TypeTalk: To Everything, Kern, Kern Kern…


Q. What does the word “kerning” mean?

A. The term kern originated as a noun in the days of metal typesetting, when a kern was the part of the metal type that overhangs or extends beyond the body (also called “shank”) of the metal type (also called “sort”) so that it could rest on the body of an adjacent character, allowing for closer spacing and better letterfit. Although “kerning” originally referred to the cutting away of the body of the sort, “to kern” type came to mean the removal space between two characters in the above manner.

The photo below is of 72 point Garamond Italic. On the left is a standard lowercase ‘s’ and an apostrophe. In the middle is an ‘s’ that’s kerned by cutting away the side of the sort. On the right is a lowercase ‘p’ that’s cast with the kerning of the descender included.


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The image below shows the kerned ‘s’ and the apostrophe locked into a form. The apostrophe and the adjacent ‘t’ have a small amount of extra spacing between them to visually balance the space. This is achieved by inserting a six pica x 2 point piece of leading between the sorts.



The image below shows the positioning of the sort on the saw while in the process of cutting away the supporting side of the sort.



Ray Nichols of LeadGraffiti, a studio specializing in letterpress work, says, “In larger fonts it is often necessary to kern letters. There is quite a nice feeling with letterpress to take characters whose body takes up a very definite amount of metallic real estate and slide them together to achieve a better optical flow across the words.” Ray shot the photos above.

In today’s digital world, the meaning of kerning has expanded to include the reduction as well as the addition of space between two characters. In a digital font, the number of kern pairs built into a font include both positive and negative values. The kern feature in today’s design software is capable of adding or removing space.

You can read more about digital kerning in “Kerning Principles” and “Kerning in Action.”

Love type? Want to know more? Ilene Strizver conducts her acclaimed Gourmet Typography workshops internationally. For more information on attending one or bringing it to your company, organization, or school, go to her site, call The Type Studio at 203-227-5929, or email Ilene at [email protected] Sign up for her e-newsletter at www.thetypestudio.com. You can also follow Ilene on Facebook and Twitter.

Ilene Strizver is a noted typographic educator, author, designer and founder of The Type Studio in Westport, Connecticut. Her book, Type Rules! The designer’s guide to professional typography, is now in its 4th edition.
  • Anonymous says:

    Where’s the digital equivalent of carding — the insertion of card stock between set lines of type for the purpose of opening up a page (vertically) to achieve even bottoms or other necessary alignments? Thanks for the insightful article.

  • Anonymous says:

    I think “Align to the baseline grid” achieves that effect, at least in InDesign, so that the columns of text of two facing pages of are aligned along the bottom. There may be a more industry-wide term in use for digital typesetting.

  • Anonymous says:

    Thanks for including the great photos- they really helped explain what a lot of us have never had the chance to see/experience- what kerning looked like in its original form with metal type.

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