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March 23rd, 2011 RUTH BROWN | Featured Stories
 

Out Of Sorts

A group of Portland printers revives the lost art of metal type casting.

BOOKS_CCTypeFoundry_3720JUST MY TYPE: C.C. Stern Type Foundry’s “Orphan Annie” Monotype Sorts Caster. - IMAGE: Jeff Shay/C.C. Stern Type Foundry
     
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Once upon a time, before fonts came packaged in .zip files and people still owned pens, creating a page of printed text was more difficult than simply bashing it out in Word and pressing “print.” Newspapers, books, letterhead—it all had to be printed by skilled craftspeople using letterpress, and the characters they used—every capital and lowercase a, every comma, every semicolon (for people once knew how to use those, too) in every font—had to first be cast in metal by another skilled craftsperson.

Although letterpress itself has seen a revival in recent years among local artists and people looking for fancy wedding invitations, the people and machines that actually produced that type have been largely forgotten.

So in 2009, a group of Portland-based printers began working on a way to preserve and continue that tradition, by building a “working museum” and type foundry. The members were all friends and students of Chris Stern, a printer from Sedro-Woolley, Wash., who used old casting machines to create type for custom books. When Stern passed away in 2007, the group inherited his collection, moved everything to an industrial space in Northeast Portland, and the C.C. Stern Type Foundry was born.

“The way letters work was defined by this kind of equipment,” says the foundry’s director Jeff Shay. “An awful lot of folks have never even heard of the equipment, have no idea that it existed or what it did. But every day, when they’re sitting at their computers, they’re using what is the product of this history.”

But to realize their goal, the museum must get these old dinosaurs moving again. Its first project is to restore an “Orphan Annie” Monotype Sorts Caster—a big piece of Victorian-era machinery that looks like something out of a Tim Burton film; wheels spinning, arms cranking, pumping out little metal nuggets of type—and put it back to work.

“[Chris Stern] was good friends with a type designer in Vancouver, B.C., Jim Rimmer...[he was] mind-bogglingly amazing…in several books he designed the type, cast the type, printed the book, did all the illustrations in the book and then bound the book and offered it for sale. When Chris died, Jim designed a typeface in his honor: Stern. Jim passed away about a year ago and bequeathed us the [Stern] mats, so our goal is to cast Stern on the Orphan Annie the first time it’s up an running again. It’s a tribute to all the people involved.”

Ironically, the very thing that put this craft out of business is now driving its revival. To help Orphan Annie sing again, the museum turned to crowd funding website Kickstarter, allowing supporters to donate anywhere from $1 to $500 to bring the machinery and Stern back to life. Within just 10 days, font fanciers and word nerds from all over the world had pledged well over the organization’s $5,000 goal, and the money is still rolling in.

“The vast majority of people who have access to computers [now] know what a font is. That wouldn’t have been true 50 years ago. You opened up the newspaper, you read it, and you didn’t think particularly hard that that was Times Roman or whatever,” laughs Shay. “Now, everybody’s a typographer!” 


GO: C.C. Stern Type Foundry holds an open house, tour of the museum’s foundry equipment and silent auction of printed ephemera at 8900 NE Vancouver Way, 489-7330. 3-7 pm Saturday March 26. Info at ccsterntype.org.

 
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