Precision and some improvisation inform the lettercutting work of John Mawby

Instagram is a great resource for hand lettering, typography and calligraphy. Recently I added lettercutting to my resource list. Lettercutting is the art and craft of carving letterforms into stone and wood. I came to lettercutting through the Instagram feed of John Mawby. He’s a thoughtful, deliberate, and marvelous artist. His work looks effortless. It’s confident and elegant. John describes his lettering and cutting process which is blend of accuracy and improvisation. Read on…

Your name and title/business name? City and country location?

John Mawby, Cambridge, UK

What’s your educational background, i.e., college, professional school, high school, apprenticeship, etc.?

I studied Graphic Communication with Typography at Plymouth University. Whilst here Lida Kindersley gave a visiting lecture, it was this that introduced me to lettercutting and inspired me to seek an apprenticeship at the Cardozo Kindersley Workshop. I was fortunate to be accepted and completed their three year apprenticeship in 2015. I’m currently still working at the workshop and due to leave to pursue my personal aspirations at the end of 2016.


Preferred tools and medium?

Ideas are formed in my Moleskine, eventually making it to a single sheet; putting pencil to paper encourages progress from thought to reality. Lettercutting requires few tools so I naturally feel at home with a chisel and dummy (round-faced mallet). My favourite medium would perhaps be Welsh slate as it’s so even and consistent you can carve as you please with few compromises. Many stones offer their individual challenges and this can keep things interesting.


Would you talk about your process of designing and cutting letters into stone please?

As mentioned above ideas begin the process, these are sometimes my own, sometimes a clients. I think the hardest thing about being a lettering artist is knowing what to say, as you can hardly avoid it, letters more often than not spell words and words have meanings!


I think a lot about my ideas and designs before I put pencil to paper, I often reach a point where I’m thinking too much and this is when I rush for my Moleskine. Once everything is on paper I can see what’s working what’s not and what direction I’m going to pursue. I work in my sketchbook until I’ve decided all the major factors, size and proportion of the material, size and styles of lettering, design and layout. Once I know these things I will draw a more precise scale drawing for the client and for myself to use as a guide when it comes to drawing the design full scale. 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, there’s no edit-undo. 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.


Where or how do you “recharge your creative battery,” i.e., books, blogs, music, art, exercise, meditation, prayer, hobbies, interests, etc.?

Most of all I find that ‘doing’ recharges my battery, when I’m busy designing, drawing and cutting letterforms I feel creativity flows, sparking further thoughts and ideas to explore. I also love reading, I’m forever going into second-hand bookshops and buying anything that mentions lettering or typography; other subjects often fuel my inspiration, for example authors on the nature of thought, semantics, semiotics, quietness, the colour white. Outside of letters I’m a keen cyclist and getting out on my bike can help clear the mind and blow off any excess energy! And on the other hand I like to relax behind the piano. It’s important for me to have distractions to stop myself overthinking things.


Tell us something about you that might surprise or delight us.

You may be surprised that I completed my graphic communication degree, being incredibly close to submitting solely black and white pieces for the entirety of the three years. Something off topic might be that I cycled for 24hours riding 365miles for Cancer Research.