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Alphabets of Wood

I Love Typography

Alphabets of Wood

A Review by David Wolske

In his foreword to the 2010 Liber Apertus Press reissue of Rob Roy Kelly’s American Wood Type 1828–1900, David Shields wrote:

Forty years on, Kelly’s seminal work remains a giant on whose shoulders we stand. He wrote American Wood Type because it needed to be written and in doing so laid the foundation for a new wave of scholarship.

Alphabets of Wood is the most recent and arguably the most beautiful addition to the new wave of wood type scholarship. It is also important because it is the first publication to seriously examine the historical and cultural significance of Italian wood type manufacturers.


In the first part of the book, James Clough calligrapher, writer provides a broad historical overview of wood block printing, from fourteenth- and fifteenth-century hand carved imagery and text through the nineteenth-century American origins of moveable wooden type. In “Chapter 6” Clough introduces us to Luigi Melchiori, a skilled designer and manufacturer of wood type, active during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in the Veneto Region of Italy. Through beautifully paced layouts, sumptuous photography, and a richly textured typographic palette, Melchiori’s life, work, and legacy are situated in the context of other Italian wood type manufacturers.


In the second part of Alphabets of Wood, Chiara Scattolin digs deep into the archive of wood type fonts, specimen books, tools, and documents held by Tipoteca Italiana. Detailed testimonies from peers help to humanize “the Bodoni of wood type,” making it easy for contemporary typographers, graphic designers, letterpress printers, and artists to recognize themselves in the pride and craftsmanship Melchiori brought to his work.


Every chapter of the book is illustrated with stunningly handsome antique wood type specimens. Two eight-page letterpress inserts on a toothy, soft-white paper stock provide an arrestingly modern counterpoint. The Stamperia of Tipoteca Italiana printed all sixteen frame-worthy pages using original wood type from Tipoteca’s Wood Type Archive.

Typographically the book echoes the best of Italian design, finding a harmonious balance between industrial sharpness and sensuous fluidity. Minion, for the body text and annotation, pairs nicely with image captions and folios set in FF Balance. The graceful geometry of chapter titles set in Mark Simonson’s keenly appropriate Mostra Nuova perfectly compliments the brute Latin Wide chapter numerals.


Alphabets of Wood shines a spotlight on the remarkable efforts of working museums like Tipoteca Italiana and Hamilton Wood Type & Printing Museum to educate and inspire new generations of practitioners and scholars. Its contemporary design aesthetic and a chapter devoted to “Wood Type in the Digital Age” boldly declare that wood type and letterpress printing, while rooted in the past, play an important role in current and future design, craft, and art discourse.

Alphabets of Wood: Luigi Melchiori & the history of Italian wood type
James Clough and Chiara Scattolin
ISBN 978-88-95932-04-0
Tipoteca Italiana, Cornuda – Italy

David is a letterpress artist, typographer, book designer, educator, and frequent collaborator with Moore Wood Type and Virgin Wood Type. In 2010 he founded the letterpress and wood type blog LetterpressDaily.com

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