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Unidentified Items - Any Ideas?

Started by Dave Hughes, June 28, 2011, 02:35:02 PM

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Dave Hughes

Nicky recently posted the following item for sale on the classified section of Metal Type here.

At first, I thought it was a few drawers of Ludlow matrices, now I'm pretty sure that they aren't.

Does anyone have an idea what they are?

I've noticed on one of the drawers it says "Stage Series 40mm" - I would say that the 40mm suggests that the items are reasonably modern, and not print-related. Sign-writing perhaps?

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Here's the advertiser's description:

QuoteFor sale: Vintage 12 drawer letterpress with a lot of brass type in an oak cabinet with Bakelite handles.

Over a thousand brass printing type blocks in total in the cabinet (not including the smallest set which I haven't bothered counting).

There are various font sets, all complete apart from one set in the top right hand drawer which is missing a capital V.

There are various number sets, again all complete except the two largest number sets which comprise 0 and 2, and 2, 4, and 8 only. (The first row of numbers in one drawer looks like it stops at 4, but 5 to 0 continue in the last row in the same drawer.)

All sets are in good condition, clean and with no damage that I can see. A few of the sets would look better with a bit of a polish.

Sorry, I don't know the fonts, but I believe one may be Caslon, another Corbel, another probably Grotesque, but please see the pictures and decide for yourself.

Cabinet dimensions:
Width: 25.5"
Depth: 18"
Height: 5.75"

In total it weighs about 4st. 6lbs, or 28 kg.

Lots of photos at

Should be able to ship anywhere in UK for approx £25 (tbc). Welcome to collect from near Wokingham.

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Dave Hughes

Mike Jacobs offers the following (via the Letpress list):

These types look suspiciously like that used with the Masseeley Show Card Printer. Essentially a hot foil system using type that is only about a quarter inch thick.

Also via Letpress, Dick Goodwin:

QuoteThey look like letters for a sign engraving machine. Not sure.
Dick G

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Dave Hughes

At last, I think we have the definitive answer, thanks to the Letpress list:

QuoteThey are, as Mike Jacobs has indicated, faces for a Masseeley hot foil press. The names of the typefaces are the giveaway. Masseeley cut their own faces in brass at their works in east London and were able to supply many of the most popular styles available in lead, but to avoid paying any kind of royalties they simply re-named everything.

The company had a very odd system of identifying their types. They would engrave a face such as Othello in 6 different sizes but call the collection the "Comedian" series of faces. Each individual SIZE was then identified by a name such as Leno, Grock, Fragson, Burnaby, Grimaldi and Charlie Chaplin. They had many different sanserif "series" including "Historic Women" (Eve, Helen, Salome, Sonnica, Hermione and Cleopatra), "Dictator" (Draco, Ribera, Napoleon, Cromwell and Mussolini) and "Musician" (Brahms, Chopin, Schubert, Kreizler, Beethoven, Tetrazzini, Paderewski and Rachmaninoff).

Bob Richardson
BBC Masseeley Operator, 1980-1985
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Jeff Zilles [jeffo]

I would hope that this post creates a deal of interest which may spark the release of a snippet of information from some of the older among us that used such equipment, and who probably hated it but still care to remember.

The type as already identified is indeed the Masson-Seely [Masseeley] hot-foil showcard system though I believe that similar equipment was marketed, even if not manufactured by, similar purveyors of foiling equipment such as Milford Astor and others whose names do not come readliy to mind.

The type had a height of 1/4" [0.250"] and each letter was individually engraved - not cast - an expensive exercise which made the system extremely pricey If one had the need for a wide selection of type styles and sizes.

The type is wrong reading and has a depth to the shoulder of 0.050" which could seem to be a sort of industry standard.

Many of the fonts were also engraved as a negative on the back of the sort so that the same piece could be used upside down to print a reverse.

Serious use of the system had been made by high-end department stores, bookbinders - the specialists would still use it if their turnover warranted the capital investment - and, for a time, the Television Industry - in the larger Network studios - before the acceptance of computer graphics.

For the record, there are seven twelve drawer cabinets of it in 'The Cave'.which were sold to me by a used machinery and scrap dealer who won the lot on tender when the local ABC [Australian Broadcasting Commission] was switching from hand-made [or hot-foil in this case] flip cards to computer generated pieces.

He did comment that when he commenced to wheel the cabinets out of the art department he was assailed with screams of "You can't take that!" - management, however had made it's decision.

There was also to have been a 'One Armed Bandit' sort of monster hand operated foil printer with a platen size of perhaps 10" x12" or even a little larger,  which weighed between 250 to 350 pounds and which the seller was going to trundle the four blocks from his store to the 'Cave' on his forklift at a later date.

I was slack in pursuing the matter and lost contact with both the fellow and the 'One Arm Bandit' so that I never did find out what engineering gimmick/s formed the structure of the chase to hold the type solidly in place whilst the deed of printing from it was performed.

The sorts are square on all faces with no bevel or indentation to place a locking spacer bar of some sort between lines and the 3/16" or so of base would make for a springy and dangerous lockup when dealing with a number of longish lines and then heating them up to foil-printing temperatures.

A brass-magnet heating base would be an ideal solution but thus far is a science-fiction wish.

So does anyone of a remarkable age who used be in the art department of Harrods, the BBC or the British Library Restoration Sector and remembers the discomfort of sizzled fingers handling this equipment while trying to beat a deadline and who also may recall how the forme was securely held together feel like describing the beast.

