How to buy type and how much do I need

Dear Briar Press,

I’m a newbie to letterpress and have a question about buying metal type. I’m kind of confused about how much I would need. Also, some foundries sell by weight.

For example, to print a 6x9 page for a book using 12pt Times in English, how many of each letter (A’s, a’s, B’c etc) approximately would I need? Is there a rough guide?


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Earlier I copied these pages from Printing Explained by Herbert Simon and Harry Carter and published in 1931. They should give you a sense of what was recommended for small publications at the time. The minimum type you will need is the amount it takes to print a signature, which will be the amount to cover 8, 12 or 16 pages, depending on the size of signature you need. Personally, I would buy at least 100 lbs, buying the equivalent of 5 lowercase fonts to 1 cap font. This is enough to fill two well-packed cases or three not so full cases. Times Roman is a Monotype face and you will find that Monotype wears out rather quickly because the metal is somewhat soft. I’m sure you will get plenty of opinions here. Good luck on your efforts.[email protected]/3508936361/in/set-721576147916...

When I printed 250 copies of a 192-page book, I did not have enough type for 16 pages — barely 5. I printed the 16-page sigs by what I call serial leapfrog — set pages 1,2,3,4,5, print 1-3-5 and distribute; next day set 6,7,8, print 2-4-6-8, etc. This was using 12 point hard-metal monotype on a 6x9 Sigwalt which could only print 1 page at a time. I still use the same type occasionally — sure, it’s kind of worn, but …


Have you considered getting your text set by somebody with a Monotype machine? Print from it, distribute it and use it again later. In the UK there is for instance Harry Macintosh from Edinburgh, who does this for his customers. I did use the services of a commercial printer once or twice, had something typeset in Spectrum on the Monotype, using a hard alloy and used the type for several other publications. You ask them to cast some extra sorts and you’ll be fine.

you could buy a ludlow, you don’t need to worry about running out of type because your casting your own. the machines are low maintenance and fairly cheap to buy. the mats aren’t too hard to find. good luck dick g.

Usually the type metal used in Monotype composition (as would be used for setting a book by machine rather than by hand) is softer because of the speed necessary to cast the letters. If you could find someone who could cast your type on a Thompson from Monotype mats you would be getting the best product possible. Having operated a Ludlow, I find they are slower than handsetting and unless you have some training or a service man nearby they can be very problematic. They are great for display types, but I wouldn’t want to set much text with them, that is not what they are designed for. I’m not sure where you are located, but in the US M&H Type in San Francisco has a consistantly good product and you can buy cap/fig and lowercase fonts off the shelf. Since type can be quite an investment, you might want to buy what you can afford, and add to your holdings as you grow.


While buying type is a great way to fill your cases with wonderful new type, you may find that affording all of this type is prohibitive. I would suggest you start telling everyone you know that you are interested in letterpress. People who have dusty type in their basement are often quite willing to unload it to you for nothing, or very little. Once word gets around that you will help people clean out, you may have more than you need. I have 18 cases with 25+ fonts. Some are a little beat up, but I also have inherited some unopened packages. My investment in type is nothing… so far.

Thank you all for the great responses. I’m rather surprised that I would need that much metal (eg. 100lbs or 2 well-packed cases). I still don’t get why I need to print 8, 12 or 16 pages. I have a Pilot, so I can only print 1 page at a time.

When I buy type (new or used), and assuming I’ve asked for a ratio of 1:5 of caps vs lowercase, how do I know how many lowercase letters I will be receiving? (or will I be receiving the same the same number of lowercase letters).

I looked at the MH website and noticed the words “ATF distribution”. Other sites say “ATF or your distribution”. What does this refer to?

Look for “font scheme” on the M&H or other metal type websites. There are standard proportions for the various letters in a font based on frequency of use. “a”s and “e”s get used a lot more than “x”s and “z”s and there are a lot more of them. Font schemes vary but are pretty uniform. Fonts are sized by “XX”A/”xx”a designation (26A/56a for instance) with other letters in proportion.


