A Look Back At Kerning Techniques
From the ancient time when books were hand copied by monks, right up to the work of pre-vinyl sign painters, kerning was not difficult. The artisans had both the desire and the talent to draw each word as a unit. It was not unusual to see variation in each "s" on a sign, for example, as the illustrator drew letters to fit a particular word more beautifully.
In the early days of offset printing, letters were cast in metal and mounted onto square chunks of wood that were locked in a chase for printing. In those early days typography was a tedious craft. Care was taken to prepare beautiful lettering for the expensive books produced. Printers would kern their type by using a saw to trim wood off the blocks, allowing characters to fit together better.
For some really ugly kerning, take a look at some early 20th century newspapers. Lead slugs from linotype machines didn't allow for kerning. The tiny letter-shaped molds were pulled from type magazines and cast into lead as each line filled, then shuffled back into place for reuse. Each mold was the width of the character it set, whether a period or a capital "W." The quick production of the linotype allowed newsmen to present the latest news each morning, even if it wasn't pretty to read.
But when phototypesetting arrived mid-century, kerning once again returned to the typographer's repertoire. It was a skill that required practice and judgment since most typesetting equipment of the time did not have viewing screens. Kerning errors were corrected by running a new galley, which cost time and materials.
Auto-kerning was not available until the computer age and Adobe postscript fonts entered the scene around 1980. At first, computers opened the world of typography to consumers who had no knowledge of graphic arts or type characteristics. There was a learning curve for consumers to understand typography and for typesetters to learn about computers and software. As software improved and the Internet aided learning, the artistic qualities of type selection and kerning returned.