Best Practices in Using Type

Best Practices in Using Type

by Sky Shipley, Skyline Type Foundry


Twelve Ways to Avoid Smashing Type and Other Stuff in Your Press (Jan. 2020)
Type Case Vandalism: A Moral Tale (Dec. 2019)
Best Practice in Composing and Using Type
(Nov. 2019)

Twelve Ways to Avoid Smashing Type and Other Stuff
in Your Press

Who among us has never smashed type? Alas, only those who have never done any printing. It happens, and not always due to error on the part of the pressman. But here’s a list of things you can do that will just about eliminate the risk. (This article concerns platen presses. With a cylinder press there’s really only one thing you need to know: NEVER leave anything on the bed that doesn’t belong there. No quoin key, no loose furniture, no screwdriver—not nuthin’, not nohow.)

  1. Mark with colored tape the areas along the side edges of your platen that are in line with the roller tracks on the bed. Anything in this zone will be smashed. Insure that neither grippers nor gauge pins impinge on these areas, and trim your top sheet and packing so that these warning marks are always visible.

2. If your form includes Linotype or Ludlow slugs, rout the shoulders down on a saw. (Yeah, I know, who uses a linecaster these days?) The ends of untrimmed slugs are all too effective at smashing gauge pins.

3. Beware of accidentally putting the chase into the press inverted—nothing good can come of that!

4. When you first put a new form in the press, or after any dimensional alteration to the lockup, roll the press through slowly by hand and carefully inspect for any conflict with grippers and pins.

5. Don’t even install grippers on your press unless a particular job requires it.

6. If you do use grippers, make sure they are securely bolted on and cannot migrate sideways into harm’s way.

7. Should a frisket be warranted to keep the paper from sticking to the form: rather than using metal extension fingers, stretch a thin rubber band between the grippers through a blank part of the form.

8. If grippers are used, remove them from the press after the run to protect the type in your next job.

9. Be aware of the smash potential presented by the gauge pin tongues, especially when making adjustments to register or to the length of the tongues themselves.

10. Remove the gauge pins from the top sheet after every run, unless you’re certain there will be no change in the lockup. The next form you lock up and put in the press may be aligned to smash them.

11. Remove all makeready from the press after every run. This insures that if the next form calls for lighter packing, the first proof will not have excessive impression.

12. NEVER operate or walk away from a press with the tympan bales not securely down. Notwithstanding the type that can get wrecked, it sets up the press for potential damage should it be cycled through by hand or power. Trust me—I learned this lesson the hard way. And now it’s yours, the easy way.


Type Case Vandalism: A Moral Tale

The Maistro closed his eyes for a moment of final focus. then took a deep breath and strode confidently out onto the stage. His audience immediately broke into strong and cordial applause. He bowed courteously with a cool half-smile and moved toward the Steinway Concert Grand as the house lights were slowly brought down. The audience grew quiet, anticipating the musical mastery about to commence. As he settled on the piano bench, unconsciously adjusting his starched cuffs, Maistro once again closed his eyes and breathed deeply. He then slipped a hand into his satin Tuxedo coat and from the breast pocket withdrew a fat black felt pen. With certainty of purpose, he uncapped the pen, and beginning at the left end of the keyboard, proceeded to methodically write the notes on each of the keys.

Sound unlikely? Well, this absurd scenario is essentially no different than a letterpress printer inscribing the characters in each box of a type case. Ladies and gentlemen, this is vandalism, pure and simple. It is the mark of an ignorant amateur*—as is referring to a type case as a “drawer” or “tray”.

*I, like everyone, began as an ignorant amateur in that I had little knowledge or experience in the craft, and was doing it for love and not money. As used above, however, the term denotes something entirely different, and negative: a dullard doing slipshod work.

Why is this a bad thing? If you’re a compositor and printer of even modest experience, no explanation is necessary—any more than for the frivolous parable above to an accomplished musician. For folks new to letterpress: suffice it to say that the “lay of the case” is not difficult to learn, and any distracting marks will just slow you down. Here are links to several diagrams of the case layout. By all means post one nearby for reference as you first learn to compose type. You’ll be surprised how quickly your hand knows the lay, and you’ll no longer need a crutch.

