Between Writing & Type: the Stencil Letter

Practical information
Friday 20 April – Friday 29 June 2012
Catapult, project space ‘Kades-Kaden’

Rubenslei 10, 2018 Antwerp, Belgium
T +32 3 239 10 10
Opening hours
Working days from 9 a.m. to 5.30 p.m.
Closed on holidays
Entrance Fee
Exhibition management
Catapult & OurType
Type direction
Publication design


Letters used for stencilling have been around more than five centuries, and perhaps far longer. While stencilling letters is self-evidently neither writing nor typography, the work often reaches in these directions. A spectrum described by writing at one end and typography at the other provides the title for this exhibition. Across this spectrum the exhibition samples a rich variety of stencil letters that may tend towards writing or typography, but may as often be located anywhere in between.

The earliest programmatic use of stencil letters apparently arose in the sphere of the manuscript. From roughly the middle of the seventeenth century, probably first in France, stencils were adopted for composing chant texts in big liturgical books. The roman letters of these texts had previously been handwritten or carefully drawn. When stencil composition was adopted, the potential loss of dynamic variability —of letter shaping and spacing— must have been immediately apparent to the would-be stencil maker and stenciller. To make good the loss, stencil plates were technically enhanced to allow the stenciller to at least control letter spacing and the alignment of letters along a baseline. These features brought a degree of measured, semi-mechanical organization to the stencilled text —that is to say, they echoed type and typography.

Wherever they have been located between writing and type, stencil letters have commonly helped with tasks requiring nothing more than conventional letters. But stencilling cannot usually be done unless ‘breaks’ are imposed on the letters in anticipation of the ‘bridges’ needed for the stencil plates. These breaks give the letters their characteristic, unconventional appearance. The graphic effect, striking to some, has been to others merely a technical residue without value, and as convention compels, it has been disguised. This was typically done simply by filling in the breaks with ink using a pen or brush. The breaks ‘problem’ was also solved by splitting letters into parts that when stencilled consecutively formed a composite letter without breaks. But sometimes breaks were incorporated so naturally into a stencil letter design that the breaks effectively became invisible.

When one looks closely at stencil letters it is usually possible to identify what tools and methods were used to make them. Stencils of paper, card, celluloid or metal (brass, copper, zinc or nickel silver) have generally been made in one of three ways: by cutting with scissors, knives or chisels; by scribing a letter in an etch ground, then etching it with acid (metal stencils only); or by punching or die-stamping. These tools and methods lend themselves to certain characteristic letter shapes, or tend towards them. Scribing and etching, for example, are best for fine, delicate or highly elaborate letters. Cutting and punching are good for sturdy, simple ones. Letters made with punches are usually no larger than about 25 mm, and while they may also be smaller than 3 mm, at that size they are radically simplified. Etching can generate letters even smaller and with more detailing. Cutting with chisels or knives is especially efficient for large letters. Chisels frequently produce segmented lines and curves. And so on. Sometimes quite unconventional methods of making can be observed, but occasionally it is difficult to determine exactly how a stencil letter was made.

Stencil letters are found intermittently before the mid seventeenth century. Since then their use has been more or less continuous, apparently spreading outward from present day northern and eastern France, southern Belgium, and western and southern Germany. They have experienced notable periods of popularity. In the eighteenth century, for example, stencil letters and ornaments embodied a tendency in decoration toward open frames and borders built from separate but fluidly integrated parts, botanical motifs, and a wide variety of unit-based elements. In the latter half of the nineteenth century, especially in North America, stencil plates carried all manner of plain talking texts whose ‘message’ was one of industrious self-sufficiency. And in the early twentieth century, stencil and stencil-like letters were adopted by artists, architects and designers as expressions of engineering and construction, as mechanically determined form, or as forms offering a principle of construction to be folded into broader visual strategies.

During the period covered by this exhibition, many lettering tasks have been helped and improved by stencilling. The stencil plate itself has encoded expert form, enabled good composition, and made these qualities available especially to those unskilled in lettering. While the results have often been simple and work-a-day, they have been useful too. And beyond their utilitarian applications, stencil letters and the work done with them have also been inventive and even inspired.


