Thursday, January 29, 2009

You Have A Line Gauge, Don't You?

I studied typography with Harry Duncan at The University of Iowa Typographic Laboratory. I was at an opening once when a visiting printer asked him how he held such good registration. Harry replied, “You have a line gauge, don’t you?”

Getting the form square on the sheet to begin with is the key to perfect registration. Sometimes, though, the printed form, whether you’re measuring points, agates or inches, falls vexingly between the marks.

I use a method, which providing that the sheet is square, or at least reasonably square, aids considerably. And that is to butt the side-guide edge of the printed sheet against a straight edge and then to lay a triangle across the page, also butted up against the straight edge. You will see a slight shadow immediately below the edge of the triangle. This shadow is razor sharp. Then move the triangle up or down so that the shadow falls across a baseline. Straight away you will see if the baseline is parallel to the shadow.

This method is especially handy for aligning a plate on a magnetic base. Then it is a simple matter of moving the base up and down, or left and right, on the press bed.

Once the form is parallel to the top edge of the sheet backing up the second side to it should be fairly easy. However, if the first run is canted, backing up to it, or registering a second color to it, can prove far more difficult.

Saturday, January 24, 2009


I’m often asked to define “semiotics.” It’s one of those words I have to look up myself from time to time.

Here’s the straight-out-of-the-box dictionary definition:
a general philosophical theory of signs and symbols that deals esp. with their function in both artificially constructed and natural languages and comprises the three branches of syntactics, semantics, and pragmatics.
Webster’s Third New International Dictionary. 1981.

And now for a little anecdote showing how a simple word change can make a great difference.

Years ago I was working as a proofreader in a type shop when an ad came across my desk. The last paragraph of the copy began with a boldface lead-in reading: America believes... .

I was new on the job, and I queried the client’s usage of the word, “America,” suggesting in its place “Americans.” The client made the change and the ad ran. It was only after I saw the ad in print that I realized how egregious an error I had made.

No one is really interested in what Americans do. What is really being alluded to here is the concept of America. And that concept is far more ambiguous and open to interpretation than “Americans.”

The client’s copywriter had it right the first time.

The force of the ad was intended to reflect the notion that not only was everyone buying the product but also that the democratic principle of freedom of choice was being exercised in the process.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Apologia: The Amateur

I still buy type. Most recently 20-Didot Trump Gravur, complete with accented characters. (We’re not talking Open Type here—there’s only one of each.) But as they say in the infomercials: “Wait! There’s more!”

The font came with a package of Didot spacing material.

You’ve got more than a good bit of the collector in you if you think Didot spacing is something special—it is—but not intrinsically. That’s what happens when you subscribe to the notion of the private press as a leisurely activity.

For a charming excursion along these lines, see John Ryder’s Printing for Pleasure. The subtitle to the book’s introduction tells you as much as you need to know: “Pleasure as Profit.”

Or skip to Chapter Three for some good marital advice: “Choose A Face You Can Live With.”

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Cat's eyes

Paper can be damaged in many ways. One of the most annoying is the crescent-shaped “dents” that happen if a large sheet buckles as you pick it up. These dents never come out, and if more than one, can effectively spoil an entire sheet of paper. These dents are called “cat’s eyes.”

There is a simple way to avoid cat’s eyes. Grasp the sheet at the corners along a diagonal and lift it up. The sheet will curl smoothly and gently along the axis of the free corners.

Using this method, a surprisingly large number of sheets can be picked up and handled at once.

Friday, January 2, 2009


No, the title of this post is not memento mori. Rather, that after having run the press for nearly forty-five years, I feel a good bit like the speaker in Gary Snyder’s poem, “Hay for the Horses.” The poem is from his first book, Riprap, published, as it turns out exactly fifty years ago, in 1959.

In it the speaker tells a perfect stranger: “I first bucked hay when I was seventeen”; then continues on to say:
I sure would hate to do this all my life.
And dammit, that’s just what
I’ve gone and done.