Letterpress List No. 37: Lead Astray

The hieroglyphics of the ancient Egyptians have for eons been pored over by brilliant minds seeking clues to the thinking and beliefs of their makers. The meaning behind many of these picture writings has yet to be fully unlocked. Perhaps thousands of years from now, archaeologists will still be puzzling over them.

Ditto for old Mr. Wilhelm’s system for marking the trays of lead type in his California Job Case.

Shop Boy’s still digging.

For the uninitiated, type trays work a little like the QWERTY keyboard on your typewriter/computer — the idea is to place the letters not necessarily where they fall alphabetically but where they make the most sense. In the type tray, letters that are used constantly and are thus more numerous, like E’s, get a larger, more central spot on the tray, which is about 3 feet wide and 2 feet deep. Semicolons get a smaller, less central spot. Hey, you whippersnappers might also be interested in this tidbit, which Shop Boy hadn’t thought much about before Typecast Press: The descriptions “uppercase” and “lowercase” for letters once meant just that — reach up for the capital letters and reach down for the non-caps.

When the type is filed correctly, the person setting the verbiage to be printed, having memorized this system, is able to quickly pluck the proper characters and build words on the composing stick — a steel tray that helps you set lines to the correct width and lock them in so they can be moved to the chase and then to the press without falling to pieces on the floor, or “pieing.”

All right, so you’ve got a guy who has way more type than trays. He doubles up fonts in a tray, then triples them for good measure. But sometimes only two fonts’ worth of the capital letters, which are larger, can fit in the proper box. So, he invents a system in which perhaps the orphan capital letters sit where the semicolons, colons, quotation marks and percentage signs (of which there are few) should be, the semicolons share a bunk with the dollar signs, the colons move in with the parentheses, the quotation marks go, um, here and the percentage signs go, uh, there’s good. Just mark the wood next to them. Oh, darn. Those little spaces can accommodate only half of the capital letters of your font. What to do? Easy. Just make a notation: “More capital letters of 24-point Brush font in tray 11.”


Now, Shop Boy shouldn’t mock Mr. Wilhelm, who ran a tidy little printshop in his Baltimore County basement, left behind when he died a few years back. Typecast Press bought the shop lock, stock and barrel — at pennies per pound, believe me — from his patient widow, who was selling the house. We’ve got samples of his fastidious work, so we know he was a fine craftsman.

But … dude! The type. Some of his markings are like a pirate’s treasure map. Shop Boy seriously considered a seance: “Sir, where the heck did you put the (insert name of character here)?”

Anyway, it all had been sitting in the corner of our shop for two years, stacked in and atop a simple, modern wooden job case. Shop Boy couldn’t face it, even after he and Mary’s dad had built the, ahem, really cool tray case/desk to replace it and hold the beautiful antique type drawers we’d accumulated. See, in order to remove the modern job case — we needed the space — all those fonts had to be sorted and placed one character at a time into the “new” drawers.

Each case has taken approximately three hours to decipher and sort. Ugh.

Did I mention there were about 20 trays?

But Shop Boy’s a good bit of the way through. And I think I’ve got a system. See, where a typeface hasn’t fit exactly right, I’ve just improvised a little. OK, a lot. Doubled up here and there …


Oh, tut-tut. Not to worry …

I’ve made a whole bunch of totally clear notations on the tops, sides and bottoms of the trays.

Letterpress List No. 27

How about an hour’s worth of music to decipher hieroglyphics or sort tiny bits of lead by while two of the prettiest days of spring pass by outside? Most tunes should be available at the usual places. Goofy and great links are to YouTube.

Touch of Grey Grateful Dead (Gray/silver chunks of lead, one character at a time.)
Wish You Were HerePink Floyd (Could use a few extra hands.)
Take a Letter, Maria Tony Orlando and Dawn (That’d help.)
Come Out and Play the Offspring (No can do — gotta keep ’em separated.)
Fun Fun Funthe Beach Boys (Ditto.)
Walk Like an Egyptianthe Puppini Sisters (The Bangles’ version melts Shop Boy’s brain, so he limits views.)
Yesterday’s Over — the Pietasters (Just try to forget the pied type.)
Pick Up the PiecesAverage White Band (Some might say this band name fits most of my musical choices. Shop Boy’s trying, believe me. Got some remedial learning to do. Mary’s helping.)
Rock and RollRasputina (Led Zeppelin via viola and cello — cameraman still tripping from the 1960s.)
Doll-Dagga Buzz-Buzz Ziggety-Zag — Marilyn Manson (To all the goose step girlies with the cursive faces.)
Stacked Actors — the Foo Fighters (Type trays stacked to the rafters.)
The Dangerous Type — the Cars (After a few hours of picking type, the cuticles of a newbie tend to bleed a bit.)
Alpha Beta Parking Lot Cake (Left to sort alone.)
The Midnight SpecialLead Belly (Here we go again.)
See Me, Feel Me/Listening to Youthe Who (Tell me, Mr. Wilhelm …)
King TutSteve Martin (How’d he get so funky?)

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