Archives for category: Book printing

You often hear experts on book production claiming that Gutenberg’s Bible is the best-printed book ever. We started with a bang, and have been suffering a long decline ever since. That claim just has to be nonsense though. How would we know, anyway? What criteria would go into a book’s being “the best-printed”? No doubt it is a very good print job: the man was competing with scribes and had to show he could do just as well as them. And we can agree he did; and his price edge no doubt helped him to ultimate success.

Here’s one of the three copies of the Gutenberg Bible in the Morgan Library in New York City. This is one of their paper copies: they have two on paper, one on vellum, which corresponds to the proportions actually printed originally.

You can discover more than you ever thought you could know about the Gutenberg Bible at the Gutenberg & After exhibition held last year at Princeton and now available in its online version. The Bible was printed from 1454 to 1455. It wasn’t Gutenberg’s first job: he is known to have printed grammar textbooks in 1453. Gutenberg’s invention wasn’t the printing press: people had been printing on wooden presses from wood blocks for years: what Gutenberg invented was reusable, individual character metal types which could be used to print a page, then reused in different configuration to print more pages. The Bible was printed in imitation of its competition which was manuscript versions, and he left spaces for illuminated initials and other embellishments. So when you look at pages from Gutenberg’s Bible remember that it is the black text only that Gutenberg printed. The decoration would be applied after purchase by artists employed by the book’s purchaser, and will therefore differ in every instance, as of course will the binding.


Gutenberg & After describes the print job “Printed with a square gothic type that corresponded to the most formal liturgical script, the Bible consists of 643 Royal folio leaves, intended to be bound in two volumes. The printers began setting the text in 40-line columns but soon adopted a reduced type-height and 42-line columns. Four compositors worked concurrently on four near-equal sections of the Bible: Octateuch, Kings through Psalms, Proverbs through Prophets, and Maccabees plus New Testament. Eleven quires into production, the printers increased the edition size, reprinting those quires to arrive at a final total of at least 120 paper and perhaps 40 vellum copies. Sold widely across Europe, the Gutenberg Bible and its descendants remained the standard version of the Latin scriptures into the 16th century and beyond.”

“It’s important to remember the book is more important to us than it was to contemporaries: ‘The Gutenberg Bible held no particular significance for 16th and 17th century churchmen and scholars. Falling into disuse, these old Bibles were lost, stored away, or recycled as binding waste. . . Not until the 1700s did historians reconnect the 42-line Bible with Gutenberg and the origins of European printing.'”

Gutenberg Bible of 1455, Scheide Library, Princeton

This illustration from Eric White’s piece on illumination at Princeton University Library blog shows an elaborate page. “As printing developed rapidly during the 1470s, less expensive alternatives for the finishing of books became the norm. Woodcut initials began to replace the blank spaces left completion by hand, and typographic headings gradually reduced the necessity for rubrication. Nevertheless, those who had illuminated manuscripts before the mid-1450s continued to find work for patrons with a taste for brilliantly colored luxury books, whether handwritten or printed.”

See also Gutenberg & After. Gutenberg Fry-up comes with a nice video showing how it’s done.

I was surprised a week or two ago to receive on my iPhone an ad for dye-sublimation inks. Have we progressed so far with artificial intelligence that advertisers can sense when it comes into the blogger’s mind to deal with a subject? Dye-sublimation, for me, was always one of these terms you are totally familiar with, but discover as soon as you stop to think about it that you have absolutely no idea what it actually means!

Dye sublimation uses heat to transfer a dye onto a substrate. Sublimation is defined as the transition of a substance directly from a solid to a gas. Quaintly the very name of this printing method is based on a misunderstanding. As Wikipedia tell us, originally “the dye was considered to make the transition between the solid and gas states without going through a liquid stage. This understanding of the process was later shown to be incorrect, as there is some liquefying of the dye.”

The process is used for printing onto substances which are resistant to ink absorption; plastic ID cards, polyester T-shirts, glass and ceramics for instance. The image is printed (in reverse) on a dedicated ink jet press onto a paper carrier using dye-sublimation inks, and then transferred onto the target object, which needs to have a polymer coating to encourage absorption, using heat to transfer the image. The heat turns the ink into a gaseous state allowing it to penetrate the material. In this video (a commercial it’s true) you can observe a mug being printed. The heat press is tiny, and you can see how that mug you have with your grandchildren printed on it was made. However sublimation printers up to 104 inch roll width are available.

