Imagine a shop where all the type is fresh and new, where everything you set prints perfectly, where California job cases are overflowing with all of your favorite typefaces in every imaginable size. In this shop, if you pie a galley of type, you simply dump it in a bucket, and cast some more. This printers paradise is real I tell you, and I have been there!
The Bixler Press and Letterfoundry is where type is born. And today I will attempt (attempt, mind you) to show you how that happens. The Bixlers have two kinds of Monotype casting machines: The Supercaster, which produces one letter in one point size at a time (so you would cast a hundred or so 48 point Dante lower case e’s, for example, and then change the mold (matrix) and start casting the next letter,) and The Composition Caster, which somewhat miraculously casts whole galleys of type in the order in which they will be printed, (page 212 of Moby Dick, for example, set in 12 point Joanna.) How in the world does the Composition Caster work? Hang in there and I will try to explain. With pictures. Any mistakes are 100% mine, the Bixlers have never once been known to make one.
The story begins with the keyboard. Here’s the thing: we can all type, right? I mean, how hard is it really? blappity blappity blap, maybe a little hunt and peck if you are not as perfect as me, and kapow, you just wrote an email full of nonsense to someone you hardly ever see. But now imagine that you have not one, but several keyboards in front of you. One for Roman, one for Italic, one for Bold, and then additional keyboards for capitals. Can you picture it?
That is what we are dealing with here. For many years, the keyboardist at the Bixlers was a lovely woman named Annie. Sometime in the 80’s, she innocently answered a job posting for a typist. Soon she was keyboarding major works of literature onto this machine. Each key punches two holes into the blue paper ribbon. We’ll come back to that. But first let me introduce you to this little friend:
This is a matrix case. It holds enough tiny little molds (here called matrices) for the lowercase and uppercase of one typeface, say 18 point Perpetua, for example. The orientation of these little matrices within the case is very specific for each typeface and point size. The operator of the caster would have to string all of these little matrices onto rods in the matrix case in a different way for each of them. 12 point Gill Sans would be arranged differently than 18 point Perpetua.
The keyboard also has different settings for each typeface and size so that the two holes that are punched in the tape always correspond to the x and y coordinates of the matrices in the case. Are you with me? The different keyboard settings are in the form of a tray that sits below the keys. It is essentially the software for this very early computer (can I call it that? who cares, I am going to.) Have a look:
Here it is. The Composition Caster. Do you see the paper ribbon? I have circled it for you out of thoughtfulness. After you have finished typing, the ribbon is carried to the caster and threaded onto the spool. Compressed air is blown through the holes, and that is translated into wedges and stops in the belly of that caster that move the matrix case around over a spigot that spits hot liquid lead (and antimony and tin) into the mold. It works like this:
This time, it has a friend. This is the mold. As many of you may know, a piece of type is a long, thin piece of metal that has a letter form on top. The letter form is cast using the matrices inside the matrix case, but the long thing, the body of the type, is cast inside the mold. The mold opens and closes slightly so as to cast pieces of type of different widths. A lowercase l, for example, is much narrower than an uppercase W. If every piece of type was the same width, the printed word would be u g l y.
When type is being cast, the matrix case sits perfectly on top of the mold and is pushed all around so that matrices of different letters are positioned on top of the casting area according to the holes punched in the paper tape. The mold stays in exactly the same place, sitting just above the spigot of lead that pumps lead into the mold in a rhythm with the movement of the matrix case. The lead cools very quickly, and is pushed out of the mold and in line with the type that was already cast in the moments before. All of this is controlled by a series of cams running off of a shaft that is rotated by a wheel powered by a belt. This is illustrated in that rather terrifying diagram I just showed you a minute ago. Let’s not worry about that so much.
And that is the miracle of lead type. Brought to you by Michael and Winnie Bixler and the Monotype Composition Caster. There is obviously a lot more to it. Direct all further questions to Skaneateles, New York. To see a caster in operation (and hear all of the wonderful clicking and clacking it generates,) look here.
A sidenote here: Does anyone out there in internet blogtown know of a source for the blue paper ribbon I keep going on about? While they are not in any trouble, the Bixlers are currently on a hunt for more. One of the problems inherent in using machinery that is no longer manufactured is that the materials associated with its use are sometimes in short supply. If anyone has seen a vast stockpile in a barn or their father’s basement, please let me know. Or contact the Bixlers directly, perhaps when ordering some glorious fresh type.
The Bixlers are a wonderful pair of people, and I was lucky to spend a lot of time with them during the years I was the Victor Hammer Fellow at Wells College. Their shop is full of wonders, like the stained glass that they made themselves, the eight Cairn terriers that live upstairs (including one named Sarah, just for me) and Bob the goose who follows Michael around, and who has. . . wait for it. . . his own blog.
The Bixlers could honestly say (but never actually would) that they have one of the best organized letterpress shops in existence, with everything from letter spacing to matrix cases all held carefully in shelving systems that Michael built for that expressed purpose.
And littered throughout the shop are things that whisper for your attention. Proofs of Greek type. Elaborate borders, hand set from Monotype ornaments cast on the Supercaster. And a beautiful view of Bob the goose hanging out in the creek out back.
Perhaps another day, I will try to explain the Supercaster (which is actually a bit easier to handle) In other news, I am officially headed to Portland on Saturday! Stay tuned for a post from the Oregon College of Art and Craft!