Archives for category: Book printing

Memento mori.

Do we really need reminding that we are all going to die? Apparently we once thought we did. The dance of death/dance macabre category of book enjoyed strong sales back in the fifteenth century. I guess if you’ve got to go you may as well exit having a good time dancing your way off stage. Or is it more that by dancing you’ll take your mind off the real issue: dance your way to the head of the set and just vanish? The Princeton University Library’s exhibition Gutenberg & After includes one of the two known surviving copies of La grant danse macabre des hommes et des femmes. As a note in the front of Princeton’s copy of this 1499 book tells us the only other known copy is in the British Museum. (You can leaf through a digitized version here.)

In this Lyons edition a few new woodcuts were added. One is this depiction of death coming to get book trade workers. This illustration is frequently reproduced — it’s the only contemporary illustration of a fifteenth century print works that we have.

On the left we see the compositor at work sitting at his typecase, following the copy which is propped up in front of him, adding sort after sort to his composing stick. Behind him the pressman is being relieved of the task of pulling on that lever every time a new sheet of paper was put into the press. (A relief since this was quite hard work.) The apprentice in the background, brandishing his ink ball, seems not yet to be getting a dance ticket.

After a line of Latin which I can’t make out, the text below the illustration reads

      ¶ Le mort

¶ Venez danser vng tourdion
Imprimeurs sus legierement
Venez tost/ pour conclusion
Mourir vous fault certainement
Faictes vng sault habillement
Presses/ & capses vous fault laisser
Reculer ny fault nullement
A louurage on congnoist louurier.

      ¶ Le mort

¶ Sus auant vous ires apres
Maistre libraire marchez auant
Vous me regardez de bien pres
Laissez voz liures maintenant
Danser vous fault/ a quel galant
Mettez icy vostre pensee
Comment vous reculez marchant
Commencement nest pas fusee

      ¶ Les imprimeurs

Helas ou aurons nous recours
Puis que la mort nous espie
Imprime auons tous les cours
De la saincte theologie
Loix/ decret/ & poeterie/
Par nostre art plusieurs sont grans clers
Releuee en est clergie
Les vouloirs des gens sont diuers

      ¶ Le libraire

Me fault il maulgre moy danser
Ie croy que ouy/ mort me presse
Et me contrainct de me auancer
Nesse pas dure destresse
Mes liures il fault que ie laisse
Et ma boutique desormais
Dont ie pers toute lyesse
Tel est blece qui nen peult mais.

Death addresses the printers: “Come you printers and whirl in a dance with us, come all, come quietly, because in the end it’s beyond doubt that you’re all going to die”. The printers react: “Alas, where will we find refuge now that death has got its eye on us? We have printed the entire corpus of holy theology, laws, decrees, and poetry”. On the right hand side of the woodcut a bookseller also gets his comeuppance. He seems rather resigned: “If, despite whatever I might wish, I’ve got to join the dance, I say OK”.

Danse macabre books had been being printed in Paris in the years before 1499. Matthias Huss, a Lyons printer copied these Paris editions, presumably recutting the woodcut illustrations, the originals of which were apparently made by Pierre le Rouge. It is noticeable how superior in quality the woodcuts based on le Rouge’s originals are.

Here the Pope and the Emperor get the bad news

Still we see few reproductions of these other illustrations: that all walks of life end in death is understandably a less excitiing bit of news to us than what an early print works looked like.

Here’s a web version of Princeton University Library’s new exhibition Gutenberg & After: Europe’s First Printers 1450-1470. There’s a lot of information in the nine online sections they provide. Each of the books and other objects in the show is available in a full digital reproduction, so, if you dig in here, there may be enough material to keep you busy for years. You can even rotate that little bit of type which is the first piece in the show.

Included in the exhibition is an unbound sheet of 32 pages from a German Book of Hours. Here’s one side of this sheet. You can perhaps get in there and work out the imposition scheme!