If you don’t see a video here, please click on the title of this post in order to view it in your browser.

The speaker refers to “printer head dry out” which sounds like another of those ills to which poor old printers were subjected, but of course refers not to graphic arts dandruff but to the need to clean your equipment to prevent ink drying in the nozzels.

On 1 April I mentioned warnings of LSC’s almost inevitable Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing. Well it came to pass. They filed for bankruptcy in New York Federal court on April 13th reports the Chicago Tribune. LSC have received commitments for $100 million in debtor-in-possession financing from some of its revolving lenders,

Here from Printing Impressions via Publishing Executive is a video interview with Peter Schaefer of New Directions Partners an M&A company in the printing industry, about LSC’s bankruptcy filing and its likely effects.

Click on that link, and you’ll be taken to the interview. There are interesting points: maybe one shouldn’t be surprised but a bankruptcy filing can be a sort of strategic move. Mr Schaefer suggests that LSC will come out of this with a write off of one billion dollars of debt. Suppliers and no doubt the workers will probably bear the burden. Shareholders have already taken their lumps.










The American Printing History Association  reports on the restoring of a Coisne Stanhope hand press in Puerto Rico. (Link via TYPOgrap.her.) “Coisne Mécanicien à Paris” is the French manufacturer of the press.

During 1802 and 1803 the first all-iron hand press was made by London engineer Robert Walker to designs by Charles, the third Earl Stanhope (1753 – 1816). All earlier presses had been constructed from wood just as in Gutenberg’s time although improvements had been made over the years introducing iron to strengthen the frame and replace other parts. These wooden presses derived their power from a single screw which needed the printer to apply enormous pressure.

As tells us “Stanhope retained the conventional screw but separated it from spindle and bar, inserting a system of compound levers between them. Greatest power was obtained at point of contact. The platen was made the full size of the bed enabling impression to be done in one pull compared with 2 pulls on other presses. His first presses had a straight-sided frame and were subject to breaking due to the the added impressional strength. This problem was sorted a few years later when the frames were strengthened with rounded cheeks. Production wound down in the 1840s in England, however many European manufacturers continued manufacturing it into the twentieth century. French manufacturers included the firms Bresson, Misselbach, Thonnelier, Giroudot, Frapié, Gaveaux, Durand, Colliot, Coisne, Rousselet and Tissier. Others were Paravia and Dell’Orio of Italy and Munktell of Sweden.” Only a few Stanhopes were ever imported into the USA, where local iron presses were developed in the 1820s, among them the Smith, Stansbury, Washington, and Wells presses.

The original Stanhope Press design

Charles Stanhope invented a wide range of things, including:

  • A method for preventing counterfeiting of gold currency (1775)
  • A system for fireproofing houses by starving a fire of air (1778)
  • Several mechanical “arithmetical machines” that could add, subtract, multiply and divide. These inventions were early forerunners of computers (1777 and 1780).
  • Experiments in steamboat navigation and ship construction which included the invention of the split pin, later known as the cotter pin (1789).
  • A popular single lens microscope that became known as the Stanhope that was used in medical practice and for examination of transparent materials such as crystals and fluids (1806).
  • A monochord or a single string device, used for tuning musical instruments
  • Improvements in canal locks and inland navigation (1806)


It is a commercial, but I love to watch paper going through printing presses. (If you are not seeing a video, please click on the heading of this post in order to view it in your browser.) Notice that they don’t tout books as one of their target markets: just not worth enough money I guess. The change-over in book manufacturing from offset lithography to ink jet is probably pretty much at the same place where it was during the similar change-over from letterpress to offset (in the UK at least) when I first started in the book business in 1965. Most printers have dipped their toes in the ink jet “water”, or at least considered doing so, but the majority of the presses in operation remain offset presses. This is because the investment involved in putting such a large piece of equipment on the floor is just so vast that you cannot simply rush off and buy the latest machine right away, or afford to write off the fortune represented by the machinery on your shop floor — so technological change comes with a time lag. It wasn’t all that long ago that you could quite easily find a printer who could print a book by letterpress: and such a service can still just be found — but now at a deluxe price.

