The Lore of
the Composing Stick
By Fred Williams
Editor-Publisher, Type & Press
Today's word processing units can spit out a steady stream of words at blinding speeds. Nevertheless, unimpressed by cyberics, some private printers still use their faithful composing sicks to hand-set foundry type at creaky wagon speeds. "Electronic" publishers will probably be unable to justify this "madness."
One typophile explained his insanity thusly: "The good Lord gave man hands that can pick up type better than any machine that was ever invented.
"This is a 'hands-on' art. I am not forced to work through a keyboard, computer, video screen or other obstacles. With my hands I retrieve each tiny sliver of lead and place it in the stick beside its contemporaries. From the disorganized pile of the letters of the alphabet I create beautiful text that informs, educates, gives pleasure or motivates the reader to send in a coupon!
"Lovingly I drop in a card between characters that are uncomfortably close and shave mortise those letters that appear distant from their neighbors. I create optically spaced lines that enable the readers' eyes to race over the strips of letters while the mind assimilates the author's thoughts.
"As the letters grow into words, sentences, lines, paragraphs, pages–I am personally in control at all times, something no other method can offer."
Although not a glamorous instrument, to the printer his stick is a very personal tool. He would no sooner lend it to a fellow worker than he would his tooth brush!
Printing historians concede it is unlikely that Johann Gutenberg or his contemporaries used a composing stick. More likely, the types were assembled right in the chase. Eventually some inventive comp devised the idea of setting type in a holder, line by line, at the case. The English printer, Caxton did not use a composing stick in his shop until about 1-180.
The first sticks were cut from sticks of wood–hence the name. Some were carved from solid wood and would set only one measure. Others probably had a side piece and an end temporarial attached. To change the measure it was necessary to remove and to re-attach it at the new measure.
Eventually some parts of the stick were faced with brass or other metal to make them more accurate and to prolong their life. Some of these crude "type holders" could hold only two or three lines at a time.
The 17th Century saw metal sticks being used. Made, of brass, iron or steel, most of them were similar in design. Wood continued to be used for poster sticks until the early 1920s!
Briefly described the stick may be likened to a shallow three-sided box into which the type is placed.
The stick consists of a flat plate (bottom, bed), to which are attached the head (end), and the rail (back, stile) and the knee. The knee may be moved along the stile to required measure and be fastened securely by the action of a clamp (screw) which anchors the knee in place. This screw may be a lever or a type of tightening device and may be attached to or be separate from the knee. A gauge, if any, is marked along the foot.
Sticks have been made in a wide variety of depths and lengths. Most skilled journeymen prefer a deep stick which holds more type than the novice who might encounter difficulties when attempting to transfer a dozen type lines from the stick to a galley. Sticks have been made in depths of from 1 1/8" to 2 1/2", but those under 2" have proved most popular.
Sticks have been produced in lengths of from 6" to 20". Wooden poster sticks, for use with large wood type, run from 18" to 45", with a few even longer!
Early sticks seldom carried graduated markings to denote measures. Therefore, if the comp desired a measure of 15 picas, he would set 15 12point em (mutt) quads against the rail and bring the knee snuggly against the line of quads before securing the clamp. This method may be used to c1beek the accuracy of composing sticks.
Over the years there have been few changes in the printer's composing stick. It has been said that if Gutenberg were transported to a modern 20th Century composing room (before photocomp reared its ugly head), he would recognize two familiar objects–type and composing sticks! He undoubtedly would have little difficulty grabbing some copy and hand sticking a take!
The following is a listing of some of the most popular composing sticks and a few of the not so successful ones that have been made over the years.
Common Screw – One of the oldest types of composing sticks, it was originally made of wood and later was fabricated of iron or steel. Different methods were used to anchor the knee. The rail was often pierced by holes, slots or notches at pica or nonpareil (6-point) intervals or slotted its full length to allow the insertion of a screw or screw & bolt to allow for adjustment. Usually ungraduated, this type of stick was made by many firms.
Double Knee – (1683) consisted of 2 knees which could be set independently of each other for setting text and marginal notes at different measures.
Perfect News Sticks were so designated because their fixed measures were slightly wider than their designated sizes to compensate for the squeeze in the form during lock-up. Unadjustable, they were produced by several manufacturers.
Albion – As there was a tendency for sticks to spread when filled with type, this stick with a diagonal brace reinforcing the knee, was introduced. This design was adopted by other manufacturers.
Grover – This stick, invented by 0. F. Grover of Middletown, Conn. in 1856, was one of the first composing sticks to be patented. His method of clamping the knee was adopted by others.
