National Park Typeface
June 4, 2019 10:15 AM   Subscribe

“Our National Parks belong to the people, so this typeface should too.”
I had trekked pretty far that day and wasn’t exactly lost, but I needed a little reassurance that I was heading the right direction when I came across one of those ubiquitous signs you see in a national park. You know the ones that have the text carved or “routed” into it.

Entering Rocky Mountain National Park.

I saw those familiar words. Set “National Park Service, United States Department of the Interior” — style. I wondered if it actually was a typeface or “font” that anyone could download and use? Do park rangers have this as a typeface on their computers to set in their word docs, pdfs and power point slides?

I had a sketchbook with me and took some rubbings of the letterforms and asked my friend Miles Barger, the Visual Information Specialist for Rocky, if he had the typeface. He asked the sign shop. No one has it? Turns out it isn’t a typeface at all but a system of paths, points and curves that a router follows.

The router’s "bit" follows the path and gives the letters its stroke weight or thickness only when engraving a sign. It doesn't really exist as a typeface unless a sign is made.

So my design colleague, Andrea Herstowski, students Chloe Hubler and Jenny O'Grady, NPS Ranger Miles Barger and myself decided to make this router typeface a thing.
posted by ob1quixote (45 comments total) 68 users marked this as a favorite
 
I love this and am going to implement it in a public agency project.
posted by entropone at 10:23 AM on June 4 [10 favorites]


I love that they made this public.

Up here in Canada, the Jasper Brewing Company must have made a deal with our national parks to use their colours and fonts on a beer. I don't love the beer, but the can just brings me back to so many wonderful childhood memories that I keep buying it.
posted by Phreesh at 10:37 AM on June 4 [4 favorites]


i like it!
posted by numaner at 10:37 AM on June 4 [1 favorite]


It's nice and all, but it's the most generic router stencil possible. I have no experience with US national parks, but this is the "make a sign on a piece of wood" font from basically anywhere.
posted by scruss at 10:43 AM on June 4 [2 favorites]


a monospace version would make a nice coding font (though i'm not sure it'd displace monofur for me)
posted by kokaku at 10:43 AM on June 4 [7 favorites]


I was looking for just this typeface for an ongoing project for trail signs to encourage better trail etiquette. I've been working with something similar, but am not 100% sold on it. We haven't launched yet, I wonder if it's too late to incorporate this. 1000 thanks for the link!
posted by St. Oops at 10:47 AM on June 4 [3 favorites]


Related, the USDA has an extensive style guide for Forest Service signage. The script “National Forest” is not and has never been a font*, but the main type elsewhere is Highway Gothic.

*though if one wanted to use it, the pdf has an embedded vector graphic
posted by a halcyon day at 10:57 AM on June 4 [16 favorites]


Nice! Now all it needs is an italic version in the style of the National Forest script.
posted by Westringia F. at 10:57 AM on June 4 [9 favorites]


Wonderful! I made family signs for trailer camping (family name, city, hang on the permit post when you arrive first thing), and this would have been perfect. My crap router skills had my font looking reasonably close, though.

Routed yellow letters on a brown sign, jagged ends also painted yellow. They look pretty good, if I say so myself.
posted by Capt. Renault at 10:57 AM on June 4 [4 favorites]


It's nice and all, but it's the most generic router stencil possible. I have no experience with US national parks, but this is the "make a sign on a piece of wood" font from basically anywhere.

Was it available somewhere else as a font? Somebody designs those things and loads them somehow into the hardware of the router. Who does it? How is it done?
posted by straight at 11:06 AM on June 4 [4 favorites]


(I guess it's sorta like one of the old dot matrix printers?)
posted by straight at 11:08 AM on June 4


This kind of reminds me of the MODERN.FON vector font that used to come with Windows, used primarily for plotters.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 11:18 AM on June 4


I love this, but Planscribe NF is much closer to the letter forms printed in Appendix A of the NPS 1988 Sign Manual -- compare "A" and "&" in particular.
posted by hades at 11:19 AM on June 4 [8 favorites]


Yeah, it's odd they went with a double-storey lower-case 'a' when the only example in the reference photos they posted is a single-storey 'a'.
posted by straight at 11:29 AM on June 4 [1 favorite]


Turns out it isn’t a typeface at all but a system of paths, points and curves that a router follows . . . It doesn't really exist as a typeface unless a sign is made.