I wonder if offset will survive. For all the sentiment invested in boosting offset lithography — mainly I always thought because it was inherently so difficult to do excellently that even close approaches were loudly applauded — I suspect its suitability for long runs is just what will count most against it as we move to a more variegated publishing industry with shorter runs. For color intensity in long runs photogravure surely beats offset lithography hands down. Ink jet in shorter runs can be every bit as “good” as the best offset.

This second video, from the University of Sheffield, is focussed on 3-D printing, but gives a good introduction to what goes on inside an ink jet printer. 3-D printing is just ink jet with depth. This is a fascinating video, not only for making clear the mechanics of digital ink jet printing, but as an indication of the sorts of things which can now be achieved.

If you don’t see a video here, or at the one at the top of the page, please click on the title of this blogpost in order to view it in your browser.

Ink jet printing works by squirting a tiny droplet of ink onto paper or some other substrate. Put enough dots together in the right place and bingo you’ve made a hat. This little gif from Wikipedia shows them making an “E”. The computer printer you have at home is quite likely to be an ink-jet printer, so you know what the technology, in fairly elementary commercial form, is capable of.

That the changeover to lithography was long and gradual is evidenced by Arnold Bennett’s Clayhanger trilogy set in the Potteries in the late nineteenth century. The title character, a frustrated architect, follows his father into their printing business. We see him introducing lithography in a daring early move which makes everyone despair of his success. This technological switch involves building a new plant (which they did need anyway) and hiring craftsmen who could paint the image directly onto the stones used for printing. The Clayhanger books were written in the nineteen-teens and describe life before the turn of the century. So it took about fifty years for lithographic technology to replace letterpress in the industry.

In spite of the fact that it sounds like a bit of a contradiction in terms, solid ink printing is in fact a technology used in some computer printers. These printers use solid ink sticks or balls instead of the fluid ink or toner powder. The solid ink is melted before use, so it does indeed become liquid at some point. It “freezes” back to solid state almost immediately it contacts the colder paper, and this quick dry capability is one of the advantages of the system. On the other hand the need to melt the solid ink means that it takes about a quarter of an hour to “turn on” the machine — it’s better to leave it on thereafter.

Xerox has claimed that solid ink printing produces more vibrant colors than other methods, and this results from its quick dry action, giving it less opportunity to be absorbed into the paper surface. They have also claimed as advantages that solid ink printers are easier to use, can print on a wide range of media, and are more environmentally friendly. Solid ink printing was originally developed by Tektronix, who introduced the first solid ink color printer in 1991. In 1995 they introduced a modification allowing the machine to utilize an offset drum, which overcame the huge problem of a heavy print head jerking back and forth, which tended to make the whole machine walk across the floor!

Yellow, cyan, magenta, and black solid ink sticks made by Xerox







Xerox acquired Tektronix’s printing division in 2000. Whatever the advantages of solid ink printing, Xerox does not sell solid ink printers any more.

There’s a thorough article at which explains the operation of the machines in some detail.

Newspaper Story by Encyclopedia Britannica Films, Inc. 1950. From The Internet Archive. Link via Partick Leary at SHARP listserv.

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I’ve put up videos like this before showing how printing used to be, but you can always learn something new. These archaeological films documenting old technology are a valuable resource.

Here for instance is a charming instruction manual from a Somerset thatcher.


Coated paper or uncoated paper; that is the question. Here are two versions of Picasso’s “Three Dancers”. The first is printed on coated paper, the second on uncoated paper. Of course, given the color differences it’s clear (and almost inevitable) that they were created from different original photos. The first is Colorplate 77 from H. W. Janson’s History of Art, Prentice-Hall & Abrams, Revised and Expanded Edition, 18th printing 1974, printed in Japan (by Toppan?). The second is from Herbert Read’s A Concise History of Modern Painting, Thames & Hudson Fifth Impression 1963, printed by Jarrolds in Norwich.

