I hope it’s not an imposition…

April 19, 2010

Title pages!

Ages and ages ago, I wrote a little about composing type. I wrote about my love of hand-composition, despite the horror some others seem to feel at the thought of such a laborious process. And I said I’d try to follow up with further exploration of the details.

Today I want to talk about imposition. I’ve explained that composition is the process of selecting and ordering the individual pieces of metal type according to the demands of that manuscript. I also mentioned that, in letterpress printing, the composition stage must be followed by the imposition process, which I described this way: “composed type is […] secured in a metal frame called a chase, which allows the type to be loaded into the press for printing”.

Not much of an explanation. In fact, this now seems like a pretty bad analysis. I jumped right into the middle of a philosophical problem here, if not into the jaws of a true paradox. The problem, often faced by philosophical analyses, is that the explanans is in as great a need for analysis as the explanandum.

Okay. By now I’m sure I’ve lost just about everybody to sleep, catastrophic depression, or at least television. So, to indulge myself, I’ll include a brief italicized interlude about philosophical analysis, which everyone should probably skip and go on to the paragraph immediately following, which returns to letterpress issues.

Herewith departs the Self Indulgence Express, direct to Solipsism, MT. The paradox of analysis stems from the following worry. Suppose I attempt a conceptual analysis. It seems like only two things could happen. Either (a) I could end up saying something true, but not interesting (that is, it doesn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know), or (b) I could say something interesting, but not clearly true.

In the present context we have this other common problem: my analysis is right, but it doesn’t amount to an informative analysis since (for pragmatic reasons) it maybe doesn’t mean anything to anyone who didn’t already understand all the terms to begin with. In other words, for someone to know enough to make use of my analysis, they’d have to know so much that my analysis would be irrelevant. The explanans wasn’t any more accessible than the explanandum.

Okay. Now that I’ve gotten that out of my system, let’s consider how printing works. Not laser-, digital, photo-offset, or none of that other stuff, about which I know next to nothing, but old time letterpress, relief printing. Say we’re going to print an ad flyer for Joe’s Super Awesome Coffee Beans of Bklyn, NY. What we’re going to do is, we are going to grab a composing stick and go over to the type case and pull out all the sorts (individual pieces of type) that we need to spell out:

Joe’s Super Awesome Coffee Beans

select varieties


Offer limited to stock on hand.
Joe’s Super Awesome Coffee Beans of Bklyn, NY

So we’re going to pick out all the sorts in order, laying them on the composing stick, attempting to bear in mind that the letters look upside-down (or sdrawkcab) . We’ll stick some pieces of lead spacing in between the lines in order to space them out like we like. We’ll have to pick from four different types: big heavy bold for the headline, italic text for the priceline, roman caps for the exclamation, and, finally, small, bold, roman text for the fine print.

Alright, now we’ve got it all on the stick. We’ve even centered all the lines on the measure, by adding matching pieces of spacing on either side of each line of type.

Now what?

Somehow we’ve got to make it so that our beautiful type-form (all that metal in the composting stick) can go into the press to be inked and so forth. Let’s tie a bit of string around the type (so we can put down the composing stick without fear; it’s heavy) while we think about this.


So our printing process works by applying ink to metal types and then pressing a sheet of paper against the inky letterforms. Now, in our case, we are printing on The Brute, a 10 x 15 Chandler & Price New Style Press. What’s important for this discussion is that this press is set up to hold the type in a near vertical position. The press opens and closes like a clamshell, allowing the operator to feed sheet after sheet into the maw. In order for this to work, we take a steel frame called a chase, load the composed type into it, and block up the type with wood and metal spacers. Finally, we’ll insert quoins at the edges of the chase. Quoins (pronounced like coins) are adjustable wedging devices that can be tightened until they take up enough space that they wedge tight the other contents of the chase.

Composing stone mess, showing chase, type, furniture, and quoins. Also corrected proofs, brass and copper spacers.

Okay so that was technical. The importance of doing a good job in this stage is nonetheless easy to grasp, since there are two possible outcomes from this procedure. Either (a) all the type gets locked in nice and tight or (b) it doesn’t and remains wiggly. In the first case, the chase is locked up tight and we can expect that when we load it into the press, we’ll get pretty good results. On the other hand, we can imagine what happens in case (b) when we try to load up and run the press. Instead of Joe’s ad printing as it was designed to look, we might get something that looks kind of like this:

J  e’s   per A    ome Co  fee B   ns

$  /lb.
s  le
t varie ies


Offer lim  ed to st  ck o  hand.
Jo  s Su   r Awes me Co  e B a s of Bk  , N

This, clearly, will not stand. Joe would be likely to withdraw his patronage of our printing establishment. What has happened is that some pieces of type have jumped above their fellows and get hit harder (printing an irregular sort of bold), while others have dropped down or perhaps fallen out of the chase altogether, probably to get crushed in the massive steel jaws of the press.

The Brute. How handsome he (she?) is.

Good lockup requires method and patience. The typesetter must fit all the lines of type to match one another, down to the 1/2 pt. If standard word processing type size is 12 pt, then you’re talking roughly 1/24 the height of one line of standard text. We do this by inserting lead spacers, 1 pt brass spacers, and 1/2 pt copper spacers into the lines of type. We carry out this procedure on polished stone or glass surface, so we can be sure that each piece of type is standing up straight and level among its fellows.

If we’ve done a good job imposing (and our type is in good condition) we’ll be ready to get printing straight away.

Me, feeding The Brute.


3 Responses to “I hope it’s not an imposition…”

  1. Kate Says:

    OD ER ODA !

    Funny misprints don’t go over my head, although your philosophy does.

  2. Susan Says:

    Joe the Coffee Guy joins the ranks of famous Joes, right beside Joe the Plummer. I hope that Joe the Coffee Guy has more political sense.

    Good explanation about an imposingly difficult to explain subject, but it is still a mystery to me how any set of human fingers can shim and tie and whatnot all those tiny sorts into an even mass that prints nicely. Obviously you’ve got it down though: title page looks great!

  3. caleb Says:

    You make me chuckle, David(e). I was actually reading through this while watching the office, so I marked it as unread and came back to it just now. I hadn’t quite made it to “By now I’m sure I’ve lost just about everybody to sleep, catastrophic depression, or at least television.” How silly.

    Your comments on printing and its elements, well, it has gotten me taking more and more notice when that comes up. Apple, for example, is under some flack because their iPad reader has very poor fonts for readability, and though they can make a clean looking interface, they aren’t the best at making it readable.

    Keep it up.

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