Restoration II: Sorting & Imaging
From crate to archive - sorting our heritage types
When the heritage types were re-discovered, some of the individual pieces of movable type – known as
sorts – had fallen out of their cases and had to be gathered up (or as I like to imagine, ‘harvested’) from the ground. These loose sorts were then packed in bags within two yellow plastic crates, the kind you usually see brimming over with produce at farmers’ markets, and driven from Pukekohe, Auckland to Wai-te-ata Press, Wellington.
The first steps of sorting feel like Christmas morning: when we open up a bag, we have no idea what’s in it! One bag might be full of Chinese characters, another full of blank metal pieces used for spacing. No bag is the same, and it’s a surprise each time.
Harvest: hand-picking loose types
After opening the bags, we gently place the sorts – one handful at a time – onto an empty galley tray. Metal alloys are dense, so even just a few handfuls can weigh a lot. There’s a reason letterpress printers joke about all being into heavy metal!
Grading: organising types by size
The handfuls of sorts lying on the galley tray are a lucky dip of different characters in different sizes, and before we can organise the characters in any way, we must first organise the sorts by fonts. To date, we have discovered eight different fonts, with the four main ones being:
Headline types (A): 一號 楷體 Size 1 kaiti (27.5pt) Subheading types (B): 二號 仿宋體 Size 2 fang songti (21pt) Subheading types (C): 二號 長仿宋體 Size 2 condensed fang songti (21pt) Body types (D): 四號 楷體 Size 4 kaiti (13.75pt)
As you can see from the photograph of the different trays, the most common sorts are the 5x5mm body types (D), followed by the two subheadings (B, C), and lastly the headlines (A). There’s also a ‘miscellaneous’ tray full of spacing material and an interesting mix of English alphabet letters and Chinese characters of other sizes.
Within a galley tray, the sorts are placed in columns separated by pieces of metal or wooden spacing called leading. Why in columns, and not rows like what you might find in an English-language newspaper? Our galley trays are organised to read from top-to-bottom, right-to-left to honour the type’s heritage: the Grower’s Journal, for which these types were originally used, was set up and printed in this way.
Once there are enough loose sorts packed into columns, we secure the edge of the tray and brush the types down lightly with a soft-bristled brush. This takes superficial dust and debris off the printing surfaces, and ultimately gives better images.
Pests: dusting off debris
Using a Stemi 305 microscope connected to ZEN, its bundled imaging software, we photograph each piece of metal type under magnification.
Quality control: photographing types under a microscope A column of 50 body-type sorts takes between 10-15 minutes to photograph. Some math tells us that’s between 12-18 seconds per photograph, just enough time for a hanzi-literate person to have a go puzzling out the character! However, with an unknown – but huge - number of sorts to photograph, it’s useful to get into a ZEN frame of mind and enjoy the process of discovery, one character at a time. Storage: creating an archive
Each day the counter for number of sorts photographed ticks up a few hundred more – end-of-day reviews are very satisfying! At date of publication, we are up to 8,062 sorts, broken down into: (A)-54, (B)-53, (C)-255, (D)-7700.
This multi-purpose photographic collection will 1) help us integrate language-learning into this sorting process for our student and community volunteers, 2) document the states of corrosion and wear of the sorts and give vital information for later cleaning and restoration phases, and also 3) create a reference archive of the types, so we can do before-and-after comparative analyses after cleaning and restoring the types.
As our photographic archive grows, we welcome student and community volunteers to get involved and identify characters. We will flip each image to be the right way round, and direct volunteers to use a combination of smart input, dictionaries, and peer teaching and learning to identify each character. Smart input through handwriting is intuitive: using a mouse or a touchscreen, volunteers trace out the lines they see in the character, and then choose the best fit from the range the software offers up. Fluency in Mandarin is not necessary – the software can still offer a good selection even if the strokes are out of order! Other volunteers, staff and dictionaries can then confirm or challenge the smart input results. Knowing which characters are in the archive will get us closer to our goal of printing with these heritage types again.
Planting a new crop: language learning