How to design a carvable typeface fit for a headstone with Peter Roeleveld

Ever wondered how the ornate fonts on headstones are designed and made? The Utrecht-based designer gives us some valuable insight into the process.

20 October 2022


In a period where experimental typefaces are being ever-more sought after, it can be easy to dismiss that type design continues to have a very day-to-day usage – in areas we may least expect it. Peter Roeleveld’s Saku typeface – which takes its name from the Japanese translation “to bloom” – is a brilliant reminder of this fact. Peter is a type designer who has studied at the Royal Academy of Arts in The Hague. For the past year, he has been interning at a stonemasonry where he has learnt to carve and help take care of funerary monuments, all the while developing the custom headstone typeface. In efforts to challenge himself to create a warmer and more modern font – and to learn to carve the “very odd corners and serifs that look perfect on a digital screen” – the project has been a truly unique one for a designer to tackle. Read on to find out just how he did it.


Peter Roeleveld: Field research (Copyright © Peter Roeleveld, 2022)

Adding warmth and readability

When walking around the graveyard near the workplace, I realised that the use of typefaces with thin lines (like the serifs of Times New Roman) are being worn out much quicker than typefaces that have more boldness. Most typefaces used for gravestones are not designed to stay readable. Plus, in my opinion, some serif types do sometimes give headstones a colder, more unwelcoming feeling. These were the factors that initially instigated the idea of creating the Saku typeface; aiming to give names a friendly and warm feeling, and making sure the typography works better for stone materials.


Peter Roeleveld: Saku experiment (Copyright © Peter Roeleveld, 2022)

Experimenting with sketches and carvings

In the project's early days, I started with the basics of what I wanted the type to look like. The terminals were instantly approved and felt great. But all the other structural elements still had a lot of flaws and were made in a rush – I only knew that I wanted it to appear bold and friendly. Above is a close-up of a very first test in an actual (temporary) headstone used for a close relative that passed away.


Peter Roeleveld: Font development (Copyright © Peter Roeleveld, 2022)

Developing the glyphs

After the first digital sketches, I was far from satisfied and started adjusting each glyph step by step. I was trying to search for the perfect balance in contrast to the thick and thin lines, and looking for the right serif. By printing the words, I learned to be self-reflective and just write any comment that comes to my mind. This appeared to be very effective and started to fix the unwanted parts.


Peter Roeleveld: Saku ‘a’ process (Copyright © Peter Roeleveld, 2022)

Making the typeface more friendly

In the end, it was most important for me to dispose of the ‘unfriendly’ shapes while also dealing with rhythm, contrast and legibility. The fact that sharp stone corner shapes erode or break quicker than usual is another reason to make softer corners and serifs. For some glyphs, I made fun alterations during the process, but for others I went a bit too far; it still has to be used for headstones so I couldn’t express too much joy in the glyphs. I wonder if the result would have been different if I didn’t have a clear purpose for this project.

Finalising at the stonemasonry

Back at the stonemasonry, I had the chance to find out how it actually looked after applying the typography using the sandblasting technique. Sandblasting is a technique used in most of the modern headstones where a stream of abrasive sand is blasted against a stone surface under high pressure to remove the stone in outlined parts. This was done with the help of stencils I had created. I eventually came to the point where the legibility, warmth and a long endurance in stone seemed in perfect balance. Although, the ultimate test of endurance in stone is yet to be proven. Will it ultimately wear down? Or, will it withstand all the weather conditions?


Peter Roeleveld: Saku birthstone (Copyright © Peter Roeleveld, 2022)

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Peter Roeleveld: Saku specimen (Copyright © Peter Roeleveld, 2022)

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About the Author

Olivia Hingley

Olivia (she/her) joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in November 2021 and soon became staff writer. A graduate of the University of Edinburgh with a degree in English Literature and History, she’s particularly interested in photography, publications and type design.

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