Every bit of free wall space in the typography studio is lined with cabinets. They each have about 25 shallow drawers, the cases of type. Each case is like a huge drawer for dinner utensils, or one of those beading boxes with the tiny squares. The only difference is that type is composed of lead and antimony, which is quite a bit heavier than your average bead material. The emptier cases, which have been around for a while and are missing lots of letters, aren't terribly heavy; neither are the cases which only have a set of capitals for book titles and the like. The 14 and 16 pt Centaur cases in the studio were cast within the last two years, so they are full and heavy.
When you want to pull out a case of type, you give it support by extending the drawer underneath. That allows you to get a good grip and lift it properly onto the top of the cabinet, which has a banked edge. When you plan on setting type for a long time, it makes sense to take the drawer out. Lifting it is better than standing in front of a half open case for three hours, never quite able to reach k or the numbers. Frequently, however, one does not anticipate setting type for three hours. One must replace a single letter, or add a single word. In this situation, the hassle of getting out the case just doesn't seem worth it.
And now for the disaster.
One of the projects we are working on right now is printing a French fold with a title page, a poem on the inside, and a colophon on the back. I've finished setting my poem ("First Love" by Wislawa Szymborska) and the colophon, and the last thing I had to set for my title page was Apiary Press 2006. In my estimation, this falls squarely into the category of "It's not worth it to pull out the case". So I was working in front of the case, and I had nearly finished when a classmate came over to look for a hyphen.
I can't remember the entire sequence of events clearly, but I do know that with one hand holding my composing stick, I pulled out the case far enough to check for a hyphen without pulling out the drawer underneath. Hyphens are stored in the very back row, right in there with the numbers and k. The right side got to the edge of the track and started to fall, while the left side was still caught in the cabinet. At this point I was still in a position to pull the case forward, and the law of gravity was still far from my mind when the case began to tip over and slip out of my grasp.
As dozens of letters fell out of the case L. and I managed to catch the right corner. Not too many pieces fell on the floor, but the entire case got jumbled around. Hundreds and hundreds of pieces of type. The worst thing about it is that this is a new case of type, where there haven't been as many chances for people to accidentally put a u in the n slot, or an s in the i slot, or even an i in the i slot for a different font. Barry heard the ruckus from across the room and asked loudly, "Did somebody pie the type?" He didn't get angry, and he said not to deal with it right then. He put the jumbled case on the top shelf in the cabinet, and pushed it to the very back so that everyone is less likely to see it and pull it out, and then started talking with L. about the hyphen problem. The worst part was that my composing stick was right there between them, and I hadn't finished setting Apiary Press 2006, so I had to stand there when the only thing I really wanted to do was disappear. I have a long weekend of sorting type ahead of me.
And what do we learn from this? Apparently the newly cast Centaur does not have a hyphen.