Best of British: A historic type firm that’s still at the cutting edge
Monday, June 10, 2019
Next year sees the 300th anniversary of the company that is today called Caslon Ltd. In 1720, a London based engraver called William Caslon cut the punches for his first typeface, and went on to set up a foundry that bore his name.
The path to today’s company is slightly convoluted, but it is still run by the Caslon family and still supplies letterpress equipment, notably the revived Adana hand press. However it has moved with the times and sells equipment and consumables that complement the latest digital presses. It’s a regular fixture at trade shows internationally where its clever foil printers, card cutters and the novelty of the Adana presses often draw small crowds from printers who didn’t realise they exist.
Roy Caslon joined the family business in 1957 and became well known in the industry. He was chairman of Picon from 2005 to 2007. His son Richard joined the company in 1983 and is now managing director. Roy remains chairman and is still active in the company. Richard says: “He speaks letterpress more fluently than many people in the world and so is the Adana letterpress guru!”
The company remains an important source of advice to the small but enthusiastic community of letterpress users, as well as supplying new and refurbished Adanas, parts, ancillaries, inks and other consumables. “We work with St Brides’, BPS and many individuals who are keeping letterpress alive,” says Richard. Adana forms about 20% of the business.
After 282 years in London’s EC1 district (near Fleet Street and Clerkenwell) it was growing impractical to stay by the late 1990s. “We moved to St Albans in 2002 and continued to develop and evolve,” says Richard. “Digital foiling, card cutters and duplexing machinery have all been developed and we have seen steady sales of these. We are still the only manufacturer of thermography powder in Europe and resell Sunraise and Thermotype machines.”
The St Albans site has about 650m² floor space, with around 15% allocated to offices and the rest for production and warehousing. Today it employs 16 people: three in sales, five in admin and the rest in production and warehousing. There’s a demonstration room for the letterpress, foiling and other equipment.
Caslon sells the FoilTech range of digital foilers that don’t need traditional metal die-stamps. They work by heating paper that’s been printed by digital toners, which the foil adhesive sticks to (Indigo ElectroInk also works, but so far not inkjets).
“The digital foiling machines were originally a joint venture with the US company Thermotype,” says Richard. “Now their product line has moved into the larger machinery area whilst we have continued to develop the small end of the market. We still market the Thermotype range, including the newly released Glue-Tech automatic duplexing machine which has had a huge amount of interest.”
Caslon’s FT-series models start at about £2,000 for a 340mm-wide manual-feed model, or £4,360 for an auto-feed machine. The fastest Thermotype digital foiler with friction feed costs £15,045. Caslon also sells Thermotype’s traditional metal die-stamp foiling and embossing machines in prices from £127,000 to £209,000.
“We represent Daige and their range of Maxit adhesive systems, which are used for hard book covers and can be used for card duplexing and poster adhesion,” Richard adds. “We still market and support the Cronite and Buzz ranges of die-stamping inks across Europe and the UK. Our customers create the highest quality secure raised print for royalty, blue-chip companies and the rich and famous. These printers are true craftsmen!
“Thermography also remains a big part of our business, partnering with Sunraise machinery alongside our own Caslon and Faust powders.”
Three centuries of Caslons
But let’s step back in time to 1720. Printing was still done by wooden hand-pulled “common presses,” and cast metal type, barely changed since Gutenberg’s time. The key to making type casting moulds was hand engraving of hard metal punches for each character, needing skill and precision. In the early 1700s British engravers had a poor reputation, so London printers often imported punches from the Netherlands and France.
Enter William Caslon, by then in his late 20s and having trained as an engraver in Birmingham. In 1716 he moved to London, where the quality of his work on gun parts and bookbinders’ punches was noticed by printers around Fleet Street and St Pauls. They started commissioning him to make type punches rather than importing them.
Caslon’s first typeface of 1720 was created for an edition of the New Testament in Arabic. After a few more ‘exotics’ he moved on to roman and italic serif faces that were to take his name and last to this day. They were popular for books, although the company proudly notes that Caslon Old Face was also used by John Dunlap in Philadelphia to print the US Declaration of Independence in 1776.
