Tag Archives: Letterpress printing

Composing Sticks, Pied Type and Despair

H.B. Rouse and Company's Composing Stick

H.B. Rouse and Company’s Composing Stick

This is a photograph of me holding a composing stick, circa 2015. If you know what this is, chances are that you’re…ahem, getting on a bit.

I first held one around 1965. I was thirteen and in seventh grade, and for students that weren’t considered college bound, most high schools offered Industrial Arts classes. The guys called them Shop.

As an introduction, we were offered a sampling of classes that were broken down by quarter. There was Metal Shop, where I made a cool, tear-drop shaped ash tray that I texturized with a ball peen hammer.

In Mechanical Drawing I learned how to develop a three-view drawing, which shows the front, top and right-side view of an object. We drew blocks of wood with holes drilled in them, and a lot of attention was paid to how precise our lettering was.

In Wood Shop I made a spice rack with a little drawer, which I proudly gave to my Mom even though she did not bake. Still, she thought it was beautiful — and in a way, it was.

But I was especially interested in Print Shop, because a couple of my uncles were printers who worked in New York City and were proud union members who were said to make good livings. I had intentions of following them into the business, so it made sense to learn whatever I could about the trade.

It was there that I learned that a composing stick is used to set type. The Chinese were doing something like it around 1040 A.D., but it is  Johannes Gutenberg who is credited with refining the technology and popularizing it in Europe around 1439.

Everything about raised or relief printing is physical and by today’s standards woefully clunky. Each letter is cast from a special, metal alloy, composed primarily of lead with a little tin and antimony mixed in. It is actually this special alloy that was one of Gutenberg’s major contributions. Word and line spaces (called leading) are made from the same material, and are measured in arcane units called ems and ens and picas.

These are arranged in a shallow drawer that is divided into separate compartments for each letter or space, and is called a California Job Case. Everything is arranged in a maddeningly illogical manner. The compartments vary in size (supposedly in relation to how frequently a letter is used), and though we were taught long-forgotten mnemonics to help us remember where everything was, finding each piece of type was tedious and time consuming.

To begin setting type, the column width is first set by adjusting the movable portion of the composing stick. This is the smaller, triangular piece that has a lever that when pressed down, snaps it into the stick. A piece of leading is put at the base and then single pieces of type are placed, one after another, left to right. To insure proper orientation, one has to make sure the notches on the type are always facing upward.

When a line is pretty much filled, it’s time to justify it. This is done by inserting additional spaces between each word until everything is snug between each side of the stick. If it isn’t snug pieces will fall out later, which usually means having to start over.

When a line is justified, another piece of leading is added on top and the process is repeated until the stick is full. At that point, the type is transferred to a flat metal sheet called a galley where ink is rollered onto the raised letters, paper is placed on top of them and a proof is struck. If mistakes are found, tweezers are used to pull out and replace letters that don’t belong.

The slug of type is held together with a hoop of string, so you have to be careful not to knock it over and mix everything up, which is called Piing your type.

After corrections are made, the type is transferred into a cast iron frame called a chase, where blocks of wood or metal are arranged around the type. Devices called coins are added and expanded with keys that look like what was once used to adjust old–time, strap–on roller skates. If properly done everything is locked–up in place, which is what this process is called: Lock Up. The chase is then put into a printing press, which is another big cast iron contraption. Here’s an old one (and you can see California job cases to its left):

Old style Platen Printing Press

Old style Platen Printing Press

Except for mostly small craft printers that do wedding invitations and books that are themselves works of art, none of this is done anymore. Digital technology replaced all of it. The word processor in your laptop usually comes with a hundred or so font styles that easily would have filled a small truck with California Job cases and set you back thousands of dollars.

If you know how to type, it’s an easy matter to create line after line after line of perfectly justified paragraphs without even having to hit the return key.

Beautiful page layouts are easily accessible, coming in the form of templates that were once done by Art Directors who devoted their lives to book and magazine design.

Even the function of printing is handled by digital presses that download digital files and produce hard copies using laser technology. Where once it wouldn’t pay to print a book unless you needed thousands, Amazon and others now gladly take orders for one.

So in many ways, the accessibility of technology has democratized a growing segment of the publishing industry. There are now a 150 million bloggers in the world, churning out god knows how many articles a year. In 2014, about a million books were published in the U.S. — four times as many as there were in 2010.

How can anyone keep all of this straight? The answer is: they can’t. There’s too much content and most of it is crap — just like its always been. The difference is: much of the crap used to be filtered out by the owners of those big, clunky printing presses who hired smart men and women editors who separated much of the wheat from the chaff. They weren’t perfect, but at least somebody was watching.

I guess it’s a good thing that just about anyone can get their ideas into a publishable format (including me), but the trick is still finding someone to read it. With so many voices vying for attention, that’s probably harder than ever.

Everything Reminds Me of Something Else

One of the dirty little secrets about Shop classes is that they were used as dumping grounds for guys with behavior problems — which made for some pretty raucous classroom antics and lots of laughs. Another is that they were used to park guys — and there’s no other way to say this — who had I.Q.’s that resided over on the extreme left-hand side of the bell curve.

One of the first things we were given to do in Print Shop was to set a paragraph of type using the tedious method I described above. It was a gigantic pain in the ass, but I’d say most of us were able to bang it out in three or four regular class periods of about fifty minutes each.

There were exceptions, with most extending the required time by two or three periods. The guy teaching the class continued to move through the course material as some of the slower type-setters stood hunched over their California Job Cases, composing stick in hand, searching for the proper pieces of type.

Even without putting a dunce cap on them, they were exposed to a steady stream of merciless teasing by me and my fellow printers. Over time they would complete their task and get back in with the regular class. This was true of all but one: a nice, hard-working kid named Jimmy, who didn’t belong in any high school class because I’m pretty sure he didn’t know his letters all that well.

But he kept at it, way longer than he should have. Weeks actually.  Our teacher could have just had him pull a proof of whatever he had and called the thing complete. What harm could have come from that? None, right, but he didn’t. Maybe somebody should have just done it for him, or given him theirs when they were done, but nobody did.

Every day he’d pull out his galley and carefully transfer the type into the composing stick and set about the arduous task of hunting every compartment of the job case until he found a letter that matched the one on his sheet. Many of us began thinking that he might never finish, but he did — sort of.

The day it happened most of us were working on other projects, maybe cutting silk screens or learning how to strip artwork into pieces of goldenrod paper for burning lithographic plates (don’t ask). I guess he was transferring the block of type to the proofing machine when it happened. I remember becoming aware of someone softly whimpering, and by the time I looked for its source, it had already given way to full-throated sobbing.

Our teacher had already gone to his side and was looking down on the bed of the proof press. He might have had his hand on his shoulder — I think he did. “It’s alright, Jimmy,” he said while patting his shoulder. “It’s alright.”

We were all straining to see what had happened, and a couple of the guys were asking Jimmy what was wrong. At first he didn’t respond, he was crying too hard, but he wanted to tell us. “What is it, Jimmy?” “You Okay?”

And then he got it out: “I pied it. I pied it,” he said with such heartbreaking sadness and regret that no one rolled out any of the derisive mockery that customarily greeted anyone baring such genuine emotion.  He was inconsolable. I felt bad for him. We all did.

Sometimes I think about this, usually when working on something where a wrong move can result in ruin. Don’t Pi it, I whisper to myself. Don’t Pi it. I can almost hear Jimmy cry.

Till next time patient reader