It’s hard to tell from my photos but the uncoated, Thames & Hudson version is much softer, warmer, and less “dramatic”. It may well be it’s a better representation of the original than the sharper, more highly defined Janson picture. There is a loss of detail in the black/brown of the right hand dancer, but the flesh tones look a lot healthier. Strangely it has lost the signature in the lower lefthand corner. But without lugging both books to the Tate, how could you know for sure which is more representative of the original?

What is certain is that the Janson version is more expensive. It is printed with a finer screen on a coated paper and is bound in as an insert in this student text intro to art. The Read version is printed on the text paper, and the book looks like it was part of an international co-edition series of runs.

In these details, Janson left, Read right, you can see the halftone dots. A neat rosette pattern in Janson, and a less obvious pattern in Read. But notice the size of the dots of red and black ink up the left hand side of the Read detail. This is a consequence of two things: the screen value — because it’s on a smoother paper the Janson can have a finer screen thus smaller dots and more of them — and partly because, being on a rougher cartridge sheet, the ink on the Read image has been absorbed into the paper more than the Janson which has gone for the ink hold out that can be achieved with fine screen halftones on coated papers. The reason we print on coated paper is so that we can show more detail. We can show more detail because with a coated paper we can use a finer screen, and the coating on the paper will allow the ink to sit more on the surface of the paper rather than sinking into the paper (and expanding ever so slightly). This has become such a convention that we now tend to react with surprise to a color halftone which isn’t printed on coated paper. Just about the only color you’ll find nowadays on an offset sheet (uncoated) will be in children’s books, and is often in line drawing form, not reproductions of photographs. As such the color involved will tend to be solids, not halftone dots.

The amount of blue and pink in the Read image is striking, and no doubt is explainable by differences between the original photos.

But which is more like the original? Here’s the Tate’s on-line version of the painting:

The Three Dancers 1925 Pablo Picasso 1881-1973 Purchased with a special Grant-in-Aid and the Florence Fox Bequest with assistance from the Friends of the Tate Gallery and the Contemporary Art Society 1965

Whether this one is true-to-life or not is impossible to say: indeed as I explored in another post, there’s no real true-to-life version of any reproduction, since what anyone sees when looking at anything is not some absolute value but a reflection of light, and (obviously) light will change from say 11 am to 11 pm, or even from 11 am to 11.15 am. But one has to say that, despite the money spent on the Janson printing, the Read version looks a lot closer to the Tate’s version, which I have to assume is not a million miles off perceived “reality” regardless of the weather.

Our friend Ilene loves the warmth and slight fuzziness (or lack of sharp definition) of color halftones printed on an offset (uncoated sheet). She cuts them up and uses them in her art projects. This post is addressed to her.

One might conclude that, despite what we may have gained, we have certainly lost something valuable by insisting on always using finer screens and coated paper for our halftone reproductions of fine art, or indeed of any photographs. Striking effects can be achieved by printing four color halftones on an uncoated sheet.

Intaglio printing nowadays tends to mean photogravure. But before the invention of photography and photoengraving, the means of getting to a plate able to hold ink in recessed areas were laborious and involved highly skilled hand-work. They include engraving, etching, aquatint, mezzotint, and a sort of subdivision of engraving called drypoint.

Drypoint is described by the Metropolitan Museum of Art as “the simplest method for producing intaglio prints”. Take a metal, usually copper plate and scratch lines into it with a sharp needle. In engraving the burin will produce a clean, sharp cut, while in drypoint the needle will leave a burr of metal along the edge of the scratches. Ink will be caught in these burrs as well as deposited in the recessed cuts, and this can create a richer, more “atmospheric” effect than the cleaner lines do. Because these little frills of metal are very delicate, not many prints can be made from a drypoint plate before they get squashed down and begin to blur out. A careful printer might be able to get a dozen impressions from a drypoint plate.

As with other intaglio techniques drypoint was often used in conjunction with other plate-making techniques:

This print by Rembrandt from the Met’s collection involves etching, drypoint, and engraving. You can click on the image to enlarge it, but not enough I fear to enable you to detect the evidence of the different techniques.

