficult to read thus finds limited application. You would do well to avoid e-bay; more often than not rude surprises greet such purchase. There are reputable type foundries/casters (Quaker Type comes to mind and they have a good catalogue) having ready, affordable and, more importantly, sharp and clean type guaranteed to give you clear impression. Don’t scrimp on type - it is also your reputation you are printing.
As to suggestions, well, a good start would be No. 1 and 2 6pt Copperplate (Light) coupled with No. 1 and 2 12pt Copperplate (Light). That style will handle most lower information on business cards. Then choose your house Family. Do you have a particular favourite? Book work calls for a serif such as Garamond, Century, or other medium-weight faces. Cheltenham has a vast array of weights and could be used more often but most people never get past the common heavier weight. Look (drool) through type specimen catalogues while deciding. Examples of application abound and are very helpful in making selection.
As to sizes, well, that, too, depends upon your printery. Book work calls for an 8 or 10 and 12pt text which you should purchase in book font size plus a small font of each type’s italic. A 14pt (again: standard and italic) of your house family is necessary, as is an 18 and 24pt. These can be small fonts for they are most often used for heads or other one-line work.
Cursive, or Script, should be at hand as well. These types again fall under like/don’t like eye. However, they must compliment the house family. Coronet is a pleasing type and flows well with the oldstyle types. But, these are only suggestions; it’s you making the final decision. From your background, it would seem you are aware that “All design is no design”. That in mind, when choosing type keep in mind that the reader absorbs the printed message and resents the distraction of poorly presented type.
It is very tempting to fill cases with as much type as one might gather. Not only is that approach wasteful of money and space, it also leads to a cluttered product. It is easy to garnish. Properly chosen, type reinforces a message by its very simplicity.

Hi Stephanie,

I totally agree with buying new type, though near-new foundry type should last longer than brand-new monotype. Sometimes fonts of new or near-new type show up on eBay, but they’re generally the more common faces like Copperplate or Century Schoolbook, and you’re unlikely to find the face in a variety of sizes. Still, as a designer, you should be able to work what you find into your projects. When I buy used type, I go for condition, not typeface. If you’re creative you can achieve a good design around any typeface, but you’ll never get worn-out type to look good, no matter what the design. If you want to buy used type on eBay, ask how it was cast (you’ll want foundry), and ask about the condition. Ask whether the edges of the letterforms are sharp and crisp (especially on the frequently used letters), and whether there are dings on any of the sorts. Then read between the lines of the seller’s response. If you’ll be looking at used type in person, bring a loupe.

When you’re printing confidently with handset type, you might want to consider printing with plates generated by graphic design programs, in which case you can choose just about any face your heart desires. I don’t know whether bases for photopolymer plates are available for your press, but you certainly could have magnesium or copper plates made.

I wish you every success with your new press,