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A left handed composing stick

Being left-handed in a predominantly right-handed world has its challenges and with the added problem of a right hand with little feeling and fingers that don’t work independently of each other means that I have to find ways of doing things that sometimes involves doing them one-handed, using my very clumsy right hand as support or at worst giving up all together.

The giving up, and occasionally not even trying could well have been the dominant way to go as a child but I was never allowed to see it that way. My wonderful parents sought ways to help me to help myself. Sadly though some things I just couldn’t do; play the piano, type with both hands, learn to play Clarinet (something I desperately wanted to do as a child) and on an everyday level many tasks take longer.

The project that Dan Thompson and I are currently collaborating on; Start the Press, has meant learning to compose and set type using techniques and equipment that are centuries old and developed for those who are right-handed. My main problem has been using a composing stick. This device is designed to enable a compositor to set rows of type prior to transferring it to the chase. The stick is designed to be held in the left hand, with the left thumb holding the type in place while letters are picked and added with the right hand.

Compositor, East Kent Times, Ramsgate c1950

I am sure that there must be other left-handed people out there who manage perfectly well with this arrangement, but for me it was proving impossible. Even with the assistance of a stand, it was just not happening.

Traditional composing stick

With 12% of the world’s population being left-handed I feel that I cannot possibly be the only person who has this problem so began to research obtaining a left-handed composing stick. Various online letterpress forums show questions posted by others about left handed composing sticks – with the answers always in the negative and some with the statement that there are no left handed printers!

Not to be deterred and resolute in my desire to be able to conquer setting type I emailed Caslon, the company who now own and manufacture Adana presses and products. This was yet another of my ‘this may seem a strange request’ emails (see here for more about this). My email was very kindly passed to the company Chairman, Roy Caslon whose initial response was that I could simply turn the stick round. I had already tried this and found it even more awkward as the stick then has to be held sloping away, not towards you.

Start the Press aims to take letterpress out to the community, to teach others the techniques (at a very basic level) and particularly to show children. Given my difficulties I felt it was important that if we were showing others then this must include finding a way that those who are left-handed can participate without having to struggle with their handedness. With this thought in mind I responded to Caslon, telling them about the project and it’s aims and my wish to find a left-handed composing stick.

To my delight this was Roy Caslon’s response

Hi Dawn, I am not ignoring you but am off for two days and I want to run some suggestions past our engineer on Monday/Tuesday before getting back to you.

And a couple of weeks later

Hi DawnApologies for the delay but we have converted an old composing stick to what we hope will work as left-handed. It is a difficult one, in that a compositor would normally hold the stick in the left hand! So maybe we should call it a ‘Right handed’ stick?We would appreciate your comments. Kind regards Roy Caslon

My wonderful purpose made composing stick arrived in the post last week. I can’t actually express what this means and how impressed I am with a company that went to this much trouble.

Composing sticks. Top – traditional, bottom – my new left-handed one

It works perfectly and enable me to set type in the traditional way. The only difference being that instead of holding type in place with the left thumb, I hold it in place with my right; pressing against the type rather than pulling it towards me. It also means that we can give other left handers, who take part in our workshops the option of an authentic experience without the need to adapt their handedness.



Next challenge getting Caslon to offer the left handed version on their website and sadly this won’t happen unless I can prove a need beyond my own. Spread the word, there must be others who would find this useful.

And I have to say, a brilliant beginning to Start the Press.


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