Quoins, Wood Type, and Phototype

The latest accessions to the Tiny Type Museum & Time Capsule have arrived!

Quoins and Quoin Keys

From the earliest days of printing, certainly in Gutenberg’s studio, type had to be locked up. You first composed it into lines, columns, and pages, and spaced it just right. But then you had to ensure that it stayed solid and level as it was moved from a composing stone—a level surface that assisted in planing type and other material—to the bed of a press. (For newspaper, it would be into a matrix-making machine en route to stereotyping.)

As you may know generally or from previous posts, a page or pages of type are collected into a forme and locked into a chase. The locking requires furniture or various sized rectangular pieces of metal and wood to fill on empty areas, and then wedges to lock them into place. A forme may also be called a lock up.

You should be able to pick up a chase and shake and nothing comes loose, but it should not be so tight that it puts pressure on the type and other elements. If there’s too much pressure, type can be crushed or ride up, or even burst out like a fountain. Compositors had to work very carefully to bring everything into order and balance the tension exquisitely. It comes from practice and isn’t as hard as it sounds after you’ve done it many, many times.

From “Work: The Illustrated Weekly Journal For Mechanics,” September 23, 1893,  page 147 .

From “Work: The Illustrated Weekly Journal For Mechanics,” September 23, 1893, page 147.

In the early days of printing, material was probably stuffed in or even lightly hammered into place. Later, more formal interlocking pieces of metal became standard, called quoins. The tension between them could be increased or decreased with a ratchet key called a quoin key. As equipment became more refined, quoins appeared that had internal ratchets with fine controls, and just a slot for the quoin key. The key is also often used as a hammer to tap on a planer, a broad wooden block placed on top of type and lightly hit to level material before locking up.

Each Tiny Type Museum will include a quoin of some vintage, and I’ve acquired the first set of them.

A variety of quoins, some of them disassembled, and two quoin keys.

A variety of quoins, some of them disassembled, and two quoin keys.

Wood Type

My plan is to include a variety of wooden type: old and new, laser cut and pantograph cut. I’m working diligently to find historic wooden type where I’m not breaking up complete or useful sets for current printers, as there is so much scattered type out there. These orphaned bits can be removed from circulation and put into the museum without decreasing the scarce supply of full fonts.

Via one antique seller, I acquired 400 pieces of absolutely pied type. (Pi is what happens when you mix up type, often when a galley was dropped on the floor. The children and teenagers who worked as printer’s devils in print shops had sorting pi back into cases as one of their key jobs.) I would wager these 400 pieces come from at least 75 fonts, maybe more.

The seller offered to clean it before shipping, but cleaning wood type is a process that can end up with it being ruined. I consulted David Black, a local expert on working with historic letterpress gear and type, and knows how to fix, build, or clean anything. Using his suggestions, I’ve cleaned a portion of the type, and it looks great. See the before and after.

This type is far too much to distribute among the museums, but it was affordable to purchase it as a lot. Pieces I can’t use I’ll be selling or giving away to other printers who like to make figurative or artistic use of type among other elements, and don’t need full fonts.

I’m still working to acquire more wood type to get a good mix of larger-sized letters and more provenance to know where it came from. Only some letters in a wood font are stamped with a manufacturer’s mark that tells you in which type factory they were cut. From quick research, the one stamped William H. Page & Co. is likely, but not assuredly, the oldest, as it was sold to the dominant Hamilton in 1891, and its mark stopped being used. According to type researcher and historian David Shields, this stamp was in use from 1867–1876. The Hamilton-stamped type is from the 1927–1950s, based on the stamp.

Four of the pieces I’ve processed so far have factory marks: Hamilton Manufacturing Company (which was in Two Rivers, Wisconsin), AWT for American Wood Type (Long Island City, NY), and “WmH.PAGE&Co” for William H. Page & Company (Connecticut).

Four of the pieces I’ve processed so far have factory marks: Hamilton Manufacturing Company (which was in Two Rivers, Wisconsin), AWT for American Wood Type (Long Island City, NY), and “WmH.PAGE&Co” for William H. Page & Company (Connecticut).

Phototype

There’s an ocean of things I could say about phototypesetting, but one of them is how little material remains from an era that stretched in its early practical days from the 1920s through the 1980s. Digital typesetting and full-page layout replaced phototype. In my search for artifacts, I’ve acquired three wonderful sets of history so far.

From a still-working printer in his 70s in the Central Valley of California, I received nearly two dozen font strips used with the Compugraphic EditWriter 7500, released in 1977. These strips have metal hooks on either end, and each spanned a hemisphere of a rotating drum. The EditWriter was a hybrid computer/optical system, and featured a CRT for typing in HTML-like formatting commands! I am incredibly fond of these strips, as I spent many many hours typesetting in the late 1980s on this model of system. I haven’t seen any since that time, so this is like coming home.

Via eBay, I was able to convince someone to sell me a set of 23 VariTyper Headliner TypeMaster discs that worked with an exposure system to set one letter at a time on a strip of film. The system dates to the late 1960s. These discs were manually controlled: you rotated to the desired letter to expose it, and the system advanced the correct proportionate width.

On route are two discs from a Harris Intertype system about which I know nothing. I’ll update this post with photos when I have them.

The phototype fonts are all too large to fit into the museum cases, and I’m collecting them for historical research and preservation in part. I may include scale-model replicas of at least the VariTyper if not others, so that the nature of each of these can be part of the museums, even if I can include actual pieces. There are some smaller phototype fonts, notably from the Berthold Diatronic, which used a small rectangular sheet, but these seem exceedingly scarce.

Frank Romano, a guru for decades on the history of printing, printing technology, and the author of definitive books on the Linotype company and phototype, gave this recorded talk in 2013, in which he has in front of him examples of all the prominent phototype font varieties.

This YouTube video shows phototypesetting in action shows the Berthold Diatype in use, which used a type disc.