Archives for category: Book printing

Via Kathy Sandlers’ Technology • Innovation • Publishing comes a link to this story from New Atlas about a process for turning paper into an interactive surface.

This piece of paper has been printed in such a way that it can function as an electronic keyboard. Photo: Purdue University.

Ramses Martinez of Purdue’s School of Industrial Engineering, isn’t giving away the secret sauce when he tells us “We developed a method to render paper repellent to water, oil and dust by coating it with highly fluorinated molecules. This omniphobic coating allows us to print multiple layers of circuits onto paper without getting the ink to smear from one layer to the next one.” They claim that printing is quite cheap and can be carried our with conventional printing techniques. Perhaps we can expect early adoption in the printing of food packaging, where the technology might be used to signal freshness.

Professor Martinez reports that a sheet of paper printed by their technique can be made to function as a music player, as may be seen in this video.

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

We recently received a booklet from Sephora which includes thirteen transparent, Band-Aid-shaped labels with a strip of a tacky (no value judgement in this usage) perfume sample under them. Peel back the label and the scents are released. I wondered who printed this, and how.

No way to be sure, but Sixth Scents is a New York company offering a variety of methods of getting scent samples to your customers. The first method, ClearBurst, looks like the one Sephora used. As Sixth Scents puts it “ClearBurst labels are a patented, scent sampling device that delivers encapsulated oils held between two layers of film substrate. When the consumer peels back the top ply, it ruptures the microcapsules delivering an accurate rendition of your scent. ClearBurst labels can be sampled multiple times as the encapsulation heals itself when the ply is resealed. Unopened, the scent has a shelf life of at least one year. There is no pre-scent until the label is opened.” The system seems to be working fine, but there’s a fading risk in something, like a book, which would have a longer shelf life than an advertising piece. In fact after week, some of the Sephora perfume samples have become rather faint. Presumably the perfume sample is printed like a spot varnish. I wonder how hard it is to mix the perfume-carrying “ink”.

The most familiar smell-printing technique is no doubt scratch-and-sniff, where scent particles are carried in a varnish printed onto the page. Scratching releases the scent — which obviously will wear out over time. As far as I am aware this never caught on in a big way for book work, though there are of course quite a few children’s books which have used scratch-and-sniff technology. The sense of smell is a much more powerful sense than we acknowledge. It was “our” first sense, and perhaps for that reason, operates almost entirely autonomously. As a consequence we have never managed/bothered to develop a vocabulary specifying this or that smell: we describe smells almost entirely by simile. Maybe our devaluing of smell-data is what explains our/my reaction to the idea that such smell patches might have a place in a novel. Years ago people spoke about “smell-o-rama” in cinemas. Apparently it was only used once for a 1960 movie called Scent of Mystery. There’s a surprisingly full and informative entry about Smell-O-Vision at Wikipedia. As far as I’m aware nobody has proposed such a thing for adult book use. Is this an innovation just waiting to happen?

Getting ink onto paper is a bit more complicated on a modern printing press than it was in the olden days when an apprentice had to thump a pair of leather ink balls into a pool of ink, bang them together to smooth the film of ink out, and dab the ink onto the type awaiting on the press. Jeff Peachey, a local bookbinder and restorer, has made a couple of such ink balls. He includes at that link a nice illustration of the objects in operation in a 1588 picture of a playing card — one of the earliest categories of printed goods.

Printing ink is rather viscous (thixotropic) and tends to gloop out from the ink reservoir: rollers take charge of it and by turning it this way and that through a series of at least ten rollers, thinning it out and distributing it evenly over the breadth of the roller set. This is perhaps the most important quality bottleneck on an offset press. Recall that lithography works on the basis of the mutual incompatibility of water and oil (represented by the greasy ink), and the balance between the two is of absolutely key importance.

Of course ink rollers are necessary on any letterpress, gravure, silk screen, or offset litho press — and even if you are printing a linocut. Here’s my ink roller:

OK, it needs a better cleaning. In the video at the link about lithography, you can watch a printmaker rolling out the ink on a lithographic stone with a slightly more industrial-scale roller than mine.

The following video is short, and will at the very least introduce you to the ink rollers on a Heidelberg XL106 press.

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

You can read a little more about it all at Heidelberg USA, whence cometh this video. If you want the full details, PrintWiki will fulfill your wildest tech-happy dreams.

Photo: Donald Judge

The Oxford Companion to the Book makes less of a meal of this term than do most reference sources seem like to. They define printer’s devil simply as a “Jocose term for young apprentices in a printing office, so called because they often became daubed with ink when removing sheets from the tympan”.

