This is basically a very simple operation. You just take one piece of type after another and arrange them into lines.

The hard bits are how do you keep the line of type from falling apart and where do you get the type from?


The composing stick has basically remained unchanged since early days. Modern ones are slicker with springs and markings, but they perform the same function as they always have. You take your manuscript and start at the very beginning, placing the first character upside down at the left hand end of your composing stick. You will have locked the sliding left-hand edge piece at the measure (line length) called for in the job specs. (Early composing sticks tended to be built for a fixed measure.) The next character will go next to it. The nick in the piece of type goes upwards and is what you’ll use as your guide. If there’s a paragraph indent at the start, as in this illustration, spaces will be what you first set: these are just lower bits of type metal which won’t get inked or printed. Similar spaces will be used when you reach your first word space. Once you’ve done your first line, you may need to adjust the word spacing throughout the line in order to fill the measure. And now you are ready to start in on your second line. Composing sticks hold several lines. After you have filled the stick, the type will be (carefully) transferred to a galley tray. Repeat ad infinitum.


Where does the type come from? Immediately it comes from your type case. This illustration shows an eighteenth-century German type case. It appears to hold both upper and lower case letters (Caps across the top). Lying on the floor in front of it are galleys (Schiff in German) and at the top left a sizable composing stick is shown.

But before it got to your type case the type had to come from one of two sources. The most common source would be from the printing press. After a job was printed, the type would be distributed. That is it would be sorted into the little compartments in the type case ready for reuse. And this would tend to be your job, as compositor. The first thing a typesetter would do on getting to work in the morning would be to distribute yesterday’s type back into his type case. The type case had compartments of different sizes depending on the frequency of occurrence of a character. Lower case “e” is the most common in English. It seems to be even more common in German, though the illustration makes that a bit hard to judge. But Wikipedia has an entry showing the relative frequency of letters in various languages. You can go down a rabbit hole studying this if that’s your mindset.

Fonts ready wrapped for shipment at M & H Type

Fonts ready wrapped for shipment at M & H Type

But before the type could come from the pressroom, it had originally to be bought from a type foundry. There used always to be a neighborhood type foundry, but now that letterpress has receded to a dilettante and specialist operation they are few and far between. M & H Type in San Franciso (part of the Arion Press in the Presidio) is one of the few remaining in operation. They have large numbers of fonts available for immediate shipment, and whenever they have a lull in their workflow, they can cast yet more depending on demand.