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Machine Love 

Casting type in the Presidio

Wednesday, Feb 27 2002
After I quit my first university and before I enrolled in my second, I took a year off and lived at home, working and taking what I thought would be Mickey Mouse classes at the local junior college: creative writing, metalsmithing, and auto shop. Creative writing was a concession to future employment, and metalsmithing turned out to be too girlie for me (it was really jewelry making). The coolest thing about it was the soldering, watching beads of metal turn liquid under the iron's heat. Only auto shop was satisfying. Here were machines that moved and shook and groaned, producing something of value: forward motion. I'd always envied the boys who took shop in high school. They got to play in a room filled with equipment I couldn't identify. Auto shop let me get close to the machine.

Lewis Mitchell knows about machine love. Working in a stuffy underground room infused with the slightly sweet smell of stale grease and hot metal, he casts lead type on machinery so ancient he often has to make replacement parts himself at home. "They're my babies," he says, referring to the row of casters lining the perimeter of the room. Mitchell has worked at M & H Type in the Presidio, the last complete type foundry in the country, for several decades; Feb. 12 was the 52nd anniversary of his hiring. His lead letters are in demand, used not only for the gorgeous books of M & H's parent company, Arion Press, but also for the works of small presses and printers around the world. At the same time, casting type is something of a lost art: Mitchell has called himself "the last of the Mohicans" more than once.

Now that Mitchell is in his 70s, he wants to slow down a bit, start working four days a week instead of five. To that end, he's looking to train an apprentice. He had one young man for about a decade, back when the type foundry and Arion were located on Bryant Street (before they were evicted to house a dot-com company that has since disappeared). But that fellow died -- too young. After M & H and Arion moved a year ago to a squat, white building in the Presidio, Mitchell had another apprentice, who lasted six weeks before quitting. "I guess he didn't like getting burned," Mitchell surmises, almost boasting about how he once fused his own wedding ring to his finger bone with hot lead. (He no longer wears the ring at work, on the advice of his insurer.)

It's hard work, no doubt. Lead is heavy. The machines are complicated and antiquated. The apprenticeship doesn't pay a whole lot (about $9 an hour to start). But if I didn't have this job already, I'd think hard about learning to cast type. It's one of the best combinations of art and gear I've ever seen.

Liquid lead is beautiful. Bright silver and slippery, at 800 degrees it moves more quickly than mercury, forming a slight crust as it cools. Lewis Mitchell's job is to create that pool of liquid lead by melting 20-pound "pigs" -- slender arms of metal -- into the reservoir at the side of a Monotype caster. He then sets the machine running (imagine a mix between an old sewing machine, a player piano, and a car engine) and assures that what comes out the top are small, shiny blocks of lead type. M & H sells its type to any printer who wants it; I bought a batch of fancy scrolls for about $40 to use on an invitation I'm printing.

M & H provides all the type used by Arion Press, the fine press upstairs. Andrew Hoyem began Arion in 1974, and took over Mackenzie & Harris Type in the late '80s, shortening the name to M & H Type. Mackenzie & Harris first opened in 1915, its equipment bought for the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco that year; Mitchell began working there in 1950. He had one other job previously: making plastic cases for atomic fuel at a plant in San Rafael. But he was allergic to the styrene used in the cases and began to lose weight: "I went from 185 to 145 in three months, and I never got the weight back."

Indeed, Mitchell is still skinny, his lanky frame clothed in blue coveralls, like an auto mechanic. He speaks with a twang that sounds almost Southern, though his roots are in the Bay Area (he was born in Oakland). He's immensely fond of his job, having been interested in printing since he took the subject in high school in the '40s, back when high schools offered such classes. Mitchell even turned down a mechanical engineering scholarship to MIT to continue in printing. He doesn't regret the choice.

The type-caster apprenticeship is a two-year process, down from six years a decade or two ago. First you learn to handle type without dropping it, which is harder than it sounds (picture a block of metal the size of this "i"). Then you get to change the matrices, the molds for the letters that are made in England. You figure out how to read a micrometer, a complicated measuring device that looks a like a cross between a caliper and a slide rule. "That's one of the hardest things," says Mitchell. Next you watch the machine for a week before you're allowed to try your hand at it and get schooled on the keyboard, a separate device that tells the caster what letters to produce (usually manned by Peter Stoelzl). "That's when they realize they don't know nothing," says Mitchell.

No one else in the Bay Area does what Mitchell does; indeed, there are few left in the world who know how to run a casting machine (and the Monotype Co., which made the ones at M & H, no longer produces them). Type-casting and letterpress printing -- the process of composing lead letters into words and sentences, inking them, and pressing the text into the paper -- have, for most commercial uses, been replaced by digital type and offset printing. But there is something special about the old method, still used by hundreds of fine and small presses around the country. Arion Press' books, for example, have been recognized internationally for their quality and beauty, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation even named the company an "endangered cultural treasure."

Arion's biggest book by far, both physically and metaphorically, is its recent letterpress edition of the Bible, for which Mitchell cast all the type. This version of the Good Book is 18 inches tall, 13 inches wide, about 8 inches thick, and 1,350 pages; copies cost between $7,250 and $11,000, depending on the binding and illumination. Even the staid Wall Street Journal was moved by the production values, and described reading the book as "an experience not unlike the perfect ocean voyage or a night in the mountains sleeping under the stars." The casting machine on which Mitchell made the type now lies fallow in the foundry, surrounded by metal shavings on the floor, a single capital "D" resting on its tray. "It's still ready to go," says Mitchell, running his hand lovingly over the greasy metal. "It's a beautiful machine." Amen.

About The Author

Karen Silver


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