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Laboratory Press : metal type composition the old-fashioned way

Laboratory Press : metal type composition the old-fashioned way

DO YOU TEACH TYPOGRAPHY? Here is a suggested project you should give twice : first during the first week of the semester, and a second time during the last week. In a non-letterpress environment, the assignment would be done on a computer using InDesign so the student can flow text.

PROJECT : Create a well-designed single page. 

  • Avoid hyphens and rivers as much as possible
  • Line breaks should react to and support the text
  • Utilize a variety of type sizes, including headline / title, initial cap, necessary descriptive and main text, writing and design credits to produce a visually coherent page
  • Avoid noticeable tracking or kerning extremes
  • Use of fleurons and typographic decoration is encouraged

The final piece should demonstrate the student's skill level with the craft of typography and layout

Consider the piece as it might be used for an award or mission statement, or give it a historical document quality. A knowledgeable designer with a critical eye should see evidence of a number typographic design decisions that were made, in place of default-mode decisions made by the computer.

Where this idea was born

Porter Garnett started Laboratory Press at the Carnegie Institute of Technology in 1922 as the first fine press educational program in the U.S. 

Under the guidance of Garnett, students produced projects (termed "projets" by Garnett) using hand composition with metal type to demonstrate the student's skill and decision-making processes with the craft of typography. About 190 of these projets were produced. Below is one of the nicest examples we've seen, which we bought from eBay ($35) to go with our Albion No. 8112 from The Laboratory Press. 


Specimen No. 39, produced by Charles Wesley Prew and approved for printing in January 13, 1927. Sheet measures 9" x 14".

Here the projet is cropped to show more detail. Note the use of small caps, ligatures, and border art. Pay special attention to the number of design issues this student had to contend with :

  • Note the length of the first 2 lines and then the next 2, all filling the line measure
  • The spacing between the initial cap E and IGHT
  • The complete lack of rivers
  • Only 3 hyphenated words (each 9, 10, and 11 characters in length)
  • The way Fates (a capitalized word) hits at the start of the last line
  • The handset decorative pieces to create a "tailpiece"
  • Getting the last few lines to perfectly pick up the angle of the tailpiece and to completely fill the last line

Simply stunning and representative of persistence, craftsmanship and an astute eye for detail.

Here is another projet we also found on eBay.


Specimen No. 78, set by Harry H. Wisner in Goudy Newstyle, is a bit more open, but with a wonderful, calligraphic "Y" that contrasts beautifully with the headline's stiletto serifs. The credits say the initial cap is calligraphy by Wisner, but it is printed via letterpress. The subtle rounded curve to the type at the bottom reflects the curves of the cap Y and is simpler, but no less skillful, in design to the previous projet.

William Ibbett? Jack the Ripper?

William Ibbett? Jack the Ripper?

Proof of our Albion's origin

Proof of our Albion's origin