Ready? Set Tpye!

March 9, 2010

from Updike, Printing Types: Their History, Forms, and Use. Harvard: 1922.

When I start talking to most folks about letterpress printing and how I’m printing a book, I usually find myself talking about the process for a few seconds before I’m interrupted.

– “Wait, metal type? You mean like with all those little pieces? Like you do this by hand?”

To which I have to try to reply in a dignified tone, maybe pretending that I’ve never been introduced to a computer or the concept of offset lithography:

– “Yup! It’s great!”

I’ve consistently found that it’s this aspect of letterpress work that confounds folks new to the process. The thought of spending hours picking up and ordering hundreds of tiny pieces of metal seems to make their skin crawl a little. Presumably, this has something to do with that modern and highly American way of thinking about doing things, which we all share in some measure: unnecessary labor makes us nauseous.

Now, what makes some activity “unnecessary” can be debated. Generally speaking, though, in our society, there are few things we’d prefer to see done by hand if there’s any way we can achieve a similar result through a mechanized, largely automated process.

I’m not going to try to make a case here for hand typesetting or hand-work of any kind over digital typesetting and automation. One either gets it or one doesn’t. Argument won’t persuade anyone who thinks letterpress printing is inherently a waste of time in 2010, the age of twitter and iMaxiPads (to be sure, an ironic pronouncement from a trained philosopher!). Besides, plenty of others have weighed in on this over the last couple of centuries (those interested in reading more can seek out writings by Arts and Crafts movement icons like William Morris and Eric Gill).

So there are folks out there who never get the chance to make things or fix things or do other work with their own hands and there are those of us who labor, perhaps foolishly, as letterpress printers, type founders, calligraphers, carpenters, bookbinders, papermakers, illustrators, and what have you. We’re very fortunate here in Denver to have a quite vibrant, enthusiastic, and warm community of artist/craftspeople of all sorts.

For my part, composing metal type is perhaps the best part of my work in the shop. I find composing very soothing, especially when compared with setting up and adjusting a 100-year-old printing press. Once you learn the lay of the case, that is, which letters go in which compartments of the type case, it’s not even that slow a process. Of course, I can’t compose type as fast as you can type your comments to this post, but it’s not as though the compositor stands over the case picking – one – letter – out – of – the – case – every – ten – seconds –

So it’s not that bad; it only takes about two hours to compose a page!

Maybe next time I’ll discuss more technical stuff about typesetting.

– David

from Updike, Printing Types: Their History, Forms, and Use. Harvard: 1922.

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3 Responses to “Ready? Set Tpye!”

  1. Avi G. Says:

    Interesting. Definitely Beats most of what I’m doing. regards from everyone this side of the atlantic.
    Enjoy,
    your cousin Avi
    (who’s rather busy doing almost nothing in school)

  2. Su-Yee Says:

    I don’t mind typesetting as long as there’s someone cool to talk to while I’m doing it 🙂 It doesn’t require much attention and man, the actual letterpress is much more aggravating. Well, at least the Kelsey I have to deal with is…I miss the Vandercooks at Brown!

  3. Janice Says:

    I believe the process and product, the road and destination, are equally valuable, interesting, fun …


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