hand composition

This section covers all of the operations that take place (if all goes well, that is) in your first session in the printing room. Please read it carefully beforehand. It may not make too much sense before you actually lay hands on the type, but all will become clear when you do. Also I will be there to start you off and show you what to do and help you with any problems. If you need to get in touch with me, you should phone the secretaries on 414-3749 and ask them to find me: I'll be in touch as soon as I can get to a phone. You can use the pay phone on the ground floor at the foot of the stairs.

Bring with you a sample of your card, the text you have chosen to print, but not your best clothes (printers' ink is specially designed to stick to anything it touches. Forever.) and a certain amount of patience.

The first step is to make some decisions: the type face, the measure, and the stints; in other words, how wide you will set the composing stick, and who is going to set which bits of the passage. Then you choose a setting rule of the same length as the measure you've chosen, place it in the composing stick, and adjust the stick to the right setting. Then you can begin to set type.


Before you go into the print room you will need to have memorised the lay of the case. It's not difficult, and will save you a lot of time.

The basic routine for setting type is as follows. The stick is held in the left hand, the back against the palm, the fingers curled underneath to support it, and the thumb hooked over to hold the type in place when it's been put in the stick. Like this. Don't hold it upside down. The type will fall out. You may think this is obvious. You'll be surprised what people will do in a composing room...

The right hand picks up the type, feeling for the nick with the forefinger as it does so. The types are put into the stick nick upwards (ie upside down), face out (of course), and working from left to right in the stick, so that they read upside down and mirror fashion. (It is the attempt to read them the right way up that leads to the turning of the stick upside down, incidentally. Believe me, it's quicker to learn to read them as they sit in the stick.)

When you've set a word, you will need a space. There are three kinds of word space, thick, mid, and thin. The one to use is the thick, but it's not crucial.

When you've finished setting the line, check it carefully; it's almost infinitely easier to correct it now than after the next stage. You might reflect as you do so that it's rather unusual that you won't have made any mistakes, and that you won't be able to find these mistakes before you get to the proofing stage. Some of these will be caused by foul case, which is not your fault, so prepare to be philosophical about it.


The next thing to do is to justify the line. What you must bear in mind about justification is that it's possible. Don't panic. Don't despair. It can be done. Any line can be justified, however unlikely it may seem at the time; a practiced hand can usually justify in a few seconds what you've decided after many attempts is impossible.

This is what to do. To justify verse, when you come to the end of the line, start to fill up the remaining gap with spaces. You can use quads, ems, ens, thicks, mids, and thins, in descending order of size. The steps are:

1 Start ON THE RIGHT with the largest space you can get in.
2 Then put in the next largest that you can get in into the remaining gap on its left.
3. Repeat 2 until either the line is justified or you can't get another space in; if the latter
4. Take out the smallest space that's in there already and try a different combination
5. Keep trying.
6. If a space goes in part of the way and then sticks, it's because the type is off its feet. Align it properly by rubbing the face with your thumb.
7. The line is justified when, if you push the setting rule up, tilting the line of type away from the bottom of the stick, and then take the rule away, the type stays where it is. If it falls back, or if it looks sloppy and loose, IT''S NOT JUSTIFIED!
8. When the line is justified, take out the setting rule and put it on top of the line you've just set. Type will not slide easily against type, so if you don't do this the next line won't justify properly.

To justify prose: at this stage in your career as a compositor, say goodbye to any superstitious respect you might have for the straight right hand margin and set it unjustified, as they call it; that doesn't mean that you can avoid justifying the line, it just means in popular terminology that it will have a ragged right-hand margin. Even so, prose is more difficult than verse because there will be less white space at the end of the line to play with.


