The occasion of printing a ticket for a holiday party (finished job shown above) caused me to realize that some of the things letterpress printers don’t carry are accoutrements of the trade normally found at or near the imposing stone.
The customer for this job wanted the tickets double-numbered, with a numbered stub on one end of the ticket for a drawing, and the identical number on the main part of the ticket. This was not a problem, as the founder of Norlu Press (my dad, Lewis “Hobie” DiRisio) saved for me numerous consecutive numbering machines that could be locked up in a forme with types and cuts, and printed. These kinds of jobs were a mainstay of my dad’s shop, and I had printed many of them when I worked beside my dad as a high school student.
Before beginning a job with numbering machines, however, the pressman must set them to the end count (these machines count down from “N” to zero). When I looked for the small wooden tool for doing this, I realized that it was not among the items that I had near my imposing stone, nor anywhere else in shop. Dad had forgotten to leave one for me.
I remembered that this tool was, in fact, a piece of three point reglet (thin sections of wooden spacing material, similar to leads and slugs, but less expensive) with one end cut to form a point. I selected a reglet of 20 picas in length, used an Exacto knife to make two cuts and form the pointy end, and then I had a handy way to advance the wheels on the numbering machines quickly, accurately and without fear of damaging the individual digits on the 85-year-old machines.
With a few clicks of the numbering machines on my imposing stone, I was ready to print.
Having acquired another one of the things that a printer doesn’t carry (actually, a printer might carry one of these handy little tools in the pocket of his or her apron), I considered the importance of the imposing stone area to a small letterpress print shop.
According to the A Dictionary of the Art of Printing (William Savage, 1841), the imposing stone is “The stone on which the compositor imposes and corrects his forms.” For many years prior to the 19th Century, printers referred to the heavy and smooth surfaces where they adjusted types and created forms as correcting stones, but imposition involves more than correcting things like the random damaged serif on a type or poorly justified line.
By its strictest definition, imposition is the arranging of types and lithographic elements that will produce a correctly printed page. In larger print shops and publishing houses, this meant manipulating multiple formes that made pages and arraying them so that when the multiple pages printed on a single sheet of paper, they appeared in the proper sequence after being folded, trimmed and placed into signatures (.)
In smaller shops, imposition involves more than what Frederick J. F. Wilson and Douglas Grey (A Practical Treatise Upon Modern Printing Machinery and Letterpress Printing, 1888) described as “the laying down of the plates and adjusting of the spaces between the pages to allow of proper backs and gutters.” Wilson and Grey asserted that this kind of work was in the realm of specialized tradesmen within the printing industry called compositors, and wrote that pressmen, as the generalists of the trade, needed to know a variety of techniques on the imposing stone to be proficient in their work.
The area around the imposing stone in a small letterpress job shop is where a printer unwittingly exposes something of his or herself, through the array of implements one may find there. Far from being the result of laziness or untidiness, the imposing stone is where printers keep some previous jobs that they expect to print again, where recently acquired curiosities are placed in anticipation of an order that may require their use and where various other implements of their trade reside. The imposing area is where you will find string to tie forms, brushes to clean type, planning blocks to level types to be printed, tweezers and various odd-sized leads and bits of paper necessary to shim up the occasional troublesome forme.
Among modern letterpress printers, there is an urban legend that the one item a printer would never part with from his shop was his imposing stone. Often made of marble, a common size stone for a pressman operating a 10″x15″ platen press might be 3 feet wide by several feet deep. With these measurements, one might expect that the imposing stone could be used for a headstone. The printer, it is believed, would prefer the marble that he used every day to be used as the marker of his final resting place and would have the back side (which would be free of the decades of ink, solvents and general print shop grime that often stain the fronts of imposing stones) engraved with his epitaph. See imposing stone thread on the Briar Press.
Although my Dad had owned his marble stone for nearly 70 years when he passed away in 2007, he did not use it as a headstone. I recall him telling me that his father had acquired it for him when he began printing as a teenager during the Depression. A friend of a friend knew an Italian mason who was doing some work in marble and one piece had broken off a section while being moved. I use this same imperfect section of marble for my imposing stone today, and knowing how many thousands of jobs my Dad locked up on it makes me smile every time I set types on it to prepare them for printing.
My Dad can’t answer my questions about printing any more, but in the same way that Inigo Montoya seeks his father’s guidance by grasping the heirloom sword he made in The Princess Bride and asking it to speak to him, I sometimes take a breath, say a prayer, place my hands on that imposing stone and listen to Lewis “Hobie” DiRisio’s sage advice.