Johannes Gutenberg is generally thought to be the inventor of the moveable type printing press in the 1400s. The idea was an extension of wood block printing which was the cutting edge in communications technology of that era. Over time, Gutenburg refined the process to use metal type in search of print clarity, and with his "screw press," he printed 180 copies of the Bible as his first mass-produced project.
Completing the set of the 1,282 page tomes took he and his staff – which numbered some 20 artisans – nearly three years to complete. Only 48 copies of that original number are extant today.
Now with A23D, a 3D printed letterpress font designed by renowned type designers A2-Type and fabricated by a team of special model makers, Chalk Studios, a group of today's artisans and technologists are harkening back to that ancient process and adding an edgy twist.
Essentially a set of plastic blocks which can be used in the traditional printing process, London print shop New North Press has created the letterpress font with the idea in mind of keeping "the craft of letterpress alive."
Graphic designer Richard Ardagh and Henrik Kubel were the driving force behind the idea, and while 'letterpress' printing evokes the days of wood and metal type, this new type was made from white 'chemiwood' and 3D printed.
The A23D type was commissioned by Ardagh of New North Press, and it was designed by renowned type designers Scott Williams and Henrik Kubel, of A2-Type.
Ardagh said he began thinking about the intersection of two-dimensional printing processes and 3D printing as far back as 2010 during an exhibit of vintage presses. Following discussions with a commercial litho printer who had a contact with a firm which used 3D printing to make customizable dolls, it dawned on Ardagh that it might be possible to use that same process to make packaging which featured raised type.
It was a short leap from that, Ardagh says, to musing about whether or not it would be possible to 3D print a letterpress font which would form a bridge of sorts to connect the oldest and the latest print technologies. While Ardagh says printers have talked about utilizing 3D printing to recreate and repair existing type collections, he wanted to do "something looking forwards."
But there were technical challenges to be met as the type would have to withstand the pressure inherent in the letterpress process and still be capable of rendering fine detail. According to Ardagh, the project team tried selective laser sintering, but settled on Polyjet printing before they achieved the desired combination of characteristics.
"There's so much you can achieve with it now and it's developing so fast. I'd be fascinated to find out what's possible in five or ten years time," Ardagh told Creative Review. "Before this, I was interested in 3D printing, but the majority of uses – apart from some fantastic medical ones – just seemed unnecessary."