the last punch cutter at work

The Dying Art of Punches

In the small town of Torino, Italy, there is an aged man by the name of Giuseppe Branchino. In many ways, he represents the Old World aesthetic: smoking a cigarette and drinking hand-crafted espresso, he goes about his profession: letter punching. The art, a dying breed, is as old as the printing press, but as the world moves from the printed page to the computer screen, people like Mr. Branchino are finding their work automated and digitized.

Mr. Branchino, you see, is one of the world’s last punch cutters, the very old art of carving letterforms into small steel billets for use in printing presses. He is the man that makes fonts a physical reality, meticulously carving tiny letters into steel bases to be used in printing presses. The work itself is gruelling and requires the patience of all the saints in the Vatican. Essentially, it involves making tiny, miniscule letters in steel billets. Each letter only takes a few minutes, if done correctly and without any problems, but the pages have to be then set for the printing presses.

Once the head of the prestigious engraving department at type foundry and printing press manufacturer Nebiolo, Mr. Branchino continues his work in his own workshop. He is one of a dwindling few around the world who still carve the tiny letters for printing presses, and his craft will likely be a fun hobby for even fewer within a decade. Nevertheless, he continues his work and creates small, unappreciated beauty with the written word.

While Mr. Branchino’s profession may be going the way of the dodo, his actual work has been documented in a new film directed by Giorgio Affanni and Gabriele Chiappari called “The Last Punchcutter.” The film, which talks to Mr. Branchino about his work, the craft, and the history of letter punching and typesetting, is part of a larger project called “Griffo, the Great Gala of Letters.” The multidisciplinary project is about Francesco Griffo, a 15th-century Venetian punch cutter and type designer who is perhaps most famous for creating the world’s first italics type. Griffo, having lived over 500 years ago, is still an influential figure in modern font creation and typesetting, but his biography remains muddled and inconclusive. But by looking at the history of letter punching, the Griffo project helps to make many of the details more concrete.

Meanwhile, Giuseppe Branchino continues to soldier on, creating the tiny letters that form the basis of our written communication. And while his job is becoming less necessary in the modern age of computer screens, his work is still extremely important. For without the letter punchers, our world would not have the widespread information it has, nor the history that those letters help create through our many written languages.