John Mawby is a lettercutter; that is both his craft – and compulsion. His passion for type cut the traditional way defines not only his practice but also his identity.
I first discovered his work via instagram and was instantly enamoured.
As contemporary design practitioners we spend so much time in digital environments... So it is no wonder the allure of analogue the crafts becomes more and more seductive! My enthusiasm for his work grew when I received a rubbing of this glorious Q John cut last year.
While I have huge respect for people that master the pen - calligraphy is a much more forgiving medium than stone (or wood!)! This further elevates my admiration of the Johns precision as each movement of his tool is indelible and irreversible in the medium it touches.
John's outcomes are an authentic representation - each letterform he cuts is a permanent recording of the skill and precision he uses to create them.
After a number of conversations via social media and email I was absolutely delighted when John agreed to an interview so I could feature his masterful work!
In your biography, you credit a lecture delivered by Lida Kindersley as being instrumental in your pursuit of letter cutting. Can you share a little about the allure and what got you so inspired? Both in cutting but also typography in general...
It absolutely was. Up until that point, I knew I loved letters and I knew I loved doing things with my hands, but I was yet to be introduced to something that involved both aspects so directly. Letterpress printing came close, and I had great facilities available at university, but I wanted to be more involved with the creation of the letterforms.
It’s funny I actually missed the lecture you’re referring to, luckily a friend recorded the audio on her iPhone so I heard it that way, with no visuals – I was still completely captivated. I wouldn’t say that it was the stone or even the aesthetic of lettering incised in stone that got me, after all I only had the audio to entice me. For me it was the opportunity of being so in control of every last tap of each individual letter. You and the final letterform are so immediately, directly and inextricably bound up, what could be more rewarding – using one's hands to materialise one's thoughts. Once I realised all of this there was no hesitation in seeking an apprenticeship at the Cardozo Kindersley Workshop.
I am fascinated with cutting letterforms as a process because so much of our typographic vernacular is derived from the chisel! Does your lettering always start with pencil construction on paper?
I would say almost all of the time yes, if it were something very simple I may touch pencil to stone and skip the paper, but I would certainly never skip the pencil. Each stage is a process of refinement.
When drawing the forms in pencil do you already have the carving/cutting tool in mind? I am curious if the size of serifs and the stroke contrast come first and you choose a tool appropriate to cut them or if you have a tool in mind which informs the shape grammar of the letter when you draw/design with the pencil.
No, I wouldn’t say so, not tool anyway, I will often have a material in mind. Depending on if it is stone and then whether it is a slate, limestone, sandstone, etc. or perhaps a wood of some kind. The qualities of the material can impact the letterform and design quite considerably.
Slate holds detail very well and weathers incredibly well so you can do almost what you like, whereas a sandstone is the complete opposite so you have to approach it with a strong design, with bold low-contrast lettering. Alternatively, I may have a design aesthetic in mind and choose the material accordingly. In terms of tools, for stone it is very simple, you use one chisel (straight, double bevelled) for each weight of letter, the chisel size is determined by the weight at its thickest point within the chosen letterform, usually a bowl. This means if the whole piece is all one weight you would only use one chisel for everything, thicks, thins and rounds, rarely do I use more than a couple of chisels for a stone inscription.
Wood is more complicated, because of the grain you will need a whole plethora of chisels of different shapes and sizes – straight, skewed, gouged, etc. Another consideration that may inform the shape grammar of a letter would be the function or positioning of the final piece, whether it is to be handheld and seen up close or high on a building and to be seen from afar, even viewed flat on the floor or from an unusual perspective; all of this should be considered to achieve its desired effect and to aid legibility and readability.
In addition, things like whether the lettering will be painted, gilded or neither can have an impact – there are lots of small considerations to bare in mind whilst developing a project, but they don’t all need to be decided on first instance.
So Stone v wood v Paper do you have a favourite medium?
Oh my, I think my short answer is stone.
My favourite stone to cut being Welsh slate as it’s so even, smooth and consistent, you can cut almost anything you want, but there are some horrible stones out there and then I’d much rather be cutting a lovely piece of wood. It’s a messy hierarchy!
How has cutting letters deepened your understanding for typography? What - if anything - have you learnt abut type from the chisel?
Attuning lettering to work as an inscribed form has taught me to be aware of very small but necessary details, for it to work. This has heightened my awareness of typographic detail, specific to whether a typeface has been designed for print, screen, body, display etc.
I think because type designers are often so precise and pernickety, working at extremely small dimensions, it’s well worth being aware of the methods and theory they use to achieve these things.
As you say, typographers have learned a lot from the chisels past I actually think it’s time to turn the tables. A timeless craft like lettercutting – inscribing language into a natural material – seems to lack the opportunity of challenges presented by modern developments such as the digital screen for example (for obvious reasons), which in turn sparks ingenuity and innovation. Typography is constantly adapting and I see no reason lettercutting can’t utilise and translate this knowledge.
One of the things I really enjoy about your instagram account (and website) is you celebrate the process and craft of your work. we see your sketch and chalk outlines, often the cut in progress as well as the final piece. Can you share with us the steps (or major methodology milestones) in taking a letter from paper to stone?
It starts with an idea, sometimes my own, sometimes a clients. I think the hardest thing about lettering is knowing what to say, and you can hardly avoid it, letters more often than not spell words and words have meanings!
