While stencils themselves were originally used in Prehistoric times, the common use of stencil fonts only dates to the 20th century. Workers developed templates to edit texts in printed books, but before the landmark Stencil font arrived there were only a few intentionally designed stencil typefaces. While many associate this font with utilitarian purposes such as marking crates or industrial buildings, stencil typefaces are widely varied and are not just for business use.
Basic stencils date back to Asia and Europe, over 35,000 years ago. Artists placed their hand against a wall and blew paint over it, creating an image with the negative space. Throughout history, stencils were mostly used for enhancing art, such as adding color to printed fabric or a woodcut. Over time, businesses and industries began using letter stencils for quick and efficient sign making. For many people they evoke utilitarian concepts, like the text on army supply boxes.
Compared to stencils themselves, stencil inspired fonts were not commonly used until the 20th century. An intriguing article called “A tradition with breaks” by Eric Kindel details the history and use of stencil fonts. In 18th century France, stencils were first used in liturgical books to alter printed text. The breaks were filled in by hand to make it look like the original lettering. Though, some stencil bridges were left untouched and over time that became more common.
The first evidence of a specially developed stencil font doesn’t appear until the late 19th century. Kindle writes that John West, a Brooklyn designer, developed Stencil-Gothic in 1885. This elegant script is sans-serif and includes the characteristic bridges. Apparently, there was not much interest in stencil typefaces because the next one wasn’t developed until 1902. That year George Auriol developed the flowing Art Nouveau inspired Auriol font, which had slim flowing letters.
The modern Stencil font arrived in 1937. According to Kindel, the best fonts to convert to stencils were the popular Claredons and Ionics. At the time, designers preferred bold, black typefaces like the ones in contemporary newspaper headlines.
Two designers developed stencil fonts within months of each other. R. Hunter Middleton, a designer for Ludow, released his stencil font in June of 1937. About a month later, Gerry Powell, who had a career with American Type Founders, released his own stencil font. Both of these Clarendon inspired typefaces are simple capital letter only designs with bold strokes and rounded edges. Powell’s version is a bit heavier and sometimes referred to as Stencil Bold.
Stencil typefaces were slow to catch on but contemporary designers eventually created a wide range of stencil fonts. Now, fonts need to look beautiful when used with different languages and be versatile enough for print, the web or advertising. These modern stencil fonts show these characteristics.
Saluzzo was named after typographer Giambattista Bodoni (1740–1813) because he was born in Saluzzo, Italy and learned the printing trade there. The slim serifs contrast beautifully with the bold down strokes and integrates well with contemporary designs.
The Cera collection is based on geometric shapes and includes both upper and lower case. The curved lines on strokes suggest handwriting and the asymmetrical bridges create energy. This font adapts well to multiple languages.
Fram contains only uppercase letters. The slim characters include consistent breaks across the center or tops of the letters so the word looks unified and the text flows. This font also works well with the unique characters of different languages.
Concrete Stencil is an elegant, flowing script balanced with bold and delicate strokes to enhance readability. It includes both upper and lower case. Ryoichi Tsunekawa designed this modern font in 2009.