Introduction: Modifying a Letterpress Case With a Dremel Multi-max

Letterpress cases have long been used as a way to store small collectable items, especially for display. My wife, who is of partial Dutch heritage, has been one such collector since she was a child. We've got 2 full "letterbaks" of various origins, and we recently acquired a 3rd letterpress case to spread out her collection a bit.

Letterpress cases are common finds these days in vintage markets and antique shops. Once a staple of the publishing industry (where they were used to store font collections of moveable type), they are now primarily obsolete for most mainstream uses. As such, they are cheap and readily available in various conditions - from vintage complete sets (with the metal type and cabinet included), to pieced out as individual drawers - a quick search on eBay shows a lot available in the $20-$25 range.

However, we discovered an issue with the most common type of letterpress cases available in the US - they use a different layout than classical European ones we already had that makes them less useful for display of our items. So, I was tasked with making some modifications to our latest letterbak, and the Dremel Multi-max oscillating tool seemed to be perfect for the job.

Step 1: First, Some History

As part of putting this Instructable together, I found out some interesting historical information about letterpress cases (and why specifically I needed to modify our newest one). Feel free to skip to the next step if you just want to get to the main part of the article... :-)

In a nutshell, letterpress cases come in many formats, based on who, where and when they were manufactured. Various conventions were developed around different languages - for instance, German and Dutch manufacturers used different character sets and letter frequencies than English ones, and so the required space for storage of the amount of type needed for a page of text was different.

Additionally, the format and layout of letterpress cases changed over time to become more efficient for large-volume typesetting, especially for newspapers - and so a 17th century English standard case differs quite a bit from an early 19th-century Dutch case, and even more from the standard "California Job" letterpress cases that were produced widely during the Western expansion of the US in the 19th century.

Finally, a nifty piece of trivia - the origins of the notion of "uppercase" and "lowercase" stem from the fact that very early type cases were large enough to hold both sets of characters, but to make things easier for the typesetters, it became standard practice to split the cases in 2 (making them smaller and lighter) - traditionally the cases were stacked, with the "upper case" used to stored the capital letters, and the "lower case" used to store the non-caps versions. The layouts of upper and lower cases also differed, again given the variations in character frequency.

More information can be found on the background and types of cases at this older but information packed article.

Step 2: The Problem With Our Case...

Our newest letterbak appears to be a common "California Job" case. Unfortunately, this differs from our other cases, since its a bit wider in format, many of the sections have a slightly awkward aspect ratio to them if the case is displayed vertically on a wall.

Also, since it combines both upper and lower case characters, there are a much larger number of small, wide sections, limiting the utility of the case for display purposes.

Step 3: Solution - Modify the Case!

Since these cases are fairly common, we didn't feel bad about making some changes to our case to make it more useful to us. Primarily, what we wanted to do is to "merge" some of the sections, giving them more height and a better aspect ratio.

My wife flagged the sections she wanted to merge with some painters tape, and it was my job to figure out how to make the changes without damaging the overall rustic appearance of the case.

(For those of you following along with the history, she decided to merge the 5&6, 7&8, $&-, [&], D&E, N&O, Q&R, X&Y, J&U w&, and :&; cells. I'm fascinated I was able to trace this back, but thats primarily because I'm a geek).

Step 4: Tools Needed

I decided to use the Dremel Mutli-max oscillating tool - we recently had some donated to HexLab, our local makerspace, as part of an Instructables Dremel build night (thanks guys!), so I was able to access one of them for this project.

The Multi-max is great for this kind of job, since it allows you to do plunge cuts on wood with a high degree of precision. Our letterpress case had a fairly solid build, so I didn't want to try to remove the backing board for risk of damaging it. Instead, I would just plunge cut out the sections we wanted to merge.

Tools used:

  • Dremel Multi-Max Oscillating tool
  • Dremel Wood plunge cut blade
  • Painters masking tape
  • Tweezers
  • Wood glue
  • Air duster (or small vacuum cleaner)

Step 5: Test Cut

Before I committed to the entire project, I tried a sample cut on one of the most inconspicuous sections - right at the top right of the case. I applied 2 layers of painters tape on the adjacent sections of the wood from where I'd be cutting, in order to minimize any scoring or other damage that could have been caused by the blade.

After firing up the Dremel, I was surprised at how easy it was to cut out the sections I needed to modify - and the results turned out pretty well, with little to no damage of the wood patina outside of the desired cutting area.

Step 6: Mask Off the Other Sections and Cut Them Too

After the success of the test cut, I was prepared to move forward. The biggest pain was masking off the adjacent areas of the rest of the cuts - primarily because I was using the wrong size painters tape, and had decided to go with a double layer to boot. But, I figured a little extra time was justified given the results I wanted to see at the end.

Once all the areas were masked, I fired up the Dremel again and started cutting. I found that the sections had a bit of wiggle to them (in terms of how they were joined), so if I pulled them "out" a bit I could get the cut made a bit easier.

Also, its important to provide support to the section of wood being cut out - the Dremel is pretty easy to use one-handed for me, but you might want to enlist a helper for this part. The oscillating nature of the tool creates a lot of vibration, especially when doing the second plunge cut (i.e. when one side of the piece being removed is no longer supported.

Anyway, the cutting went pretty quickly and after I finished, I removed the masking tape I had applied.

Step 7: Clean Up and Affix Any Loose Wood Stubs

I noticed that the some of the sections I had cut out that were joined to the side of the case were loose, and since I didn't want to have them fall out and create gaps in the frame, the ones that came out when probed with tweezers received a dab of wood glue and were put back into place.

I then cleaned out the sawdust - I was thinking of using my shop vac, but since I was afraid I might suck out some of the side bits mentioned above, I used an air duster instead. (Note that this will be a bit messy, if you choose to do it, and also you should probably wear a dust mask). Alternately, using a chip brush or something could easily get the sawdust out of the cut areas.

Step 8: Stand Back and Admire Your Work

Once I had the letterbak cleaned, I mounted it back up on the wall, and restocked with its contents. It now looks nicer from a visual proportion perspective - the merged sections give it more variety, and now some of the cute things my wife has stored there have a bit more "room to breathe..."!