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Compose Yourself

Habits to be Acquired by Compositors

Extracts from Practical Printing by John Southward

We thought you might be interested to read this advice to new compositors, from 1900. Most hobby printers are largely self-taught, naturally finding a technique that works for them, so the degree to which transferring type from case to stick was once regulated may come as a surprise.

While some of this is good advice and still very relevant, one can't help but wonder how many of these ‘good habits’ stuck past apprenticeship.

‘A still tongue makes a full stick.’

In this art, as in everything else, it is impossible to avoid the formation of habits. While those which are good are powerful aids in work, the bad are the worst hindrances a man can meet with; for they are always, unless he is strong enough to master hem and throw them off. The great thing, however, is to acquire none but good habits; for the renunciation of bad is among the most difficult tasks in life.

Habits to be Acquired

  1. First and foremost, maintain a quiet and thoughtful manner. In the printing office it is due to your neighbours that you should be quiet; it is due to yourself that you should be thoughtful. Composition exercises the mind as well as the body; for while you are picking up the types you must read and spell the words which they form. This cannot be done properly while you are either talking or thinking of something else; hence silence at work is one of the first rules of a well-conducted printing office.
  2. Second, adopt a good position. It cannot be too urgently enjoined on the beginner, the the inevitable result of inattention to the direction to stand upright will be the impairment of his health. Let the compositor consider that perhaps a fourth of his life may be spent in one attitude, and then he may realise how important it is that that attitude should be a proper one. The head should be raised, the shoulders through back, and both feet should be placed firmly on the floor. Any stiffness about the body is very fatiguing for the compositor. The whole body should be elastic enough to admit a free motion of any part of the body, and not from the shoulder joint alone. The compositor should stand facing the h and e boxes, his right arm reaching over the a and r boxes.
  3. Third, select mentally every type before you pick it up. The types in the boxes will be found to be in all possible positions but before you extend your hand to take one out, look at it, and note how it lies. Seize it the moment your hand reaches the case; then, by the finger and thumb, and in the course of its passage between the box and the stick, turn it so that you may drop it in its proper position.
  4. Fourth, Put each type quietly into the stick, with the simplest motion possible. The wrist should be brought into play in doing this; the elbow should not be bent at all for the purpose.
  5. Fifth, Acquire an even, rhythmic series of motions of the hand to and from the stick. It is said by one who made his mark as a fast compositor that if type sought were not seized at the first attempt it was better policy to return the hand at once to the stick and start again than to fumble for type in the box. This even, regular, automatic movement is what every compositor should specially strive for. It will be found to pay far better than any other.
  6. Sixth, While putting the letter into the stick look out for the next. The thumb of the left hand, meanwhile, keeping the letter upright in the composing stick. Glance at this copy while lifting the spaces.
  7. Let the left hand, containing the composing stick, follow the right hand, engaged in picking up types. We do not mean that the left hand should traverse the case literally from the l box on one side to the em quad box on the other, or vertically from the top boxes of the upper case to the lowercase, but in a direction backwards and forwards over the latter, so to save the largest amount of travel for the right hand. If this point be kept in mind, the meaning of our direction will soon be understood, and its great utility recognised.

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