Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Printer's Pie (Pi)

If somebody offers you printer’s pie, just say no! Unlike the dessert, printer’s pie (or more properly, pi) is a mess of dropped and disorderly type that slipped from some printer’s fingers. It’s type cobbler if you will, but without any of delightful aspects of that homemade treat.

Rather than praise and drooling, printer’s pi calls forth unprintable language and despair. All that hard work hand setting type one letter and one space at a time has to be done over again. Sometimes it’s even worse: try to fix pied type, and often more will pi. It’s the law of gravity at its worst.

Have I pied type? You bet. Every printer who’s set any amount of type has probably pied a line or two. Thankfully for me (knock on wood), it’s seldom been much more than that. But there are printers who can tell horror stories of huge forms sliding off metal galleys or falling out of the chase after lockup. Hopefully that’s not you. If it is, you have my sympathies. I know what it’s like to try to fix pied type. It takes the eyes of an eagle and the patience of a saint. As letters accidentally go back into the form out of order, upside down and standing on their heads, it feels like if anything can go wrong it will.

Fortunately I had a good teacher, my dad, who showed me basic techniques to avoid the dreaded printer’s pi.

1) Fill out lines completely and evenly when setting type. Don’t set type so loosely that it wobbles in the composing stick, or try to squeeze in too big a piece of spacing material. When setting smaller type, add em quads or larger to the ends of lines to help hold the type upright.

2) Slide type from the composing stick directly onto a galley whenever possible, and block the lines in with wood or metal furniture to keep them from falling over. My husband and I like to use magnets on our galleys for further security.

3) After locking up the form in the chase, test the lockup before lifting it. Put a piece of wooden furniture under the one edge of the chase and push down on various parts of the form. If anything moves, the lockup needs to be re-done. That is, unless you like picking up pied type!

Even with every precaution, the most careful compositor can still pi type. It’s the nature of the beast. Thousands of slivers of metal standing on end next to each other are an invitation to human klutziness.

But printer’s pi does have one good aspect (doesn’t everything!) Sometimes you can get nice type given to you that somebody pied and didn’t want to straighten out. We’ve acquired a few attractive fonts of type that way.

Mostly though, printer’s pi is far from sweet. Instead it’s a recipe for frustration. Do yourself a favor and stay far, far away!

Blocking in the Form on the galley with wooden and metal furniture and magnets.

Checking the Lockup for loose characters that could pi. A piece of wood furniture props up the chase.


  1. I love the pi(e)! At first I thought it was a chocolate pie with sprinkles... bet it'd be tough to eat. I love the humor you added as it made it that much more interesting to learn about pi.

  2. No, you wouldn't want to eat it. The "type pie" photo was my husband's idea. Glad you enjoyed the humor -- the blog was fun to write.

  3. I greatly appreciated your informative article. I encountered the term pi in reading Benjamin Franklin's biography but could not find a good definition of it in wikipedia.