California Job Case
California Case (Schematic)
Cap Case (Double, Triple, or Quad)
Two-Thirds Size Case

One of the things I’ve been doing all my adult life is buying, selling, repairing and restoring type cases. We have some 320 cases of type in the Skyline pressroom (all restored and in their original Hamilton oak cabinets) and a couple of thousand more in the warehouse. Most of those still contain type, and it’s an ongoing project to evaluate it font by font, with the serviceable ones cleaned, put in order and routed to The Junk Bin for sale. The worn, incomplete, corroded or otherwise useless type is consigned to the melting pot for reincarnation into something new and beautiful. All too often the cases have been disfigured as above (with anything from pencil scratches to oh-so-tidy computer-generated adhesive stickers). These are then evaluated, repaired as necessary, the vandalism expunged, and then they are laid in stock toward assembling a matching set into a cabinet for sale back into the Letterpress community.

. . . and now: a Pop Quiz!

Question No. 1

This is:
A. A historic artifact meticulously restored to its original beauty.
B. A blank canvas sorely in need of big, clear labeling in all the little boxes so I can have a clue what the hell I’m doing when I try to mess with all those little tiny letters that go in it.

Question No. 2

These are:
A. Drawers.
B. Type Cases.

Question No. 3

These are:
A. Drawers.
B. Type Cases.

ANSWERS: If there is any uncertainty in your mind, please re-read the article until all is clear.


Best Practice in Composing and Imposing Type

Let’s look analytically at just why orienting type nicks-up is the preferred way to do composition.

Fact: The face of type is wrong-reading so that it creates a right-reading image when it transfers ink to paper. This is a given. When a printer composes type by hand, how then shall it be oriented in the composing stick to best facilitate the task?

A piece of type has six surfaces. Let us declare, first, that the type will be set with the face toward the compositor and the foot in the bed of the composing stick—otherwise the compositor couldn’t even see the face. (Although I suppose that some time, some where, some benighted soul has attempted to do it that way, not knowing better.) We have now narrowed it down to four options: nick up, left, right, or down.

I think we can agree that nick-left and nick-right can be eliminated, otherwise the characters would be set in a vertical sequence, not horizontal. (I have done this on certain specialty jobs, such as ribbons; and there may be times one would choose to do this for artistic reasons, e.g., running the name of the month on a calendar page vertically along the side of the sheet.)

Okay, now we’re down to the real issue. Do we compose nicks-up or nicks-down? First option: nicks-down. Here is what you would see looking at the face of the type in the stick:

In computer terminology, this is a Flip Horizontal.
1. Characters are “right-side-up”.
1. Composition must be done right-to-left, which is counterintuitive.
2. When you finish composing the first line, you cannot go on to compose the second, because in the stick it would have to go underneath the first.

Second option: nicks-up. Here is what you would see in the stick:

In computer terminology, this is a Flip Vertical.
1. Composition is done left-to-right, same as you read or write.
2. When the first line is set and justified, you can go on to compose the second, because in the stick it would be on top of the first.
1. Characters are “upside-down”, which is counterintuitive.

There it is, you do the math. Which way is more advantageous? But wait, there’s more! As we move on from composition to imposition, it’s traditional best practice to lock up a form in the same orientation with which you composed it, nicks-up—on the stone, that means nicks away from you. This is preferred for at least two reasons:
1. Ink transfer from the rollers to the type works significantly better when the lines of type are parallel to the rollers. (For another angle on this, see Skyline Bias Furniture on our web site.) Granted, nicks-down would accomplish the same thing, but keep reading—
2. The printed piece comes out of the press right-side-up, which makes it much easier to monitor quality. (We’re talkin’ platen presses here, folks; you cylinder-printers live in a different world.) The eye sees the image in the normal orientation and is much quicker to recognize any flaw.

You will notice that photographs of type on the Skyline web site (such as used fonts for sale in The Junk Bin) are presented in the traditional orientation, nicks-up. Typically, in photos seen on eBay or posted online by letterpress printers showing off their composition, forms are depicted nicks-down, reading right-to-left. For an experienced printer, the word that comes to mind for this is “bass-ackwards”! Personally I believe that the reason so many newbies unwittingly compose nicks-down is that they simply cannot get past the counterintuitive nature of seeing the characters upside-down; not realizing that they are making the whole process more difficult that way. Also, unfortunately, it is not uncommon for present-day instructors to teach the wrong method simply because they themselves were never taught correctly.

And so I rest my case. Nicks-up—always, always, always. Your brain can and will adapt to reading type this way, and quicker than you might expect. Now you know the best practice—best, because it’s the easiest and most efficient way to get the job done.