15th century – early 17th century. Intermittent stencil letter survivals: ecclesiastical frieze (Urschalling am Chiemsee, Bavaria, 15th century); alphabet of large capitals (Nuremburg, Johann Neudörffer d. Ä., c. 1550), cut-work prayer books (Spain and France,
Late 16th century – early 17th century). Stencils made from paper or card, and probably or certainly cut with a knife.
Mid 17th century onwards.
Stencilled liturgical books; stencilled elements include chant texts and notation, titles, initials and (later) decoration. This practice was frequently pursued in monastic settings, probably first in France then eventually around Catholic western and southern Europe. It continued in places until the latter decades of the 19th century and possibly later, with varying but generally declining levels of accomplishment. Stencils letters were also used for inscriptions set out on interior walls, and for some devotional books. Stencils made from brass or copper and cut with scissors, knives or chisels, or by etching.
1669. In Paris, stencil duplicating described and tested by the Dutch mathematician, physicist and astronomer Christiaan Huygens.
Late 1690s – 1701 In Paris, Gilles Filleau des Billettes describes a method of text stencilling with specialised equipment illustrated by 
Louis Simonneau.
18th century onwards. Stencils and stencil letters used for secular applications, including for decorating books, ledgers and writing paper, for making marks of ownership in books, and for producing billheads, cartes de visite, and labels for pharmaceutical products and other packaged goods.
Mid 18th century onwards. Stencil makers in East Anglia and elsewhere in Britain supply finely engraved (etched) armorial stencils for bookplates and marks of ownership.
December 1781. In Paris, Benjamin Franklin purchases a set of more than 400 brass stencils made by the stencil maker Jean Gabriel Bery.
First half of the 19th century onwards. In Britain, stencils adopted by architects, engineers and surveyors for marking out letters and other graphic matter in technical drawings.
1840s onwards. In the United States, stencil related devices invented for commercial and personal purposes, including letter punches (Fulham patent, 1860), the lettering disk (Tarbox patent, 1868), settable unit stencils (culminating in the Adjustable Stencil, Reese patent, 1874), the stencil machine (Bradley patents, 1890s) and many others.
c. 1860 onwards. Stencil punch sets manufactured in the United States by A. J. Fulham and S. M. Spencer for sale to itinerant stencil makers canvassing the country to supply stencil names plates to the public. The plates were used for marking clothes, books, and other objects and possessions.
1869. Mark Twain makes reference to stencil name plates and advertising in The innocents abroad (1869), The Galaxy magazine (1870) and 
A Connecticut Yankee in King Authur’s Court (1889).
c. 1880. ‘Stencil Gothic’, the first stencil typeface, is issued by MacKellar, Smiths & Jordan, Philadelphia.
1911/12. Georges Braque first employs typical French stencil letters for word fragments in the Cubist painting Le Portugais. Other painters follow including Picasso, Carlo Carrà and Amadeo de Souza Cardoso.
c. 1923. Le Corbusier adopts stencils for titling and labeling architectural drawings.
c. 1928/29. Futura Black issued by the Bauer’sche Giesserei, Frankfurt a. M., credited to Paul Renner. Similar typefaces designed around the same time include Europa (Walter Cyliax), Transito (Jan Tschichold) and Braggadocio (W. A. Woolley).
c. 1920s onwards. W. A. Dwiggins designs and cuts celluloid stencils for lettering, decorating and illustrating.
1937. ‘Stencil’, two different typefaces issued under this name by 
American Type Founders (Gerry Powell) and Ludlow Typograph (R. H. Middleton), based on typical North American stencil letters.
1950s & 60s. Typical North American stencil letters employed in paintings by Jasper Johns, Robert Indiana and others.
1980s. Stencilled graffiti in Paris; in the late 1990s its popularity spreads to Britain, then worldwide.
c. 2000s, onwards. Renewed interest in stencil typefaces among 
type designers.

Some date ranges remain provisional as new artefacts are discovered.


The influences that shape stencil letters and stencils can often be detected through close study. These influences are many and inter-related. They mostly emerge from conventions governing different spheres of letter production (writing, drawing, engraving, type-making, signwriting) and from the tools used to make stencil letters (scissors, knives, chisels, scribing points, acid, punches, dies). The following notes provisionally identify and group these influences. The groupings are offered as aids to discussion and should not be understood as comprehensive or mutually exclusive.

To accompany the exhibition ‘Between Writing & Type: the Stencil Letter’, OurType will release a series of new stencil fonts. The series will include seven different designs inspired by or echoing the influences that have shaped stencil letters over the centuries. Individual fonts will be released between April and the end of 2012, and will be available from OurType ( As a collection they will provide a unique demonstration of stencil letter design in the typographic domain.

Writing, drawing, engraving & type
Stencil letters of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries are associated with letters that were written, drawn, painted and sometimes illuminated. Letters made in these ways were displaced when stencils were adopted for setting out texts, titles and initials in liturgical books. 

