Wednesday, August 17, 2005

A case in point

california_typecase, originally uploaded by Ampersand Duck.

The other day I sold some type to a visiting American ceramics artist. She wanted to press letters into clay and wasn't happy with the choice of old type from the dissing bucket at the art school ('dissing', in letterpress, doesn't mean being rude to your girlfriend; it comes, I think, from 'discard' rather than 'disrespect'!). I offered her a full alphabet from my personal collection, and as she watched me pick out the letters she commented upon the order of the alphabet in the typetray.

It is a strange way of arranging the alphabet. Doing a bit of research, the most plausible explanation is that the size of the boxes represent the amount of times that letter is found in the Bible. This may be spurious, but I don't think so. The reason why I believe this is that on the right side of the tray are the capital letters, and they are laid out to reflect the fact that the Latin alphabet didn't have the letters U and J, so they are included down in the righthand corner beside Z. And, of course, type was developed to make production of bibles easier.

[Of course, the amount of type that can fit in a tray really depends on the point size of the type. 10pt type can fit a lot more letters in a tray than 36pt. After 36pt or 42pt you really have to move to wood type, as lines get too heavy. These days, of course, you can just cast polymer plates and print them rather than set type, which gives far more font freedom in letterpress.]

My beef is that this style is called a California Type- or Job-case. Obviously this particular style of type tray has been redesigned to suit the needs of someone in California (there are MANY kinds of tray layouts, as this site will show you), and California came into existence way after we stopped typesetting purely in Latin. So why have they kept these odd conventions?

"I have one word for you, and that word is... TRADITION!" [Bugger off, Topol]

Of course, now that I have learned the layout by heart, and can set type the way other people can use a QWERTY keyboard (I'm still a three-finger typist), I'm rattled by any change. I bought a stack of trays of type from a nice man that I instantly dubbed Mad Merv from Mittagong, and he had refilled all the trays in straight alpha order, which made my life hell. I haven't got time to redistribute the type, so now I have half my trays in this layout, and the other half in his. Quel merde!

In my quest for knowledge I also found some mnemonics for the layout:

Be Careful Driving Elephants Into Small Ford Garages

Let Me Now Help Out Your Punctuation With commas

Villains Usually Take A Ride
(or, Villains Usually Take three-ems And Run)

but since my memory is visual rather than aural, I have a little map in my head like a line drawing of the above graphic. So they're wasted on me, but they could be good for you.

The other thing about this visiting artist was that she asked me specifically for an ampersand, as her husband's business is called Ampersand [something] (sorry, told you I can't remember aural stuff!). It hurt, but I did part with an ampersand. I hope he (and she) enjoys it... All hail to those who use the mighty ampersand.



Kate said...

That was a really interesting post. How many trays of type do you have?

And I can't imagine having to re-learn to type in alphabetical order.

Ampersand Duck said...

Umm... I haven't really counted them lately. I think I've got about 30. I do most of my setting at the art school, which has beautifully-set up cases and a press; my press is in the garage with a blue tarp over it, and the typecases are in a couple of racks and a pile waiting for me to set up a studio. The studio is waiting for the house to be renovated, and the house is waiting for funds. Sigh. One day I'll have my own Fine Press. In the meantime I do what I can, in small batches!

I'm glad you found it interesting! It's a dying art in Australia, but there are lots of enthusiasts in the UK and US, where type and equipment are much easier to find.

Zoe said...

Top post, Ducky.

Anonymous said...

I nearly bought a beautiful little mini press from an old typesetter in Melbourne (he showed it to me when I bought something else from him). He was on ebay - BigBadBert or something. I wish I had room to collect this stuff.

Ampersand Duck said...

Probably a tabletop Adana! I've got one of those too, and have restored it will some elbow grease and red enamel paint for the cute bits. I'll blog that sometime and show you. It does postcard-size prints, and came with all the mini equipment like quoins and chases (see my sidebar glossary). Another reason to be thankful that I met Mad Merv (who was very eccentric).

Kate said...

Duck, do you do small jobs for people?

I used to work with a guy who was a typesetter; he'd managed to learn desktop graphic design when type went out. He'd mutter all day long about how inexact kerning and leading etc were in Quark.

Ampersand Duck said...

Yeah, I have two lives with typesetting too. Mind you, being computer literate makes lead type planning easier for unmathematical people like me; I do the layouts on screen and then carry them out by hand.

Can do small jobs if they're for the right people :)
Email me if you have something in mind! (Just realised I don't have an email contact on this blog (I think!). I should correct that.) Hold that thought.

Kate said...

It's not something that would happen next week... you see, I'm getting married (or rather, we're getting married) and I'm thinking about different ways of doing an invitation and the various wedding bits'n'pieces... no concrete ideas or anything but I'm very interested in doing something different.

Ampersand Duck said...

Firstly: Hooray! Congratulations! A wedding!

Secondly: I am interested. it would be fun to interact with a fellow blogger like that. Mindy got me playing with photo album design, which was fun.
The best thing about hand-set letterpress is that, unlike inkjet printers and most commercial printeries, you can print on a wide variety of materials, include really thick handmade paper, cloth, book cloth, tissue, etc. Something like really embossed printing on handmade paper or thick bobbly watercolour paper would be beautiful...

I have finally got my email address in my profile section (hadn't thought about the fact that it wasn't there!). Drop me a line when you want, and we'll have a chat about it.

weezil said...

I learned to set type out of a CJC when I was in high school. Still have a few quoins atound here somewhere.

The layout of a CJC is a bit like the QWERTY layout in that it is prioritised by the prevalence of particular letters and appears to suit right-handed typesetters. CJC seems a bit counterintuitive at first, but if one does enough typesetting, the layout becomes second nature fairly quickly.

I miss the big old printing press. Something about the fragrance of fresh ink and the hypnotic effect of hand-feeding sheets made doing letterpress work soothing, despite the ever present danger of getting a finger squashed if you fumbled a sheet.

Ampersand Duck said...

Yes, I'd hate to be a left-handed setter. I guess you can get used to any system if you work with it enough.
And you really don't get that edge of danger with an inkjet printer, do you?