The Abbey Studio; calligraphy; blog; Lettering on door for Boston Athenaeum

By Maryanne Grebenstein –

A typical calligraphy project for me consists of using a dip pen with ink and writing on high-quality art paper or calfskin vellum. But recently a job came my way utilizing completely different materials. It was quite the challenge for a number of reasons. First, the lettering was much larger than I am accustomed to creating. Second, I was to be lettering on a painted wooden surface – no paper or ink here! And third, there was a very specific group of lettering styles I was to duplicate.

It all began with an email I received from a colleague, the skilled cabinetmaker Ellen Kaspern, a graduate of North Bennet Street School in Boston. She had been commissioned by the Boston Athenæum to create a reproduction of a 17th-century book press (book cabinet) for their current exhibition “Required Reading.” She put me in touch with John Buchtel, Ph.D., Curator of Rare Books at the Athenæum. We were off and running.

John sent me a photo of the original door on an old book press.

Original cabinet and door, on which the reproduction was based. Courtesy of Canterbury Cathedral.

This book press is known as the Bray book cupboard, created for the Parish Church of Preston in England. The book press was built in 1883 to house an even older collection of books that had served as the early 17th– century King’s Chapel (Boston) Library Collection, one of the oldest libraries for use of the religious leaders of Boston in the early days. The book press currently resides at Canterbury Cathedral in Canterbury, Kent, England.

He explained that he wanted the lettering on the reproduction to look exactly like the lettering on the original except . . . one “minor” detail . . . the text would be completely different. He wanted the text to read: Ye Boston Athenæum’s / Free Book Exchange / For the use of the / People of Boston. He forwarded a detail photo of the lettering so that I could get a better idea of what he was looking for.

Detail of the lettering on the door of the original cabinet. Courtesy of Canterbury Cathedral.

The challenge posed by the difference in words was that there would be certain letters in the new text that were not in the original text, and I would have to design the look of those letters so that they would look like they “belonged” with the style of the other letters. For example, I would have to design the look of the letters in the word “Exchange” to look similar to the style of the word “Library” on the original door; I didn’t have an example to follow so I had to create my own based on the letters provided to me.

Another challenge of this project was the size of the lettering that I would be creating. The door measured 44” in height and it was 25.5” wide. The lettering on the original had an x-height of approximately 1” although it varied somewhat, depending on the line (x-height is a measurement we use to describe the height of a typical lower-case letter “x”). An x-height of 1” is quite large compared to the small lettering I normally do, in which the average x-height is usually about 5 millimeters (sometimes smaller, sometimes larger).

I set about sketching the new text in pencil, trying to imitate the lettering styles in the original. After a few tries, I had something close. I literally cut and pasted various sketches to pull together the ones that I felt were the closest match to the original style. I took a photo of my cut-and-paste and sent it along to John and asked for feedback from him.

Cut-and-paste of the pencil draft for the lettering.
Detail of the pencil draft for the lettering.

He was pleased, phew! But it turned out, that was the easy part! Designing the lettering wasn’t nearly as challenging to me as figuring out how to work on a wooden surface that had been painted with white oil paint! My pens and inks surely had no place here! Ellen had kindly dropped off some scrap samples of painted wood so that I could experiment with various techniques for the lettering. She also advised me that acrylic paint should work on top of the oil paint.

The first few attempts at using the acrylic paint did not yield a satisfactory result. The acrylic paint was “graying out” on me, and the color wasn’t consistently opaque. I was getting nervous that I wouldn’t find a solution to this problem! However, with the aid of some Internet research, I discovered a new product – or at least it was new to me. In my work, I use gouache for the color. (I never use colored inks.) Gouache is an opaque watercolor paint. I learned there is such a thing as acrylic gouache. It was worth a shot! I ordered some and I was relieved and pleased with the results. It covered really consistently in the sample and I could erase the graphite from around the lettering without disturbing the black paint.

I inked the outline of the lettering on my draft, and worked to position the individual lines of text on the door.

Preparing to center and transfer the draft of the lettering onto the door.
Close up of centering the text and preparing to transfer the draft of the lettering onto the door.

Each line of text had to be centered, but it was a raised-panel door, and I had to allow for the metal hardware that would be installed when the cabinet was assembled. Using my favorite (but lowest-tech!) transfer procedure possible, I rubbed my pencil on the back of the draft lettering and transferred the design to the door.

Using graphite transfer, outlining the letters.

Once I had the pencil lettering on the door, the real challenge began. I worked very slowly and carefully to outline the pencil letters in black acrylic gouache. I was happily surprised that I could use one of my Copperplate Script pens nibs to do this outlining.

Outlining the letters on the door using black acrylic gouache and a Copperplate nib.

It was a strange surface on which to work. Not only was the wood much bumpier than the hot-press watercolor paper I usually use, using the pen on a surface painted with oil paint created a spongy kind of writing surface, so the inking wasn’t as precise as it would have been on paper. The outlining would need some touch-up before I was through.

I allowed the outlining to dry overnight, and I was then able to erase the pencil from the transferred artwork. I then spent about two days painting-in the body of the letters. In the end, minimal touch-up was needed because I used a very small brush and was able to re-edge the pen-work with the brush.

The finished door.
Close up photo of the finished door.

Voila! The finished cabinet at the Boston Athenæum. (The following photos are by Lance Patterson; courtesy of Lance Patterson and Ellen Kaspern.)

Detail of the finished door on the finished cabinet. Photo by Lance Patterson. Courtesy of Lance Patterson and Ellen Kaspern.
The finished door on the finished cabinet. Photo by Lance Patterson. Courtesy Lance Patterson and Ellen Kaspern.
The finished cabinet (inside). Photo by Lance Patterson. Courtesy of Lance Patterson and Ellen Kaspern.

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