Setting Type Part One: The lay of the case

The type compositor is shown on the left side of the illustration.

Over 500 years ago, the first European printers set type from either a very large segmented tray or, later on, two trays: an “upper case” for the majuscule characters, and a “lower case” for the miniscule characters. Later, industrial efficiency demanded that these large or double trays merge. In North America, the tray is known as the “California Job Case,” and all my type is held in cases with this configurarion.

As you can see, what used to be the lower case fills the left and the middle of the case, and the upper case has been added onto the right side. Thin strips of wood form the divisions and segregates the various sorts (‘sort’ is the term for a single piece of lead type). One of these trays would be used for a single font size of a specific type face. Thus, to have one font in roman and italic, in seven sizes (10, 12, 14, 18, 24, 30, 36 point) you would need a cabinet with at least 14 drawers, but you would also need a drawer for special characters and figures, small caps and other obscurities.

Compositing station with 'Tintern Abbey' under way. (Click to enlarge)

It takes more than type to lay out a form. In most applications, but particularly book work, leading and spacing material is required. ‘Leading’ are strips of lead that lie between the rows of type to add white space between the printed lines. Spacing material (I call them “thicks” and “thins”) are just like pieces of type, but shorter and, of course, with no letter in reverse on its top. These are used to space words or letters, and to firm up the line of type in the compositing stick. The four drawers at the top hold my 12 point “thins”: the first two are copper and brass, very thin piece of metal to shim into the form to keep the lines from wobbling around when being printed.  I use a plastic fishing tackle case for my 12 point spacing material; I have similar containers for six other sizes of type. On the far right is a galley tray with forms of type (i.e. already set and ready to print, or, in this case, ready to dis), two pages from the introduction to the book.

In the type tray is a font of 12 point Italian Oldstyle type. Most of this type face that I own is new, but this lot I bought second hand and it has seen some use. I keep it separate and as I use it and proof the characters, I am able to weed out the worn, broken and hair-lined sorts. I could just assemble the entire font in a chase and print it at once, but that is a heck of a lot of work for someone with a lot of time on their hands. I prefer to do it gradually while working on projects.

Explore posts in the same categories: Letterpress printing, Typography

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4 Comments on “Setting Type Part One: The lay of the case”

  1. Three Bats Says:

    Aww, come on. Be brave. Print the whole font in one go.

  2. thank you, very interesting article, as I have just “inherited” about 100 type cases full of type and a platten press and much more which I’m learning to use.

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