[Guest Article] Gutenberg’s Inventions – Part 4: Composing stick and hand composition -- drupa - May 28 to June 7, 2024 - Messe Düsseldorf

Gutenberg’s Inventions – Part 4: Composing stick and hand composition

In our series, guest author Dr. Julia Bangert from the International Gutenberg Society introduces the inventions of Johannes Gutenberg. The fourth edition is all about composing stick and hand composition.

hand composition set

The compositor has the task of putting the individual pieces of type together to form a text. At Gutenberg’s time, compositors were very educated, because they not only had to be able to read, but also to understand Latin. The many different special characters mentioned in the previous section also placed high demands on the compositor, who had to know how to use them correctly.
A text is typeset line by line. To do this, the compositor holds the so-called composing stick in one hand and with the other hand fetches the required sort from the type case. He has to be very careful because the letters are reversed and he has to insert them overhead into the composing stick. The sort have a notch for this purpose, the so-called nick, with the help of which the compositor can feel the correct alignment. When the line is almost full, he has to fill the spaces between the words with spacing material. Early composing sticks were probably made of wood and had a fixed width. Today, a composing stick is made of metal and the desired line width can be set in advance with a set screw.

The standing matter

The finished lines are put together in the galley to form an entire page of text. The galley consists of a simple plate, which has an edge on three sides and is open on one side. The spaces between the lines, the leading, are also filled with spacing material. Next, the whole thing is tied together so that all the pieces of type remain in place during transport. For this purpose, a string, the so-called page cord, is wound several times around the finished set. The end is threaded through the windings with the help of a bodkin and tightened. The bodkin is a tool with a wooden handle and a narrow metal tip. The compositor can also use it to make corrections in the standing matter by pulling out individual misplaced pieces of type with the tip. From the galley, the finished standing matter is finally transferred to the printing press and is ready for the next step.

In part 5 of our series “Gutenberg’s Inventions” you will learn more about inking the standing matter in the printing press.

About the Author:

Julia Bangert has a PhD in book studies and is an artist. Her dissertation entitled “Buchhandelssystem und Wissensraum in der Frühen Neuzeit” was published in 2019. In addition to her work as Managing Director of the International Gutenberg Society, she works as a book painter and illustrator. Finest colouring and an elegant brush stroke are her trademarks, a perfect gilding is her passion.