The most common style of early stencil letter was the roman, in many variations. One can detect in them the dynamic interplay of writing, engraving and type-making characteristic of roman letter design at this time, especially in France. Engraving was particularly influential since stencils were often made this way. The work involved scribing the outline of a letter into an etch ground laid on a metal plate, then etching through the outline to create the stencil. But overall, early roman stencil letters are a synthesis of influences that give them a flavour of their own.

Other stencil letter styles found in the eighteenth century are suggestive of writing and engraving. They include flourished scripts, italics and rondes. Broken scripts (textura, rotunda), while not unknown in the eighteenth century, were not common and only became so in the nineteenth century and then mostly in Britain. Their underlying construction, derived from separate pen strokes and lifts, made them naturally adaptable to stencilling.

Bery roman & Bery script (Fred SMEIJERS)
Bery roman and Bery script derive from the work of the Paris stencil maker Jean Gabriel Bery. Bery’s work provides an excellent illustration of stencil letter design in France around 1780. Bery’s confident sense of design and the superb quality of his stencils rank him among the best stencil makers of any period. His work is mainly known from the stencil set he made and supplied to Benjamin Franklin in 1781, now at the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia.

Chisels & knives
Early paper and card stencils were usually cut with a knife, though sometimes with punch-like tools as well. The stencils were typically used for colouring prints and playing cards, and for decorating walls and furniture. In some instances letters and texts were also cut from paper or card to create stencils.

Chisels were possibly employed for cutting stencil letters in metal in the seventeenth century. But clear evidence of such chisel work is not found until the nineteenth century, in North America, where stencils were widely used in trade, manufacturing and transport. Chisels were handy for cutting large stencils used to mark boxes, crates and barrels, particularly when decorative or otherwise unusually shaped letters were required.

Among skilled stencil cutters chisel work was relatively quick. 
Chisels with straight and curved profiles of differing lengths enabled the stencil cutter to produce almost any letter shape required. (A surviving set contains 21 straight and 19 curved chisels with cutting edges ranging in length from 2 to 38 mm.) Chisels also produced characteristic faults. These include misaligned straight sections, segmented curves, and kinked curve —straight transitions.

Stencil letters cut from metal with a knife appear to be rare. 
When knives are used on metal, the knife generally performs best when making a series of short downward cuts similar to opening a can.

Couteau (Pierre PANÉ-FARRÉ)
Greco stencil (Fred SMEIJERS & Pierre PANÉ-FARRÉ)
Brisk shapes, sharp corners, and abrupt angles and curves are common among letters cut with chisels and knives. In skilful hands these tools 
generate letter shapes that are dynamic, spirited and direct in their making. Berthold Wolpe’s Albertus typeface is the exemplar of letter-shaping in this way, with its origins in chisel-cut bronze. Couteau demonstrates how similar shapes can occur in stencil letters when cut with a knife. 
The letters of Greco stencil, by contrast, are nearly generic —straight edges even replace the curves. However the design’s diagonal breaks give it an eyecatching dynamism. Sanserif typefaces of this kind were easy to make and use for general purpose lettering.

Ornament & decoration
Decorated stencil letters emerge in the first half of the eighteenth century. They were apparently adapted from drawn, painted and illuminated initials found in liturgical books and other manuscripts. Many such initials were built up from floral, acanthus and other botanical motifs. In creating stencil letters based on them, these features were simplified into separate but related elements that often resolved into rounded, bifurcated tendrils. The construction of the letters thus merged seamlessly into the stencil idiom. Producing such complex design in metal was really only possible with etching.

In addition to decorated letters, makers supplied other kinds of decorative stencils. In France these were principally in the form of vignettes, stencils carrying head- and tail-pieces, borders or complete frames, sometimes combined with words and texts. The decorations were again adapted from botanical motifs, or from unit-based designs probably sourced from engravings or the inventories of typefounders.

In the nineteenth century, decorated stencil letters became popular in Britain where architects, engineers and surveyors adopted them for technical drawings. In North America, stencils for marking barrels of flour, whiskey and other consumables also incorporated highly elaborate letters as part of decorative ‘brands’. Notably the large size of these stencils allowed them to be cut with chisels.

Bery tuscan (Fred SMEIJERS, assisted by Pierre PANÉ-FARRÉ)
Standing type (Maurice GÖLDNER)
Bery tuscan is derived from the work of the Paris stencil maker Jean Gabriel Bery. The design, one of two tuscans purchased by Benjamin Franklin, illustrates Bery’s inventiveness in adapting this style of letter to stencils. Standing type is based on the strokes and lifts of humanist minuscules written with a broad-edged pen. The lifts provide a pattern of near-breaks that bring them close to the stencil idiom and give them a modest decorative effect. Typefaces such as Allegro (Hans Bohn, 1936) also exploit this strategy.

