Reorganizing Type Cases

Has anyone considered reorganizing their type cases in a different layout than the common standards?

I’m going to take an empty case I have and make up a QWERTY layout for it. I’m much more familiar with the modern keyboard layout than anything else and figured this would make composing today much faster for someone who hadn’t learned the old standards.

What tipped me off to the idea is a new cell phone I got. When entering text I have the option of a horizontal QWERTY layout or a vertical ABCDEFG layout. I find myself struggling with the vertical layout and actually able to “tap type” (as I call it) faster than the phone can keep up simply because I KNOW where all the letter are supposed to be in that layout and in the other, as with a california case, I have to think and search for them.

Will I be committing a sacrilege or actually making another step in the current trend of modernizing letterpress?

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The layout of a typecase extends at least back into the 1600s and reflects the frequency of useage of letters. The most frequently used letters are centered in the lowercase side in easy reach. The frequency is reflected in the size of the compartments as well. I suspect that there have been many attempts at re-organizing the case; indeed the California case is a re-organization of a previous configuration.

Personally, I like the tradition involved in letterpress printing and feel that 400+ years of constant useage has probably weeded out previous problems. I should like to spend more time using the type rather than fiquring out a new place in which it should go.

Do your type cases have shift buttons on them?
How are you going to reconcile the different layout of the cap and lower case sections?
You can do whatever you want, but anybody with standard experience will not be able to work your cases, unl;ess you label each box. And it’d be just as simple to label the boxes of a standard layout. Or refer to a chart until the lay of the case is learned

I was unaware of just how much difficulty locating type in the modern case can present; particularly when one is forced to: “… think and search for them.” Thinking is so tiresome. Following the upheaval - circa 1565 - in which it was generally agreed both new letters would be tossed into the case compartments after ‘Z’, memorizing all twenty-six letters proved little hurdle to even the most unschooled apprentice. Of course, in today’s world of ‘self-esteem’ one dare not suggest such burden be heaped upon the sloped shoulders of whinging tyro.To be sure, over the centuries, many print houses established their own case layout; this proved troublesome however, particularly as the Journeyman requirement raised all sorts (pun just sorta! happened) of confusion amongst the newly freed compositors. Thus it was, following many years of trial, that the California Job Case layout became, more or less, the accepted standard of type disbursement in North America. The plain fact that it is so easily mastered, lends so well to rapid word composition (think of the conjuctions), places it well within the terms of: “If ain’t broke - don’t fix it.”
However, there are those compelled - for whatever their reason(s) - to re-invent the wheel. Have at it. What has one thousand years of tradition been but impediment to the ‘modern letterpresser’ anyway? (“First they crushed the type beyond distortion thinking it chic, next, they used Crisco to clean rollers believing it saved the world, then they donned facemask and gloves when entering the pressroom as better to preserve internal delicacy, and, not finally, they corrupted the title, “Master Printer” by applying it to any dabbing ink to substrate.” ) Then, well, then they banned both lead and oil as somehow injurious to society’s well-being and Toyota bumpers now represent all that remain of the Black Art - Sigh.

I am such a Luddite. I learned the lay of the case in a shop that started in the 1870s. The comma (,) and lower-case W (w) were inverted as shown in MacKellar’s “The American Printer” prior to the adoption of the current lay of the case. I currently continue to lay my cases in this manner much to the consternation of….nobody. “Old habits die hard” or “you can’t teach an old typesticker new (or century old) tricks.”

Lammy asked two questions and hasn’t yet received a direct answer to either. Responders have given good history and philosophy, and I agree with the latter.
I will answer the two questions, but don’t believe I will provide the single and true answer.
First answer to first question: Maybe, but not likely. Responders to date have spoken in favor of the layout of the California Job Case.
Answer to second question: Maybe, to both parts of the question. More importantly, it is your type and your case and you should do whatever pleases you and not be concerned with either tradition or others.

I could find the correct boxes in the California Job Case blindfolded and if the letters were in the proper boxes, I could set the form blind or blindfolded. I can type on this QWERTY keyboard fairly fast with two fingers, but I have never learned the layout of the keyboard and cannot touch type.

I will try to make a lighthearted analogy and hope that it is received as lighthearted and not negatively critical.

Handspiking type is maybe a bit like sex. I use the term ‘sex’ as it is used by the younger people and not as we elders learned it to describe gender. Sex and handset type letterpress printing have been done for centuries. There are proven ways of doing each. They have worked. Should you try something new? Maybe. Should you suggest it to others? Maybe not.

I accept that others may do very nice printing from plastic. It is a fact of evolution. Perhaps you can be happy doing your composition on a QWERTY keyboard and sending the file off to have a poly plate made to do beautiful printing.

To restate and close: It is your stuff. Play with it and enjoy it any way you wish Just get some ink on your shirt.

Hear that sound, forme. It’s both hands clapping, best advice so far. I couldn’t have said better myself! Thank you.

The only major drawback to trying to reconfigure the lowercase layout in a California job case is the disproportional size of the compartments. There is a reason that the “e” commands the largest comparment, followed by the vowels and other more commonly used characters. There is also a practical reason that “j, k, z, x and q” are relagated to small compartments.

There can be minor differences in the lay of the California job case, depending on the shop or region it came from. Having been collecting type for over 32 years, the more common deviances are the placement of the ligatures, $, and & characters, depending on the preference of the shop that the cases came from.

Once you learn and get accustomed to the California job case, you will find that distribution almost becomes rythmical as your hand hovers generally over the center of the lowercase dissing the most frequently used characters there.

Keep in mind that speed was of paramount importance in the days when hand-pegging was the sole practice and the California job case came to be the dominant layout.