Once I’ve latched on to an idea I’m excited about I usually spend a good while thinking about it – thinking is definitely working – when it gets to the point I’m worried I’ll start forgetting things that’s usually when I rush for my sketchbook. Sometimes if I have a few solutions I’ll do quick thumbnails until I’m ready to develop a couple, if this is the case the development is pretty quick and scrappy. If I’m very excited or have a clear idea in mind I try to do it justice pretty early on and hope not to disappoint myself.
I usually work in my sketchbook until I’ve decided on the size and proportion of the material and also the overall size, layout and styles of lettering I intend to use. When I know these things I’ll draw a more precise scale drawing that I can use when it comes to drawing the design out full scale on the material. I very rarely do a full scale paper design, the first time I’ll see the design full scale is when it’s drawn on the material being used. The lettering is never enlarged or transferred, it is drawn from scratch at every stage. The reason for this is that the act of drawing encourages decision making, if you simply transfer a fixed design you’re not thinking about further possibilities or assessing whether the design is still working. It remains fluid, providing the opportunity for the design to evolve, you shouldn’t ever be so attached or thoughtless that you’re unable to consider change.
The design will often be drawn out many times before it’s ready to be cut, it may be minute differences but each time closer to the point where we are ready to cut. Spellchecking is a pretty important step in this craft, it’s very thorough and very necessary. Now we can cut! Like drawing, cutting is also about decision making, except these are decisions at more refined level of spacing, depth, stroke contrast, and the moment you decide upon each letters final shape – this is the time for conviction. Once the entire inscription is cut a wax rubbing is made to keep an accurate one-one record. The dust is then washed out, this dust is always light and provides a natural contrast with the stone and thus legibility, typically we replicate the colour/tone of the given dust and paint it back in creating the appearance of freshly cut letters. Wood is often left natural and simply treated. Other colours may be used or gilding may take place, this is the time for finishing touches.
Your piece welcome - exhibited (on behalf of the Cardozo Kindersley Workshop) in both The Hidden Face of Lettering and In the Beginning was the Word events is a great illustration of you honouring old world craftsmanship and process in a contemporary way with all its beautiful swash details. Do you have a particular genre or style of type you prefer to cut/explore?
I think you’ve just said it. I love the idea of utilising this traditional craft, everything it has to offer and showing it to the world in a more familiar way and I think a contemporary approach is what’s needed to do that.
I like to think you can see my typographical background in my work, perhaps most in my recent Beatrice Warde piece, using a left-alignment and balancing the ragged edge, especially with the use of a hyphen, it feels very editorial. Earlier I suggested that this craft could utilise modern developments in typography, that’s what excites me most and I hope exploring this will realise a style. I want to produce work for people like myself, people that love letters.
I was lucky enough to receive a wax rubbing of your beautiful Q. Do you take rubbings of all the work you cut? And is this something you do afterwards to record the work - or is the rubbing process part of the design methodology?
I do take rubbings of all the work I cut, and you’re absolutely right, it’s simply to make a record of the work. It’s the best way to record inscriptions as it’s a direct one-one transfer from inscription to paper, it shows exactly what was cut. I have a soft spot for these, think they lovely things in there own right.
A hallmark of your typographic work is elegant proportion - Do you have any tips or for the construction of elegant letters you can share?
Thank you. Hmmm… I don’t think so, not explicitly, without trying to evade the question this is tacit knowledge picked up through immersion.
I read a lot, and look a lot. It’s important to have a good background knowledge in order to make a your own informed decision. I believe my work is simply a subconscious reflection of what I have retained and what I think looks good. For me it’s about knowledge, knowing when to apply it and not forgetting to immerse yourself in inspiration. If you feed your thoughts with richness and beauty that will become a reality.
All of your inscriptional type is cut by hand - can you tell us a little about the tools you use (and/or space you work)?
For the most part lettercutters use very few tools, you can do an incredible amount with a pencil, a few chisels, and a dummy (a round-faced mallet). I’ve briefly mentioned above, the differences between wood and stone lettering chisels, I think it’s most beneficial to see these differences visually. In addition, like most crafts you accumulate, we all need various marking implements, rulers, and miscellaneous preparation, finishing or odd job tools. Whilst we’re talking tools, you might find it interesting that we actually hold the dummy/mallet in the dominant hand and the chisel in the other, so for a right handed person like myself all of the chisel control is in my left hand – it sounds crazy, but it works!
My workspace is pending, as I’m still working at the Kindersley workshop until later this year. This means my current workspace varies from the dinning room, the garden, and for larger pieces a fellow lettercutter James Ryder’s workshop. The great thing about lettercutting is that unless you’re cutting huge letters it is relatively quiet and dust free, meaning you can work most places. I built a small easel, so I can work on a table/bench top; the reason being that it offers the ability to work upright. Working upright means the dust and stone falls to the ground, you can view the lettering directly before your eyes with no skew or distortion and your back will thank you in years to come! Some prefer to work flat as it offers greater accessibility to difficult strokes, I personally don’t find this an issue with stone, however because of grain direction, wood requires much more flexibility and consequently where possible I do work flat with wood.
Thank you so much John for sharing your time, knowledge and passion with us! My admiration for you and your work continues to escalate!