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Wooden Words
The world’s largest wood-type workshop is in danger of washing away.

By Maureen Post

When you’re running a museum dedicated to preserving 1.5 million pieces of wooden type, some of which are 70 to 80 years old, the last catastrophe you want, short of a raging fire, is a flood. 

As such, Jim Moran, director of the Hamilton Wood Type and Printing Museum in small, industrious Two Rivers, Wis., is one of the very few Wisconsinites who wanted the summer to be a little drier.

After one downpour, he found himself bailing out the museum – literally. “We pulled 8,000 gallons of water from the floor,” he says, though most of the damage was confined “to one particular section of the museum. Some of the type bowed to the extent that it rotted. We’re experimenting with ways to re-wet and flatten it out.”

But the museum has no plans to relocate. Instead, low on capital, it’s raising money to repair the outdated roof, steel-framed windows and brick walls at its 40,000-square-foot corner of an old industrial campus.

Word of the flooding has prompted donations from artists, woodworkers and former employees, and the museum’s annual conference and fundraiser, Wayzgoose, is scheduled for Nov. 2-4. But for now, Moran and the museum’s other two employees are making due. “Every time it rains, you’re covering everything in the press room all over again,” he says, “and [you’re] up on the roof during rainstorms trying to open drains.”

The museum, still free to visitors, is the largest fully functioning wood type and letterpress workshop in the world. Wannabe printers rummage through drawers of type and print by hand in the museum’s workshop.

Founded in 1880 by Ed Hamilton, J.E. Hamilton Holly Wood Type Co. was once the largest wood type producer in the country. An abundance of inexpensive holly wood and rock maple in Wisconsin gave Hamilton a competitive edge, and within the first 20 years of business, he acquired nearly every other letterpress manufacturer in the country. The company made wood type for newspapers, posters and for-sale signs until 1917, when it switched to steel.

“Carving wood type was and still is incredibly time-consuming,” Moran says. “Each piece is done by hand. Following a carved pattern, individual pieces of type [are] cut so the letter or image is in any desired size. These are then laid out and combined to create words and images in the press.”

This painstaking work goes on, but not without a little bailing. “It does make you feel you are more precarious than you thought.”

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