Hand-printed books of poetry,
Plus tips and supplies for fellow letterpress printers.

The Trouble with Leads

Perhaps the most common difficulty with the letterpress equipment used by hobby printers, is leads of incorrect length.

It's frequently the case that one acquires the stock of another printer retiring, and amongst his leads is hidden a terrible problem: He had no proper lead-and-rule cutter, and used an old pair of scissors. The leads are cut at odd angles, the scissor action has left them with a curl and the lengths are inaccurate.

If a lead is too long it will take all the sideways locking up pressure from the quoins, and allow the set lines of type either side to be loose.

If it's too short, then a final full stop or thin letter will fall down halfway into the next line,again giving locking up problems – formes that wont ‘lift‘ without lines dropping out on the floor, or final full stops printing high/low.

Find a Lead-and-Rule Cutter

You need to get hold of a proper lead-and-rule cutter, bought or borrowed (even the Adana one is better than nothing). Then you have to make a firm policy decision and really stick to it longterm.

  • Either have all your leads cut to dead pica (ems of 12pt) measure, and always set your composing stick to a whisker, (say one point) wider than the jobs working measure.
  • Or you have every single lead of whatever nominal length in your print shop, cut a whisker short (say one point) and then always set your composing stick to the dead pica ems measure needed for the job.

This one point difference is called ‘squeeze’ and it'll make for an easy life, believe me. It's worth a good deal of effort to get it right. At the Happy Dragons’ Press we always set our composing stick to reliable 12 point Em spaces, to get the dead measure, and all our stock of leads are that one point short of their nominal lengths (including the ones we sell).

Making Use of Inaccurate Leads

So what do you do if you're stuck with a load of badly cut leads, and no access to a lead and rule cutter lead-and-rule cutter?Set every single line of the job to start and end with a one-em space – using a sort of artificial over-width setting of your composing stick.

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