Bosshard's Printing Primer
The Letterpress Pages
The Basic Tools of Letterpress
Although not common these days, letterpress supplies can still be found
at garage sales, in the classified ads of your community paper, and in the
back shops of most commercial printers. Ask around, you might be surprised
at who's got a pile of type and a couple old presses laying down in their
basement collecting dust. Many church organizations used letterpresses for
imprinting cards and bulletins - be sure to ask if they're still using that
What you'll need to get started:
Since the days of Gutenberg printing has been accomplished with movable
type. Each letter of the alphabet is cast on a separate piece of metal (type
metal is mostly lead with some hardeners thrown in). The foundry that casts
the type has developed a scheme of how many of each letter to include in
its package of type, called a 'font.' If you buy new type, you'll find the
fonts described as "12pt 14A 33a." This is their shorthand for
a font of type that is 12 points in body size (a printer's point is roughly
1/72") and contains 14 upper case 'A' letters and 33 lower case 'a'
letters. The rest of the font contains proportional quantities of the other
letters that equal the average occurrence of each in our language.
There are two varieties of type available. The best is foundry type that
was cast with a harder metal and was meant to be hand set and reused many
times. I don't believe there is any foundry type being produced since the
American Type Foundry (ATF) quit casting type about a decade ago.
Monotype is still being cast both commercially and privately. While its
metal is somewhat softer, with care it can still last for years. Monotype
was a British company that developed a machine to eliminate the need to
hand set lines of type. The typesetter would type out the copy that was
to be set and the machine would cast the individual pieces of type from
new metal, drop the type into a line, and eject the finished work in justified
lines that could be put directly into the press. When the job was printed,
the type would either be sorted into typecases to be used again, or remelted
in the Monotype machine to cast new type. These days we no longer have the
luxury of throwing our used type into the melting pot to recast to our needs.
Type is precious - sort it back into your typecases carefully!
The demise of Monotype on a large commercial scale was caused by Linotype.
The Linotype machine was widely used by newspapers and commercial printers
due to its speed of typesetting. Similar to Monotype's machines, the copy
to be printed was entered via a keyboard and the machine would assemble
lines of molding matrices that would then be used to cast a full line of
type as a single piece of metal. Linotype lines were generally a single
use item - the job was printed and the lead was remelted. Linotype metal
was very soft and wore out quickly. If you're interested in getting into
letterpress in a big way, you may be able to find a working Linotype machine
still in storage. They're huge, heavy, and quirky machines, but if you're
mechanically inclined they're usually available for the hauling - no simple
task. This is not a machine you are going to carry into your basement!
Once you've found a source of type you'll need some way to store it. Most
hobby printers started out by using old muffin tins to sort their type -
I'd recommend strongly against that. Typecases were still being made recently
by Thompson Cabinet Co. in Ludington Michigan. Used cases were widely available
until the middle seventies for as little as 5 or 10 dollars, dependent on
their condition, but the arts & craft craze then has made them difficult
to find. It's a shame that important tools for the printing craft are now
known best for their ability to display knickknacks! The last typecases
I saw at a flea market were in terrible condition and people were lined
up to buy them at $40 each.
Typecases are made to be stored (like drawers - but don't ever refer to
them that way!) in type cabinets. A cabinet can be readily built with ordinary
carpentry skills. I've seen very few usable used type cabinets available
and those that I did see were priced at the current rate of the combined
total of the cases they contained.
Typecases are available in several configurations, the most useful being
the California layout in either full or 2/3 sizes. The cases are made to
accommodate the average distribution of letters in a font with the largest
sections holding the Es and As right down to little spaces for the Qs. While
the layout of a case seems foreign when you first sort type into a case,
it soon becomes second nature and you'll find that picking type is quicker
because the most used letters are in the center with the seldom used letters
off to the edges and corners. Each font of type will need its own case unless
you want to double up some small fonts of widely differing sizes. You can
get away with putting a font of 10pt type in with a font of 24pt, but don't
skimp on cases and try mixing type sizes that are close to each other.
Keep your cases clean and orderly - type should be placed into the cases
facing the same direction (left or right) so the faces of the type never
get nicked by other pieces of type.
Spacing material is available from the same sources you get your type and
is called spaces and quads. You'll need spacing material for each size of
type you have, but not for each type face. The spacing is used between words
in a line, at the beginning of lines to indent the first word, and to fill
out the lines of type so that they're all the precise same length for locking
into your press. Spaces look just like type except they're shorter so they
don't get inked and print. Spaces are referred to as portions of an 'em.'
An uppercase M is generally cast on a square piece of type, so spacing that's
square is called an 'em quad.' A space that's half that wide is called an
'en quad' (because an uppercase N is cast on type of that width), and two
of them together are equal to an em. Three-to-em spaces (one third the width
of an em) are generally used as the standard space between words, though
printers that are particularly conscious of style will often use four-to-em
spaces. Five-to-em spaces are also regularly used except in very small type
To round out your spacing needs, you'll also need to find brasses and coppers.
Brasses are very thin pieces of brass and coppers are half that thickness.
These spaces are very thin, indeed, and need to be treated carefully to
avoid bending them when inserting into lines of type. In a pinch, pieces
of tagboard can be carefully cut as a substitute for these thin spaces,
though that isn't a good long term solution.
While type can be set directly into your press, it's a lot handier to set
your type into a composing stick. A good composing stick is nothing more
than a precisely machined adjustable box that can be set to allow the setting
of differing line lengths. Good composing sticks are a treat to use. Bad
composing sticks (those that don't force consistent line lengths because
they wiggle a bit) will cause you all kinds of trouble while you're trying
to print the lines that were set in them. Look for careful machining of
parts rather than stamped parts and a good locking mechanism that doesn't
allow any play in the adjustable end. Stainless steel sticks will last far
longer than you will.