Caslon Old Face was adapted for mechanical hot metal typesetters in the 20th Century, including Monotype, Linotype and Ludlow, and then later for phototypesetters. In the 1980s and 90s a new breed of digital type designers started creating digital outline versions of Caslon for the new technologies of laser imagesetters.
William Caslon’s family and sons continued the business (including William Caslons II, II and IV) through a complex sequence of separate companies, mergers and takeovers. In 1819 one main branch, Caslon & Son (set up in 1792), was sold to a Sheffield foundry that grew into one of the largest UK type suppliers: Stephenson, Blake. In 1937 Stephenson, Blake acquired the other main branch, HW Caslon & Sons. Today’s Stephenson & Blake remains an engineering company in Sheffield, but closed the type foundry in the early 2000s. Its matrices and other equipment are at the Type Museum in London.
In 1874, HW Caslon & Sons Foundry had been taken over by its manager Thomas White Smith after the death of owner Henry William Caslon. His sons took the surname Caslon and today’s family is their descendants.
Richard Caslon explains the final route to today’s company: “Caslon Machinery Limited was created as a subsidiary of HW Caslon & Co under the management of my grandfather, Harold Daniel Caslon, to concentrate on the machinery side of the business before the typefounding interests were bought by Stephenson, Blake in 1937. In 1963, the word ‘Machinery’ was dropped by my father to reflect that the company was offering a complete range of printing equipment and supplies.”
Adana was originally a separate maker of small letterpress machines, founded in Twickenham in the 1930s. It introduced the 85 (pronounced ‘eight-five’) hand-operated clamshell platen press in 1953, priced at the equivalent of £16.80.
Caslon acquired Adana’s business and goodwill in 1987 and the last all-new press was sold in 1999. After that Caslon refurbished old presses with new parts for years. However, with the revival in interest in letterpress for craft and hobbyists in the past decade, demand for refurbished presses grew. Eventually as Richard Caslon says, it became more cost-effective to build all-new ones. A trial batch of 20 machines sold out almost immediately in 2016.
The new-series press is called the Adana 85C, with C for Caslon-made. It’s small enough to fit a desktop, with a 203x127mm print area (or 8x5 inches, hence the 85 number). It takes standard height metal type, blocks or photopolymer plates. Price is £1,299 with a type chase and accessories.
The Adana 85C is selling well, with about 50-50 commercial to hobby customers Richard says. Some major parts are outsourced to a UK manufacturer, while Caslon makes some of the other parts and carries out the assembly itself.
The new 85C’s main difference is a stronger side frame and extra lever arm travel, to achieve the fashionable embossed effect that would horrify traditional letterpress operators. Users counter that if customers want perfectly flat short-run print they can go digital.
Caslon sells secondhand ancillaries such as hand composition sticks, as well as new letterpress inks, supplies and cast metal type. Ironically its list of Monotype-cast foundry type doesn’t include a Caslon face. “It is still available in Monotype in certain sizes.” Richard Caslon says. “A lot of type sales are additions to printers’ existing founts, so as it hasn’t been a widely sold face in the hobby market there isn’t, sadly, much call for it in hot metal.” If you want to go digital, it can sell you a photopolymer platemaker that works with computer-printed film, and therefore of course, digital Caslon fonts.
What of the future? Richard Caslon is musing on the potential of inkjet for foiling as a complement to the dry toner method and also considering if a sticky digital ink, could be used with thermography techniques to give embossed effects.
How about the family name? Are any junior Caslons lined up with an interest in print? “Not sure yet!” says Richard. “I am ever hopeful, even though there have been many career ideas mentioned by my daughter, but for a few years now she has been fixated on being a paramedic.”
The Adana 85C press is the most eye-catching product, but Richard Caslon says the best sellers are “the FoilTech range of digital foiling machines and the Daige range of Maxit adhesive systems.”