When illustrations made by any one of these intaglio processes were incorporated into books they would be printed separately from the text which would of course be printed by letterpress, a relief process. In intaglio the ink is below the surface of the plate: in relief printing it’s the white background that’s cut away.

Artists of course continue to use the drypoint process, as they do all the other intaglio processes. Here’s useful video showing the entire process in action.

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Mezzotint is an intaglio process in which ink is deposited in pits in a metal plate and then transferred to a piece of paper. Tiny burrs of metal raised at the side of the pits are also involved in holding ink and enriching the tonal effect. According to the Oxford English Dictionary “The process was invented by Ludwig von Siegen of Utrecht, whose first dated mezzotint was made in 1642. The introduction of mezzotinting to England is generally ascribed to Prince Rupert, the nephew of Charles I. He was also formerly regarded by some as the inventor of the technique.” Mezzotint, with its ability to mimic continuous gradations of tone, was seized upon as the best available method of reproducing paintings. We should also remember that the word mezzotint can be applied to a straight painting to refer to tints neither dark nor light — mid-tones.

Photo of a mezzotint rocker from Magical Secrets by Crown Point Press, San Francisco

A mezzotint rocker, a curved metal block with raised teeth, often narrower than the one shown, is used to roughen up a metal (usually copper) plate with even pits all over. Ink it up in this state and print it on an intaglio press and you’ll get an even, rich, black solid. After the rocker has applied its texture, the mezzotint artist then uses a burnishing tool to flatten out some areas of the plate, smoothing out some completely to print white, and leaving others with varying depths of pit and burr so that a complete range of color can be printed with deeper (darkest) and shallower (lighter) tones creating the image. Because the raised burrs are integral to the process, and these are very subject to damage, the number of copies that can be (successfully) printed form a mezzotint plate is quite small. As the plate gets squashed it will begin to lose detail.

The nickname for the mezzotint process was manière noire, pointing to the fact that the picture was extracted from darkness. As Richard Benson suggests in The Printed Picture it’s a bit like creating a drawing by using an eraser on a completely black field — a tricky skill. In many mezzotints, he suggests, technique dominates with the result that the picture suffers. Mr Benson uses as an example of excellence this portrait of King Charles I. Of course in the book, beautifully printed by GHP of West Haven Connecticut from separations made by Mr Benson, what we are seeing is a fine-screen lithographic representation of a mezzotint, so the mezzotint’s structure is reproduced using a fine halftone screen. What you are looking at here is a digital representation of a photograph of a halftone reproduction of a photograph of a mezzotint. Hey, we do what we can!

One disadvantage of the mezzotint process is that large dark areas tend to survive with little detail in them though Isaac Beckett has done a good job of avoiding such a fate. In fact his shadows show a bit more detail than the original (at least in this tiny reproduction of Van Dyck’s portrait) — see the underarm and the detail in the armor nearby. You can click on the picture to enlarge it.

Below is an enlargement of the detail of the eye, which shows the rocker pattern.

As the Metroploitan Museum tells us, while the earliest mezzotints reproduced the works of past masters, living painters soon realized that here was a way to promote their own work. A mezzotint can be made more rapidly, thus less expensively, than a line engraving (although it yields fewer impressions) and “British portrait and subject painters would work closely with mezzotint engravers to prepare skilled reproductions of their work, which were frequently shown alongside their painted prototypes in London’s annual art exhibitions. Such images often gained greater currency than the artists intended: to meet the increasing demand, less reputable publishers did not hesitate to plagiarize copies of popular works.”

Mezzotint remained principally a British craze from the 1750 through the nineteenth century. In Paris Jacques-Fabien Gautier-Dagoty did develop a process of four-color printing from mezzotint plates, an enterprise which did not survive the Revolution. Here’s a detail of his print, “The Tapestry Worker”, which is to be found at The Art Institute of Chicago.

In so far as mezzotints appeared in books they would tend to be printed separately from the text and bound in to letterpress sigs. Inevitably with the invention of photography and fine-screen lithographic printing the finicky process of mezzotinting declined in commercial importance. Yet, as with any old technique, artists are still producing mezzotints, and printers exist who can print mezzotint plates. (See the caption of the photo of the rocker at the top of this page.)