This sort of survival is very unusual — extra sheets tend either get bound up or thrown away. Book-sleuths have traced this piece all the way back. “The sheet was used as binding material in a Ptolemy edition purchased in 1509 by a Nuremberg ecclesiastic, Johannes Protzer. The Bodleian Library owns one half of this same sheet, recovered from the binding of a Sebastian Brant work purchased by Protzer in 1499. Presumably hundreds of copies of this small Book of Hours (measuring roughly 4¼ × 2¾ inches) were printed and sold, all of which were eventually lost or thrown away. Only the unused sheets sent as waste to a Nuremberg binder have made their way, through a secondary channel of preservation, into the 21st century.” The survival of waste product is notoriously chancy.

We need to bear in mind that in the first twenty years of printing’s history its impact on the general public was negligible. Gutenberg’s Bible is a hugely significant book to us. To fifteenth-century book buyers it was just another Bible, which quaintly hadn’t been written out by a scribe. Many ignored it. Many no doubt lost (or tossed) their copy. We don’t have a count, but up to 1470 the total number of books printed anywhere amounted to no more than several hundred. The real expansion took place in the following years when printing expanded outward from southern Germany. “About 28,000 additional surviving editions were printed from 1470 to 1500, and it is probable that thousands more have disappeared without trace.”

A dynamic map showing the spread of printing can be found at this link. I’m finding this map a bit balky today. If you noodle around you should be able to get it to perform though.

There’s trooble at t’ mill.* This Publishers Weekly piece Big Trouble in Ink Production warns us of scarcity added on top of price increases in ink. Green-ness and tariffi-ness are impacting supplies of materials from China. First it’s paper, then press capacity, now ink too! We manufacturing people are having to work for our supper.

Just because it’s so nice, let me refer you to this video on making ink.


* Allegedly this is what they’d say in South Yorkshire during the industrial revolution.† As I went to school in Yorkshire this was a catchphrase we often repeated to one another. Hey, we were kids. One Sunday morning on our way to chapel we saw that there was indeed trouble at the mill. Rawthey Mill, about half a mile away across the fields was indubitably on fire. Well, what’s a red-blooded schoolboy to do: one’s duty to God by turning up at chapel, or off to fire-fighting duty? Are you joking? Es war getan fast eh’ gedacht as Goethe puts it, and off we raced to save the day. The fire was in the mill proper, but our efforts focussed on the adjoining residence which, although not burning, was certainly at risk. We emptied it in a trice, taking everything outside and placing it all at a safe distance away in the open field neatly situated between the cow pats. I can remember crouching on hands and knees under the grand piano along with Balls Ballingall and straining upward while our coadjutants unscrewed the legs so we could get the thing out into the field too. We probably didn’t need to take up the fitted carpets, and we certainly didn’t need to rip the sconce lights out of the wall, but we were on a roll. Soon there was nothing left indoors to remove except the wallpaper on the walls — and we considered it! By this time the fire brigade had got the mill fire under control — so it now being lunch time we left everything in the field and went back to eat.

I was surprised when the owner expressed his intense gratitude to us eager fire-fighter boys, and presented the school with a clock which now hangs on the front of the Busk Holme rugby pavilion. I never did find out how long it took to put everything back, or who did it. Luckily it was a beautiful day.


† Not so fast. The origin of this phrase is cloudy. It certainly didn’t originate with Monty Python’s Flying Circus as many speculate, since John Cleese et al were also schoolboys at the time of the Rawthey Mill fire, but it may not go back that much farther. My muscular fire-fighting took place in the late nineteen fifties. The earliest quote the Oxford English Dictionary comes up with is merely 1967, where they have it being used in John Winton’s H. M. S. Leviathan. Mr Winton’s (Lieutenant Commander John Pratt, actually) books appear to be out of print: they include the straightforwardly entitled We Joined the Navy. There are lots of them: 14 fiction and 29 non-fiction. He obviously made good use of the long watches at sea.

