Don't stop the press...

20th October 2006 at 01:00
... or you'll upset Brian Hubbard, doyen of hot-metal type-setting machines. He tells David Newnham why they are invaluable for design colleges

They didn't call them stinky inkies for no reason - it's that heady scent that assails you as soon you enter Brian Hubbard's Norfolk workshop.

The combination of heavy machinery, hot oil and metal is a compelling fragrance. Here are several open cauldrons, each filled with a silvery grey soup whose surface wrinkles at every tremor. Molten lead.

At more than 350 deg C, this is the stuff that gives hot metal printing technology its name. Or at least it did, when the print industry depended wholly on lead type.

Today, printers deal with virtual type, consisting of letters, numerals, punctuation marks and symbols that exist in two dimensions in a computer memory. But in the days of hot metal, type was a physical thing that you could pick up or drop on the floor - a piece of lead, on which was cast a mirror image in sharp relief of the character to be printed.

And hot metal - the technology as well as the substance itself - has been Brian's life.

A master printer who served an eight-year apprenticeship, he has spent half a century in the company of the sort of machines that fill his North Walsham workshop. At 66, he is possibly one of the last in Britain who still knows how to work them. And who can train other people to do likewise.

The machines are mostly Type-casters and Linotypes that until the mid-1980s could be heard, rattling and clanking in magazine and book publishing houses the length and breadth of the industrialised world. Their job was to cast lead type, and everything from small print to chapter headings, and even the spaces between words, would flow from their simmering cauldrons in the form of countless individual characters and spaces, all lined up in measured columns ready to be built into pages.

Thomas Edison called the Linotype machine the eighth wonder of the world.

It was perfected in 1892 by Ottmar Mergenthaler, a German watchmaker who had settled in Baltimore. A skilled operator could set seven lines a minute using its 90 character keyboard.

Before its days were numbered by computers more than 100,000 were sold across the world.

Typecaster machines were invented in New York in the 1840s. Brian's knowledge, not only of their operation, but also of the innermost workings ("I could build one of these from a heap of parts on the floor," he says) stems from his early days on the Diss Express, when a football injury kept him off work for 18 months.

Rather than sit at home, he headed for Monotype Corporation, in Redhill, Surrey, which once manufactured a range of type-casting machines. There he acquired the engineering knowledge that, together with his experience of operating the machines - latterly in his own printing business - now makes him such an invaluable resource.

A fully-qualified Monotype instructor with years of experience teaching would-be printers how to operate type casters, he still offers individual training to anyone wanting to know how to operate a Monotype keyboard and to dismantle, clean and reassemble the type casters themselves.

Shouting to make himself heard over the clash of countless moving levers and meshing cogs (Brian's pride and joy - a perfectly preserved Monotype "Super Caster" - boasts no fewer than 80 gear ratios), he explains how, only the previous week, a man flew from New Zealand to see his machines at work and to benefit from his inside knowledge.

He says: "The training side is important because there is no one else in the country who has got the qualifications to do it."

To anyone who cares about the history of printing, this is, if anything, an understatement. Duncan Avery, of the Type Museum and Monotype Hot Metal, in Stockwell, south London, points out that there is a growing interest in traditional typography and the high quality of the work that only hot metal printing can produce.

"It's much more than nostalgia," he says. "When design students see a really beautiful piece of work, cast in a Monotype face and hand-printed on letterpress, they are really fascinated."

Tons of obsolete printing machinery still survives in collections up and down the country and without the knowledge of how to operate and maintain it, those old skills and disciplines could soon be lost forever. "Of the people who still run machines," he says, "only Brian is in a position to train anyone. He's an extraordinarily skilled man."

Brian does what he can to conserve the nuts and bolts of the print history for future generations. "What I've got here has been built up over 30 years," he says, surveying his dozen or so machines and mentally making plans for expanding the collection.

In addition to the type casters, and a few pieces of domestic furniture, there are elderly printing presses in various stages of re-assembly, together with countless moulds and cases full of lead type in virtually every style and font size that Monotype ever produced.

Many of the shelves are stacked full of long boxes, containing the large-size wooden type that was once used to hand-compose posters for sale rooms and auctioneers.

There is clearly much still to be done, both in terms of conserving hardware and handing down a lifetime's knowledge. But Brian is hopeful that, before too long, there will be a revival of interest in letterpress, perhaps led by the design colleges.

"Leeds, Manchester, Northumberland and London Metropolitan have all expressed an interest," he says. And if Brian has anything to do with it, there is every chance that such a revival will happen in his lifetime.

"I have two ambitions," he says. "The first is to live to be a hundred, and the second is to be casting type the day before I die."


The Hubbard Type Foundry trains students in the operation and routine maintenance of all Monotype machines, including the dismantling, cleaning and reassembling of type moulds. A one-week course is also offered, specialising in the casting of high-quality composition and display type.

Students are trained to deal with problems associated with the Monotype machines, and equipment on hand includes pneumatic keyboards and the more recent computerised hot-metal systems that Monotype introduced in the 1980s.

The Type Museum and Monotype Hot Metal, in Stockwell, south London, was founded in 1992, and now has an internationally important collection of materials relating to the history of printing from the 16th century to the end of the 20th. has details of educational tours

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