Hand Setting Type

Logo Cleeve Press

T y p e s e t t i n g

Movable metal type was originally set by hand for small and large printing jobs alike, until the linotype machine was invented in the late 19th century. Hand setting is still an interesting and productive skill, the basics can be learned in a few hours.


Caselay Illustrations (Figure one)

The printer’s double lay case is organised according to the frequency of each character’s usage.  The most used letters are on the left and are centred in that part of the case and are NOT in alphabetical order. The right hand side is for the uppercase letters (capitals), these are in alphabetical order.

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Spaces (figure two)

The space used at the end of a sentence is an “em”.  This is the width of a letter “M” in that typeface’s point size. The space used between each word is an “en” and is half the width of an “em”.  Other spaces are in proportion and are called “thicks”, “mids”, “thins”, and “hairs” being the thinnest.

If the type is set to an exact “Measure” for example 18 ems (the 12 point “em” or pica “em” is a standard printer’s measure) The line of type when dressed out with the correct spaces will fit firmly and easily in the setting stick.

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Setting Stick (figure three)

The “body” the type is mounted on is larger than the character (letter) and is the stated point size.  The character will be smaller than the “body”.  Some faces have added space around the character and will be denoted as 12/13 point for example (12 point type on a 13 point size body)

This is calculated by the type designer (engraver/founder) to make body copy easier to read, with effectively increased line spacing.  Often leading is added between lines of type.  Leads start at two points thick and are cut to the setting length.

The “body” of a typeface has to comfortably accommodate all shapes and sizes of fount in a given alphabet, Capitals, Lowercase, Numerals , etc.
How type sizes were measure before the adoption of a standard convention. (figure 3a)

The ratio between “capital height” to “lowercase ascender” also “x height” to “descender depth” will vary from fount to fount.  The body will have a standard height for a given point size, with the width varying to give a comfortable balance for the neighbouring characters.

Film of hand setting 1940

Ehop illustration (figure four)
The form of a Character, type design (figure 4)
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S e t t i n g   t y p e   b y   h a n d

Always work from “clean copy”, the best example is 12 point typewritten, without corrections or deletions.  Place the typecase at a comfortable height, the traditional compositor always stood at a bench to work.  Set the setting stick to an exact pica measure, use a type scale, a setting rule (a brass rule cut to a pica “em” measure)  or count out 12 point ems and lock the setting stick to that width.  Start by putting one thick lead across the setting stick (6 point thick or more),  this will help you pick up the completed lines of type.

Caslon double lay typecase (figure 5)

Hold the setting stick in the left hand and use the right hand to select the founts from the typecase.  At first use a caselay guide (figure one).  Case layouts will vary from printer to printer!   The lay of the case will become surprisingly familiar in a short time.  Do not look at the individual founts as this will take for ever!   Feel for the slot, the “nick” on the lower edge of each body of type, this is ALWAYS towards you.

Our European writing system always starts on the Left and completes on the Right hand side.  As type is mirror image, set from the Right Hand side and complete on the Left hand side.  Place each fount at the right hand end of the setting stick and keep the line in place with you left thumb, until the line is complete.  Always try to avoid splitting words (hyphenation).

Any looseness in the line should be taken up by adding appropriate sizes of space(reference figure two).

Two line of typeSetting stick (figure 6)

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A r r a n g e m e n t   o f   t y p e

Type can be arranged in four different ways.

Ranged Left (against the left margin)

Ranged Right (against the right margin)

Centred (equal space between the margins)

Rule: When centring always add the same size of space to left and right sides in progression.

Justified (all the lines have exactly the same length, except for a new paragraph indent or the last short line of a paragraph)

Printer’s galley (figure 7)

When the line is firmly “spaced out”, add a lead if desired, then work on the next line.  When the setting stick is full, transfer the type to a “galley”, this needs to be done carefully.

1 – Place the galley on a flat, firm bench where it will not be disturbed.

2 – Put the setting stick on the galley and ease off the slide lock, until the type is free.

3 – Hold the type with both hands, keeping firm pressure on the top lines, the base lines and both ends simultaneously (practices makes perfect)!

4 – Lift or preferably slide the type off the setting stick onto the galley.

Move the type by gripping and sliding to the top left hand side of the galley and secure with “furniture” place on the outer and lower edges.  The set body of type is known as a “forme”, for longer times of storage, wind typesetter’s cord around the type and “tie up”.

If the type is secured by type setters cord a printers proof can be taken.  Read the proof and mark any corrections that are needed for correcting spelling, punctuation, layout or swopping “wrong/damaged founts”.


“Form” type and furniture locked in place (figure 8)

L o c k i n g   U p

To lock up for printing, select a “chase” suitable for the press to be used.

Place the chase over the type forme leaving the forme centred in the middle.  The space around should be filled with printer’s furniture.  Always aim to make an “H” shape around the forme of type and add similar sizes and lengths of furniture to each long side to make a uniform geometric shape.

The furniture at the top and bottom of the type should be as an exact measure as the line setting length as possible (example 18 ems).  In the remaining space place the “quoins”.  It is best to put these at the head or foot of the type and one side only.  Any smaller gaps can be taken up with leads or thin wooden furniture.  Use the quoin key to apply a LITTLE pressure in sequence to all of the quoins… Do Not Fully Tighten yet!

Take a thick flat smooth hard wood or plywood block which is larger than the type area and using a mallet tap the type down to even the printing surface.

This was traditionally done on a “printer’s stone”, a large flat steel plate (a galley will do).   Once the types have been knocked down, complete by locking the quoins in sequence.  When all is locked up,  lift the chase up slowly over the stone or galley.  Did all of the type stay in place?  If not,  check where and why the looseness is and adjust spacing and re-lock.

The last process is to ink up and print a first press proof!

A n d   N o w   F o r    P a p e r ! !


A page from the “Typographical Association Year Book 1936”

Stevenson Blake “Bank” printing block

E x p l o r e   t h e   I m a g e   G a l l e r y

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Text, illustrations & Photographs © Nicholas J Birchall  December 2011

Interesting blog!!

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7 Responses to Hand Setting Type

  1. Pingback: Not my Type | Dawn of the Unread

  2. Pingback: Hand Setting Type | KJG that's me

  3. Stan Hilton says:

    I am so pleased to see your very informative website on letterpress printing but can I please point out that the correct way to compose type in a setting stick is to hold it in your left hand at the adjustment end of the stick. Having the closed edge towards your body you insert each character, starting from the left, viewing it up-side-down (nick away from you) with your thumb supporting the end of the line while you take the next character from the case.

  4. Michael says:

    I liked your website Nick, being a old compositor, a few tips, type should be shown from left to right as it is easy to read. You need to amend your photo on page 2 to holding the setting stick in your left hand and holding the type with your left forefinger/thumb. Figure 6, turn the photo around as upside down and hard to read. Figure 8, turn the chase around so it is easy to read and always lock the form up with the head solid and quoins at the foot which is a better lock-up if you wish to do changes.
    Your website is very informative, well done, it just needs minor adjustments.

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