When the stick is full, you need to remove the contents from it and put them on to the imposing stone. This is done as follows:

1.Put in a setting rule both at the bottom and the top of the type.
2. Put the forefingers on the rule at the top.
3 The thumbs go under the rule at the bottom.
4. The second fingers push down the stick and simultaneously press in against the sides of the type as it emerges.
5. Like this.
6. Try not to drop it.
7. It's a good idea to practice using a large metal quad, say l8 by 12 ems or so, adjusting the stick to fit it exactly, and pushing it out in the approved manner, making sure that you get the position of the fingers right.


As the type comes out of the stick, it should be put on the imposing stone in the way in which you want it to print, with all of the different parts--in this case, the text and the Christmas message--in the same relation to each other (but, of course, mirror fashion) that you wish the text to appear on the card. Once this has been arranged, the type must be surrounded with furniture so that it's held in place. The pressure on each side of the type must be equal, and you must be sure that none of the furniture binds against any other so that pressure is inadvertently lessened. It helps to think in rectangles.

I realise that this is a less than adequate description, but I can't think of a better way of describing the process; really, you have to see it, and do it, several times. Here is a diagram that gives you some idea of what the finished product might look like.

When the furniture and type form one coherent rectangle, put in the quoins and tighten them a little. then plane the type, using the mallet and planer--gently! Then screw up the quoins, firmly, but not so hard that it strains your hands. This done, the forme is ready for proofing; but for this we need some ink.


Using a palette knife, smear a fairly generous line of ink along one side of the inking stone. Bring the roller up to touch this so that a fairly thin line of ink is picked up by the roller. Be careful! Rolling out too much ink is much more of a problem than too little, so be sparing. Roll out that line several times on the stone, and then repeat the process of picking up a line of ink and rolling it out until there is a uniform layer of ink on the stone. But not too much: spend time rolling the ink out until it starts to come up in tiny peaks, rather like black satin; this is roughly how much ink you need, but a true appreciation only comes with practice. And it's hard work.

Please remember at all times that the roller has feet. When not in use, it sits on its feet so that the roller itself doesn't rest against the stone, which would give it a flat; when in use, the feet are upwards, otherwise they will scrape a groove in the stone and ruin the type. This is to be avoided.


Ink the type, then put a sheet of your card on top of it, in roughly the position that will cause the image to appear in the correct place. Put a backing sheet on top, to cushion the roller, and run the roller over it. Then admire the results.


The problem about proof correction is that, as you will have noticed, each piece of type tends to be of a different set width. So if you have the wrong letter in a justified line, and the right letter is (as it usually is) a different size, then you have to rejustify the line. The procedure is as follows.

First loosen the quoins and furniture sufficiently so that you can get at the type and pull it out of the forme where necessary, but not so much that there's not still some support for emergencies. But you will find that the type is now much better-behaved, since it is held together by the ink. Go through and adjust all of the simple problems, such as turned letters, that don't require re-justification. Use tweezers or a bodkin to pull out the wrong sort. Use these implements with care: they should be addressed to the shank of the type, not to the face under any circumstances: there is a tendency, for instance, that the tweezers can slip and scratch the face, ruining it permanently. This is to be avoided.

For problems that need rejustification there are two expedients. One is to attempt rejustification on the stone, by feeling the side of the type-page to check whether the rejustified line is the same length as the others. With a lot of experience, this can be done. You don't have a lot of experience, but don't let that stop you making the attempt. You will find that if the furniture immediately at the side of the type page is wood rather than metal you will have a lot more leeway in the justification department; but don't count on it, because only experience can tell you how much you can count on it.

The unpalatable alternative is to remove the line from the stone, put it in a stick which has been set to the right measure, and rejustify it properly; then put it back where it goes in the forme. This understandably unpopular alternative is usually accomplished by putting a lead of the correct length above and below the offending line, lifting it partly out with pressure from a bodkin at each end, then surrounding it with your fingers and pulling it all the way out with a certain expertise and panache. Of course, you could do it letter by letter . . .

When you've done all the revision you think you need, tighten the quoins, plane the type, tighten again, and take another proof, which is known as a revise. And correct again, if you need to.

And now you are ready to print.