Between Writing & Type: the Stencil Letter

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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.

  • STencil set for Duflo, pharmacist, France, 19the century
Stencil set for Duflo, pharmacist, France, 19th century

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. 

  • liturgical book, prayer book
Left: Page from stencilled liturgical book, ‘Graduale et antiphonale ad usum S. Ludovici domus regiæ Invalidorum’, parchment, 1682, Paris, 800 x 570 mm | Right: Page from prayer book, ‘Preces Latinæ’, cut paper back by green silk, made by Diego de Barreda, c. 1600, Spain, 100 x 70 mm

Stencil letter timeline

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.

  • Sample stencil, christiaan Huygens, 1669
Sample stencil, etched copper, made by Christiaan Huygens to demonstrate stencil duplicating, Paris, 1669

Curators exhibition: Eric Kindel & Fred Smeijers
Exhibition management: Catapult & OurType
Type direction: Fred Smeijers
Text: Eric Kindel
Publication design: Catapult
Typeface (Publication): Ludwig by Fred Smeijers, OurType
Print: Drukkerij De Bie
Number: 1000
ISBN: 9789491054013

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