Punches & dies
Punches have been made and used for cutting stencil letters since at least 1860. Stencil punches were available in a limited range of sizes: 
the smallest, 3/32 inch (capital height; about 2.5 mm); the largest: 
2 1/2 inches (about 64 mm). Common letter styles included roman and 
slab serif (upright, ‘forwardslant’ and ‘backslant’), gothic (sanserif) and ionic. Small size punches were flat-faced and manufactured with files 
and grinding wheels, giving the letters a distinctly mechanical quality. Their small size also necessitated extreme shape simplifications. 
The ionic letters, available only in larger sizes, were not subject to such adaptations and were therefore more conventional in form. They were manufactured with a raised cutting edge. When cutting a stencil, punches were struck into the plate as it rested on a plank of dense wood (lignumvitae, or ‘ironwood’).

Die stamping was used for the mass production of stencils in the 1870s, but was possibly introduced earlier.

Puncho (Fred SMEIJERS)
Orly stencil ( Pierre PANÉ-FARRÉ)
Punching letters from metal plates to create stencils is forceful work for which simple sturdy letter shapes are best. Puncho is based on stencil letter punches made by S. M. Spencer of Boston. The capital height of Spencer’s original letter was 1/8 inch (3 mm). Design limitations at this small size, together with the mechanical methods used to manufacture such punches, are the source of Puncho’s unusual shapes. Orly stencil is a contemporary rendering of simple stencil letters whose design produces word shapes that are full of interest.

Type & typography
Stencil letters and plates tend towards movable type when their irregular features become more measured and regular. Stencils are intrinsically typographic if they are regarded as templates able to generate the same letterforms repeatedly. These letterforms, together with methods for gauging spaces between them and for aligning their baselines, bring regularity and evenness to stencil letter composition.

Over the centuries stencillers and stencil makers have developed several methods for combining letters evenly. The most common and possibly the earliest was the inter-character spacing dot, a small hole cut through the stencil plate to the right of a letter. When stencilled, the resulting dot indicated the position of the next letter to be stencilled. 
A variation was a pair of spacing lines cut through a stencil plate above or below its letter that, again, when stencilled, would align with similarly positioned lines on other stencils. A further method, and one that left no stencilled trace, involved cutting a window in the plate to the left of the letter. The window then served as an aid for gauging that letter’s distance from a previously stencilled one.

In the 1870s, in the United States, one invention beautifully resolved the problem of stencil letter spacing and alignment. This was the Adjustable Stencil whose plates were simply slid together at their left and right edges, thus insuring the even lateral spacing of letters and the alignment of their baselines. The Adjustable Stencil’s near-perfect letter composition, on the analogy of movable type, was equaled only by the ‘stencil machine’ (1890s), which enabled its operator to mechanically compose and cut stencils letters with great precision.

‘Fit to be seen: stencils for architects, engineers and surveyors’, AA Files, no. 61, 2010, pp. 100–9
‘Delight of men and gods: Christiaan Huygens’s new method of printing’, Journal of the Printing Historical Society, new series, no. 14, Autumn 2009, pp. 5–40 (PDF available on-line)
‘The “Plaque Découpée Universelle”: 
a geometric sanserif in 1870s Paris’, 
Typography papers, 7, pp. 71–80, 
 London: Hyphen Press, 2007
‘Patents progress: the Adjustable Stencil’, Journal of the Printing Historical Society, new series, no. 9, Spring 2006, pp. 65–92 (PDF available on-line)
‘Recollecting stencil letters’, Typography papers, 5, pp. 65–101, Reading: Department of Typography & Graphic Communication, University of Reading
‘Stencil work in America, 1850–1900’, Baseline 38, Summer 2002, pp. 5–12
‘Marked by time’, Eye, vol. 10, no. 40, 
Summer 2001, pp. 48–51

‘Fred Smeijers’, in Tino Graß, Schriftgestalten: über schrift und gestaltung, Sulgen and Zürich: 
Niggli, 2008, pp. 60–81

See also
Claude-Laurent François, ‘Les écritures réalisées au pochoir’, in Yves Perrousseaux, Histoire de l’écriture typographique: le XVIIIe siècle, 
vol. 1 of 2, Yves Perrousseaux éditeur, 2010, pp. 48–77
James Mosley, 'Lettres à jour: public stencil lettering in France', Typefoundry: documents for the history of type and letterforms, 23 March 2010
Slanted magazine, ‘Stencil. Type.’, themed issue, no. 9, Winter, 2009/10

Text © Eric KINDEL