Getting inDesign and letterpress layouts to match

Hi all,

I am in the process of planning the layout of my first illustrated book to be letterpress printed and then bound. As I expect this to run into up to 20 pages, I am now turning to Adobe InDesign CS3 to design the book layout with the aim of then using the Print Leaflet function to give me a hardcopy guide to compose my pages on the press (two printed pages to one sheet and printed both sides).

As a quick test, I composed the first two lines of body text and quickly found I could fit far less (approx 5) letters per line on my composing stick, than was being shown in inDesign therefore indicating a big discrepancy between the character / space widths of the electronic and letterpress font sets (12pt Goudy Old Style). I therefore don’t want to go any further until I fully understand how to reliably compensate for this difference in InDesign. Is it safe to tweak the horizontal scaling of the first two lines of text in InDesign until it matches what is in my composing stick, and then apply the same scaling to the rest of my book layout, or is there a more scientific and reliable technique I should be using instead ?

Any assistance would be much appreciated.

Secondly, how would compositors have handled this issue before programs like InDesign came along ?



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It’s not precise, but my method is to set the stick to the measure I want to use, and set three or four lines of text in the typeface I plan to use. I then have an average character count per line for that face and measure. I can then set my margins (in Word using a similar face) and display or print the text in that format, or with double the line width to save paper, to get a line count. I tend to use fairly tight word spacing so when I’m justifying a line I may resort to 1 or 2 points of word space to get a break where I want it. My experience is that to get the line count to come close you have to adjust word spaces fairly radically.


The difference between digital and metal typefaces isn’t horizontal scale. First there are differences in set, or the space a character occupies, and digital version of a face are tighter together. The other difference is that the body size may be different; this is especially true if the original face is European, and was in Didot size. Some Monotype-cast faces are Didot but cast on the next largest American size body, so the actual size is smaller than body size.
I would set a whole alphabet length in the metal face, then do comparison settings in InDesign until things line up in both height and length. I have done this in Quark XPress for Didot faces and end up tracking out a little and sizing down to get a fairly accurate fit.
The traditional method of copyfitting is to count characters in the manuscript, and using the known numbers of characters per pica for the face to be used (these are in tables developed for the purpose of copyfitting), you can determine the number of running picas that will be be set. Divided by the length of line, you get number of lines. It is simple math.

AdLibPress, parallel_imp,

Many thanks for the useful advice. I will give the alphabet length comparisons a try and adjust the tracking as necessary. I also now understand that word spacing can vary greatly in different digital typefaces, and can therefore differ greatly from the standard metal thick space that I use between words. Would you recommend adjusting the InDesign wordspace width settings as well for greater accuracy ?

Actual Lead type and Digital Type track differently, you need to set a Test line in Lead, print it and than set the same Line digitally and eg print on acetate and overly with Metal and correct digital until it matches perfectly.
Gerald Lange has done extensive research in that direction

If you’re planning to set justified lines you’ll have to adjust the word spaces. Digitally this can also be accompanied by adjustments to set width that may or may not be controllable.

Another option, a little more “risky” (in that you can’t precisely predict the final work’s appearance), is to start printing at the front of the manuscript and book and set and print as many pages as you have type for, then distribute the type and continue. I just finished printing a manuscript that became 35 text pages plus notes and an appendix. Unless you have a good reason for a particular word to end each particular page, this works fine and is a whole lot less work.


Last night I set up a lowercase alphabet in the stick. That came to 13EM. I then set up a text box of the same length in InDesign and typed in the lowercase alphabet, and as expected there was a fair amout of space left over. Setting the tracking value to 60 caused the type to fill the text box nicely. I have applied this tracking adjustment to the first few paragraphs of my book text in InDesign and so far it matches what is going into the stick perfectly.

The main reason I am keen to get this just right is that I am putting this (albeit small) book together with a relatively limited quantity of type, so any copyfitting calculation errors would result in a lot of scrapping and reprinting of pages ! I am allowing for a spare line on each page for overflow, just to be doubly-safe !

Again - many thanks for your help - I knew this would be the place to come for the answers !


I ran into a similar problem when printing a poetry chapbook (a single signature). The metal version of the type ended up being two pages longer than the MS Word version I’d mocked up first. I knew I was in trouble when two poems needed to run over somewhere past the middle. I’d been printing the pages one up in order, starting with the title page.

I thought the book would look kinda weird with a blank leaf in front to the title page…the solution was to commission an art student to draw a B&W line portrait of the poet from a photo that I could use as a frontispiece. Worked out quite well, I thought.

A leaf before the title page is pretty standard, blank or with bastard title. That goes back to early days when books were issued unbound, and the bastard title gave a little protection to the book and identified it.. A blank (or blanks) is necessary when binding (or rebinding); you don’t want to lose your title page as an endsheet pasted down. Even with a single-section chapbook it adds something beyond the cost of extra paper.