I'm not sure that's so.

The original NPS signs were probably designed with a Leroy Lettering Set, and the letterforms are simply enlarged versions of the Leroy font.

I applaud these designers, their undertaking, and their gift to us.
posted by mattdidthat at 11:40 AM on June 4 [28 favorites]


Never realized it until now, but that park/router-style really reminds me of the Leroy lettering used in *CHOKE* EC Comics.
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 11:47 AM on June 4 [5 favorites]


Didn't... *GASP*.... preview...
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 11:47 AM on June 4 [9 favorites]


Wow, mattdidthat and Alvy Ampersand. I had never even heard of the concept of Leroy lettering. What a nifty gadget!
posted by straight at 11:52 AM on June 4


I always wondered why the lettering in some old comics had that weird look to them.
posted by straight at 11:53 AM on June 4 [1 favorite]


Here's a kit for all your home park signing needs.
posted by Floydd at 12:04 PM on June 4 [4 favorites]


Not to be pedantic, but I don't actually think the NPS actually uses this kind of sign for wayfinding.

The forest service uses signs like this all over the place – I believe the photos on the linked site were constructed by the FS, and exist all over the place outside of National Parks. On the other hand, NPS signage tends to be more information-dense, and constructed out of more durable materials.

Yes, like many others, I associate this design with the NPS, but I'm actually having trouble remembering (or finding photos of) a sign like this in an actual National Park.
posted by schmod at 12:09 PM on June 4 [1 favorite]


posted by schmod I'm actually having trouble remembering (or finding photos of) a sign like this in an actual National Park.

The trail junction signs and the monument signs with "(Name) National Forest" have "US DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE" set in the Leroy/NPT lettering.
posted by mattdidthat at 12:17 PM on June 4 [1 favorite]


Cool. Check out the "Sign Making Wizard" link at Floydd's link to see details of exactly how to use router stencils for letters like A, O, B, and D without having to break the outer lines to attach floating bits in the middle of the letter (I'm curious why you need the kerning spacer for some letters and not others).
posted by straight at 12:19 PM on June 4


(This thread, and all the comments, are making me happy today. I love you crazy nerds.)
posted by wenestvedt at 12:23 PM on June 4 [5 favorites]


(Oh, I see. It's to let you put, for instance, A and T closer together since there's space at the top of the A for the crossbar of the T to get closer and a matching space at the bottom of the T for the slanted leg of the A to get closer.)
posted by straight at 12:24 PM on June 4


He asked the sign shop. No one has it? Turns out it isn’t a typeface at all but a system of paths, points and curves that a router follows.

FFS, the technology is different, but “a system of paths, points and curves” is what a digital typeface is (excepting bitmapped fonts).
posted by D.C. at 12:26 PM on June 4 [6 favorites]


 Was it available somewhere else as a font?

More like a metal stencil that you placed a copying bit into, and through the magic of pantographs, it moved a router bit over the wooden sign. A little like the Keuffel & Esser/Leroy lettering things.

For this to be useful for really routing signs, it would need to be redrawn as a simple centre line without filled strokes. These look amazingly ugly if saved in regular font formats (and can make some OS font renderers throw a hissy fit), but work great with CAD/CAM systems.
posted by scruss at 12:40 PM on June 4 [2 favorites]


Here's another router lettering jig.

Yeah, it's basically a super basic and common style of router jig sign making font from days of yore when this stuff was all mechanical.

The really fancy version of this doesn't use full sized templates as pictured, but much smaller brass or other metal plates with the font guides cut or etched into them. This is followed by a pantograph arm with the router head on the end of it, allowing for more precise and complicated text layouts and even simple paragraphs.