Yankee – One of the early ungraduated sticks, the knee of the Yankee was held in place by a threaded thumb screw. It was patented in 1857 by D. Winder.
Buckeye –Cleveland's Chandler & Price, in addition to their job presses carried a line of printing supplies. William H. Price, Jr. in 1889 patented the Buckeye stick. An ungraduated tool, it had a thumb screw in a detachable knee which held it at the required measure. The clamp was based on the Newbury stick.
Duplex – Was really two sticks in one, the bottom answering for both. Containing two adjustable knees, one on each side of the bottom, they could he set independently of the other. By merely turning a Duplex over, the comp would have a different measure without any resetting.
Turtle – This interesting and popular stick was invented by David Turtle of New York about 1910. Somewhat similar to other makes, except the Turtle had a table engraved on the bed listing the approximate number of words per inch for various sizes of text type, set solid or leaded.
Star – This one-piece radically different stick was patented in 1904 by Reuben Tittle of Springfield, Ohio and was made by the Springfield Tool Co. To prevent the springing of the knee at the fore edge of the bed, it had a double row of ridges on the underside of the bottom plate at nonpareil intervals. A sliding lever locked the knee over its entire length by teeth that engaged the indentations.
Advantages claimed for the Star included: it was light and easy to handle and could not be wedged out of measure by tight spacing. It had proper allowance for "squeeze" and had from six to eight picas more capacity than other sticks of the same size. Additionally, it was claimed that even if dropped on the floor, the measure would be undisturbed!
Star disadvantages: the sliding lever was noted for breaking if pushed too hard and the stick would not sit flat on a smooth surface.
Chicago's H. B. Rouse Co made their versions of the Buckeye, Yankee, Grover, Standard, eventually became the leading maker of composing sticks. The Rouse line is still being sold.
Rouse Job Stick – A graduated two-piece stick which sets picas or nonpareils (1/2 pica measures). Four teeth fit into rectangular slots (seven per inch) in the rail to give accurate adjustment to picas. By turning a small lever beneath the clamp in a 180º arc, one can change the increment from picas to nonpareils. Rouses are serial numbered on the knee and on the end to prevent mismatching.
Rouse Standard – (based on the Golding Standard) it has holes (4 per inch) spaced along the rail with a two part knee and 'U' clamp, The knee is V shaped and the clamp is a separate piece with a pin that fits through the holes in the rail into those in the knee. Sets picas or nonpareils.
Rouse Pica – A graduated stick adjustable only to even picas, otherwise identical to the Job Stick. Popular in schools or shops where fractional measures are not required.
Rouse Improved Standard – This graduated 3-piece stick has a clamp which is separate from the knee and body. Sets to picas and rionpareils by a single pin riveted to the clamp-really not superior to the Standard model.
Rouse All-Measure –This stick has 6 round holes (approximately All in diameter) per in. in the rail and employs a pair of spring - loaded detente pins to clamp on full or half measures. An extra feature is an agate measure engraved on the right angle of the knee & a pica measure on the top of the end rail so one can see how much vertical measure has been set.
Rouse Quarter Point Stick – This unusual implement had a protractor-like adjusting mechanism. By moving a pointer on a dial it could be set to fractions of a point. It was used to set odd point sizes for runarounds, columnar box heads, odd-point initials, etc. A fragile instrument, with a die cast pot metal knee, it was discontinued about 1924.
Rouse Micrometer – This graduated stick was introduced as a replacement model for the Quarter Pointer. The measure could be adjusted to fractions of a point by turning a knurled knob on the knee (with the clamp loose!)
In the 500 or so years that the composing stick has been in the service of man its extinction has been predicted regularly.
During the 19th Century the mechanical typesetter appeared on the scene. It was claimed that it could assemble and justify single cold foundry types faster than a printer at the case, armed with a stick. But in actual use the advantages failed to appear and the machines eventually faded away.
A much more serious threat appeared around the turn of the century with the perfection of the Linotype and Monotype machines. While these two mechanical "wonders" did automate much of the hand setting on big city newspapers, the stick held Its own for display setting and all type composition on hundreds of weeklies and small job offices.
The Ludlow stick replaced the composing stick for much of the composition of large size types. But for the hundreds of foundry type designs that had not been cut for the automated machines, the composing stick remained king.
But no metal type is needed by today's photo comp and the demise of the ol' faithful composing stick has been forecast. As typefoundries continue to retire from business, the life or death of the stick now rests in the hands of the private typecaster.
(Thanks to Martin K. Speckter, Dave C. Churchman, Phillip C. Cade, Jane Roberts & Steve Saxe for their assistance with this article.)