Early Printer’s Tools

Tools, conceived in the mind and made by the hand, become an extension of both. Nothing is more basic to the development of any craft.

Danse Macabre 1499

The best sources of information about the earliest printing tools are fifteenth-, sixteenth- and seventeenth-century woodcut and engraved images of the printing operation. The earliest of these is the famous Danse Macabre woodcut published at Lyons in 1499. The illustration is somewhat sketchy in nature, but it shows clearly enough the composing stick, inking balls, and a copy-holder, called a visorum. On the bench next to the compositor is a press form with a bottom plate, divided into columns of different measures (most likely for a text with notes set to a narrower measure surrounding it in the outside margins.)

Prelum Ascensius 1520

A much more detailed and realistic picture of the press depicts that of Jodocus Badius Ascensius of Paris, in 1520. Next to the name (Prelum Ascensianum) on the head of the press are four hand tools, neatly tucked into leather cords tacked to the press. Three are clear enough. One is a pair of scissors to cut the frisket or paper gauges. Next to it is a brush, most likely for pasting down the tympan and other tasks well-known to the modern printer. On the right side of the press is a pair of dividers (later adopted by Plantin for his printer’s mark) used to lay out margins and center type.

Prelum Ascensius 1522

Next to these dividers is a Y-shaped tool that appears to have a divided handle and a point. The same tool appears in a cruder woodcut of the same press dated 1522, on the other side of the press. James Moran, in his Printing Presses, writes that it is a bodkin. If so, it is an unusual form of one. The present consensus is that it may be a tool for screwing register points into the tympan frame, but this is not certain.

Durer’s Drawing of a Press

Durer Drawing 1511

Durer’s sketch of a press, in 1511, although it shows the screw running in the wrong direction, seems to be done from observation. (Durer was the godson of Nuremberg printer and publisher, Anton Koberger, and had a press in his home.) The sketch shows a hammer, dividers, and what appears to be the same Y-shaped tool, all attached to the far side cheek of the press. In the well-known 1628 copperplate engraving published in Haarlem by Peter Scriverius, the scissors, dividers and paste-brush are shown again on the head of the press. In this engraving, called “the first accurate representation of a press,” the mysterious tool of 1520 is not shown. A hammer or mallet is shown hanging from the left cheek of the press, used of course for planing the form and setting the quoins and sidesticks. Sidesticks were strips of wood or metal; when wedged against quoins, they secured one side of a locked-up page.

Scriverius 1628

Abraham von Werdt’s representation of a printing office (1639) shows the scissors and hammer on the head, as well as a small pointed implement which may well be a bodkin.

von Werdt 1639

Moxon’s Illustrations in 1683

By the time of Joseph Moxon’s Mechanick Exercises on the Whole Art of Printing (1683) we have for the first time detailed, large-scale depictions of the tools of the printer. One of these is the sheep’s foot, a bent piece of iron with a nail-pulling claw at one end and a hammerhead at the other. Moxon states that it is used for nailing and pulling nails from the inking balls. The sheep’s foot, almost unchanged from Moxon, is in the 1881 R. Hoe & Co. printing supply catalogue, and, in fact it can still be found in hardware shops today. In 1841 Savage wrote that “it is customary to have one for each press, which in a wooden press is suspended by the head from two nails driven into the near cheek of the press, just below the cap. It is a very useful article to the pressman; but is often applied instead of the mallet and shooting stick, to tighten up or to loosen quoins…I do not like to see it used for this purpose.” Another use for the sheep’s foot is to lift up one edge of a form, to check for tightness.

The bodkin, mentioned before, is the compositor’s tool for inserting and removing a piece of type from a composing stick or form. It has a short wooden handle with a wide mushroom-like cap, and a long point. It is shown in its classic form in Moxon and almost identically in the 1881 Hoe catalogue. In the nineteenth century American manufacturers devised metal tweezers with a folding bodkin point that could be kept in the compositor’s pocket.

Shooting Sticks and Mechanical Quoins

Shooting sticks, mentioned above by Savage, were originally a piece of hardwood, such as hickory, with a notch at one end. This notch was engaged against the end of a quoin or sidestick, and the shooting stick was tapped with the hammer or mallet. This forced one wedge tighter against another to lock up type inside the chase. In later years shooting sticks were made of iron or steel, and remained in use until the development of mechanical, or screw-tightening quoins in the late nineteenth century.

Tools - Moxon and Hoe

The change from wood to metal can be seen in almost every tool and machine of the printer’s trade, from presses to smaller implements. The greater precision and durability of iron and steel were valued, once the industrial processes involved in fabrication made them accessible. This changeover happened for many tools in the first decades of the nineteenth century, coincident with the development of the iron hand press.

The composing stick is one tool whose very name indicates its wooden origin. Setting type requires precision, and metal composing sticks by the time of Moxon were all that he showed; yet an 1910 edition of Southward’s Modern Printing pictures a mahogany stick, with a fixed measure and lined in brass, for use in newspaper work. Martin Speckter’s Disquisition on the Composing Stick is the only book ever written on this essential tool. It was published by The Typophiles in 1971.

One tool that changed form for the worse was the old wooden galley-and-slice. A wooden galley had inserted above its base a separate sliding base with a protruding handle. When needed, type on the galley could be easily removed by simply grasping the handle and pulling the upper base out of the galley. In the transition to brass and steel galleys, the slice has been lost. Another, quite different form of slice was used for the distribution of ink. Shaped like a miniature shovel, as Moxon says, it had a short bar extending through the handle to prevent the handle from touching the ink when he tool was put down.

Even this quick summary of some of the compositor’s and pressman’s tools will give an idea of the conservative nature of the printing craft, during the 500-year reign of letterpress. Gutenberg would no doubt be bewildered in a modern printing plant; but chances are he would feel very much at home in an amateur’s basement letterpress shop.


Related Articles