009…How Did Gutenberg Print His Bible?

This paper suggests that Gutenberg did indeed use moveable type to print his Bible and but that each letter was individually crafted, not cast from a mould as is popularly believed. I suggest we can attribute individual letters to specific craftsmen. My experimentation was inspired by the Television Programme:

“BBC Renaissance Secrets 2 What Did Gutenberg Invent?”

This programme detailed the investigations by Blaise Aguera y Arcas and Paul Needham and concluded that Gutenberg did invent movable type, but his method of creating or casting each letter was different to the way we’ve always thought.

They conclude that every letter is different and that no letter appears twice on the same page. They discuss in depth a “three dimensional structure” seen in the printed letters. They postulate the one possible method was to use individual pieces to create the mould from which letters were cast.My Experiment

So why was every letter different if it was cast?

Here is an example of the letter ‘a’ taken from the first 11 lines of the Bible published by Octavo on the Internet. I am grateful for their permission to publishe these images.

I was struck by the apparent similarities between letters even though the programme was definite that each letter on the same page was unique. I concentrated on three letters. I grouped these by similarities and I suggest that because of the repeatability of the similarities, they are the result of the scribing methods used by the craftsmen, rather than the removal of the metal or variations in the print process.

Group 1 – Thin horizontal rail and curve joins at rear of front upright


Group 2 – Very thin or missing horizontal rail

group1_a (2)

Group 3 – More rounded diamonds at the bottom of the front leg


Thoughts on Gutenberg’s Method.

He hadn’t the technology to use the system of matrices and punches proposed, nor did he cast his letters, possibly not having a suitable casting alloy available at that time. Therefore his craftsmen made individual letters, this explains why no letter is repeated on the same page but appears on other pages. How did they make the letters? Perhaps by scribing the outline of the letters onto a large metal block as shown.


Then scribe the diamonds for the top and bottom of the lettersmethod3

Add the uprights


Each scribed letter would then be sawn from the block and given to individual craftsmen to remove the unwanted metal. This would ensure constant dimensions from the base to the ink surface of each letter.

Some of these scribing marks would remain on the letters after cutting, and these markings [due to a greater concentration of ink in the grooves] give rise to the apparent “three dimensional feature” seen on the programme. It is not the product of some height difference in the type as suggeted in the programme, it is just an optical illusion.

Why are the diamonds often seen as the “three dimensional feature”? To get repeatability, especially in the height and vertical position of each letter, it would be best to first scribe the tops and bottoms of the letters using some aids to define the exact positions on the block. In the Gutenberg font, diamonds are used at the top and bottom of many letters. It would thus be logical to scribe these first and then fill in the vertical features and the scribing marks that are left cause the “three dimensional feature”

I would expect variations in the scribing methods, depending on the abilities and styles of the individual craftsmen. There would of course also be variations in letters caused by the inking and printing process.

If different craftsmen scribed the same letters then some may show the “three dimensional feature” and others may not, it would depend on their individual styles.

The fact that each letter was hand scribed and not cast would explain why the production of the bible took so long and why it was very expensive. It also explains why the quality of the later pages is poor. As the type was wearing it was not possible just to renew the letters by just casting another letter from the same mould, it would have been necessary to scribe and make more letters. This would have expensive and Gutenberg was already under heavy financial pressures. Also by this time he may have started to use cast type and therefore knew that he needed to continue with the existing set of type as his next book would use a very different production method.

Examples Of Styles of Letter.

If we look at one page of the bible, within just a few lines we apparently see what appears to be separate and distinct styles for some of the letters. These classifications are my own and purely subjective. [ It would be useful to subject all the letters on a single page to classification of styles using a neural network computer, which could possibly sort types with more accuracy than the human eye.] These distinctive styles suggests that these letters were scribed by different craftsmen. I noticed some variations in size which may be due to the copying process however these groupings concentrate on style not dimensions.

Sample images taken from the first 11 lines, both columns of Octavo pages on the web Folio 4: 1v /2r.

Letter ‘a’


Letter ‘e’groupe-10

What is interesting is that the first letter in each group above show a distinctive placing of the lower diamond shape, its leading edge blends into the upright left limb of the letter. The other letters show a better delineation of the lower diamond[s] and different placing. This characteristic is perhaps a ‘signature’ of the craftsman that worked on the letters, and therefore suggests that the leading a, r and e, of the above groups were crafted by the same person. More rigorous analysis of number of pages of the bible might allow and estimation of the number of different craftsmen that worked on producing the text.

The letter ‘a’. Surely these are not just the results of poor printing from the same type block ?

letteraThe curve meets the lh limb towards the front of the limb and the top left hand corner of the lh limb is rounded to meet the curve. The placing of the left diamond is to the right so the left edge merges into the lh limb, and the leading edge is rounded. The cross is well defined and horizontal.



The curve is finely tapered where it meets the lh limb towards the rear of the limb, The top of the lh limb is slghtly concave. The cross is weak. The left diamond is more centrally placed on the left limb compared with Style1 and the edge is straight. The two diamonds are separated.




The curve is well defined and meets the lh limb towards its back edge. The top of the lh limb is straight and protrudes to the left. The cross is horizontal and sometimes weak at its centre. The left diamond protrudes to the left and the two diamonds meet.




The curve is more of more consistent width over its length, the two diamonds are well defined and just touch. The cross slopes, it is not horizontal