Hand-printed books of poetry,
Plus tips and supplies for fellow letterpress printers.

Em, en, thick, mid and thin spaces for letterpress Em (Mutton)
1  x  Type Size

En (Nut)
1/2  Type Size

1/3  Type Size

1/4  Type Size

1/5  Type Size

Justification & Spacing

When you reach the end of a line you'll need to justify it, which in this case means to add spacing between words for fully justified work (or at the end of the line for ‘ragged right’, both sides for centred) so it fits fairly snugly in the composing stick.

The illustration, right, shows the standard set of spacing sizes. (See our Thins Product Guide for a bit more information about a rare variation.)

For example: a 12 pt Em is 12 x 12 pt, a 12pt Thin is 12 x 4 pt, whilst a 10 pt Thin is 2pt. A useful mental exercise is to work out the widths of Ems, Ens, Thicks, Mids and Thins for 60pt type (the smallest size that divides up into whole numbers).

Em spaces are sometimes grouped in with Quads. Quads (or Quadrats) are like extra wide spaces, in multiples of 1 Em: 2 Em, 3 Em, 4 Em and occasionally 5 Em. These extra wide spaces are particularly useful for centering things and, above all, for poetry. To confuse matters, people sometimes (erroneously) call Quotations quads, too.

Quads and spaces can often multi task. For instance, a 12pt 5 Em Quad can be turned on its side to make a 60pt Thin.

Something else you'll need to know is that although an Em is usually relative to the type size, it defaults to pica (another way of saying 12pt) where no type size is specified.

If someone says to you something like, ‘this lead is 18 Ems long’, they'll be talking about pica Ems. In other words, the lead is 18 times 12pt long (216pt, for the arithmetically challenged!).

How Snugly Should the Line Fit?

You should have a lead underneath your line, if you followed our page on composition, and another on top. Pinch these together, trapping the line of text between. You should be able to tip the top of the line back by about 15° and it should stay there without slipping any further. If the line falls right over, you need to add more spacing. If it won't budge at all, take some out!

How Do I Work Out What Spacing To Use?

You need a set of all five widths of spacing, in the same point size of type you're using (eg 14pt spacing with 14pt type). When you've finished a line in the composing stick there will be a gap at the end. Use your spacing to fill the width of the measure (which you will have set to suit the job you're doing, before you started composing). Where you put this spacing will depend on the alignment of the text.

Avoid using a Thin at the end of lines (or at the start, when centring), as these are prone to slipping. Swap it over with something thicker from elsewhere in the line.

Ragged right: Just stuff the gap with spacing until it fits!

Centred: It's not much harder to centre a line, just use the same amount of spacing at both ends of the line. Inserting matching spaces at each end as you go will make it easy to balance up. (Sometimes a mathematically accurate centred line looks somehow wrong. If this is the case, when you take a proof, trust your eye and adjust accordingly.)

Fully justified: This is the most common text alignment in letterpress and it's a little trickier than the others because (approximately) equal amounts of spacing are needed between each of the words.

Try to estimate from day one – you'll soon get a good feel for it. A quick glance at the end of an Em will remind you what your unit of measure looks like. Under estimating is easier to work around than over estimating, because it's easier to stick a few more spaces in than take them all out and try with something else.

Fully Justified Text – In Detail

Estimate how many Ems wide the gap at the end of the line is. Now count the spaces between the words in the line. For instance:

This line has five word spaces.

Divide the size of the gap by the number of word spaces.

Say there are 5 Ems at the end of the line and ten word spaces. You'll need to add an extra ½ an Em between each word; Ens are exactly ½ an Em, so they're ideal. A pair of Mids would do the job too.

Unless you were very lucky, you probably didn't estimate the size of the gap exactly. You might be able to correct this with a judiciously inserted thin space or two

Of course the numbers won't often divide so nicely:

Say the gap at the end of the line is 3 and a half Em and there are eleven word spaces. 3.5 divided by eleven is about 0.31. Your 0.33 Em (or 1/3) Thick spaces are slightly wider than this and the Mids are slightly narrower at 0.25 (or 1/4;).

So try using a combination: for instance 9 Thicks and 2 Mids would be accurate to within 0.03 Ems – that should be fine.

Where should you put those Mids so that the reader won't notice the difference? Look for spaces that look quite wide already: if there are no decenders or ascenders on either side of the word space, as in ‘run off’ the space will appear relatively large.

Compare that with ‘coal hod’ where a pair of ascenders make the word space look slightly smaller. Take advantage of these little optical illusions and you won't be the only one to benefit; done well, it makes the text much easier to read and in the goo old days of the industry was seen as the mark of quality composition.

Print out a quick reference guide to spacing sizes, with the basic justification table along side. Click to start download:

Justification and Spacing Guide, 44kb PDF

You Might Also Like...