M. Bixler at Monotype
Master of a craft that technology passed by, Michael Bixler of Mottville, above, tends to one of his Monotype casting machines.

Fine Print
Out of Molten Metal

by James Ehmann
photography by C.W. McKeen

Like many young professionals, Michael and Winnie Bixler built a business for themselves around a striking technological advance.

But the comparision with most modern entrepreneurs ends there. The advance the Bixlers are concerned with, revolutionary in its day, was patented exactly a century ago and, for at least a decade, has been almost obsolete. But not quite.

Working in their shop in Mottville, just north of Skaneateles, the Bixlers have become experts of fine print.

They make it from molten lead.

The whiz-bang technology of computerized electronic typesetting, which prints letters on film at dizzying speeds, has long-since run most Monotype operations out of business.

But the Bixlers have no fear that a similar fate awaits them. Only three or four commercial Monotype shops remain in the United States, few enough to be supported by the remaining market for their wares.

And the market is apt to survive. Electronic photocomposition is infinitely faster that hot-metal techniques, but the quality of type printed of film remains inferior to type cast in lead.

"As long as people want to produce very, very fine books, they will have to get their type from somewhere," Winnie Bixler said.

There are three basic differences between hot metal and film composition:

First, film typesetting technology works like a dot-matrix printer. Light beamed through stencils of each charcter exposes squares on an invisible grid, stroke by stroke, to make the form. To make curves, such as those in the letters "o" and "s," squares staggered from one line in the grid to the next are exposed; taken together, they give the impression of a curve. On magnified examination, however, the arcs appear as a series of steps. Curves printed from inked lead, on the other hand, are sollid curves, giving greater clarity and definition.

Second, electronic systems, in any given typeface, work from a single master for each character. Larger or smaller type is created by expanding or shrinking the master. In Monotype, each letter in each typeface have been individually shaped for each size to give the best aesthetic relationship to all the other letters — also make it easier to read. For example, an "e" may be relatively wider in smaller sizes and relatively narrower in larger ones.

matrix case & galley
The back-and-forth motion of the caster's brass matrix case, above, is guided by by a coded paper tape so that molten metal is injected into the proper character molds in the proper sequence. Freshly cast type is then automatically loaded into the priting tray, or "galley."

And third, the stately typefaces available in monotype are simply unavailable elsewhere. The Bixlers, for example, are the only typesetters in the country with Dante, the last typeface designed by Monotype craftsmen.

Using Monotype "is the equivalent of driving an old Pierce Arrow or an Auburn or a Packard," said James Mairs, vice president of W.W. Norton & Co., a New York publishing house. "It gives you a level of quality not achieved by anything else."

Mairs said publishers consider Monotype for especially classy art books. Most recently Norton has used the Bixlers' typesettin for a volume about Hudson River painter John Frederick Kensett and for "The Function of Ornament," a book about architect Louis Sullivan.

The Bixlers usually are concerned with setting type, not actually printing the books. Galleys, the page-by-page components of a book, are set in lead, and a single proof of each page is made up on a flatbed press. The proofs are then photographed at large printing houses, and printing plates made from the negatives are used in modern high-speed presses. The resulting pages do not carry the ancient charm of lead pressed against paper, but the quality image of metallic impression remains.

In addition to working for the trade book industry, the Bixlers set type for a variety of scholarly publishers. Among dozens of other things, they have done the Whitney Museum of American Art's book of the permanent collection; the "Winslow Homer Watercolors' exhibition catalog for the National Gallery in Washington; multi-vollume editions of Dante and Lewis Carroll for the Pennyroyal Press; Ansel Adams calendars for the New York Graphic Society; and specialty certificates for both Harvard and Yale Universities.

"What we do is not ephemera," Bixler said, "not something done today and read tomorrow and thrown away this weekend. We do books and publications meant to be kept forever."

For most modern publishing applications, such quality is unnecessary, so other considerations take precedence.

Michael Stern, production manager at the Syracuse Newspapers said: "There will always be a market for these people, because no matter how well the computer program is refined, if you put a magnifying glass on (type set on film) you can see the stroke lines.

"But given the size of our type and the quality of newsprint, we don't worry about that, because you could never see the difference in the newspaper," he said.