Perhaps Bob Richardson may recall how the business end bits were held together and deign to tell us?

I make no apology for the length of diatribe on this item but information, or the chance of it, on a subject for which that I have sought answers for a fair length of time winds the spring up pretty tight.

Congratulations Dave, you found an advertising sheet for such equipment - I have been on the lookout for such a picture for near fifteen years or so - thank you.

I have a rough idea that I can recall the Foil Sales people referring to type sizes in their brass type as inch fractions and multiples - ie. !/2", 3/4", 1", 1.1/2" etc - the 40mm may perhaps be a later label for something close to 1.5/8" to suit the terminology of the day?


Jeff Zilles [jeffo]

Heigh Ho

Further reading and investigation has shown my assumption that the back of the sort could be used to print a reverse image is incorrect for the engraving on the rear is right reading and would not produce a generally acceptable result - serve me right for selecting a Cap 'X' as a first sample.

There is the possibility that the sorts are made this was to facilitate composition for non-typestick conversant operators providing the proscribed method of assembly was with the type face down.

I stand corrected if not actually chastised


Bob Richardson

The letters engraved on the back of Masseeley type made after 1930 were their own patented design to help compositors to visualise the words they were about to print. The design was the same size and in exactly the same position as the printing face on the other side of the brass 'tile'. It's not true to say Masseeley type was only engraved - it was also cast. We had examples of cast and engraved faces in BBC graphics. The engraved faces were normally made from hard brass and the cast version was a sort of phosphor-bronze material. The latter was slightly less sharp and detailed than the brass version and showed wear more quickly.

It's very hard to describe the operation of a Masseeley hot foil press but suffice to say that the machine had no chase and the letters were never "locked-up" in any way at all. The platen was a long steel sheet which ran on rollers underneath a heating element encased in a flat steel housing. A metal strip called a U-Bar was used to ensure that lines were straight. A graduated scale was stamped into the U-Bar with zero in the centre and increments in each direction (inches or centimetres). The platen was about 13 inches wide so the "inch" version of the U-Bar was stamped 6-5-4-3-2-1-0-1-2-3-4-5-6.

To operate the press a sheet of card (we used a stock size of 12" x 9" in BBC Graphics but larger sizes could be accommodated) would be placed on the platen with the edges papallel with the sides. A piece of white (or coloured) heat-sensitive foil was then laid over the part of the card to be printed. The U-Bar was then clamped across the work and the brass letters carefully arranged along the length of the bar. When the operator was happy with the spacing the platen was slid forward so the type lay under the heated steel plate. A large handle on the right of the machine was brought down to make gentle contact with the type and held inplace for just a couple of seconds then released. The platen was slid out and the hot type moved to one side. When the foil was peeled off a perfect print was revealed (most of the time!). The U-Bar was then repositioned for the next line of type. Only a single line would normally be printed at a time, although in theory a large block of text could be printed if the U-Bar was moved gently to avoid disturbing the other lines. The main reason for not printing multiple lines was the comparatively small font synopsis of the very expensive Masseeley faces. The "leading" between lines was achieved by careful measurement with a ruler and discrete pencil marks to indicate the next position for the U-Bar.

To save money the BBC purchased large display faces from Stephenson Blake and had a local engineering company in Shepherd's Bush reduce the body height to 0.25". I think the smallest SB faces in the BBC stock were 36pt and most were 42pt, 48pt, 60pt and 72pt.

Masseeley operators would have made good criminals because constantly handling the hot type on a regular daily basis left us without fingerprints! The tips of my fingers were smooth and shiny most of the time!

Jeff Zilles [jeffo]

Mr. Richardson

Thank you very much for your time and effort in describing the Masseeley operation.

You have provided me with a great deal of satisfaction to finally discover - after many years of conjecture and fruitless question asking - just what the procedure was to produce a Masseeley foil printed piece.

I realise that I had developed a few misconceptions and erroneous assumptions about the process and equipment which, thanks to you, have been rectified.

I am most grateful


Dave Hughes

Thanks again Bob, appreciated. I guess ex Masseeley operators are a little thin on the ground these days.

Thanks for taking the time to describe the process.

Glad the guest posting "quiz" didn't put you off!
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Dave Hughes

Bob's posted a further (illustrated) explanation of the process on Letpress, I'm sure he won't mind it being reproduced here:

In response to a couple of enquiries I've uploaded an image showing how type was set up for printing on a Masseeley machine. Some people were under the impression that the system used a chase and assumed that type was locked-up conventionally, like letterpress. With Masseeley type only 1/4" from foot to face this makes conventional lock-up almost impossible.

The illustration

shows a Masseeley platen with a sheet of card, ready to print. The hot foil sheet which normally lies between the type and the substrate has been omitted for clarity. This platen is on bearers, similar to an Albion (in principle) and slides under a heated plate which is brought down (gently) onto the type for a couple of seconds to fuse the heat-activated pigment in the foil. I hope this clarifies the process a little.

In practice, a Masseeley would not usually print a full poster such as this in a single action - type was normally set on a line-by-line basis, purely because the fount synopsis was rather mean and insufficient letters were provided to print large jobs in a single go. The reason for these small founts was the sheer cost of the letters, which were very high compared with traditional lead faces.

Bob Richardson
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