Tuesday, June 14, 2011


[A large, ongoing project here is the reorganization of the studio to accommodate waves of new students with no previous letterpress—or studio art in general—experience. This post, and others to follow, will document that reorganization in the hope that it can be helpful for other people setting up studios. This post is technical and detailed, but that’s where the action is.]

If you’ve ever worked in or managed a community and/or educational letterpress studio, you know that one of the hardest things to keep organized is the spacing material. (For any readers that are unfamiliar with lead type, spacing material is the “blank” pieces of metal used to create the spaces between words. In lead type, every aspect of the composition, even the negative space, is a physical object.) The image above shows the physical center of the new system that we are trying to implement. The physical system will work in tandem with a modified way of teaching students how to handle the type (more on that later).

The main idea for this system was suggested by Robin Price, who taught here during Block 7. She learned this from her teacher, Gerald Lange. The gist of it is that all the spacing is removed from the type drawers and put into this one rack, organized by point size in rows (from smallest to largest, going down) and in spacing size in columns (largest to smallest, left to right). (It occurs to me now that maybe I should reverse that, go from smallest to largest left to right. We’ll see.) Each bin is clearly labeled with the point size and spacing size. 2 & 3 em quads and coppers & brasses are kept in separate transportable containers, more size/quantity appropriate. The bin/rack system was dubbed “Kevin Spacey.”

In each of those large, white, mounted bins are smaller blue bins, also labeled, that can be removed by the students and taken to wherever they are working. Keeping all of the spacing material in a centralized yet accessible location will (hopefully) be a little easier for the students to learn and use than the type drawers. It will also be easier for us to periodically re-sort.

The image at the beginning of this post shows Judy Reissmann posing with Kevin Spacey. Judy is our very brave summer employee—I say “brave” because her job is to do the actual sorting. And she has done that admirably, putting a serious dent in this seemingly insurmountable problem in a short time. Thank you, Judy.

And I am going to change the way that we teach people to set type, ever so slightly. Basically, the change will be to use the same size spacing throughout the entire setting, including end-of-line spacing. Example: Let’s say I was setting a block of flush left, ragged right type, and using 4 to the em spacing between words. At the end of every line where I had to fill in blank space, I would use as many 3, 2 and single em quads as I could, then as many 4 to the em spaces from there, and brasses and coppers after that.

And then that consistent spacing is marked on the sheet that we use to ID the type in galley trays. So when we finally get around to redistributing our type, we know exactly what size spacing was used. No sorting, no confusion—it all goes right back where it came from.

This new system won’t be perfect, and I can already see a few potential problems:
1) Simple “operator error,” of course, 2) it will require the use of more than the usual amount of word spacing and coppers and brasses, which could put a squeeze on our overall supply, and 3) it won’t work for setting justified type. But I feel like anyone setting justified type will at that point be familiar enough with the different sizes of spacing to be able to sort it accurately at the end.

And of course it’s not the “right” way, but the “right” way changes from context to context, from studio to studio. I feel like those minor problems are worth a system that does not need to be continually re-sorted.

Kevin Spacey—actor, spacing system, hero.

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