You can also adjust the pantograph to route many different sized fonts just by adjusting the scale arm of the pantograph, so you don't need 50 different sets of templates.

I'm going to put on my know-it-all old duffer cap and take a few wild guesses based on what I know about how parks tend to operate combined with the good old Federal government as a thing:

The National Park system likely has their own template set and set of tools, likely both route-in-place templates like the link in standard sizes as well as pantograph routers.

These were likely originally bought from one particular supplier as a standard off the shelf unit from a supplier or business that may or may not even exist any more. This supplier would have had to been able to clear whatever federal procurement regs, prices and quantities and was likely under contract to provide

This likely became the default signage font because of how easy it would be to distribute this technology to the field and use it in any given park. Larger parks likely have better signmaking shops, and likely do work for near by smaller parks that may only have a limited sign making kit.

Some of these units or sign making shops or tool kits have likely been in use for decades.

If the company no longer exists, it's likely that the NP org has had to copy and recreate the templates and repair or rebuild their own signmaking devices themselves.

If the company still exists, it might be almost fully captured by the National Parks as its sole contractor and specifically just makes these older tools to NP specs.
posted by loquacious at 12:43 PM on June 4 [4 favorites]


Also, the troll in me kind of wants to put up silly official looking signs all over the place.

"DO NOT TOUCH THIS TREE IT EATS PEOPLE."

"OVERLOOK VIEW" (posted over bathroom door or neat a trash can.)
posted by loquacious at 12:44 PM on June 4 [10 favorites]


Did you see the Router Gothic link on that Leroy page?

The video of the Leroy thingy brought back memories. I have no idea why, but I loved Mechanical Drawing class in school. One of the only classes I can remember taking. The teacher was very specific about how we lettered, and I just realized we were trying to recreate that look.
posted by bongo_x at 12:54 PM on June 4 [5 favorites]


These were likely originally bought from one particular supplier as a standard off the shelf unit from a supplier or business that may or may not even exist any more. This supplier would have had to been able to clear whatever federal procurement regs, prices and quantities and was likely under contract to provide.

From the 2002 UniGuide document establishing uniform sign standards for the NPS:
The National Park Service currently has more than 72,000 signs that represent an investment of over $100 million. Despite the importance of signs and the magnitude of their monetaryworth, the agency lacks a clear designation of who is responsible Service wide for signage. In fact, no one at the national or regional level has the singular and full-time responsibility. Signs are currently the purview of a loosely organized coalition of part-time regional sign coordinators, park sign shop managers, and park facilities managers. Consequently, signsa re acquired from a mix of sources: local commercial vendors, park sign shops (in the 19 parks that still have them), and Federal Prison Industries (UNICOR).
I can't find the reference now, but I remember reading somewhere that UNICOR no longer had the equipment to make the routed wooden signs they'd previously made for the NPS. And the 1988 sign manual says that "[b]y law, the National Park Service is required to order signs from UNICOR (Federal Prison Industries)", so I wonder what happened between then and 2002?
posted by hades at 12:55 PM on June 4 [1 favorite]


Here's an article on who makes (some of) these signs for the Forest Service and how they're made. It describes the sign making process:
The task of making a sign can range from a few hours to two to three weeks depending on size and the amount of text involved. Most of the time, volunteers use an electric router guided by small square tiles inscribed with each letter of the alphabet that are rearranged to create different words. The exception is “National Forest,” which many times is written in cursive and must be done freehand.
This is for the Forest Service, not Park Service, but I suspect that NPS sign shops (where they still exist) follow a similar process. Although it's cool to imagine some old-time 1970s back-to-the-lander-wound-up-in-a-park router ace who's like, "I do all my letterforms freehand. No stencils, no jigs. Just me and my two friends, Black and Decker." (Never mind that he's used a DeWalt router for the past three decades.)

Thanks for the above comments on Leroy Lettering; I've seen some older interpretive signs in a font that is roughly Not Futura; I suppose it might have been Leroy Lettering. Nagging mystery solved!

