Hot Metal!

As you may know, I love setting metal type. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate a good polymer plate — it’s often the best (or only) way to achieve certain things. But some of my favorite shop time is setting type, ornaments, and borders, figuring out how to make them all fit within the confines of a particular job, and to look good once they’re all there.

In the world of letterpress printing there is, however, a third option — casting full lines of type from molten metal. Sounds like fun, no?

Ludlow Slugs

Slugs cast on the Ludlow

In moving to my new shop, I’ve gained access to a Ludlow Typograph machine and can now cast lines of type or “slugs” in lead. After a crash course or two from my father and brother, (Sterling Name Tape printed name tapes with Ludlow slugs until the late 1990s) I am beginning to cast slugs for business cards, note cards and, soon, many other things.

In addition to the convenience of being able to cast lines of type with reusable metal; being able to leave jobs set up and stored if I’ll need them again without tying up my limited type holdings; and not having to worry about being out of sorts (running out of number 3s when setting a 3-heavy job really stinks), this also gives me access to a number of new typefaces. Many of these are exclusive to the Ludlow Company and aren’t digitally available.


Ludlow Blue Print

A blueprint for a gas-heated Ludlow.

The Ludlow Typograph was invented around 1906 by William I. Ludlow to directly compete with the Linotype Machine. In that, it failed miserably. If you’ve looked around at letterpress-related blogs and websites, you’re probably familiar with the Linotype. The operator sits at a keyboard that is built into the machine. As keys are pressed, brass molds or matrices for each character drop from a large magazine until the line of text is complete. At that point, the machine casts the line of type with molten metal and the matrices are returned to the magazine by a mind-numbingly complex distribution system. The Linotype — and the PC to its Mac, the Intertype Machine — are great at what they do. Really great.

Ludlow Composing Sticks

Two Ludlow composing sticks.

The Ludlow, by contrast, works by casting lines of type from similar matrices, but these have to be handset in a special composing stick. After each line is set, the stick is locked into the machine, molten metal is injected into the matrices and a line of type drops into the delivery tray. The matrices then have to be redistributed back into the case, just as with hand-set type.

Single Matrix

The top of an individual Ludlow matrix

Despite its complexity, the Linotype (and the Intertype) were far superior to the Ludlow at setting long lines of body text in relatively small sizes (14 point or less). There is no competition. What they cannot do, however, is cast very large type for things such as newspaper headlines or other display use. This is where the Ludlow excels. The Ludlow is also easier to maintain and takes up less floor space (though that becomes debatable when one factors in the floor space of the cabinets to house the matrices).

Composing stick with mats

A composing stick filled with matrices

But, as often happened in those days, practicality won out and many print shops (especially newspaper printing plants) employed both machines: the Ludlow for headlines and the Linotype for the body text.

Since I’m not printing books (yet) or newspapers nor am I in the frantic hurry of early 20th century newspaper typesetters, the Ludlow suits my purposes quite well, and I’m excited to add more new typefaces to my offerings.

Ludlow operating lever

The top of the Ludlow Typograph. The composing stick fits into the slot on the right side of the photo.

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One Response to Hot Metal!

  1. Nice to see that you use Ludlow, I cast myself on Model L’s.

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