Hand setting

This is something thats always bugged me. I’m handsetting monotype 14pt Garamond. Its flush left ragged right - short poetry. I trained as a Letterpress printer and not a compositor. We never learnt anything by doing, but by watching the “comps” at work and then subversively trying things out on corrections, etc, when compositors werent available.. For word spacing, I have in the cases, thicks, mids, and thins. I tend to use mids for spacing between words. Is this correct. Occasionally I use a thick or two to break up rivers of white space and I use thins for rectifying lines only. Am I on the right track?

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Yes. You are on the right track.
Spaces are named by how many there are to the em quad. If you have a diagram of the lay of the California case you will see that there are em quads, en quads, 5em spaces, 4em spaces and 3em spaces. The purists will tell you that the correct name is 3 to the em etc. The em quad is the square one. Three of the 3em equal the em quad, etc.
When composing the line use the 3em space. if you need just a bit more space to get the line to fit, you can substitute one or more 4em spaces for the 3ems. The 5em normally looks too narrow for word spacing. If you want more space between words, you can go up to the en quad. This is the one that is half of the em quad.
You have learned correctly to be alert to rivers and to adjust the spacing to eliminate them.
Get some ink on your shirt.

A general rule of thumb is to space the words in relation to the leading that you are using. Two point or less would need to have 4 or 5-to-the-em spacing, and it would increase in relation to the leading. If you are not fully justifying your form spacing will be much more uniform (you still have to watch out for letter combinations that give the illusion of more or less space, i.e. ‘cow yard’ has more space between the ‘w’ and ‘y’; or ‘full bore’ the space between ‘l’ and ‘b’ appears to be less). Monotype Garamond can have some problems with certain letter combinations, ‘ra’ can appear too close together, and there are a few others that can cause optical problems. You should have 6 sizes of spacing from Em to 6-to-the-em (plus brass and coppers).

I prefer to start spacing with 4-to-the-em which gives me the leeway to go one size either way for simple spacing adjustments. Poetry is usually spaced wider to slow down the reader, but prose can and should be spaced compactly. Tighter spacing reduces the possibility of rivers, but they can happen in any composition. Excessive spacing after points should be avoided, it makes the reader stop unnecessarily. Keep in mind that the excess space around points can be used to your advantage when searching for a place to reduce spacing for fitting.

I would recommend some reading, but all my printing books are packed-up right now.


Lasimp, Sir, Looks as though you are on the correct lines, I quote from a very good reference book, from my little archive /collection, (in this case Printing Design and Layout—-by Vincent Steer) and as the Foreword is by *THE* Beatrice L. Warde and endorsed by Her it would seem to be a good yardstick.
Quote follows:- *Next follows the en-quad, one-half the width of the em. The thick space is one-third of the em and is the normal space inserted between words. The middle space is one-fourth the width of the em, while the thin space is one-fifth of the em. There is also the hair space, but this is chiefly for letter spacing.* written Verbatim, from the book.!!!
Can also give you a good shot, regarding, how this translates into Machine setting, i.e. Monotype??
Lasimp, Sir, if you like call me OFF line and I will happily feed you, as far as possible, from the book, (400, Pages and 17 chapters,) anything specific that may help??? at the risk of both getting R.S.I. !!! Good Luck Mick

Thanks Mick and all those good replies. I have two copies of Vincent Speers excellent book, my reasoning being pre WW2 and the 1950’s would be good to compare the thinking in what was a golden age of the tradesman.
This poetry is looking pretty good but often I wonder about my methods - just doing it by eye. I keep going back the next day and making subtle changes. The heads are the same font but in 18pt and they are fine.
Inky, I dont think my cases have any EM quads still there. But I will search and try and lay out a few examples to firm it in my mind. its great to get stuck into this after half a century or so!

Now you know why a comps apprenticeship used to be 7 years in the 50s and reduced to 5 years in the 60s.

