Printers’ Furniture Now Is Made Of Newer Materials

  • Many of the lighter metals and the newer plastics offer superior substitutes
  • Changes after centuries of dependence upon plain wooden furniture
  • Improved materials may lead to lower operating costs, greater accuracy

Late 1955, a Canadian compositor announced that he had invented a new kind of printer’s furniture. This announcement brings to mind a variety of styles now available, after centuries of dependence upon just one kind—plain wooden furniture.

The invention of M.B. Wainman of Toronto consists of furniture manufactured from sheets of birch veneer, built up with phenolic resin, and molded by pressure and heat.

Sheets, ¹/₂₄-inch thick, I laid cross grain and built up to a height of about 2 inches before pressing, after which the thickness is slightly over ⅝-inch. After molding, the sheets are cut oversize and microsanded to the proper dimension. The manufacturer claims that tolerances are held up to .001, plus or minus. Moisture content is between 6 and 7 per cent.

The furniture sold in fonts, 10 to 60 picas in length, and in the standard widths. It is also available in 36-inch lengths which can be cut to any size desired, with an ordinary composing room saw.

Those printers who have used the plywood furniture are quite enthusiastic about its ability to hold shape under consistent use in all kinds of lockups, and to remain accurate. Naturally, a somewhat longer period of use, under all kinds of conditions, will be required before it is generally accepted as a substitute for ordinary wood furniture.

The term furniture itself seems to be buried in antiquity. Moxon, writing in Mechanick Exercises of 1683, the first manual on the printing craft, stated that furniture was made of wainscot (a superior brand of oak) “straight and of equal thickness all the length.” He further mentioned that it was obtainable in “several thicknesses for several Works . . . from Brevier (8-point) to six or eight Pica thick.”

A special kind of furniture term has better sticks, side sticks and foot sticks survived for centuries, up to the present, and was utilized in the imposition of book and newspaper pages.

Hansard, in Typographia, a famous manual of the early 19th century, the fine furniture is merely slips of wood of different lengths, and noted that it was supplied by the printer’s “joiner” in links of yard each, by the dozen yards. Hansard is the first to mention the use of improved iron side sticks. He mentions that brass was too soft inexpensive and that cast iron was too heavy, although he experimented with the latter by grooving the upper and under sides to lighten the weight.

Another fault of the early iron furniture was that it rusted easily. However, the constant search for materials which would allow greater precision and lockup resulted in the manufacture of more dependable products. Today oil-treated birch is most commonly used, but a variety of words has served the purpose, such as oak, cherry, and even mahogany.

About the middle of the 19th century, foundry cast furniture was produced, and although criticized for inaccuracy, it became in time a most acceptable substitute for wood.

In 1846 Thomas S. Houghton, an English printer greatly interested in composing room efficiency and one of the first advocates of labor-saving devices, published his ideas in a book entitled Every-Day Book. Houghton suggested the systematic cutting and storing of furniture, leads, and rules, and drew up a scheme to guide the printer.

This system, utilizing the pica em as a length and width standard, began with 12 picas and in 48 steps ended at 130 picas. He further laid out far schemes for drawers to fit into a cabinet. The widths adopted by Houghton were not expressed in picas but simply broad, narrow, double broad, etc. these first attempts set the pace. De Vinne in his Practice of Printing discusses a similar procedure for furniture storage.

The only other improvement of the last century with the introduction in the eighties of steel interlocking furniture which is still popular for filling the large areas of blank space.

Up until 1925 type foundries were offering foundry cast, or lead-based, furniture of various kinds. For example, one brand was called railroad furniture, since it’s simulated the track or I-beam shape. It was available in strips 16½-inches long for cutting by the printer.

Another kind was termed “Improved” metal furniture, and was hollow with evenly spaced braces for added strength. The size range was 4 to 50 picas in the now standard with of 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 8, and 10 picas.

In addition, foundries offered quotation furniture, in 2, 3, and 4 pica widths only. Almost every compositor of any experience today has handled the lead-based furniture. Its main advantage over wood was its resistance to moisture, but its softness was a drawback, as it was easily battered or broken.

Metal furniture, as cast by the Elrod and Monotype Giant Caster machines, has replaced the foundry variety in most plants. The Elrod casts widths up to 36-point and in lengths up to 140 picas, while the Giant Caster supplies material up to 72-point width. This is the standard furniture used in makeup of pages, and of course lends itself to a non-distribution system. Newspaper shops have long favored strip for this purpose, particularly since it can be used as base for the mounting of engravings.

In the United States cast iron furniture is undoubtedly the choice of those seeking accuracy and ease of lockup, particularly where there are register problems. This material, standard for many years, is half the weight of lead furniture and has a most useful range of sizes, from 2×4 up to 60×120 picas. The so-called mammoth sizes are hollow, keeping weight to a minimum.

Printers in this country are slow, in comparison to their European counterparts, to adapt a lightweight alloys such as aluminum or duralumin. This latter material, made of 90 per cent aluminum, along with copper and magnesium, appears to be the most useful in the manufacture of furniture.

In the United States there are two foreign brands presently available from Holland and from England. Both of these are light and strong, precision machined for accuracy, and are made in standard widths in lengths from 8 to 72 picas, and in giant sizes 15×15 to 30×70 picas.

Still another European brand is the tubular steel furniture, which is also light and has great strength. It is manufactured in the usual widths and from 8 to 60 picas in length.

Additional features of the duralumin furniture are the noncorrosive finish at it in manufacture, making the material rustproof, and its resistance to pressures of all kinds, retaining accuracy under constant hard wear.

The use of plastics for lockup material is now under way in Europe. Several satisfactory kinds of the manufactured. They have many of the properties of the lightweight metal furniture; namely, resistance to pressure, lightness, and the ability to withstand the solvents used on the press.

There are three distinct brands available. One takes the girder shape, one is solid, and the third is made in a grid formation, somewhat similar to the old metal-base furniture.

It does seem paradoxical that the printers in the United States–a country noted for its precision engineering in all fields—should so long resist changes which can undoubtedly contribute much to the constant problem of increasing production. In a recent research report to British printers, wooden furniture was not even listed as a lockup material. A short forward to the report mentioned would as obsolescent in precision printing methods and therefore not recommended.

A price comparison of the various kinds of furniture naturally shows would to be the least expensive. In fact, the metal furniture, light weight and cast iron, is ten to 12 times more costly. Plastic is slightly below metal in price.

However, astute printers recognize that first costs are not the only consideration. Everyone who has worked with wood furniture knows the problems involved in its use under all conditions. Cast iron has long been recognized as a worthwhile replacement, and is now standard in many plants. As the properties of the lightweight materials are further investigated, there will undoubtedly be further interest shown.

In the famous 1923 edition of the catalog of the American Type Founders there is printed the table, probably forgotten by most printers, showing the savings accrued by the gain of 6 min. per our. Listing $55 as the weekly salary, the table showed that the annual saving would amount to $275. Using today’s wage scales, this saving would be close to $600. It would seem that the difference between the cost of precision material and that now in most common use would quickly be recovered. An hour spent in observing lockup practices in most shops would effectively demonstrate this point.

Many of the progressive printing plants have been aware of this kind of problem for a long time, and have taken steps to keep pace with the rapidly advancing technological changes that are affecting every single operation in the shop.

It is the smaller organization which appears to be reluctant to establish new practices, and since the small plant is the norm in our industry, there can be no rapid changeover. But the present-day economic picture with its trend toward consolidation, certainly points up the alternatives to remaining abreast of current trends in operating procedures.

This article first appeared in “The Composing Room” column of the October 1956 issue of The Inland Printer.


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