The expression “There’s trooble at t’ mill” shouts music hall to me, but I cannot find that anyone has made a record of the line. If you know, please tell the Oxford English Dictionary folks at this link.


A woodcut will be printed by letterpress, a relief process, an engraving by an intaglio process. In relief printing the white needs to be cut away; in intaglio it’s the black which is cut away.

The Collation has a useful post telling you what to look for in that old book. The key is to study the detail: this example shows why.

You can engrave a clean sharp intersection between two black lines: it’s much harder to carve out a sharp white angle consistently to make the grid as sharp and regular in a woodcut.

Don’t be confused by the fact that a wood engraving carries the word engraving in its name. A wood engraving is basically just a wood cut executed on the grain end of bit of wood, usually boxwood, rather than on the side. A wood engraving will be printed letterpress just like a woodcut. See Printing methods for video demonstrations of the difference between relief and intaglio printing.

Gyotaku is basically a letterpress process: ink up a fish and press a bit of paper against it. Focussing on Gyotaku-meister Naoki Hayashi, Atlas Obscura bring us the incredible story. I suppose there are lots of other things you could print like this, but who wants to print an omelette? The Atlas Obscura piece does show a rather creepy roadkill gyotaku. The idea that this technique evolved from fishermen recording the dimensions of their catch while still at sea does have a charm to it, though one wonders why they couldn’t just use the fish itself for bragging. If you have a fish lying around, and your fancy’s tickled enough, here’s a YouTube video showing you how to do it.

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 Queens Half-Marathon used to take us around College Point, lots of which is charmingly low-key and residential, but we only got to glimpse The New York Times plant from afar. It opened in 1997. You’ll drive right past it when you come over the Whitestone Bridge. It is immense, unsurprisingly for a plant which puts out 1.7 million copies of The Times each week. At the plant they also print USA Today, Newsday and AM New York.

Photo: Christopher Payne/ New York Times

Christopher Payne has spent two years photographing the plant, and the results were published in The New York Times Magazine on 24 March under the tile The Daily Miracle. The piece is introduced by Luc Sante who riffs on the  contrast between the immensity of the plant and the possible fragility of its future. Follow the link to find a substantial selection of Mr Payne’s photographs.

Printing Impressions (via The Passive Voice) sends this analysis of trends for 2019.

They show that, despite all our fears of a few years ago, print book sales continue to edge upwards. Maybe we are all in a sort of holding pattern, waiting till something better than the ebook comes along, or maybe there is really some brain circuit function which likes to turn a paper page or whatever. I do believe that book printing will become ever more digital and shorter run. I expect we’ll arrive eventually at a place where it looks weirdly quaint that there were ever warehouses filled with books waiting for people to want to buy them. If, by then, people still want a printed copy of a book it will be printed for them after they’ve paid for it. This seems a vastly superior business plan to the hit or miss method we’ve evolved, however skillful we’ve become at managing the odds. Just set it up and let it run.

See also Print on demand.

Everyone must have seen these color bars, though few pay them much heed.

They are on almost every bit of printing, especially food packaging where color fidelity is vital. You don’t want people gagging at a picture of your anaemic green-tinted pasta. On black & white or 4-color bookwork the color bars or grayscales live on the edge of the sheet which is destined to be trimmed away in binding. (See Paper tear for an unusual survival beyond that point.) In package printing, where the runs are immense, devoting too much unused surface to these color guides would cost so much in discarded paper that they will (where possible) be designed into the printed piece, usually in areas which will be on interior folds when the package is constructed. The tinted grid on the left on this Barilla box is on the inside fold of the box bottom, while the solid bar above the UPC code on the right is on the exterior of the box bottom.