Prior to the Spring of 2007 I did not know the lay of the case as I had only started getting my press and equipment together to build my shop and had only started studying the craft several months before that. But as I got more type and began moving type from one case to another to clean both it and the cases it didn’t take long before I picked it right up. The relationships between letters in the case became very clear and were logical and once they were understood it was no problem.

There was a reason why the old standard became the old standard and has remained so. I say that not to be a stick-in-the-mud traditionalist, even if perhaps I am. I say that because in wanting to be helpful I want to point out that it may be better for you in the long run in terms of actually setting type to learn the accepted method because it has proven itself, the same as the QWERTY layout has proven itself in terms of typewriter keyboards.


Remember that QWERTY was created as a model of inefficiency. Typewriters would jam if you typed too fast, so QWERTY was created to slow the speed of typing. All the most common letters are in inefficient locations.

Maybe if you were wanting to have it all, you’d reprogram your computer to a California case order to speed typing.
my .02

Re-programming a computer to a DVORAK configuration would be the better move and should have been done from the outset of the personal computer age. Odd that a deliberately confused mechanical system - as correctly identified by bsp - would be used with a system functioning in the electronic nano-second response range. Particularly so when the DVORAK keyboard was/is widely used in many fields demanding rapid keystroke response. In keeping with the hot-metal/letterpress era though, the ETAOIN/SHRDLU would perhaps be a satisfactory layout compromise. Now that would make for an interesting laptop.

Hi there,

“ making another step in the current trend of modernizing letterpress? ”

I changed it to look more like a french system, more adapted to what I am used to. As you can see it looks a little different. I did that because that’s what I have used for years and now I don’t see why to change.

If I am to taught someone on hand setting type I would use the california format, because that is what it IS. I have no intention on changing just for changing.

If you never done this, just follow what is established. Typesetting was around way before you were born.



image: California Job Case AG_final.jpg

California Job Case AG_final.jpg

There was a time, at one point in my past, I knew the California Job case well enough to pick and lay type without the aid of a chart. Much like reading music though, I am now out of practice and need notes, charts and all manner of helps to compose even the simplest of lines. I do however touch type at about 40 words a minute. As a result I just know where the next letter I’m looking for in a QWERTY layout is going to be. Something I proved to myself with the advent of a new cell phone and exuberant amounts of text messaging. With the electronic generation becoming interested in letterpress it may be beneficial to have type arranged in a configuration that they are more familiar with. Yes it will be less efficient, but as pointed out so is QWERTY compared to DVORK, but because of popularity and familiarity it is still the most common keyboard layout. I refuse to accept “this is the way it’s always been done” as a valid reason to not explore a new or better way to do anything. Even old standards can sometimes be improved upon, or at least reworked to accommodate modern life.

I’m not sure modern life is often worth conforming to on the one hand and on the other, that if conformed to something better must necessarily result. In general, I think there is far too much conformity to the standards of the day that seem to be constantly moving in the direction of the lowest common denominator.

As has been pointed out, there are more reasons to maintain the standard lay of the case than familiarity with an accepted system, though that is in fact a strong point. Other reasons include the benefits of standardization for efficiency of work and communication with others in the same field; historical education, references, and associations; and the upholding of tradition, which is not irrelevant. I think these reasons alone more than justify the very slight effort required to learn it.

That doesn’t preclude exploring new ways but there is nothing new under the sun. We should be informed by what has gone before and understand why things are a certain way. Then we should proceed with the goal of potentially adding a meaningful improvement that answers what the current system does and yet goes beyond.

I can see how rearranging the lay of the case may be convenient for some who do a lot of typing, texting, etc. But I don’t see how in the end it would maintain the benefits of the current lay and build something beneficial beyond it.


You have provoked some good discussion. Thank you. Several viewpoints have been expressed. Andre’ gave a good graphic of how he layed his case to suit him.
The question is whether you propose to do something that may please and benefit you; or whether you propose something that you believe will be beneficial for those who practice the ancient craft.
Of those who responded, THEY prefer the traditional lay of the case. That is right for them. Your past experience and philosophy will not change them and you probably don’t intend to do so.
I repeat my previous remark. It is your type. Do what pleases you.
It doesn’t matter if we agree or disagree. The discussion is often interesting. Thank you

Hi Lammy;
I run the print shop at the Canterbury NH Shaker Village and recently got a large donation of type and other items. Included was a QWERTY type case. No one I’ve talked to has ever seen one before. We assume it was used in an office environment where they had typist do limited type setting. It is the size of a Kelsey 3/4 case. I’ve enclosed two pictures for the non believers. By the way, how you set up your shop is really your business as long as your the only one using it. We found a lot of the cases donated to us by a man with over 60 years as a professional as well as a compositor for a major Boston Newspaper set up his cases slightly different from standard California layout. Once I got over being indignant I realized his set up was more efficient.
Good Luck
Jim Macnab

This Thread has reminded me of th time I got about a dozen home-made cases of type. I don’t think the fellow had any idea of what a type case should look like. All the boxes were the same size, like a doube cap case. The upper case was on the left and the lower case on the right of the dividing line. I could not figure out his system, but I did find that if a sort of uc was on the left lower corner box then the lc would be in the right lower corner. Each side was a mirror of the other. I could not move these fonts into real cases fast enough to suit me. But as the old saying goes “,,,Everyone to their own taste said the old maid as she kissed the cow”. Howard H.

Just consider one thing.
The qwerty keyboard is laid out as it is to SLOW down the typist. Early typewriters were prone to have key clashes where keys jammed together in the Basket. If you think about it, more than seventy percent of the key strokes are made with the left hand.
Conversely the layout of the type case is to speed up typesetting.
My advice is to buckle down and learn the layout. It doesn’t take long and is surprisingly easy.