A couple of months ago, during a visit here by Paul Shaw, an American calligrapher, we decided to visit my friends Christian Paput, the noted punchcutter, and Paul Marie Grinevald, the bookkeeper, at the Cabinet des Poinçons, at The Imprimerie Nationale in Paris. I felt that it was a good idea to show some of the pictures we took during our visit, particularly in a context where the future of the Cabinet des Poinçons is not clear.
Let me explain a little bit. In the middle of the 1990s, The Imprimerie Nationale ceased to be a public company. Because of market competition in the printing industry, the new directors haven’t been able to both manage and preserve all of the historical collection and keep the craft of Christian Paput alive as well as the government could do. But the government seemed to have lost its focus on the preservation of the Cabinet and the connected library, without really noticing the consequence of it. For a couple of months, a ‘collective’ worked hard to bring back all of this, to restore a better environment, in the hope of creating a museum — or better, a place were the craft can continue to be transmitted to future generations. The situation seems little better now, as the Ministère de la Culture has begun to understand the value of this craft and search for solutions, but nothing is yet confirmed. At the same time, the bookkeeper Paul Marie Grinevald officially quit his job before the end of October 2002. jfp.
The Imprimerie Nationale, rue de la Convention, Paris is now closed.
The cutting of punches
In printing, the cutting of punches was the basis of, and the point of departure for, all the developments which have made possible the creation of letters and texts, first of all on paper, and then in all other media, material and immaterial, that we know today. The punchcutter, like Gutenberg, possess the creative skill that I shall now try to describe.
Christian Paput cutting a capital O.
“When we design new punches of for a new typeface, the cutting doesn’t represent all the work. It’s just the last part of a lengthy exercise, just as no one letter can be designed alone: all form a complete set. Each letter needs to be designed to function with the others, to work harmoniously with any of the others, before or after it; adhering also to the mechanisms of the foundries and to the kinds of type settings. The spacing problems force us to study the different letter combinations, especially those in need of corrections, which influence the rest of the alphabet, without sacrificing the design quality of the punch you cut.”
Louis Gauthier (1916-1993) punchcutter at Deberny et Peignot foundry from 1929 to 1948, then at The Imprimerie Nationale until 1979.
Some of his tools.
“The hand, directly linked with the brain, found its power, when it was reinforced by adapted tools.”
Punch and matrix
The punch is an elongated block of steel, of which one end is engraved in relief and in reverse. Being a unique object, it is stored with great care. It is used, without suffering wear, to make an impression, cold, in another piece of metal: the matrix. Each matrix is made one at a time. It is used, until it wears out, to cast thousands of types, relief castings in reverse, which are inked and pressed against paper to make a printed page.
Process from punchcutting to type (from British Library exhibition)
The materials have not changed fundamentally: we still find the steel punch, the copper matrix and the leaden type (in fact an alloy of lead, tin, and antimony). The proportions for hand-cast type are the following: 70 per cent lead, 5 per cent tin, 25 per cent antimony.
A punch of E capital with its accent.
An open box of punches found during the visit in 2002 on the floor who is in fact the punches basis of Ambroise family!
“It is recommended to the pupils to be under the direction of a master, and not to quit except in case of major problems. The same pupils shall restrain themselves from an excessive life, such as food and drink, and keep their hands in good condition. Avoid also any use of the hands for hard work such as to move big stones, and finally avoid liaisons with women.” From Journal des Savants, 18th century.
Example of a beautiful type composition with curves dating back International Fair, early 20th century.
With texts extracted from Christian Paput publication on punchcutting. And comments of the today situation by Jean François Porchez. Copyright 1998-2002 Christian Paput for texts and Jean François Porchez for the images. Thanks to John Downer.
→ La lettre, la gravure du Poinçon typographique. The punchcutting by Christian Paput (Français-English). TVSO Editions, 1998. ISBN 2-9505015-4-0. 18€. Contact us for more information on the author and publisher.
→ More on punchcutting (in french.)
→ The materials of typefounding, by James Mosley
→ Paul Shaw website
→ More Ambroise in use
→ A good taste cost less: Ambroise
→ Ambroise Italic on Dribbble