The making of metal type by hand for printing was very involved and labor intensive. Most people understand that metal type was cast: Molten metal was poured into molds.The bottom of a mold, the matrix, held the impression of a letter, in reverse, perfectly formed. How were these molds and impressions made? They were made by punches, produced by amazingly talented and patient craftsmen called punch cutters. Punch cutters, with tiny gouges and files, sculpted raised letters in real size, in reverse, on the ends of square metal rods. Not surprisingly, the first punch cutters came from the ranks of goldsmiths.
The true artisans of the early hot metal printing industry were not the printers, but the punch cutters.
Making letter punches by hand was made virtually obsolete in the late 1800s by the invention of the Linotype and the Monotype machines. Later, photographic processes supplanted the making of hot metal type. Then computers arrived and changed everything again.Today, a “font” is no longer a collection of metal type kept in cases or drawers, but a piece of digital software loaded onto a computer hard drive.
This fascinating series of videos shows how punch cutting was done:
One of the better books on this subject, written by a modern day punchcutter:
Counterpunch: Making Type in the Sixteenth Century; Designing Typefaces Now, by Fred Smeijers (London: Hyphen Press, 1996)