Quoin is the same word as we find in the Shakespearian “coign of vantage”, just not using that spelling variant. It’s pronounced the same too, just like those pennies. It basically means an external corner of a building, a cornerstone. According to the Oxford English Dictionary those pieces of change clinking in your pocket got their name because the dies used to stamp metal coins were wedge-shaped.

By extension, quoin also means the double wedge shaped device used to lock up a forme ready for letterpress printing. Quoins are first noted in 1570, and Letterpress Commons tells us “For over 400 years quoins were short wooden wedges, used in multiples, that were driven with a ‘shooting stick’ and mallet against long tapered sticks called side and foot sticks.” Maybe these wooded wedges looked more cornerstone-like than the modern version.

Photo: Kyle van Horn

Here, from Letterpress Commons is an example, including the key used to twist the two sides apart. After the compositor had made up the forme, using wooden and metal “furniture” to fill the chase, you’d see him twisting his wrist rapidly around the edges. By turning the key he forced one ratcheted side of the quoin along against the other making the combination wider. Turn them both, top and side, and the type was locked in and unless you dropped it on the floor you could move it over to the pressroom.

Here from St Brigid Press is a little video making it all clear.

If you don’t see a video here please click on the heading of this post in order to view it in your browser.