Archives for category: Book printing

This is a slippery concept. The straight answer to the question “Can printing ever match the color of a painting exactly?” is a simple “No”. The trouble is not so much the “match exactly” as “the color of the painting”. Because of the way vision works the same painting will look different in different lighting conditions. If there’s any daylight involved, it’ll look different under different weather conditions and at different times of the day. This is because the color is not inherent in the object; it’s a consequence of the reflected light hitting your eye. So there’s no “exact color” of anything that you might try to match. The best printing can do is pick one state and match that: and using the little dots of the halftone process* it can do that amazingly well.

Here are four pictures of the right hand panel of the Portinari Altarpiece, by Hugo van der Goes.












These are of course digitized photographs which adds another layer of distortion. Well actually the first three are photos and the fourth is a photo of a Giclée** print.

The first one has a sky which looks like a storm is brewing while the others all make it look like we are enjoying a nice sunny day (except the third where the blue sky has been cropped off, though, in compensation almost, that band of white just above the horizon has become a sickly light blue.) The background landscape in the second one is notably brighter than the others. The red of the dresses is different in each one of them and the Giclée print reveals that the little kneeling figure on the right is wearing a green dress, not a black one like her big sister. The standing figure on the right either has a white dress or a yellow one, though the print kind of goes for beige.

So what’s a pressman to do? The best a printer can do is to match the original copy supplied by the publisher. Nobody gets to fly off to Florence while the job’s on press. Who knows which of these pictures best represents the original. If you go to the Uffizi, it’ll depend on the lighting which of the originals you’ll pick, and someone else who goes on another day will no doubt see something slightly different.

MORAL: make sure your author provides good photos, ideally all taken under similar lighting conditions, then proof carefully in order to have your halftone reproduction match the original photo, again under controlled lighting conditions. You’ll end up having to trust your author, ‘cos you’re not going to get to fly off to Florence either to see if the originals really do match the painting.

See also Color matching


* This picture illustrates halftone dots rather well. See also Screens and screen finders.

Halftone dots, from SBCC School of Media Arts


** Giclée is a neologism coined in 1991 by printmaker Jack Duganne for fine art digital prints made on inkjet printers, as Wikipedia tells us.

This is one of the saddest movies I’ve seen.

(If you get this post via email and don’t see a video here, please click on the title of the post to view in your browser.)

It is a re-training film made in the mid-sixties by the International Typographical Union. It is amazing how quickly the process moved on from this early response to technological change. None of what you see here survives in today’s print industry (including the union itself. Founded in 1852, with a membership of about 100,000 at the time this film was made, the ITU finally withered away in 1986 and merged in 1987 with the Communications Workers of America.)

The tone of the film is optimistically up-beat, showing the way forward into the new world. In fact these guys were facing the elimination of most of their jobs. The union had an interest is portraying a labor-heavy process: see the guy carry one plate into the pressroom, turn around and walk back. Despite its optimistic front, the union was clearly aware of the writing on the wall. The stiff-upper-lip dodging and weaving in the face of the inevitable make for an almost tragic tale. Manning levels have plummeted since then, and while a few senior workers can remember the old ways, the number who successfully retrained was not immense. What workers do today has little connection with either the old, old ways shown at the start of the video or the initial responses to the new technology which follow.

The commentator proudly proclaims: “Printing in its many forms is the handmaiden of civilization and of progress . . . Since the days of Gutenberg the typesetter, in a real sense, has been the engineer of civilization . . . The printer has led mankind by the hand, so to speak, into the light of modern society.” Printing isn’t the only trade that has lost its pride. When it was a matter of coaxing huge piles of metal into doing ridiculously detailed things, the manual workers who accomplished this could bask in the romance of the struggle successfully won. Now there’s not too much pride to be taken in watching a computerized control system turn your lathe, grind your lens, cast your ingot, weave your cloth and so on. No wonder unhappy workers (or ex-workers) have become a troubled political force. We have moved our economics beyond manual work, but need still to come up with a psychological story transforming idle hands into — what? Proud consumers? Jolly vacationers? Self-improvement mavens? Life-time students? What about avid readers?

If we’d never had “these dark Satanic Mills” I think we wouldn’t have developed this stultifying hang-up about the nobility of work. We have bought this bill of goods, pushed at us as a means of distracting us from the realization that working in a mill was a nightmare, but a nightmare rather better than starvation. There’s no inherent nobility in being a wage-slave. Wake up guys — you’ve nothing to lose but your chains! Let’s divorce income from work by getting a universal basic income scheme going so that nobody has to be seen as “redundant” or “unemployed” — the village stocks of the modern day. People who wanted to keep working could do so. The underlying problem of automation is that robots are not workers, they are capital goods, and their arrival has accompanied and will only accelerate a switch from the proportion of the work product moving from labor to capital. Those who choose to work should become shareholders rather than salaried staff. If you don’t have to feel exploited, who knows how many people would choose to keep working.

