Long Live the Composing Stick!

This semester, I’m taking a letterpress class as a way to alleviate the pressures of my thesis—and to get away from the computer. The class is six hours every Friday, and it is definitely a different way of thinking. Sitting in front of the computer and creating something typographic is one thing, but composing it for letterpress is coming at it from a whole different direction.

In my class, we are not using plates. We are truly typesetting everything, using the composing stick, the ems, ens, the spacing material, the furniture, the brasses, and the coppers. It is an art, and I can often feel my brain stretching and grumbling in confusion and excitement.

For our first assignment, we were paired up and each given a letter, which we create out of type and various ornaments. All eight of us in the class are new to this, and now that we are about five weeks in, we’re just now getting to press on our letters. Figuring the math of how to make sure type meets up where it’s supposed to, getting the right sized lead, and creating flush edges are just a few of the issues we’ve been dealing with.

The job of the type compositor has largely been swallowed by the computer (and the designer). Typesetters are true craftsmen, and I must admit I have a new appreciation (and knowledge) of what typesetting means, as well as the amount of time and patience it takes.

I realize from engaging with letterpress and typesetting how wonderful digital technology is, and how much easier it makes life. Yet at the same time, I am coming to realize the history to be found in each piece of wood or metal type. The dings and nicks and cracks and quirks that begin to tell their own story—something digital technology can’t do. As David Jury writes in Letterpress: The Allure of the Handmade:

“While the process itself offers intervention, letterpress offers fewer typographical options in the detailed composition of type than the computer, if the designer were to venture beyond the software default settings. The occasional ill-fitting character pairs (typically Wa, Va, and Ta) are so ubiquitously part of the look of letterpress that today, instead of being considered wrong, they are commonly described as quirky, interesting, and friendly! Clearly, this is, in part, nostalgia. However, such a deeply embedded response can undoubtedly be a powerful ally to the typographer, advertiser, graphic designer, and private press.”

There’s still lots we can learn from letterpress, and lots of ways we can push back on it to propel design forward. It just takes a little more time and patience.

7 thoughts on “Long Live the Composing Stick!

  1. Pingback: Imprint-The Online Community for Graphic Designers | Season of Letterpress

  2. Pam

    I am 63 years old so started in this business 42 years ago when the professionals that set type were skilled, talented and respected professionals. As goes the entire graphic profession these days 90% of the so called graphic professionals that proudly profess to be designers would never have made it back when real talent and skill were required to be in this business.
    So glad to see this article!

  3. Narelle Badalassi

    I really enjoyed reading this
    I run a small home based letterpress & printmaking work shop from home in Tasmania and am a trade qualified press operator.
    It is wonderful to see the interest in Letterpress after years of people looking at me oddly and saying what on earth would you want to waste your time with type and old technology
    Welcome back Letterpress I love you !

  4. Leslie

    I really appreciate hand-set type, which is why we still have full cases of lead laying around our print shop. But in reality, I will most likely never touch the stuff again because the modern letterpress print shop doesn’t really allow you the time to set lines of type.

  5. Nina Miller

    In 2004, I took my first letterpress class and my first HTML/CSS class simultaneously. To me, there was an amazing connection between the two. It gave me a really deep understanding of what I had already learned in history classes, on a visceral level, and bringing that knowledge and understanding to what is essentially a new typesetting tool with it’s own technical restrictions and options made for a great semester.

  6. Smitha

    This brings back memories of a letterpress independent study I did this time last year. Even though I didn’t get to actually finish my project (one of the only pages I did typeset and run through the press is hanging up by my desk–a quote from the movie “Contact”), it was still such a great experience–hand-setting all the type and doing the leading manually lent such a wonderfully tactile side to typography. It was also, like you said, a great way to alleviate stress and zone out for a few hours a week during my first semester of grad school in years. And knowing the history of the craft gave me such a great appreciation both for the ease of digital typography and the skill required to be a typographer in the past.