Content Courtesy of Professor David Shields of the Rob Roy Kelly Collection, University of Texas Austin.
Wood has been used for letterforms and illustrations dating back to the first known Chinese wood block print from 868 CE.
The forerunner of the block print in China was the wooden stamp.
The image on these stamps was most often that of the Buddha, and was quite small. Provided with handles to facilitate their use, they were not unlike the modern rubber-stamps of today.
In Europe, large letters used in printing were carved out of wood because large metal type had a tendency to develop uneven surfaces, or crack, as it cooled.
In America, with the expansion of the commercial printing industry in the first years of the 19th century, it was inevitable that someone would perfect a process for cheaply producing the large letters so in demand for broadsides.
Wood was the logical material because of its lightness, availability, and known printing qualities.
Darius Wells of New York invented the means for mass producing letters in 1827, and published the first known wood type catalog in 1828. In the preface to his first wood type catalog, Wells outlined the advantages of wood type.
Wood type was half the cost of metal type, and when prepared by machine it had smooth, even surfaces, where the possibility of unequal cooling caused large lead type to distort.
Up until that time, the usual procedure was to draw the letter on wood, or paper which was pasted to the wood, and then cut around the letter with a knife or graver, gouging out the parts to be left blank.
Wells, however, introduced a basic invention, the lateral router, that allowed for greater control when cutting type and decreased the time it took to cut each letter.
In 1834, William Leavenworth made his contribution to the wood type industry with the introduction of the pantograph to the manufacturing process.
He adapted the pantograph to the Wells router, and the combination formed the basic machinery required for making wood type on a production basis.