For printed signs (as opposed to wooden trail signs), NPS currently uses Rawlinson and previously used their own version of Clarendon.
posted by compartment at 1:33 PM on June 4


In fact, no one at the national or regional level has the singular and full-time responsibility. Signs are currently the purview of a loosely organized coalition of part-time regional sign coordinators, park sign shop managers, and park facilities managers.

This is roughly what I was attempting to describe and a better description.

From what I've seen at state parks, it is really kind of ad-hoc and DIY in many areas of park and facilities maintenance and they make do with what they have on hand.

There's a lot of specialized knowledge in a lot of older folks who love their job and park. Every park I've been in has some old duffer (men and women, but mostly men) who knows where all the tools and keys are and how they did it last time and so on. The more keys they have hanging on their belt and the bigger the mustache (or equivalent!) the longer they've been there and know.
posted by loquacious at 1:50 PM on June 4 [1 favorite]


I'm pedantic enough to fondly remember very, very round capitol "O" in this type of signage, almost as if it were the router man's break from legged letters in the middle of work. Just perfect circles with no variation or direction change.
posted by halfbuckaroo at 2:15 PM on June 4


Yes, like many others, I associate this design with the NPS, but I'm actually having trouble remembering (or finding photos of) a sign like this in an actual National Park.

Remarkably, TFA has photos of signs like this in Rocky Mountain National Park. Including one that says Entering Rocky Mountain National Park, and distance signs. These signs are common in RoMo.
posted by medusa at 3:35 PM on June 4 [2 favorites]


That Routed Gothic font is fantastic -- I'll be using that for future projects where I want this look. I like the font from TFA, too, but I made a quick comparison, and, well: https://imgur.com/a/4oBcuEO

I wonder what set of templates their reference park was using, because it just feels a little off.
posted by hades at 4:46 PM on June 4


I will make fake park signs to lure unwary travelers to my castle of doom
posted by Pastor of Muppets at 5:17 PM on June 4


This is really neat! And nthing the revelation about Leroy lettering, I'd never seen that before.

For this to be useful for really routing signs, it would need to be redrawn as a simple centre line without filled strokes.

Literally the first thought I had as I clicked in was "oh hey I wonder if scruss will show up and talk about stroke fonts", so, heyyyyyyy. I think I only first understood that distinction when talk to you about font stuff a few years back.
posted by cortex at 7:09 PM on June 4 [1 favorite]


oh hey I wonder if scruss will show up and talk about stroke fonts

oh man am I that predictable?

But I'm still trying to track down that first version of Adobe Courier that was a stroke font. It was the terrible one that old LaserWriters used for their error messages.
posted by scruss at 8:24 PM on June 4 [1 favorite]


You have a charming reliability of enthusiasm, is how I think of it.
posted by cortex at 9:09 PM on June 4 [9 favorites]


Although it's cool to imagine some old-time 1970s back-to-the-lander-wound-up-in-a-park router ace who's like, "I do all my letterforms freehand. No stencils, no jigs. Just me and my two friends, Black and Decker." (Never mind that he's used a DeWalt router for the past three decades.)

back in the day I did this, for a few summers, freehand all the way- just a fat carpenters pencil. not for parks, though- for cottagers.
posted by cabin fever at 12:07 AM on June 5


Firmer Gouge & Mallet [llc] all the way.
posted by scruss at 4:57 AM on June 5


That Routed Gothic font is fantastic -- I'll be using that for future projects where I want this look.

I agree. Thanks for highlighting that link, bongo_x.
posted by straight at 7:32 AM on June 5


Somehow the outline version is the one that most evokes the carved signs on screen, even more so than the original single stroke paths.
posted by wierdo at 12:49 PM on June 5


A couple of folks asked about a font based on the National Forest script lettering. James Edmondson of OH no Type Co did a wonderful typographic expansion as Coniferous.

See also Forester, “a typeface inspired by rounded lettering on signage at many parks in North America”, and Wildberry, “based on the brushy lettering found on U.S. National Wilderness signage.”
posted by Typographica at 1:44 PM on June 10 [2 favorites]


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