Printer Savant

By Michael Torosian

Descant, Fall 1995

Halfway through a talk I was giving on how I make books at my private press, I reminded the audience that the technology I used was full of idiosyncratic terms, and if any of them were confusing to let me know and I would do my best to explain. One young woman raised her hand. I thought this would be my chance to talk about “quoins” and “formes” and sound sort of esoteric, but she caught me off guard. She said there was a word that I used incessantly that she didn’t understand. I asked here what it was. She said it was “type”.

It seemed inexplicable that somebody wouldn’t know what type was. It took me a while to realize that in today’s world type is the activity you perform at the keyboard of a computer, and a typeface is the style of the letters that appear on the screen, but with the new technology there is no longer a physical object that you can point to and call type. Luckily I had a twelve point capital R from a font of Janson in my pocket and I held it up. Here it was, a plug of lead just shy of an inch long. One of the wonders of the world.

I don’t know exactly how I fell into working with letterpress. It was on the cusp of obsolescence even when I discovered it. But whatever my motives or inclinations, it was a stroke of good fortune, because it just happens to be the most beautiful way of making a book. Lead typefaces bear the heft of craftsmanship and artistry, weighted and formed to the needs of the press and the human eye. Inked and driven into paper, they create a page imbued with texture and presence. Anyone who has been exposed to fine printing gets seduced by it.

I originally learned how to set pages from foundry type, one character at a time, just the way they did in Gutenberg’s shop in the 15th century. It’s a demanding enterprise that breeds attention to detail and an awe for how beautiful the configurations of twenty-six letters can be. Later I acquired an Intertype machine, which enabled me to make my own type, and technologically brought me all the way up to the 19th century.

Now I wouldn’t suggest that the industry revert to the old ways anymore than I’d suggest giving up the Honda for a donkey cart. Digital type printed by offset is sharp and uniform and cost effective. But most of the time it’s also sterile and effete.

My theory for this is evolutionary. For 500 years lead type was the only way of getting characters onto paper. The type designers, punch cutters, casters and printers had a long time to get it right. By comparison photo composition only lasted about twenty years, and digitization has only been around for about ten. In the future maybe someone will be rhapsodic over pixels. I don’t know. But I could see from my audience that in the span of a generation the technology of lead had vanished from our culture and vocabulary.

Well, maybe most of the world has forgotten what type is, but I haven’t. I’ve been to New York.


Crosby Street, where it runs between Houston and Prince, is more of an alleyway than anything else. Lined with loading docks and service entrances, it is an industrial remnant in New York’s Soho district. If you happen to wander down that way you might notice a small blue sign projecting over a doorway just out of the reach of vandals or nostalgiacs. The sign reads Crosby Type, and in the summer of 1988 when I first walked through this door, it was to witness the dismantling of the last hot metal shop in New York.

Crosby Type was 5,500 square feet of iron and lead. It was everything I imagined an old urban factory to look like. Pipes and ventilation ductwork crisscrossed overhead, and light bulbs suspended from the ceiling in old reflectors cast shadows that were unrelieved by any detail. The floor plan was defined by banks of sheet metal galley cabinets and rows of oak type cabinets and tiers of matrix racks. Everything was massive, but most conspicuous, and rightly so, were the type casting machines. There were five Intertypes set up to the right of the entrance, and they dominated the landscape like those big heads on Easter Island. The place looked kind of majestic to me.

I had read in the trade papers that the inventory was being sold off so I made the trip to New York. I thought I might squeeze in a couple of hours digging around for fonts. I ended up hanging around for three days.

I was met by Al Siegel, who had owned the shop for thirty-seven years, and now looked something more than morose about the prospect of closing. But he was realistic and knew that typography from lead was no longer commercially viable. It took a lot of manpower to maintain and run the machines, a lot of hours to cast and handset the type and pull proofs, but more than anything it took a lot of space to house the encyclopedic library of fonts that had been necessary to service the needs of designers in a city like Manhattan. You can’t compete with a technology capable of compressing the contents of hundreds of California cases and Intertype magazines into the square inch real estate of a CD-ROM.

I guessed the shop employed a dozen or more people at one time but now there was only one fellow doing some hand composition to satisfy the needs of a few diehard clients. A work order caught my eye bearing the name of a celebrated graphic designer renowned for his work for The Public Theater and Lincoln Center. A true connoisseur in search of distinction and quality was still allied to Crosby.

A courier dropped by from time to time to check up on things, and Isaac drifted in and out. I couldn’t discern exactly what Isaac’s expertise was, and given his aura of independence and mobility you would have thought he was a partner in the company were in not for the fact he looked like all the other homeless people in the city. I asked Al how long Isaac had worked for him, and he told me Isaac didn’t work for anybody. “He showed up in the shop one day years ago and just stayed,” Al said. “He’s a free agent.”

