My monthly update & justifying justification

While blundering around in the files looking for images to post, I came across a shot of the little Kelsey press before Craig Black restored it. Here it is:


Just a little on the rusty side, but not so bad as to become scrap. I’m delighted with the results taken off of it so far.

Time for a short lecture. In contemporary word processing, justification is noted in tool pallets as tiny icons like this:


Just click and all your text flips left, right, centered or full justification, creating a neat block of text. Setting justified text in monotype is interesting for a number of different reasons. Those six of you who have been following my bi-monthly updates will likely know that setting little bits of lead with a reversed letter on top is a laborious game. The easiest forms to set are called ‘jagged right’ or left justified text, or right justified if that’s one’s desire. You can use a uniform letterspacing in this instance, then filling in the end of the line with spacing material (i.e. pieces of lead that are shorter than the type, so they don’t print).

Centering text is a little more complicated, but still very simple. The compositor simply uses the same width of spacing material at each side progressively, until the line is tight and the text is centred in the composing stick.

To create full justification, or straight on both sides of the text block, is a bit more of a chore. First, have a look at the tools of the trade when it comes to compositing:


At left, there the plastic tackle bin full of metal word spacing material for 12 point type. These spacers are of varying thicknesses, ranging from quite thin to quite fat, and they are proportional to the size of type, so a quad (perfectly square spacer) for 12 point is a different size than a quad at 24 point, but they are relatively the same proportionally, in relation to all other spacers. Don’t worry about it; there won’t be a test.

At the back is a little case I use to store what I call ‘thins’ or spacing material that is, you guessed it, really thin. These range from thin lead spacers on the right to very thin brasses (second drawer from left) to super thin coppers (left drawer). On the galley tray is a whack of glorious type set and fully justified. In the left foreground is the composing stick, the tool used when working over the type tray to set all these words and paragraphs, also used to create typographical errors. So without getting too technical, setting cold type involves lots of bits and bobs.

When I go to set a fully justified text, I first set the line with equal word spacing, but I don’t finish off the line by filling the end in with spacing material, as I would for left justification. Instead, I flip up all the word spacers, as shown below:


You’ll note that I have a quad at the beginning and end. It’s a habit I learned from Margaret Lock, and having the quad there, I’ve learned, makes life a lot easier when the form is standing on its own on the pressbed. Also, when a letter, like a capital ‘W’, or quotation marks have to extend beyond the justification line, the quad gives you some wiggle room. But I digress….

The space at the end of the line between where the text ends and the quad is the space that I must spread absolutely evenly throughout the nine spaces available between words. Apparently, there are printers who can measure that gap, and calculate (in their heads, probably) the exact size or combination of sizes of spacing material needed to fill out the line. Envious though I may be, I am not one of those printers. Instead, I frig around with various combinations until its close, then load them in. Nine times out of ten I’m bang on. The other times I have to try again.

No matter how you do it, it takes a bit longer, but even without the ability to calculate the proportional size of the universe in my head, I found that after I had done 30 or 40 lines, I began to develop an instinct about the spacers and what would fit, and my odds improved. What would happen to me if I shifted to another size, I don’t know. Maybe the instinct would shift over as well.

The dangers of sloppy justification are evident in lead as in digital composition. Who of us hasn’t seen columns in the newspaper with two words and an uncomfortable canyon of white space  separating them? And then there are rivers, those lines of white space that run down the length of a page like, well… like rivers. Our minds search for patterns in the text. Ideally those patterns are letters and words, but who hasn’t been distracted enough when the subject matter is perhaps a wee bit dull to follow the white water down through the gray? Rivers can happen with any text if the word spacing is too generous, and/or the leading (line spacing) insufficient.

End of lecture.

Explore posts in the same categories: Letterpress printing, Typography

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