For half a millennium, a printing press using movable type was the main way of transferring words to paper. Its rise was spectacular and well-known, thanks to a certain German goldsmith and his famous Bible. Its decline has been much quieter, though the revolution in printing processes of the last century has been as thorough as Gutenberg's in the 1400s. Inventions such as computer printers, photocopiers, lithography and filmsetting have taken over, to the extent that that movable type is no longer used in industry.
Type, however, endures. Much of the old stuff has been melted down over time. But it's still around, on ebay and in junk shops. Small presses and artists use it. Hand bookbinders use it for finishing. And anyone with an interest in typography or composition would be well served by knowing the origins of the printed word.
I cannot remember a time when my father did not have a printing press.
Intellectually, I know he must have made a decision to buy it, once,
and that before that date he did not have one.
But in my heart, he is always associated with printing,
from his beginning as well as my own.
Some Technical Terms
|_/ /|_| |
/ / // / |
/ |_|/ / | <- shank or body
shoulder or -> / |
beard | | |
| | |
| | |
| | | _
nick -> ) ) / /
| | / /
| | / / -> point size measured
| | / / this way
width or set
My parents' house has always seemed huge and light to me,
as though the sunlight shone through the lath and plaster walls.
I used to wonder,
if it would blow away, like a vast hot-air balloon,
had it not been anchored in the basement
with the heavy press,
and the massive type cases,
under their long low fluorescent lights.
Types of Type
There are five kinds of type generally available.
- Wooden type
This is generally used for larger letters, and ones that won't be used too often. Even the hardest wood can't stand many impressions before it starts to show wear. Wood type will occasionally have a metal face attached to lengthen its life.
- Foundry type
This is lead type, made using the processes Johann Gutenberg adapted from coining:
First, a steel punch is carved with the positive of the desired letter shape, either by hand or with a Pantograph machine.
Next, the punch is pressed into a copper mat to produce a negative matrix.
Then the copper mat is mounted in an adjustable mould (which can be resized for letters of different widths) and the type cast.
This lead type is made on demand. An operator types a line of text into a Monotype machine, and the separate letters and spaces are made right then, already set into the line of text. The machine adjusts the spacing to justify the line if required.
The letters can be re-used, and are often sold as fonts, but the spaces are of irregular size due to the justification.
Like the Monotype machine, the Linotype was designed to make type immediately after an operator entered a line of text. However, rather than producing a pre-set line of individual letters, the Linotype machine produced a block of type containing an entire line of text. These lines were usually melted down rather than being resold, but Linotype is occasionally found in the second hand market.
- Brass type
Brass is harder to work with than lead. As a result, brass type is more expensive, and is used exclusively for tooling and hot stamping work. Rather than being cast, it is carven with a Pantograph machine.
Type attracts a certain kind of dust,
different than anything I have encountered elsewhere.
It's dark and faintly oily,
fine-grained, with its own distinctive smell.
I had forgotten this until I ordered a font on ebay,
and opened the box to be greeted by that familiar scent.
Foundry, Monotype and Linotype types are all referred to as "lead type". However, pure lead, though it has a relatively high melting temperature, is very soft and prone to cracking. Most type is made of lead mixed in some proportion with antimony (to reduce fractures) and tin (for hardness and a lower melting temperature). Below is a chart of the various types of lead types, plus the characteristics of pure lead and brass for comparison.
Type Pb Sb Sn Temp (C) Temp (F)
Foundry 62% 24% 14% 318.33° 605°
Monotype 76% 16% 8% 268.3° 515°
Linotype 84% 12% 4% 246.1° 475°
Pure Lead 100% 0% 0% 327.38° 621.3°
Brass N/A N/A N/A 915.56° 1680°
The melting temperatures of the various kinds of type are important for two reasons. First of all, the "on demand" manufacturing process for Linotype and Monotype required the lower melting temperature to make the machines operable. And second, any type used for hot stamping or tooling must have a higher melting temperature. In practice, only brass type and foundry type are suitable for such work.
He printed my wedding invitations himself, a great gift to me.
I recall him standing in the basement,
composing stick in hand,
picking letters out of a drawer resting atop the slanted top of a type case.
He would pick up each piece of type between thumb and middle finger,
blowing through his slightly pursed lips as he did so,
and delicately place it in the line of text he was setting.
Until the invention of the Linotype machine in 1886, all type was set by hand. The font to be used was stored in a long, shallow type drawer. The printer, working from a typographer's design, would use a small metal tray called a composing stick to hold each line of text as he set it. The lines would be assembled upside down, running from right to left. As he placed each letter, the printer would feel the nick to check that it was turned the right way. An experienced typesetter could set about 3,000 characters in an hour in a commercial setting.
Dad made 3x5 "business cards" for me and my brother,
with our names over and over in different fonts
interspersed with the ornaments we chose.
I remember standing at the type cases, pondering designs.
The mouse next, or the crescent moon with the owl perched on it, or the flower?
Then which letters - the big black ones, or the slanty ones, or that pretty, simple style?
But hand typesetting is more than just an inferior version of machine work. Since most printers still using type are small press publishers or artists, they usually combine the roles of graphic designer, typographer, and typesetter. The time at the type case is design time, used as much for trying out ideas and adjusting the balance of the text as for assembling lead.
When I was a child,
typesetting was the dull thing he did before printing started.
I waited impatiently for the time
when I got to turn the big wheel on the press,
listen to the syncopated clank...slide clank of the machinery,
watch him place each sheet of paper in the press
in a series of swift, sure gestures
before the type came closing in.
Only when I was older
did I understand the true balance,
learning that he took his artistic risks
in the quiet hours at the type cases with his composing stick
(or, latterly, when mixing the colors of his ink),
that the flash and motion of the press
was merely the execution of his plans,
showy but essentially safe.
Movable type was not the first mechanism for printing used in Europe. Before Johann Gutenberg, printers carved designs for entire pages from wooden blocks. This was unsatisfactory for two reasons: first, the wood wore down quickly, looking thick and clumsy after a few hundred impressions. And second, it was too slow. Creating even a page of text took days of a master craftsman's time.
Ironically, these two factors have doomed movable type as well. A piece of foundry type will show appreciable wear after as few as 50,000 impressions (depending on the paper and press used). At that rate, a large publisher would have to re-set the same best seller several times to keep the pages fresh-looking. In addition, processes such as filmsetting are enormously faster than hand-setting type (or even typing the text into a Monotype or Linotype machine).
Even more ironically, these new techniques create books page by page rather than letter by letter. They are the heirs of the carven full-page printer's blocks that Gutenberg replaced, rather than a refinement of movable type. Gutenberg is no doubt turning in his grave, but his invention can retreat now to the hobbyist's basement, where it will be treasured.
My father's type,
and the artistry it represented,
was like the roots of a tree,
nourishing everything above it.
It delighted him and fed his soul,
and he would come upstairs happy,
ready to delight us all in turn.
Banister, Manly. The Craft of Bookbinding
McLean, Ruari. The Thames and Hudson Manual of Typography
On the phone to my mother recently,
conscious of the irony,
I said, "I'm thinking of buying some type."
She laughed to hear my father's words from my lips.