Actually there are different spacing standards for different classes of work (for example display, job-work and book-work), and also for different set-widths. Job work tolerates 3-to-em spacing, where book work may benefit from 4-to-em or sometimes even 5-to-em spacing. All depends on the set width of the type, wider characters needing wider word spaces. And the details, suiting word spaces to the character shapes surrounding them, more between verticals, less between rounds and diagonals and voids and punctaation. Some of this is subjective, as in a previous boss’s idea that the spacing of two cap Ts together were more noticeable than two cap Ls, that the ascender line is more important than the base line. Years of thinking about this, and I still can’t see it.

my last real job was hand setting type. mostly large display type, aluminum and wood type. one of the old comps there showed me a chart they used in some shops, it came in handy especially for justifying type. it also works for every point size. the em quad was 60 units, the en 30, 3 em 20, 4 em 15 and 5 em 12. by assigning numbers to the spacing you could see what added up to just a hair bigger, I thought it made things easier.

Hello Lasimp,

One comment you made leads me to think that you are indeed on the right track: This poetry is looking pretty good but often I wonder about my methods - just doing it by eye. Incorrect spacing starts jumping out at you. It’s almost a curse!


All great comments. One other factor is that the typeface/style/weight itself can have a bearing on the correct spacing to use. The one paramount rule is “does it look right?”. After setting something and pondering wether it looks right or not - simply turn the proof upside down and the look/flow of the spacing should become instantly clearer to you.

It took me many years to realize that my original routine of starting everything with 3-to-the-em spacing just was not as satisfying as simply starting with 4-to-the-em spacing. In time you will deveolpe an eye fror such things, it does not come instantly, but is a developed sense.


Yes, face has a great deal to do with it. A wider face with deep, round counters and bowls will generally look better with wider spaces. A condensed face with a more vertical feel will generally look better with narrower spaces. When I set a book face, I’ll generally use 4-to-the-em spaces for word spacing and 3-to-the-em for sentence spaces. But when I was setting some blackletter recently, I used 5-to-the-em spaces for the general spacing and 4-to-the-em after sentences. In several point sizes I have down to 6-to-the-em spaces, though I’ve only used them when justifying.

Michael Hurley
Titivilus Press
Memphis, TN

As I recall if you were justifing a line you would start out with 3-em spaces. If two loose you would switch out to en quads if too tight to a 4-em or 5 em spaces to make it justify. Poetry I think or anything flush left and ragged right would be what ever pleasures the eye. I am sure the books referenced here have some standard guides for poetry format.

Quoting from page 31 of “Using Type Correctly” by Kurt H. Volk published by same in 1935:

“The aim of all good typography is to space a line as to enable the eye to catch each word with the least amount of effort. At the same time the whole mass should not be streaked with rivers of white space created by an excessive amount of space between words. Neither should a line be so tightly spaced that it becomes a puzzle to the eye to determine where one word ends and the next one begins.

Good spacing means spacing a line so that the words are distinctly separated to make reading easy. More than a 3-em space between words should be avoided; nor should there be anything less than a 4-em space. Occasionally, in very narrow measures, it is permissible to resort to 5-em space. The same spacing should be used at the end of a sentence as is used between words in the sentence.”

And from page 8 of Geoffrey Dowding’s “Finer Points in the spacing & Arrangement of Type”, revised edition 1995, Hartley & Marks, Vancouver, BC:

“That great printer, Sir Emery Walker, and co-partner with T. J. Cobden-Sandersonin founding the famous Doves press at hammersmith, once gave advice to the typographer Bernard Newdigate. He said: ‘The compositor’s thick space boxes should be filled instead with thin. [one fifth of an Em quad] The result is much closer spacing and freedom from those gaps and rivers which disfigure most modern printing.’

The publishers of Penguin Books, in the “Composition Rules” written for them by Jan Tschichold in 1948. gave these instructions to their typesetters: ‘All text composition should be as closely word-spaced as possible. As a rule, the spacing should be about a middle space or the thickness of an ‘i’ in the type size used. [ATF Garamond in 14pt has about 4 1/2 to an Em.] Wide spaces should be strictly avoided. Words my be freely broken whenever necessary to avoid wide spacing, as breaking words is less harmful to the appearance of the page than too much spacing between words.’”

Dowding goes on in a footnote about poetry that wider spacing and extra leading should be used “as further ways of slowing down the reader”, quoting Paul Beaujon (Beatrice Warde) in “The Book of Verse”, a monograph in the Monotype Recorder Vol. 35 No.2 Summer 1936.