The 'Myth' About

Type Metal Hardness

By Harold Berliner
Harold's Typefoundry
Nevada City, CA
T & P, Fall 1986

I think I can shed a bit of light on the age-old controversy over the hardness of metals.

First, the metal we use is new; 10% tin, 167, antimony and 747, lead. The Brinell Hardness Number* is 27.0. The Monotype casting manual says of this mixture, "This is the recommended alloy for the dual purposes of composition and case type, for which it is well suited by reason of its good combination of wear resistance and ease of handling.

If metal is too soft, it wears quickly; if too hard, it can be brittle where there are kerned characters.

As many as 500,000 impressions have been made on Monotype metal; however, not only is this unthinkable for a hobbyist, the conditions to obtain these results are impossible to obtain in a small shop. It would need a very large cylinder (for a 38x50 sheet, perhaps), perfect makeready and a wholly dependable coated book paper.

The most important factors in type wear have nothing to do with metal, but with printing methods. We have used intriguing papers here which have had wood chips and pieces of harder substances. The paper was indeed exotic, but we were changing some pieces of type every 20th impression. Deep impressions also wear type profoundly, as do some kinds of papers (even without wood). Because of the beauty of some of these papers and the felicity of the impression, it may be that some types can only be used a few times, or even once in extreme circumstances, and still make the user happy.

If a type is desired to last, the impression should be even, and much care must be given to the makeready. A cylinder press, or cylinder proof press, will help a great deal, as well as being capable of better and quicker makeready.

Additionally, careful selection of paper can discover splendid papers which will be minimally wearing on type.

Physical damage to the type can be avoided by placing it carefully in cases, rather than throwing it. Needless to say, dropping type on its face on a concrete floor seldom improves it.

A good book to read by those wishing to pursue this matter further is "Printing Metals" by Fry. The subject is extremely complex. For those making type, it is always good to use new metal, not metal which is mixed in the pot of the machine, and never metal which contains material such as copper, zinc and other things which harm the typemaking process. The notion that copper gives extra hardness to type is considered a myth by many experts, and one which was used to sell type in the late 19th Century when competition was so keen that extravagant claims were needed for that extra advantage.

We were fortunate enough to have the pleasure of a visit by Henk Droost, master typefounder of Enschedee, who spent a week with us two years ago. He discussed the problem at length, and told us he believed our metal formula was entirely suited to the use of our customers.

With the hope that these few words on a subject -which is not really our technical specialty will assist those using type.


*A test for determining the relative hardness of a metal by measuring the diameter of the indentation made when a steel ball is forced into the metal under a given pressure.

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------By Richard L. Hopkins
Hill & Dale Typefoundry
Terra Alta, WV

Type of good quality can be made on virtually any typecasting device. That includes Monotype composition casters, Thompsons, Giants, Super Casters, the Bruce, the Barth - and even the hand mold.

The Bruce and Barth, as well as the various "foundry" casters used in Europe, all have the potential for casting better type because they have the potential for moving metal under greater pressure. That is, if everything is going well. But that isn't always the case.

There is no question but that ATF type is superior to what we Monotypers cast. They do use better metal and they buy "new" metal, where most of us use whatever comes our way . . . ATF Barth and Bruce casters cast a more solid piece of type and that also is very important. Speed and automation with the Monotype compromised these matters. But keep in mind, the Mono was intended to make the user his own typefounder and Lanston always strongly advocated "cast, print, dump."

All typecasting devices share the same problems. They have to get the metal into the mold, they have to get the metal to fill every tiny part of the face of the letter, and they have to somehow get rid of the air filling the mold cavity,

In my shop, I have some very lousy type cast by such giants as MacKellar, Smiths and Jordan, Barnhart Brothers and Spindler, & others–founders who boasted of having the hardest type ...

I suggest that primary concern should be on proper operation of the machine rather than on the metal formula being used. Improper machine operation will assure bad type no matter what metal is being used in the pot.

Type is fragile no matter how "hard" it is. Always start with a light impression on your press and slowly build up. Always protect the face of your type. Never put anything–even a pica pole or a makeup rule–on top of a type form . . .

Likewise, it is my strong suggestion that users should learn how to handle type because damage and unacceptable wear generally are created by the user, not the founder. I have had experience in hot metal shops where steel galleys full of type have been stacked on top of one another with no cushion between. I have seen men come down with a plane and mallet on a form with the strength necessary to drive a railroad spike. I have seen folks toss type into a typecase with no concern about how it lands. And I have seen automatic presses feed five or more sheets at once, pulling impressions heavy enough to make a stereo matrix.

We had a roundtable discussion of this subject at the recent ATF conference. The strictly technical points were made–that type metal doesn't get harder simply by adding more and more tin or antimony. . . .

Jake Warner of Greenbelt, Md., had a problem. He said he had a special font of 18 point type cast up in quantity and he had made every effort to keep it rotated in distribution, etc., and that it bad worn out after 3,500 impressions on his Vandercook. The question was: Is this to be expected, or was it bad type? . . .

Bill Riess (Quaker City) and Pat Taylor (Out of Sorts Foundry) agreed that the type must have been made using less-than adequate metal formulation.

I do know that if I set up a form and print from it, continuous washups with anything except a soft cotton T-shirt type of rag, will create more wear than printing on the press.

Finally, sad as this revelation may be, all type if it is used will eventually wear out. We all know this–we just sometimes refuse to accept it.