To use your composing stick, set the adjustable side to a bit longer (a
couple of ems) than the longest line you'll be printing. Place a lead in
the stick, drop an em quad in to start the line (putting a wide space at
the beginning and ends of all lines will help you in locking your type into
the press), and set the type into the stick so that you're looking at it
'upside-down.' When you get near to the end the room left in your stick,
drop in an ending em quad, then insert additional spacing material to 'justify
the line.' All lines of type in your press must be exactly the same length.
If one of the lines is short, a piece of type will rise up and eventually
fall right out of the line causing the whole type form to fall apart. This
is a good time to pay extra attention to detail.
If you're setting lines of type that are ragged at the right margin you
can just fill in the gap between the last character you set and the em quad
at the end of the line. If, however, you're justifying the lines so that
the margins at right and left are even, you'll have to add spacing between
the words. A note of caution:
Putting spaces between adjacent lower case characters is frowned upon,
though a line of all caps should be letterspaced. Thin spaces can be added
in places that won't cause large gaps that trip the reader's eye. An extra
little space after a period in the line is typical; you can often add a
thin space between a word that ends with a character that has an ascender
(like the leg of the 'd') if the following word begins with a character
that also has an ascender (like a 'b'. The same will work with descenders).
What you're trying to accomplish is type that becomes 'invisible' to the
reader. This quickly becomes second nature. Setting type is a joy.
There are, literally, hundreds of varieties of printing ink out there. There
are special formulations for special materials. There are offset inks and
letterpress inks and screen inks, and etching inks. Over the years I've
found that Van Son's Rubber Base Plus nicely serves as an excellent general
purpose letterpress ink. It's available at any print supply distributor,
the colors are intense, and because it's rubber based it doesn't skin over
or dry on the press if left overnight. You may be able to find some cheaper
inks but Van Son is well worth whatever extra it costs. A one pound can
of black should last the average letterpress printer a couple of years;
the colors, much longer.
As a general rule, print text in black. Black ink provides the greatest
contrast between the words and the paper they're printed on. This makes
the best readability. If you wish to add a second color to your work red
is probably the best choice, followed by blue, brown, and dark green. Fine
printing uses color sparingly. Gaudy printing will detract from the message
the words are meant to convey.
Furniture, Reglet, Leads and Slugs
Furniture is spacing material placed around the lines of type you've set
to fill in the empty spaces in the chase of your press. Furniture is traditionally
made from hardwood that's oiled for stability, but is also available in
metal and plastic at a higher price. You don't need to have anything fancy
for furniture but it must be cut exactly square.
Reglet is very similar to furniture but is much thinner, generally 1/2 pica
or pica thickness. It is often used to provide the spacing between paragraphs,
though this is more properly filled with metal slugs, or to fill in the
narrower gaps in the chase that are too thin for furniture. Reglet is much
more difficult to manufacture yourself, so you're probably better off trying
to buy some from your typehouse. Clean your furniture and reglet after printing
and store it carefully and it will last you for generations.
Leading is the material used to provide spacing between lines of text. It
is available from most typehouses and can be purchased in either pre-cut
lengths ("2 pounds of 36 pica leads, please") or in 2 or 3 foot
long bulk packs. Buying your leading in bulk is obviously less expensive,
but you'll then need to acquire a lead cutter. Most cutters have an adjustable
stop on them; you slide the strip of leading up to the stop and clip it
off with the cutting lever. A 10 pound package each of 1pt and 2pt leads
will probably be sufficient for a good long while. Cut them to standard
sizes (maybe 6pts short of your standard line lengths) and you'll have them
ready to grab when you're setting type.
Slugs are just like leading but thicker. They are generally sold as 6pt
(1/2 pica) and are primarily used as the spacing between paragraphs.
Before you can print your 50 handset lines of type you'll have to make sure
that they're all nice and level so they will imprint the paper evenly. The
type is precisely cast but, as you tighten your form into the chase, some
letters may rise up a bit. At this point, just prior to putting the chase
into the press for printing, you stop off at the stone and plane your type
down to level. The Stone can be a heavy piece of glass, a thick and stable
piece of heavy plastic, carefully mounted masonite (maybe that hunk of countertop
that was cut out for your kitchen sink?), or (traditionally) a piece of
actual stone that has been worked to provide an absolutely flat and smooth
Wipe the surface of the stone clean and lay your chase on it. Place your
planer (a hardwood block with a flat, smooth face) on the face of the type
and gently tap it evenly across all the type to assure that all the type
is pushed down to the level of your stone and, therefore, even across its
face. Lift one corner of the chase and try to wiggle the lines of type.
If anything moves at this point you'll need to figure out which lines are
short and add more spacing to them so all lines are exactly equal in length.
The quoins (pronounced 'coins') are the devices used to lock all your type,
leading, and furniture into the chase. The simplest ones are nothing more
than 2 wooden wedges that are slid across each other's face to exert pressure
across your type form. A step more complex than that are cast metal wedges
with toothed faces. A special key is turned in the teeth to slide the wedges.
This provides a great deal more locking pressure. Finally, you can acquire
mechanical cammed quoins that greatly simplify locking up your forms and
apply very even pressure across a much greater span. The cammed quoins are
far better than either metal or wooden wedges.
There are many varieties of gage pins and experience will dictate which
ones will work best for you. Basically, you'll need 3 gage pins everytime
you print; 2 to rest the long edge of your paper on, the third to provide
a head-stop. The gage pins are what let you determine where on the paper
your printing will appear. Once you have your pins set, you slide the paper
down to the 2 pins, then over to the third, insuring that every sheet you
print will be identical.
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