Still from “The Last Punchcutter” (2016) (screenshots by the author via Vimeo)

In a smoky atelier in Torino, Italy, Giuseppe Branchino works as one of the world’s last punch cutters. Cutting punches, the first step in traditional typesetting, is the meticulous craft of carving letterforms into small steel billets. Branchino was the former head of the engraving department of type foundry and printing press manufacturer Nebiolo, founded in Turin in 1852. Along with a few others scattered across the globe, he carries on a centuries-old practice that’s becoming obsolete in the age of digital type.

In the meditative short film “The Last Punchcutter,” by Giorgio Affanni and Gabriele Chiapparini, we watch Branchino create a punch. Drinking espresso and smoking a cigarette, he works silently and slowly, carving the letter “G” into a thin block of steel with awls and chisels, peering through a magnifying glass to inspect his handiwork. He spends nearly seven minutes on a single letter.

The film was created as part of “Griffo, the Great Gala of Letters,” a multidisciplinary project focusing on the life of Francesco Griffo, a 15th-century Venetian punch cutter and type designer. Born circa 1450 near Bologna, the son of the goldsmith and engraver Cesare Griffo, he went on to work for the house of Aldus Manutius of Venice, the most important publisher of the day. In 1501, for an edition of Virgil (the “Aldine Virgil”), he created what’s regarded as the first italic typeface. Though his typefaces are still widely used and inspire most contemporary type designers, details of his biography are murky and, as Joseph Blumenthal put it in The Art of the Printed Book 1455–1955, “Griffo has never received adequate recognition for his enormous contribution to type design.” Through videos, texts, and an upcoming exhibition, the “Great Gala of Letters” project aims to bring Griffo some long overdue recognition on the the 500th anniversary of his death.

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Still from “The Last Punchcutter” (2016)

Carey Dunne is a Brooklyn-based writer covering arts and culture. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, The Baffler, The Village Voice, and elsewhere.

12 replies on “The Dying Typographic Art of Cutting Letters into Steel”

  1. Technology is what it is and its advancement cannot nor should it be discouraged nor lamented.
    However, there is much to be said for the concept of craftsmanship and the presence of ‘the hand’ speaks of a direct engagement in the physical world sans the intercession and degrees of separation that technology imposes upon the act of making. Yes, technology is wonderful, but then again there is something magical about those imperfections and nuances of the handcrafted that declares the presence of the maker. In this regard each hand cut cast is indeed like a little self portrait.

  2. In the course of my various artistic endeavors I have often wondered about this. How did they get the letters so perfect and to scale? Were there any secret techniques? It is impressive, though hardly encouraging, that it was done freehand, and backwards, too. Still, for the women, I’m sure they weren’t doing it in heels.

    1. yea – way to go – bringing down a beautiful piece of film with irrellevant feminist bullsh*t. Please practice safe sex so you don’t reproduce.

        1. Not a good joke.

          Just stupid, indicating how a faux feminist thinks

          You get over thinking you have a sense of humor

          1. Not in the least. I’m really fed up with 3rd wave feminists enjoying the benefits of what my Mom did, I did, and then thinking you have the right to open your mouth on the issue,

            You are an embarrassment to actual feminists, and I bet you’ve never lifted a fingerm just flapped your gums

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