In lithographic printing* “Statistical process control” extends back to paper characteristics, film quality, ink standards, and platemaking, but on press the job is done via color bars like these. Densitometers and spectrophotometers are the principal tools. A densitometer measures optical density — the degree of light absorption of an image — but doesn’t “see” the colors as we do. Colorimeters and spectrophotometers perform a similar measurement but “see” the color. Spectrophotometer readings can be made on the printed image and then translated into densitometer readings. Densitometer devices will be looking at the color bars above that barcode to measure density of ink. In a modern press any deviation will result in an automatic adjustment in the ink fountains to bring deviations back within tolerance. The grid on the left with tints measures dot gain and slurring (smearing). Here’s a Printing News article with more detail on spectrophotometers. With a large automated press these ink density readings will be being made constantly. On most presses used for bookwork, readings are made periodically by the press crew: you’ll see them grab a couple of sheets as they come off the press, whisk them away and take them over to a desk where they take the densitometer readings of the color bars. The press keeps running, so any adjustments to the ink balance will thus be made more slowly than on an automated system. But in books color fidelity, while desirable, is much less vital than it is in food packaging where the customer demands that every copy printed be identical to every other one.

Organizations involved in standardizing procedures in this area include the Graphic Arts Technical Foundation, now part of Printing Industries of America, and the International Color Consortium.

Different book jobs will, obviously, call for different levels of ink density control and color fidelity. Once upon a time I got f&gs for a black & white job where the image was uniformly pale throughout. It looked like they were trying to save on ink. My reaction was that as long as the reader could read the book I didn’t really mind too much whether it was perfectly printed or not. Of course I’d prefer that it should be better printed than worse, but with an academic book the point is the information, not any notion of good bookmaking. As he was anticipating the rejection of the job, the sales rep from the now defunct Vermont printing company where they were wringing the last vestiges of life out of an old Crabtree offset press was, naturally, somewhat relieved.


* It is possible that the pasta box illustrated was printed by gravure: food paging and labels often are. Color matching is more readily attainable with the intaglio process.


Imagine that you, a printer, have a job on your non-perfecting press which calls for the use of three and a half sheets — maybe the book is 224 pages long with 64 pages to a sheet. So you have 3 sheets each 64 pages then a 32 page oddment. You could perhaps print this 32 on another press, or, better — especially if you don’t actually own another press — you could print it on the same press, using half as many impressions.

Normally one side of a sheet is printed from one forme, the other side from another forme. Let’s say you are printing 2,000 copies, so you’ll run 2,000 (plus a spoilage allowance) for the first three sheets. With your 32-pager though you can combine front and back into one forme. Print the first side 1,000 times. Turn the sheets around (as well as over) and print the other side. Cut the resulting sheets in half and bingo, you have 2,000 copies of the 32-page sig.

This picture from Creative Pro gives you the idea. By running half as many impressions you save a bit of money, and do the sheet with one plate only if it’s an offset job.

According to Uwe Johnson’s Anniversaries (Vol. 1, page 538)*, when The New York Times dropped the period at the end of their masthead they claimed the cost savings in ink would amount to $41.28 per year. This took place in 1968, so according to Inflation Calculator the ink for that diamond-shaped dot would be worth $298.01 now. Of course they are not printing as many copies nowadays, so the annual ink saving would be less, and who knows what price movements there may have been in the ink business. (For a lyrical video on the making of ink please see Ink making.)

The Times provides a nice article on its own printing with some great pictures. And here from Motherboard is an excellent video focussing on the maintenance crew in the NYT‘s Queen’s plant.

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


* Johnson’s immense novel (Jahrestage in Germany where it was published in four volumes) takes the form of a day-by-day account by Gesine Cresspahl, a German employee of a New York bank, addressed to her ten-year-old daughter. Anchoring every day’s narration is a sort of digest of that day’s New York Times, which almost takes on the status of a character in the book. The Cresspahls live in an apartment at the corner of West 97th Street and Riverside Drive (where Johnson and his family lived from 1966 to 1968 while he was employed as a textbook editor at Harcourt Brace & World) and the daily to-and-fro of the neighborhood is cross-woven with memories of East Germany immediately before and after WWII. A mesmerizing performance.