Al had resigned himself to the closing of the shop but he was angry at the thought that it was all going to end up in the hands of scrap dealers. They had already been around to paw everything and figure out what was refinable and what was landfill. I think he was relieved when I showed up because we spoke the same language. I made a good audience because somehow it mattered that somebody cared that much about type.

While we were shooting the breeze, Max, the former Intertype compositor, walked in. He lived out on Long Island, but he’d kept dropping by in these last weeks. These weren’t sentimental men, but the force that kept them within this orbit was strong, and it was easy for a guy like me, walking in off the street, to realize that it wasn’t just their livelihoods that were passing into history. It was also a fragment of the culture of New York. Al turned me over to Max, and once I had confided that I had an Intertype back home I was welcomed into the inner circle.

The Intertype is a glorious machine unlike anything else on earth. It is 4,000 pounds of cast iron and machined steel and stands six and a half feet high. It looks like a brute, but everything is calibrated to within a thousandth of an inch, and when it’s oiled and rolling and spitting out slugs of freshly cast type it is mesmerizing.

The Intertype has a keyboard like an old manual typewriter. The keys are arranged in clusters for lower case, upper case, and punctuation and figures. Each key is attached to a lever which releases a small piece of brass, called a mat, from the magazine, down a chute and into the composing stick. The mat bears an engraving of the character to be cast. When all the characters and spaces necessary to make a line are assembled, the line of mats is advanced to the mold. Behind the mold is a crucible of molten lead maintained at a temperature of 550 degrees. With the mats locked in place, the lead is injected into the mold, where it rapidly solidifies. The newly cast slug of type is ejected onto a galley and the mats are ingeniously returned to the magazine to be used again on the next line.

All of the Crosby Intertypes were gas fired. Crouching down I could see the open flame beneath the crucible. Al had told me he had installed these machines thirty-seven years ago and the flames had never been off once in all that time. But in this, the last week, he had mournfully extinguished them, one by one, until only the machine Max was working was still ignited.

Max was seventy-one years old and he spent the afternoon showing me some of the old timers’ tricks. Here was a guy who could really “hang a line”, an expression reserved for somebody so fast they could be composing one line while another was being cast, one was distributing, and one was “hanging” on the rail waiting for its turn on the mold. A full house of mechanical activity. I commented on his speed and he told me the gimmick was never to think. The best compositors, he said, let the text go in their eyes and out their fingers without it ever passing through their brains.

As he fanned the keyboard I noticed that he was missing the segment of his left index finger just above the top knuckle. I knew immediately how this had happened and made a pledge never to put my hands near the mechanism during the first transfer again. Just as I was making this vow Al emerged from his office and said, “Learning anything?” It was only then that I noticed that seventy-one-year-old Al had lost the same digital mass from the same finger. The lesson was now doubly impressed upon me. To this day, anytime there’s a snag in the works I wince.

We talked late into the afternoon about the cut of faces, about Al’s failed partnership in a photo composition business and, inevitably, we compared old scars where we’d been seared by squirts of molten lead.

I paid Al for some brass mats of Intertype Weiss and California cases of Torino, Palatino and Firmin Didot foundry type. I would have liked to have bought a lot more, but lead is heavy.

The next day I followed a hot breeze up Madison to 36st Street to check out the Gutenberg Bible on display at the Pierpont Morgan Library. I had been to see it many times before and standing in front of it yet again reaffirmed my belief that this was the most beautiful book ever made. I cannot think of any other category of art in which the first specimen was the best or even a good example. Who knows what the first painting looked like and who cares about the first movies, they look primitive and inept. But Gutenberg had nailed it on the first try. Here it was, the 42 Line Bible of 1455, breathtaking and commanding. It’s almost impossible to believe it is so old. The type forms are crisp and the ink so lustrous it shines. I wondered if Al had been by to see this book. He would appreciate the extraordinary craftsmanship that went into such a project, and Gutenberg would have gotten a kick out of Crosby Type. Everything would have looked familiar.


I’ve printed a dozen or more limited-edition books over the years, from type I set by hand or with the Intertype. The sheets are printed one at a time on a hand-cranked press, and then manually folded and sewn and bound. At one of my book launchings, I fell into conversation with the editor of a literary magazine and told her the saga of how the books were made. She asked me where I studied to learn all this, and I told her I’d picked it up by myself. She said she was fascinated that I had learned everything without any guidance and said I must be a printer savant. I liked the sound of that. But I never said I didn’t have any guidance, I just said I never studied anywhere, unless you want to call joints like Crosby Type my alma mater.

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