American Type Founders published a chart that basically defined the number of characters that one should receive per font as to English usage. If you look at M&H’s number of characters per Uc or lc fonts this chart will give you an idea of the amount of other letters you will receive in that font.

When a book is assembled it is divided into sections (signatures) which are sewn together and bound into a cover. These signatures have to be pre-determined as to location of the type on each page and the number of pages on each sheet. In an 8 page signature, pages 1 and 8 are on the same side of the sheet, backed by pages 2 and 7. The next sheet would have pages 3 & 6 backed by 4 & 5.
A book assembled out of single sheets is not a very good structure; possible, but not recommended.

You will have difficulty printing a solid page of text for a 6” x 9” page on a Pilot press. Poetry you might get away with, but it takes a lot of pressure to print a solid page of type. It is also tedious to print one page, break it down and throw it back, then set the next page, &c. You will want to be able to set several pages at once, and at the very least you will have to have extra type to replace the type you will wear out. You haven’t mentioned how big an edition you plan to print, or how many pages, but it takes a lot more type that you expect. I am including a link to the ATF character chart so you will have an idea of the character breakdown. M&H includes their figure fonts with the cap fonts.[email protected]/3970273268/sizes/l/


Thanks Bob and Paul.

The ATF chart is really helpful. I wish I had this before I posted the question. Briar Press should just keep a copy of this chart for all the newbies coming along.

So if my understanding is correct, an 8-page signature (say in 6x9 text) is really an 8-page (two 6x18 sheet) booklet where pages 1-2-7-8 are on the same first sheet (front/back) and pages 3-4-5-6 are on the second sheet (front/back). Is this correct?

How much space is needed (for book-binding) in the middle for an 8-page signature? Is there a guide for this?

The Herbert Simon and Harry Carter book suggests getting 30 lbs of sizes 10 and 12. Would 30 lbs of size-12 be enough for an 8-page signature?

With regards to the Pilot, I do see that printing 1 page at a time is very slow. If I was serious about printing book pages or broadsheets/posters, what kind of press should I look for next. I see lots of large C&P for sale on Briar Press.


There are so many variables in what you ask - The best book (although a bit over the top) available in print today is Richard Gabriel Rummonds’ “Printing on the Iron Handpress”. A lot of the information in the book is applicable to any kind of letterpress printing, although the book is aimed at handpress printing. The parts about imposing book pages would be what you need to know. My favorite book on the subject of book design is “The Form of the Book” by Jan Tschichold, but it is hard to find and tends to be pricey. Look for a copy of “A Composition Manual” published by the Printing Industry of America in the 1950s. It has a lot of good information of a general nature about composition, imposition and letterpress tools and their use. A simple manual on bookbinding would be a good addition to your library, a inexpensive basic text is “Creative Bookbinding” by Pauline Johnson.

My best recommendation would be to buy 3 Uppercase fonts and 12 lowercase fonts to start with in Roman type, and 1 Uppercase and 2 lowercase fonts of a matching Italic. That would give you 30-35 lbs of Roman and enough Italic to be serviceable. This would be a good start, which you could add to as necessary. You will also want a compatable face for titling 18pt for a small book, 24pt for a larger page. Times is a Modern face (the thick and thins are oriented vertically) so you would not want to acquire an Oldstyle face (the thicks and thins are oriented at an angle) for titling. You could use san serif faces for titling or display, and they are readily available on Ebay.

For 6” x 9” page your text block would be approximately 4” x 6” which is nearly half the chase area of a Pilot. The general rule of thumb is: A platen press will print 1/4 of the space of it’s chase area. You might consider taking on a smaller formatted project and use the Pilot, before purchasing a larger press, although if you are seriously wanting to print that size you would be much better off with a 10”x 15” C&P. More press, more space. A wise printer told me: “You can print small things on a large press, but you can’t print large things on a small press.”


Thanks, I will look up these recommended books. I really don’t want to be spending money on type if the Pilot is not the appropriate press complex projects like a 6x9. I’m also wanting to look at other typefaces beyond Times. Next step for me is to read more from these books.

Thank you all again for this insightful discussion. I’m sure to be posting more newbie questions soon.