How Big is a Font?

By Fred Williams
Editor-Publisher, Type & Press
Published Winter 1987

The average printing newcomer usually starts off with a small hand press a few fonts of fancy type and proceeds to print stationery, business cards, tickets for relatives' friends, church and fraternal organizations.

It is only when he decides to set type for continuous reading–a book, amateur journal or several pages of poetry, that he runs into the common question–that is, how big is a font of type?

The answer. A complete proportional assortment of type characters of one size of a typeface is called a font. Most typefounders use a standard "fonting scheme" whereby one can easily determine the quantity of each individual letter, varying in accordance with the frequency of its use in ordinary printing.

Each font carries a fonting scheme (in type catalogs) such as for example 25A 50a 10-1 This means that the font consists' of 25 cap A's as well as the same number of I, N, 0, R, S and T letters. It will also have 30 E's and 10 of B ! W and Y characters. But it will have only 5 of the seldom used Q, Xv Z and &. In the lower case it will have 50 a, i, n, o, r, s, t; 20 b, g, p, W, 67 e (most frequently used letter), but only 8 of q, x and z. Other letters will also be in proportion to the frequency of their use. The font will have 10 figures 1 and zero and 8 of the other figures and the $.

Usually small job fonts do not include spaces, quads, small caps, reference marks, fractions, dipthongs, brackets, parens, accented letters, en or em dashes, leaders, or other special characters. They must be purchased separately.

The usual rule is that a pound of type will set about 4 square inches –a space 4 x 4 inches. So the novice may buy a couple of job fonts, lay them in his case and proceed to set his first book. But before he gets much set, he discovers he is out of some letters. Although his case is still half full of type he can set no more copy. He may believe he is a victim of the typefounders conspiracy –a dastardly conspiracy to force him to keep purchasing more & more type by shortchanging him on certain letters. But it is seldom the same letter that runs short.

This is an old problem, but it is not due to any kind of conspiracy. Around 1900, when they still set books commercially by hand, DeVinne wrote "The object of the (font) scheme is so to apportion each character that all of the types in the font may be set out of case, leaving no surplus. This object is never attained. When a compositor reports that a new font of text type has been set out, as a rule about one third of the weight of the font remains unused in case . . . The proportion of this surplus is variable. For a small font the typefounder's rule is to add one half to the computed weight of the type . . . All calculations of this sort are but guesses. No printer or founder can exactly foresee how unequally copy yet to be written will exhaust sorts."

A few foundries sell small job fonts that include caps, l.c., figures, lower case, ampersands and ligatures.

Some foundries sell weight fonts, usually put up in 20 pound assortments or multiples thereof. This is the most economical way to purchase large quantities of type. Normally these fonts contain a 5:1 ratio of lower case to caps.

The ordinary job font is made up on a ratio of one cap character to two lower case; thus a common font scheme might be 25 A 50 a. This is OK for job printers who do a lot of setting in all caps. But for solid text matter, it is far too many caps.

This is easy to remedy. Some foundries still sell caps and lower case characters separately. All one must do is figure out what number of caps and lower case fonts to buy to make a well sorted caseful.

For instance, take the 25A 50a font mentioned. If you instead bought two fonts of caps and five of lower case you would have 50A 250a, a much better proportion, more lower case.

Note if the figures and points are included in the font. Some foundries pack figures and points together in one font, and then put additional points with the 1c. ATF sells caps, lc, figs and points separately. For most purposes you need a complete font–the total combination of the separate fonts. Other type sellers include the figures with the caps and the points with the lower case.

Some foundries will sell you a sorts line to replenish an empty case compartment. This is helpful when your copy uses an excess of one letter (such as "we" or the first person "I.")

A sorts line contains as many types, cast from one matrix, as can be placed in a 36 pica line. The 36 pica line is ATF's standard production unit and fonts are also made to this measure. Other foundries supply a 30-pica sorts line.

While foundry fonts are available from the last two U.S. type foundries, their prices are much too expensive for the small or private printer.

But reasonably priced fonts are available from a number of Monotype plants. Carefully handled, these fonts will outlive most printers.

The amount of type required to set a whole page will vary widely, depending on the copy, dimensions of the type page, word spacing, size and set of type, amount of leading and if lines are justified or ragged.