S – Setting Type

I think one of my favorite parts of printing is setting type. I find it relaxing and oddly satisfying. It’s a slow process and it gives me time to consider each letter and word that the author wrote. It forces me to slow down. In this, setting type setting is decadent…in a time where expediency rules, reading and consuming words slowly is luxury and often frowned upon.

Setting type gives me an excuse to be slow.

As with all things printing, setting type is not without its quirks: it’s upside down and backwards.


Upside down and backwards: can you read it?

Okay, so type, in order to print readable letters, is reversed. This makes sense when you think about it—when you turn them over on a piece of paper (so that the letter is on the paper), they are facing the right way.  It takes a while, though, to get used to reading letters backward—just let me say… d, b, p, and q are evil letters.

A letter ‘Q.’ Notice it is reversed.

Upside down? As a compositor sets a line of text, s/he could do it right side up, but then each following line would be set on top of the previous one and it would result in a text block reading from the bottom up.

This is the 5th line of text

This is the 4th line of text

This is the 3rd line of text

This is the 2nd line of text

This is the 1st line of text

  (see what I mean…)

So, s/he sets texts upside down, so that each line follows below the previous (when you turn it over it reads just like the original text).

This is the1st line of text

This is the 2nd line of text

This is the 3rd line of text

This is the 4th line of text

This is the 5th line of text

(It makes sense…kind of)

Now that we’re past the mind bending part, it’s just a matter of setting the lines…which I love. I look at the source text, find the right compartment in the type case for each letter, and listen for the little clink as each letter falls into place on the composing stick.

Composing Stick

“Lake,” I might read. “L” clink, “a” clink, “k” clink, “e” clink, space clink.

“Superior,” might be next. “S” clink, “u” clink, “p” clink, “e” clink, “r” clink, “I” clink, “o” clink, “r” clink.

I have time to think of Lake Superior water, cold, blue, and washing over the multi-colored stones that make up the shore. They make a sound, the stones, as the water pushes them. It’s a rushing sound so different than waves on sand…it’s almost a music and would be the sound of pouring a tray of type into my hands–the letters jumbled as they fall and voicing their own words.

Yeah, that’s why I love it.


2 thoughts on “S – Setting Type

  1. I always thought the sound of waves on a pebbly shore is a lot like the sound of applause, maybe thanking Mother Nature for the incredible beauty of the lake.

    Live slow! It sounds like you’ve found your Zen state.

    –Jaye from Life Afloat


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