Vimeo has lots of films generated as part of the process of putting together Linotype: The Film.

Here’s another video. The first half of the almost seven minute film is given over to inking the type and the second half to pulling two impressions to print one side of a two-page spread. You can see how dreams of automation would have played in the minds of workers who’d have had plenty of time to think of relief.

See also Gutenberg Fry-up.

An electrotype has a thin copper shell deposited by electrolysis onto the letterpress type. The copper coating is more durable than the original type metal and the thin covering makes for a sharper and more accurate printing surface than a stereotype with its intermediate step of a mould. Invented in Russia in 1838 by Moritz von Jacobi (according to most sources) electrotyping was used for over a century in printing longer, high quality runs.

The basic chemistry of the process can be seen in this Met video of a Tiffany vase being duplicated by electrolysis.

Felt is a woolen fabric made by compacting fibers together: it is non-woven. We all know what it looks like, and because this look can be imparted to woven cloth by teaseling* it, which we call felting, there has arisen a tendency to think of felt as woven. Properly speaking though it is not. The website How products are made has a full description.

I recently received a query as to what printer’s felt might be. It was a blanket, a sort of padding used to soften the impression in letterpress printing which facilitated the transfer of the ink to the paper by making the contact less smash-bang rigid. The material used might at sometime have really been felt, but was more commonly something else: paper, cardboard, anything with a bit of give in it.

We come across the word more commonly in paper-making, where a piece of felt is used as a divider between sheets of paper as they were hand delivered by the vatman. The coucher (pronounced coocher) is the one who deploys the felt, as described in Paper making by hand 2.

The felt side is that side of a sheet of paper that has not been in contact with the Fourdrinier wire, and which therefore is the smoother side of the sheet. In modern commercially-made paper this distinction is hard to see, except in the case of a laid paper.


* A teasel is a thistle-like plant of the family Dipsacus. It has hooked prickles and when the flowers are dead the plants are harvested and used in the cloth trade to raise the nap on cloth. When I was a boy woolen mills had huge frames on which hundreds of teasles were mounted. No doubt we nowadays have some man-made cheaper equivalent.










We might refer to it as cancelling, but according to John Carter in ABC for book collectors bisquing means “obliterating passages in a printed book by painting them out with black ink or paint or overprinting with a black block.” The Oxford English Dictionary ignores this usage, focussing on the alternative spelling “bisking”: their definition of “bisk” as a verb in our sense, however, they attribute to a spelling error on the part of their earliest quoted source!

Bisk as a noun they define as “a rich soup made by boiling down birds, etc.” or “a crayfish soup”. (You have to love that “etc.”.) Bisque they tell us grandly means either an extra turn allowed a weaker player in real tennis or croquet; a variety of unglazed pottery; or a light brown color. Given that most of us non-potters will have encountered the word mainly as “lobster bisque” we might feel the OED is letting us down a bit here. Fascinatingly their second source quotation for bisk, from Volume V of Robert Southey’s The Doctor (described by as “a ponderous romance”) reads “The chapter. . . has been not bisked, but semiramised”. Fascinatingly and frustratingly, as they fail to say anything more about semiramise. I’m struggling to come up with anything in the bisking world which might be derived from Semiramis, wife of Nimrod and later Queen of Assyria in her own right. Herodotus attributes the levees containing the Euphrates to her, and tells us there was a gate of Babylon named for her. She was alleged to have been raised by doves. Ammianus Marcellinus credits her with being the first person to castrate youths in order to create eunuchs. Armenian legend portrays her as a harlot, and Dante consigns her to the Second Circle of Hell among the lustful. Maybe Southey is working in the eunuch mode in his comment: i.e. not cancelled by overprinting but excised.

I’d never heard of this till I went to the Images of Value: The Artwork Behind US Security Engraving 1830s – 1980s exhibition at The Grolier Club. Siderography is a steel-based transfer method used in the engraving of bank-notes.

The U. S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing (unsurprisingly) has a definition of siderography and they also reveal to us the existence of the exciting word siderographer. The Oxford English Dictionary, trusty guide, informs us that sidero- is a prefix meaning “relating to or containing iron”.*

One of their quotes, from 1900, informs us that “This system of siderography continued in use for bank-note printing in the bank of England till 1855, when electrotype-printing was introduced.” It would seem from the Bureau of Engraving site that in America this “iron writing” still continues. The Grolier Club caption also refers to the process as the transfer process. Siderography was perfected in the early nineteenth century by Yankee inventor Jacob Perkins who developed a special soft steel that could be hardened.

The process works thus: the vignette (as the artwork for bank-notes, stock certificates etc. was called) would be engraved in reverse into a flat piece of soft steel called a die. The finished die is then hardened and put onto a transfer press. A wheel-like disk of soft steel is rolled slowly over it at high pressure so that the soft steel is forced into the recessed image on the die. This results in a raised positive impression around the edge of the wheel. This wheel is then hardened at high temperature, and is then put into the transfer press where it presses the image and text into the soft metal of the printing plate. That appears to be what’s going on in the picture at the US Bureau of Engraving site. This plate, having the image recessed into its surface must thus be being used for an intalio form of printing. The Bureau refers to it as offset printing (click on the tab “How Money Is Made” at the left of the page) so I assume we are in the realm of offset gravure.

