The Joy of

Handsetting Type

By Fred Williams, Publisher of Type & Press

This six-part series of articles on setting type by hand first appeared in the spring of 1983.

Chapter one: The Past Lives On

‘You’ve gotta be kidding,’ is probably what most computer junkies would snort if they were told that there are printers, even in this computer age, who are still setting and distributing metal type by hand.

‘Setting type by hand will become obsolete,’ was the prediction well over 100 years ago with the debut of the Linotype.

The prediction has all but come true. The last few decades have seen a parade of scrap dealer’s hearses loaded down with hot type appurtenances on their way to the extermination ovens.

But a sturdy group of personal printers and private presses have refused to knuckle under to the tyranny of the computer.

This hardy band of perfectionists continue their long and passionate love affair with the classic metal letterforms.

Holding that the speed of the composition should not be the only criteria by which a work of typography should be judged, the hand-setters place main emphasis on legibility, readability and beauty of the printed page. With elegant letter forms, they tastefully create type forms that are easy on the eyes while conveying the author’s thoughts.

These graceful typographical forms are skillfully spaced to avoid interrupting the eye, seduce the reader to stay with the works. The type artist believes the skill by which the letterforms have been assembled will far outlive any speed records or lower costs established during its production.

The personal pressman prefers setting type by hand because it’s fascinating and poses a challenge. The hand compositor soon becomes enraptured by the slender slivers of lead as they march across the composing stick transforming thoughts into sentences ... lines ... paragraphs and pages.

The hand setter loves the music of the rhythmic clicking of types as they take their places in the line. While so employed, it’s easy for him to forget about inflation, crime, taxes and other worrisome elements of today’s world.

Type symbols alone have little meaning. But when placed and spaced with other letters, they are magically transformed into words and ideas that can inform, educate and entertain. The same characters positioned in various sequences, can express the whole scale of emotions. Who wrote: ‘With my 26 slivers of lead I can conquer the World?’

Few things in this life can compare with the thrill a printer receives upon viewing the first proof of his ‘take’ of hand composed type. A close second, typographers maintain, is the elegant look of a form of metal type, competently justified and made up. ‘A thing of beauty to behold,’ they say.

Many typographers believe that if one is to learn the basics of fine typesetting–either hand or keyboarding–one must start with a composing stick and a typecase.

In working with metal types, the comp quickly learns the feel of type that can be acquired in no other way. The characteristics and names of the various faces and the families from which they originate will be understood. The mystery of set-width, x-height, base alignment, the unit system, ascenders and decenders, will all begin to unfold.

Recognition of the difference between look alike letters p’s and q’s as well as b’s and d’s can be made by their nicks as they are picked out of their compartments. By the same method, wrong fonts can be detected before they are set.

The tyro typesetter will begin to understand the importance of good spacing–inter-character, inter-word and also inter-line. Justification, optical spacing, kerning, leading, letterspacing, etc. will begin to make sense.

By observation and diligence, the novice will find his skills in spelling, grammar and word division improving.

And in the end, the comp will learn to create type composition that is readable, legible and in good taste.

Nevertheless, many new printers are afraid to attempt to set substantial amounts of straight-matter composition. But actually, it’s no more difficult than setting a few lines for a business card or a letterhead. It merely requires more time and patience.

It’s not too difficult for the average compositor, observing a few rules of good taste, to catch and hold the reader’s attention for a few seconds while he reads a few display lines. But it is a real challenge to retain interest in a large number of pages composed in a plain text face. This demands expertise from both the printer and the author.

But after a typesetter becomes well acquainted with a straight-matter face, he will better understand its capabilities and limitations. Such intimacy can be obtained in no other manner than by actually assembling type characters.

Only by this method can the relationship or fit of the various shaped letters to one another be understood. It may be compared to the assembling of parts of a jig saw puzzle. Some letters will snuggle up cozily together. Others will keep their distances as if trying to avoid the plague.

The typographer-to-be will learn how to kern, mortise and letterspace to overcome the awkward spaced pairs and attain uniform white space between all the various shaped letterforms.

Because one can actually feel and see the assembly and growth of a word and groups of words, the printer using single types, will be able to create a very readable piece of composition.

For the composition of a book, a type face of a sufficient amount to set at least two pages would be ideal. A serifed face, that has withstood the test of time would be an excellent choice. Newer ‘fashionable’ sans-serifed types are not recommended by most book typographers.

The fact that a printer may have only a limited quantity of a text face need not be an obstacle to the composition of a sizable amount of straight matter. Just a part of a page can be set in type, printed and distributed at a time, and the operation repeated until a whole page is printed.

The California job case is the favorite of the private press printers of today because of its compactness and convenience. It holds the caps on the right side and the lower case on the opposite, in addition to figures, points, ligatures, as well as the spaces and quads.

Because of their limited capacity, two-thirds and miniature cases are not practical for storing large fonts of text faces.

If a large quantity of one size of a text typeface is to be set, a pair of News cases, with their large boxes, are to be highly recommended. These cases, because of their relative positions on a stand, are known as the upper or cap case and the lower case.

Type up to 14 point is usually referred to as composition sizes and larger ones as display.

The News upper case holds the caps on the right side and the small caps on the left. It also contains compartments for fractions, reference marks, commercial signs, dashes and other special characters. The caps are all in alphabetical order with the exception of the J and U.

When type cases were originated by printers, the Latin language was the universal one and contained only 24 characters and they were placed alphabetically in the case. When J and U came along much later, they were assigned to the end of the group.

Often the small cap letters O, S, V, W, X and Z have an extra nick to distinguish them from the similar lower case characters.

A full size News upper case will hold about 20 pounds of type.

The News lower case has compartments of varying sizes, in accordance with the frequency each letter is used in composition. The letter e, appearing more often than any other letter in printing, has the largest box. The letter z, x, j, q, and k seldom used, occupy the smallest boxes. If all the letter compartments were of the same size, those holding the most popular characters would soon become depleted.

Studies involving 600-character samplings show these average frequencies of letter use:

e—60 r—30 f—12 v—6
t—42 h—25 w—11 k—4
a—40 d—21 y—11 j—2
i—38 l—21 p—10 q—2
o—34 u—19 b—8 x—2
n—34 c—16 g—8 z—1
s—34 m—12 Spaces and points—97

The positions of the lower case boxes are not all arranged alphabetically, but sequences are preserved such as: b-c-d-e, f-g, l-m-n-o-p and t-u-v. The most frequently used letters occupy the center of the case. Those seldom used, are located at the far side.

Some boxes are arranged so that a number of the most common letter combinations are at the ends of the compositor’s fingers, such as: end, are, and, the, this, that and others.

It is believed that the sizes and locations of the various compartments of the case were originally based on the frequency which each of the letters were used in setting the Bible.

The lower News case will accommodate about 40 pounds of letters, figures, points, ligatures plus 10 pounds of spaces and quads. Thus, a pair of full-size News cases will hold about 70 pounds of type and spacing material.

A diagram depicting the lay (layout) of the case, displayed prominently in view of the comp while setting type, will jog his memory and reveal the location of any members of the alphabet that might be forgotten momentarily.
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