Use of dividers?

Hi all,

Sometimes old illustrations of printing on handpresses show a pair of dividers, or a compass, hanging on the press. Does anyone know what they were used for? I can imagine them being used in stepping-off pages on a sheet for imposition.

Best regards, Brian

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My assumption has always been that the dividers shown on the walls in old engravings were symbolic of the printer being a Mason. Their iconography uses a lot of dividers and similar implements.

However it could also be a realistic representation since dividers are the original multi-taskers of the world. They are very handy for transferring measurements of all sorts.

I regularly use dividers to check my margins, or to see if texts are correctly centered on the sheet I’m printing on. Once you’ve got into the habit of using them, they become a very useful tool, sometimes more accurate than a ruler or pica-ruler. It is also possible to take a distance/dimensions on the model that you’re working from and to check that against your printed result. It’s something I picked up in bookbinding classes, where we used dividers more often than rulers.

Thank you both for your responses. It occurred to me as I read them that perhaps there was a time when that pica pole I take for granted wasn’t so readily available.


The duo-decimal system, whether it is Pica or Didot, and its Pica pole or Didot ruler didn’t exist in the days of wooden presses. Take a look at Dürer’s instructions to draw the capital letters of the alphabet.

Oh that’s brilliant. I’m going to use a divider now for checking margins and centering. It’s always been a pain to try and measure things to the point with the pica pole. Thanks!


Well, sometimes you can center something by printing on the front, turning, printing on the back, and holding to the light.

Best regards, Brian