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monotype university 6

Created by hww3. Last updated by hww3, 16 years ago. Version #3.

I just returned from a week in Terra Alta, West Virginia. The purpose of my trip was to attend Monotype University 6, held at the Hill & Dale Private Press and Type Foundry. Monotype University is held every other year as a way to preserve the knowledge of hot metal type founding. With the rise of newer printing technologies, letterpress printing and the art of casting printing type in lead is in danger being lost.

Rich Hopkins, proprietor of Hill & Dale, along with three other dedicated type founders (Jim Walczak, Mike Anderson and Dan Jones) served as faculty for the intense week long event. Five students arrived from places as far flung as California, Minnesota and Virginia. In Rich's words, the single goal of Mono U is to prove that it is possible to cast type using these machines, all of which are antiques, and many of which have over 80 years of service. The machines all have personalities of their own, and they're often finicky, requiring a long period where owner and machine "get to know" each other. Type founding is a time consuming and tedious endeavor, requiring patience and attention to detail. Measurements must be made to within a thousand of an inch or better, as the human eye can quickly detect poor alignment between letters.

The week began on Sunday evening, with introductions and a brief overview of the "curriculum". After that, we all descended to the foundry to get started making type. True to his word, Rich had each of us making type by the end of the day. We adjourned for the evening to the "student" cabin at a nearby resort to get rested up for what would end up being a long day.

My goal at Monotype U was to learn to use the Monotype Composition Caster and Keyboard. Text to be cast is entered on a keyboard, which punches a paper tape. Once the text is entered, the "ribbon" is mounted on the caster where pneumatics read the tape causing the text to be cast as individual "sorts" of type, then delivered to the galley as perfectly justified lines. The keyboard and caster were a marvel of 19th century engineering, some of whose principles are still in use today. Others were present to learn to use the "sorts" caster, which was designed to cast individual pieces of type "for the case". The sorts casters are considerably slower, but can cast type as large as 72 points in certain cases.

The next morning, Monday, we all arrived at 8am for a review of the previous day's activities and then headed to the foundry to start working. Working along with Rich and Paul Maravelas (the other student interested in composition), we got to work on the basics of Monotype mathematics, and basic keyboarding.

I quickly learned that keyboarding and casting type is best done in solitude. The keyboard in particular requires considerable concentration, as there is no indication, other than the perforation in the ribbon, of what has been typed previously. Additionally, once the ribbon has been punched, there's no way to undo any mistakes. You can "kill" a line, but that results in the pump disengaging, which causes the mould and nozzle to cool down, causing freeze up and line length variation. The ultimate goal is to produce a ribbon with accurate line lengths and very few "kill lines". This causes the mould temperatures and line lengths to remain relatively constant (absolute perfection is difficult to achieve due to the many variables that impact line length). All that is required to make a mistake is the slip of a finger or for someone to distract you for a fraction of a second.

The second important thing that I learned early on was that casting requires quick wits and a good pair of tweezers. When line lengths are short or long, the lines need to be filled out, cut down or removed completely before the next line is delivered. Otherwise, a pile up can occur, which has the potential to jam the machine and break things. Getting good composition (provided you have a properly justified ribbon) involves a balancing act: metal temperature, mould coolant temperature, caster speed and proper maintenance of the machine, mats and mould all must be in balance for good type to be cast and for line lengths to be consistent (a requirement for solid lock up among other things). Fine adjustments are made "on the fly" while making sure that lines are delivered properly and that the mechanism is kept free of any stray sorts.

The end result is well worth it: a perfectly even printing surface that requires very little make ready. You don't have to worry about type wearing out, because you can just melt it down and re-cast new type later. It's interesting to note that brand new type can be a bit tricky to handle, especially in composition sizes. Straight from the caster, the type has no leading between lines, so it has a tendency to slide around and fall over, so it's important to have a good squeeze before picking it up. Care must also be exercised to keep type from sticking to your fingers. Even with a fair amount of care, I still ended up pi-ing a fair amount of type.

As part of our project that we shared with everyone, we cast up fonts of 12 point Cochin #61. Casting fonts of type on the composition caster is far easier than on the sorts casters like the Thompson or Orphan Annie: it comes out pre-fonted, ready for tie up. Making additional fonts is as easy (always a relative term!) as running the ribbon again. We also ran some astronomical symbols and other assorted ornaments for everyone to share.

It's fair to say the those of us working on the composition caster had a relatively smooth week, mechanically speaking. The biggest problems we had were getting the mould plumbing seated properly. The guys running the Thompson and OA, Stuart Bradley; William Bentley and David Krenz, were treated to a day or two of frustratingly slow going: only about 4 pieces of type the first day! In the end, the problems got solved and the type was cast. One might even say that it was a better learning experience, because the times you need the most help aren't when things are going well, but when things aren't. The students (and faculty, too) ended up having a valuable learning experience.

Once things got rolling, though, they had cast 10 fonts each of 24 point Pabst Old Style and 24 point Hadriano. Hopes were high that they'd also get some 18 point Deepdene Italic cast, but the week wore on too quickly to get 10 fonts of the 100 character face cast. We settled for some 24 point border elements from the Garamond family along with some 36 point Stationers' Initials.

All in all, each of us came home with 45 pounds of newly cast type. Not a bad showing for the week, though it highlights the enormous amount of labor required to produce a font of type. Somehow, 15 dollars a pound doesn't seem so bad! Ultimately, I think the "light" went on for each of us, and we all shuttled home to start working on plans for our own type foundries. With a little luck, the art of hot metal type casting will be safe for another generation.

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