Each printing shop has a compositor or compositors who are responsible for layout of the text and setting the type. The compositor uses a chase and furniture to mark out each page area before adding the text. The chase acts as a frame to hold type in place while printing. The term “furniture” refers to small blocks of wood which were used to hold the chase in place. Because the pages were not set in the same order as they would be read, the compositor had to carefully determine how much text would fit on each page. At times, a compositor would have to lengthen or shorten a text to make it fit into the space he allotted.
Compositors changed the text in other ways as well. Compositors acted as a last editor, often changing the spelling of words to suit their individual preference. Scholars can determine how many compositors worked on a text, based on their preferences for certain spellings.
The compositor employed a number of tools to aid in the setting of the type. A chase and furniture mark out the space that will contain type and help to keep the type in place as it is moved to the printing press.
The page here shows how the type was laid out to print 8 pages on each side of the sheet. Notice the way that the pages are set out of order and in different orientations, so that when the sheet is folded, the pages will become correct.
With enough practice and training, a compositor could reach into the type case and pick out the correct letter without looking. The compositor would reach into the case with his right hand and hold a compositor’s stick in his left hand. He would transfer the letters to the stick, letter by letter, line by line, which appeared upside down to the compositor. He then transfers each line or set of lines to the frame until the page is set. Compositors had to be careful not to reverse letters, which may be where the phrase “mind your p’s and q’s” comes from.
Layout and Paratext
Compositors were responsible for the layout and design of the text, which could often become complicated. This Bible, printed in 1593, contains the main text of the Bible, with additional paratext, or text that is added to the original text. This includes headings, page numbers, and commentary. The compositor had to center the text correctly for the heading, divide the main text into two columns, and plan enough space for the lengthy commentary that surrounds the text.