For almost 500 of its 560-year history printing has meant letterpress.  A raised image, the mirror image of a character, is inked and paper is pressed against it transferring the inked image of the character, now right way round, to the paper.  Flat-bed letterpress machines carried a form of type back and forth beneath a roller on which sheets of paper were carried round and pressed against the type, which on the return stroke passed beneath the inking rollers ready for the next impression.  For much of these 500 years letterpress printing was made direct from the metal type from the composing room.  After printing was completed the type would be distributed – broken up and returned to the typesetting department either as individual characters put away for reuse in a hand-setting world, or melted down as metal to be used in the next job.  This meant that reprinting was an expensive proposition, as the type had to be reoriginated.  Metal ‘copies’ of the forms (called stereos) could be made and stored for reprinting, but unless the printer and publisher were sure they were going to reprint, this was a risky investment, and was not done for the majority of books.  Moulds of the type could also be made and stored more cheaply.  From these moulds flexible plates could be made which would be wrapped around the roller of a press enabling the paper to be fed in not as sheets but from rolls.  Web-fed presses, whether letterpress or offset, can operate faster, and the paper they use, as it does not have to be separately sheeted, will cost less pound for pound.

In the last third of the 20th century the Cameron Belt press utilized letterpress technology using a flexible polymer-based plate to print an entire book at one pass, an achievement made possible by a simple mill-wheel like device which collected in order one each of the 4-page sections delivered by the press before turning on to collect another book and to deposit the earlier one into the binding line.  This probably represented the final fling of letterpress, which is now to all intents and purposes restricted to fine/art printing.

For the purist, the decline of letterpress is blow.  However its history was a constant falling away – nobody ever quite managed to match the beauty of Gutenberg’s original Bible, but the effort to do so inspired many a printer.  Running your fingers over a letterpress page and feeling the indentation made by the type somehow makes you feel connected to a long and often noble tradition which still lives on in our everyday lives with words like pica, signature, galley, and the proof-correcting symbols we unthinkingly use.

 

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