Newspapers are more concerned with speed. Stern noted that in the days if hot-metal typesetting, a good man could produce one broadsheet page of type in an eight-hour shift. The electronic equipment now in place can set a page in about one minute.

Every bit as revolutionary, a century ago, was the advent of hot-metal technology. Until the 1880's, long-lasting type was precast in founderies, and thousands of people worked at newspapers and print shops, hand-setting text "in exactly the way Gutenberg set the Bible" in the mid-1400's, Bixler said. After printing a job, galleys for page after page were disassembled, again by hand, and the characters were returned to their appropriate type cases.

So publishers longed for a labor-saving device. A typesetting machine promised to replace the work of 20 or 30 people.

While many inventors produced mechanisms to automatically drop type into galleys, none conceived an efficient way to sort the used type – "a's" from "b's" and "A's" and "B's" and so on – and get back into the proper type cases or the proper loading channels in the machine.

"But then two people solved the problem with a radical idea – to take all the used type and melt it down and recast it into new type, all inside the machine," Bixler said.

The contraptions that resulted were the Linotype, conceived in 1886 by German immigrant Ottmar Mergenthaler, and the Monotype, inspired by player-piano technolgy and patented by Ohio native Tolbert Lanston in 1887.

Dante specimen
The Bixlers are the only typesetters in the United States still using the classic typeface Dante, illustrated above.

Hot Type Alive, Well

In the Linotype, brass matrices for letters and numbers and punctuation marks are key-punched by a single operator to drop in proper sequence into a line of type. Each line is then cast as a single slug of lead that drops into the galley, and the brass dies are automatically fed back to their original presetting channels in the machine.

"This was fast and simple and terrific for newspaper work – but if you ever wanted to make a correction, the whole line had to be recast," Bixler said.

Lanston's idea was more bizarre – and more precise.

"When Lanston saw the keys of a player piano operating automatically at the direction of a perforated scroll of paper, he thought, 'Why not develop a machine that will read a perforated ribbon and, instead of producing music, produce the alphabet, set in words and sentences and lines of type?'"

Hence, the Monotype process. A paper tape, punched by a keyboard operator at a separate machine, is read in the Monotype casting machine by a flow of compressed air. The air triggers specific braking pins, which halt the forward-and-backward, left-and-right motion of a "matrix case" of brass character molds.

Each removable and reusable case for a specific typeface and type size contains a grid of 225 Roman and italic upper- and lowercase letters, numbers, punctuation marks and spaces. Each character in the grid corresponds to a specific pair of holes in the perforated tape.

As the case snaps into position, an alloy of lead, tin and antimony is injected from a pot of molten metal into the mold, then quickly cooled by a water flow.

The tin makes the lead more fluid. The antimony lends hardness.

Freshly cast characters and spaces then drop into lines in the galley one by one. If a correction must be made later, "We can do it with a pair of tweezers," Bixler said.

The Monotype Co. remains in business in England, largely because the old technologu in popular in Third World countries.

The Bixlers, who met at Rochester Institute of Technology, began thier business 15 years ago in Boston. On average, their machines are 25 years old, "but they were built in a day when they used lots of iron and steel, and things were made to last forever. The machinery works as well today as it did when it was new," Bixler said.

"I'm not only interested in printing but very much interested in this machinery," he continued. "I'm not enamored with it because of its age – it's because it works so well. I got into this as a labor of love – more that just trying to make a buck. There is quite a satisfaction in being able, with your hands, to control so much of the process. It's more of an end in itself than a means to an end."

Mastery of the forgotten skill allowed the Bixlers to leave Boston five years ago and relocate in a rural setting, one where they can live above their shop and have dogs and pet geese, to say nothing Skaneateles Creek and a forest right outside the door.

"Our work comes from all around the country, so it doesn't make much difference where we live," Bixler said. "The small market will continue to come to us.

"If we're going to work hard for low pay and be an anachronism, we might as well enjoy it," he said.

- 30 -

from the Thursday, May 7, 1987 issue of The Post-Standard of Syracuse, New York, pages D4-5.

Copyright © 2003 Michael & Winifred Bixler
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