(For gravure, see A la poupée printing.)


* They also give us the word siderographist, but not -pher, and tell us that a siderograph is “A steel engraving, esp. one produced by siderography”. Incidentally — and one wonders how one has got this far through life without having to call on this impressive word — siderodromophobia is an irrational fear of railways or railway travel. I guess if you have it you’d know it. There are several other sidero- words of course. And just to keep us hopping we are also told that the prefix sidero- also covers a small number of words meaning star shaped.

The Robinson–Patman Act, sponsored by Senator Joseph Taylor Robinson (D-AR) and Representative John William Wright Patman (D-TX), is a United States federal law passed in 1936 prohibiting price discrimination and other anticompetitive practices by producers. The law was needed because chain stores had been able to purchase goods at lower prices than other retailers, thus enabling them to discount their retail prices. The new law required the seller offer the same price terms to customers of the same type. Publishers have been bound by this law ever since.

There has been quite a bit of litigation about differential pricing in the book business. Wikipedia tells us: “In 1994, the American Booksellers Association and independent bookstores filed a federal complaint in New York against Houghton Mifflin Company, Penguin USA, St. Martin’s Press and others, alleging that defendants had violated the Robinson–Patman Act by offering ‘more advantageous promotional allowances and price discounts’ to ‘certain large national chains and buying clubs.’ Later, complaints were filed against Random House and Putnam Berkley Group, and these cases also were later settled with the entry of similar consent decrees. Eventually, seven publishers entered consent decrees to stop predatory pricing, and Penguin paid $25 million to independent bookstores when it continued the illegal practices. In 1998, the ABA (which represented 3,500 bookstores) and 26 individual stores filed suit in Northern California against chain stores Barnes & Noble and Borders Group, who had reportedly pressured publishers into offering these price advantages.” Since that time publishers have been careful to avoid this sort of trouble. Things like promotional allowances still muddy the waters and much care has to be devoted to terminology. Our Sales Director used to pace up and down muttering “Robinson–Patman, Robinson–Patman”.

At the end of last year at The Digital Reader, Randy J. Morris discussed the Robinson–Patman Act in connection with Amazon’s bricks-and-mortar stores. I’m not sure, though I’m a legal naïve, that Amazon’s offering variable pricing in their bookshops is any different than their offering that same prices on-line. If the discounts they get from publishers which enable them to offer their on-line discounts to customers are OK by Robinson–Patman, I don’t really see why a physical bookstore would alter the situation. As far as I know nobody’s bringing suit.



This nanoparticle-coated paper, if it ever gets to commercial viability, will necessitate the development of new printing machines. Once a book is bound — or a magazine, newspaper, catalog, brochure etc.— you can’t take it apart and return it to its original state as a single large untrimmed sheet. So printers analogous to the non-destructive scanning machines will need to be developed so that the content can be changed by leafing through the book. As the material needs to be printed by light, new presses will in any case be a necessity.

The Digital Reader has the story about reprintable paper, written by the co-inventor, Yadong Yin. The video accompanying the story shows the paper being printed, but I’m not sure it tells you much.

Basically the system “prints” the background, converting a solid blue to white in the places where the type, carried on a mask, doesn’t shut out the light. This odd YouTube video makes big claims, but does confess that the image starts to fade after five days. They do not tell us how they plan to get back the old newspapers they seem to believe will be candidates for printing again via this technology.

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Whether this technology will ever prove economically viable seems highly unlikely to me. Assuming (a big assumption) they can scale up the operation so that the printing side is viable, the main problem appears to be the getting back of the first printing, so that it can be updated. This can only be low-tech and killingly expensive, plus most already-read newspapers are not exactly in an ideal state for being reprinted. Or are we all going to have to have little light presses in our homes and iron our newspapers after reading them?

What we really need is a paper coating which would permit a book’s being completely erased and reprinted at one pass while remaining closed. Thus if you’d printed way too many paperback copies of Tarzan of the Apes you could, instead of throwing them out, just put them on a conveyor belt and transform them into Star Wars Episode 196. Baby steps.

Flying splice – which always sounded to me a bit like a pizza being thrown at your head, is actually a way of switching on press from one roll of paper about to come to an end to a new one. It is here explained by “As the main feeding roll nears its end, the roll stand is rotated to bring the next full roll of paper into running position. This is done with the press running at full or operating speed. Double-sided tape is applied to the leading edge of the new roll. The new roll is moved into contact with the running roll of paper. The taped edge of the full roll is pressed against and immediately adheres to the running roll.” Obviously this is a lot more efficient than stopping the press every time you get to the end of a roll of paper.