How hot type works

Sidebar by Ed Quillen

Printing – October 1995 – Colorado Central Magazine

Thirty years ago, almost every newspaper in America was printed with the same “hot-lead” technology that remains in daily use at The Saguache Crescent.

Everywhere else today, publishing is a result of computers and “photo-offset” technology.

To put it another way, Benjamin Franklin or Mark Twain could walk into the Crescent office and go right to work. The Linotype machine might be a novelty to Franklin (Twain lost heavily with an investment in a competing machine which, he claimed, “could do everything a human printer can do except get drunk on Saturday night”), but the cases of hand-set type would be familiar, as would the mutton quads, rules, dingbats, platen pins, chases, quoins, galley trays, and proof press.

Think of how a rubber stamp works, and you’ve got the heart of the Crescent’s printing method. The letters are raised, they pick up ink, which is then applied to paper.

The letters aren’t rubber at the Crescent shop. They’re made from an alloy of antimony, tin, and mostly lead.

Some are already formed; these are set in place by hand, with the printer (or compositor, to be formal) picking up each letter and putting it in the proper place. The letters are stored in a “California job case,” which has a bin for each letter.

“Upper-case” letters are alphabetical, except that the J and U are at the end. That’s because, when printing started with Gutenberg in the 15th century, the Roman alphabet did not have those letters. “I” and “J” were the same, as were “V” and “U”. (Thus the “PVBLIC LIBRARY” in many towns, carved in imitation of Roman inscriptions.) When those new letters were inserted into the alphabet, they went to the end of the type case.

“Lower-case” letters are stored in rather arbitrary order; during my student days, we had mnemonics to help us recall the sequence. “Be careful driving elephants into small Ford garages” reminded you that the top row of the lower case contained “B-C-D-E-I-S-F-G.” Other rows gave us “Let me now help out your punctuation with commas” and “Villains usually take three-em spaces and run.”

As soon as the job is done, the type has to be taken apart and distributed back into the case. That’s not too bad for a few headlines or ads, but it could get worse than tedious for all those acres of text.

That’s where the Linotype and its relatives come in. There’s a pot of molten lead next to the machine (thus the term “hot-lead”), and as the operator types, brass molds are assembled inside the machine in the proper order. As soon as a line is ready, the molten lead is pressed into the molds. When it solidifies, you’ve got a “line o’ type” which you can assemble into the publication.

At the Crescent, the pieces of lead get locked into a “chase” — a page-sized steel frame. The chase goes onto the “bed” of the press (thus the old saying about “putting the paper to bed”).

Once the press starts, an ink roller goes across the type. Then the paper roller grabs a sheet and crosses the type, and there’s the printed page. A big set of metal fingers lifts the printed sheet. It’s an intricate choreography, with the printer snapping in big sheets of paper while the press clatters away.

From the compositor’s standpoint, the best part comes after the job is done. Instead of distributing individual letters back into the case, a long and slow process, the compositor just tosses all the Linotype “slugs” into the “hell-pot,” where they’re melted to be used for the type for next week’s paper.

How is this different from every other publication? Well, I’ll use our shop as an example. We type the text on computers. We prepare the ads and other graphics on computers. We scan the pictures into computers. We use a computer and a laser printer to produce the assembled pages — that’s what “desktop-publishing programs” do. This doesn’t take exotic or specialized equipment; it’s off-the-shelf stuff from local computer dealers.

At printing time, we take these assembled pages, which look like the pages you see, down the street to The Mountain Mail. They take full-size pictures of the pages, which results in page negatives.

The page negatives are placed against photo-sensitive aluminum plates, and there’s an arc light which burns an image onto the plates. The plates go on the press, a “rotary web press” which prints from rolls of paper, rather than single sheets like the Crescent.

These plates do not have raised areas to catch the ink. Instead, the exposed parts of the plate attract ink, and the unexposed parts attract water. Since oil and water do not mix, in theory only the right parts get ink.

The plate actually prints onto a rubber roller (the “offset roller”) which in turn prints on paper.

There, in short, is the technological difference between the Crescent and every other newspaper in Colorado. Most publication offices now look like any other office — a bunch of computers with people sitting before them. Upon my first visit to The Denver Post’s new quarters in 1989, I remarked that it resembled an insurance-claims processing center more than a newspaper.

By contrast, the Crescent shop is ink-stained and full of noisy machinery. It makes me think of steam locomotives — fascinating and honest machines of yore with all these gears and rods out in the open to watch.

If you’re inspired to see this at work, the best time to visit the Crescent shop is probably on Tuesday afternoons. That’s when they’re printing the paper, so you can see the hand-fed press in action, and you likely won’t be disturbing any deadlines.

— Ed Quillen