Casting your own lead (hot metal) type

I need some lead type for an installation I’m working on and came across someone selling it buy bulk on ebay; unfortunately he was on holiday and not taking orders, so I had to think of a way around it.

I’d contacted Stockwell Type Museum and St Bride’s Library about sourcing some, as they were nearby – a quick journey across London – but in the meantime, I had a go at casting my own. This may have typographers and letterform fanatics gasping in horror, but I was after the rudest idea of hot metal type, not leading or serif perfection! Plus, I like pouring molten lead.

Initially I carved into wet clay, and poured plaster into it. This created a plaster positive I used to indent wet sand into which I could pour the lead. This made for a too rough a letterform, even though I wasn’t after true ‘printing press’ quality. The texture the wet sand / hot lead created was interesting though, just not good for this project.

I didn’t know before, but you can cast directly into plaster too, so I tried carving into cubes of plaster – ice trays are very handy for this! – and pouring the lead into them. I’d forgotten that the lead would come out reversed (although the form was still positive which is what I was after).

Another way of doing it that I explored was to kind of ‘clone’ a rubber stamp, creating a faux hot metal letter. This worked theoretically, but was still creating too large and crude a final object. For this project I really needed the real thing!

By this point St Bride’s called back and the very kind B had got hold of the sentence I was after, in the perfect font – Eric Gill’s Perpetua – and size. I went to collect it and also ogle at an example mono-type matrix; the machines that cast this lead type something to research further I reckon…

In any case, many, many thanks go to this great typographic library. I’m already a Friend, and can highly recommend their resources and enlightening font- and design-based events. If you’re interested in all things letter-centric I reckon they’d hugely appreciate your support.

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