Typesetter in Wilkinsburgh is fit to print the old-fashioned way

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In a quiet corner of Wilkinsburg, Rudy Lehman, 76, is helping to keep the fading craft of typesetting alive. He has been in business for 56 years and is one of just a few longtime professional typesetters still keeping regular hours in the area, working on weekdays and serving a small group of clients.

Even in these days of user-friendly computers, Mr. Lehman, of Murrysville, has no plans of retiring: He has been fiddling with type since he was 15.

At the time, his father, Rudy Lehman Sr., was foreman of the composing room at Westinghouse Printing in Trafford and young Rudy expressed an interest in the work.

"He bought me a case of type and taught me how to hand set," Mr. Lehman recalled.

In 1957, the younger Lehman bought his shop and started R.D. Lehman typesetting in the building at 606 and 608 South Ave. From the 1960s through the 1980s, the place did any kind of printing imaginable, he said.

Waving a visitor behind the shop's counter, Mr. Lehman flipped a switch on the circa-1953 Linotype machine, sat on a chair in front and set "mats" that dropped into a mold, where molten lead filled each engraving. In a few moments, out popped a warm lead "slug," containing a single line of words.

At its busiest in the 1970s, Lehman Typesetting had three full-time employees including the owner and two part-timers. These days, it's just the owner, who said he is not aware of any competitors.

"I guess I'm one of the last ones," Mr. Lehman said.

Mr. Lehman talks about his work, almost like a parent speaks of a child: quietly, but with pride.

"Every job you do creates something," he said. "Every job is an education, too."

All three of his sons worked with him in the business as they grew up. The entire family, including his daughter, would sit at home proofreading during nights in the 1960s and 1970s.

These days, Mr. Lehman sets hot metal for imprinting of business forms, raffle tickets, envelopes and other items.

His small cadre of clients prefer the old methods instead of work from a computer.

The kind of linotype typesetting he does is a rare process, according to Matt Griffin, 32, who teaches letterpress at Carnegie Mellon University and is co-owner of an East Liberty graphic design firm called Bearded Studio.

"This is a business that's going away -- it's hard, expensive and potentially dangerous. You're working with molten metal," he said.

Typesetting involves casting the slugs in lead, spacing them in a metal container called a chase, then locking them into place. Clients take the chase and use them to print on their own letterpress.

A Point Breeze resident whose East Liberty business once was located in Wilkinsburg, Mr. Griffin said he has heard of Mr. Lehman but hasn't met him. His appreciation for the typesetter's work is obvious, though.

"In metal type, there's much more detail in types of all sizes. I think it's terrific that people are still doing it," Mr. Griffin said.

How long will the typesetter practice his trade? Mr. Lehman laughed softly at the question. "As long as my health holds up," he said.

Rita Lehman, 72, his wife of seven years, is a semi-retired graphic designer. Her husband sometimes helps her with proofreading.

"We work in concert with each other -- he's a super proofreader," Mrs. Lehman said. "His heart is in it."

She admitted she'd like to see her husband at home more.

"But he's in a routine," Mrs. Lehman said. "That's what he's done all his life.''

Jonathan Barnes, freelance writer: suburbanliving@post-gazette.com .


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