Estimates, or “guess-timates” on tradtionally typesetting a 6pt. book.

I know that this might be subjective, but i am going to be giving a presentation to some students, and i will be showing them a book that was produced sometime in the mid nineteenth century. This bulk of this book was set in six point type.

My questions are these-

A. what would an experienced printer be able to typeset in a normal work day?

B. and given this, how long would it take one to typeset a 500 page book?

Thanks in advance for your help!
Don Kilpatrick

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Yikes! 6pt is VERY small type for hand-setting a book. I’d hate to be the guy who got THAT assignment….

I have set several books in handset 12 pt, though. I’ve learned I can consistently set a 6x9 text-block page in about 2 hours. Faster if I’m fresh and it’s an interesting project…. slower if I’m goofing off. If it’s a Bible page with a lot of indents and chapter/verse numbers, it takes about 3 hours. I have no idea if that is fast or slow…. it’s just how long I take.

Now…. assuming that a 6pt letter occupies 1/4 the space of it’s equivalent 12 pt letter, then it would take me between 8 and 12 hours per 6 x 9 text block. Using 8 hrs / page, your 500 page book would take 4000 manhours. If the text block is smaller than 6x9, then it would take less time of course.


In the nineteenth century compositors were very fast. There were contests where they could compete. There was a book written about this but I can’t recall the title.

I don’t know how fast any particular individual could set a page but it would have been quite rare for just one individual to set the type for a whole book. More often the books sections would be parceled out to a number of compositors. In a book printing facility there would have been very many folks involved in this. Similarly, many presses would be involved in the production, and thus many pressmen.

Given these resources. book production was extremely fast. I read some statistics, I don’t recall where, but as I recall it was a matter of days. Actually, print production at the turn of the century, supposedly was faster than it is today.


Thanks Gerald and Winking Cat press!

I really appreciate the insight into this. I am pleasantly surprised that it was more efficient then as opposed to now. Actually, that does make a lot of sense. Thanks again, and if you ever find out what the title of that book is, shoot me an e-mail!



But then you do have to put all of that type back which wasn’t included in the original question.


That’s what those hordes of printer’s devils were for.


The book on 19th Century speed compositors is “the Swifts” by Walker Rumble. They were incredible and the basis for weekend long gambling as the competition played out. The Linotype put them out of business. The Swifts were 10 times faster than regular compositors and the Linotype was 10 times faster than that. John Adams

When touring the Arion Press facility they showed a machine which read a paper tape and cast individual sorts in the appropriate sequence to set a line of type (very quickly). While I was there they were operating only one of the 6 machines to set pages for Don Quixote (unfortunately they were printing the pages on a cylinder press rather than a windmill, which considering the book, would have been my choice). A composer had to then replace sorts to get italics and the like, but on the whole they were not hand-setting type. I’m not sure when these machines came into existence but they were quite old, and they are what I would want to employ if I were tasked with setting 500 pages of 6pt type.

The rate at which it was producing type seemed to be faster than 1 sort per second (it also made the spaces), so I imagine it would set a page in less than an hour.

The first image shows shows several pages of set type that was ready for italics replacement, proofreading, and pagination, and the second shows the machine itself.

image: IMG_0018.jpg


image: IMG_0017.jpg


I would never want to hand set a large text in 6 pt. That would be a miserable task!

That machine from M&H in the last post is a Monotype composition caster. It isn’t setting the lines, it is casting them.

Daniel Morris
The Arm Letterpress
Brooklyn, NY

Yeah, that’s what I meant.

From what I’ve read, the expected speed of a professional typesetter was about 2 seconds per sort + some time to justify the lines. But this didn’t include time for making corrections, as those were done at typesetters own expense.

Here is a quote from ‘History of the Government Printing Office’ printed in1881:

“Each page of the manuscript is then numbered, from the first to the last, to prevent any confusion in it’s subsequent career…. where it is parceled out to the compositors, who reproduce the original in type. If it is an extensive publication, perhaps a hundered or a hundred and fifty men will be engaged upon it at once, and in an hour from the time the copy reaches the compositor’s hands, the proof slips are passing into the Proof Room to be read”.

The GPO was a big place, but I think you can get an idea how the system worked.


Page 23 in “The Swifts” provides this information, based on an em containing between 2 1/2 and 3 characters:
“On average, a compositor could set and correct 7,000 ems of type in a day of ten hours … most shops assumed 10,000 ems was too much to expect of their workers in a day. In setting 1,500 ems an hour, as one might do in spurts, the compositor’s hand reached into the type case 4,000 times. Two thousand ems an hour, the fastest racing pace, required 5,400 reaches, which was 85 to 100 letters picked up each minute. An extremely fast typesetter, his arm pumping like a piston, went back and forth from case to stick seven or eight times every five seconds.”
It goes on to mention swift George Arensberg, who in 1852 set 2,487 ems in 90 minutes.