Atlas Obscura brings us this photo and others in their article, “Printer’s Devil, York, England”. Although in the early days of printing Stonegate was where Yorkers would go to find a printer, times have brought change, and the printing shop is now an old men’s clothing store. They have wisely retained the old printer’s trade sign. Although an old guy who uses clothing I am surprised that this is a business model that seems to have thrived. “Old Guys Rule” was established in the USA in 2003 as a tribute to surfer Doug Craig of whom this remark was made after some cunning surfing move. The company expanded to England in 2008.

Apparently printer’s devils were originally called fly boys. One of the alternative explanations for the devilish name does have an apparent basis in logic of the PR variety: if there was a devil in your workshop this would obviously account for any typos that might be made: couldn’t possibly be you who got it wrong could it? — Frank Steinman, wiser perhaps, attributes these errors to God not the devil.

The tympan is part of a hand press. It is a frame, usually covered with a taut parchment, onto which a sheet of paper is placed so that it can be folded down to bring the paper into contact with the inked forme of type. The paper on the tympan is usually protected by a frisket.

In this picture, after the frisket and tympan have been folded together and then down on top of the type, the press bed is moved to the left under the platen which the operator, by pulling on the lever, forces down onto tympan + paper + frisket + forme, causing the ink to transfer from the type onto the paper with a good clean impression. (Goldilocks as press operator — not too much pressure; not too little; just the right amount.) Turn that crank at the bottom the other way to bring the print bed back to the position shown in the picture, raise the frisket, remove the printed sheet, and start once more from the top.

The parchment cover on the tympan relates the word to the drum (tympanum is Latin for drum — remember the tympani, simply the plural).

There’s recently been a bit of correspondence at the SHARP listserv about the diseases affecting printers. (See Printer’s gait, and Printer’s paralysis for the sort of things discussed.)

One response quotes a July 31, 1786 letter from Benjamin Franklin to British physician Benjamin Vaughan:

“In 1724, being in London, I went to work in the Printing-House of Mr. Palmer, Bartholomew Close, as a Compositor. I then found a Practice I had never seen before, of drying a Case of Types, (which are wet in Distribution) by placing it sloping before the Fire. I found this had the additional Advantage, when the Types were not only dry’d but heated, of being confortable to the Hands working over them in cold weather. I therefore sometimes heated my Case when the Types did not want drying. But an old Workman observing it, advis’d me not to do so, telling me I might lose the Use of my Hands by it, as two of our Companions had nearly done, one of whom that us’d to earn his Guinea a Week could not then make more than ten Shillings and the other, who had the Dangles, but Seven and sixpence. This, with a kind of obscure Pain that I had sometimes felt as it were in the Bones of my Hand when working over the Types made very hot, induc’d me to omit the Practice. But talking afterwards with Mr. James, a Letterfounder in the same Close, and asking him if his People, who work’d over the little Furnaces of melted Metal, were not subject to that Disorder; he made light of any Danger from the Effluvia, but ascrib’d it to Particles of the Metal swallow’d with their Food by slovenly Workmen, who went to their Meals after handling the Metal, without well-washing their Fingers, so that some of the metalline Particles were taken off by their Bread and eaten with it. This appear’d to have some Reason in it. But the Pain I had experienc’d made me still afraid of those Effluvia.”

This letter is published in Volume 37 of The Franklin Papers, published by Yale University Press.

I assume the wetness of the types after distribution resulted from washing off the ink.

I wondered what “the Dangles” might be. The Oxford English Dictionary doesn’t tell. Seems there’s some sort of ice-hockey usage according to Urban Dictionary. There’s also a 1980s rock group. I assume Franklin must be talking about hands hanging useless because of the effects of lead poisoning.

A post at The Briar Press reassures us that lead in its metallic form cannot be absorbed through the skin. So Franklin’s warning is a bit off: the type he was handling couldn’t have been raised to a temperature sufficient to allow “Effluvia”. However, if he had sucked his fingers to keep them warm after handling cold types this might well have lead to trouble. This suggests that heating the type was a good idea. I suppose there might have been a risk of some lead particles floating about in the air, which was probably of pretty poor quality in most workshops. His neighbor Mr James, letterfounder, turns out to have been right: it’s not the “Effluvia” that’ll get you, it’s the “Particles of the Metal swallow’d with their Food by slovenly Workmen”.

Life expectancy among print workers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was in any case short: in 1850 the average age at death of members of The International Typographical Union was 28. Of course at that time average life expectancy wasn’t great: 42 overall, or 57 if you survived childhood.

A block book, as its name suggests — they tended to be rather short, so wouldn’t have appeared like blocks of paper — would be printed from a block, most often wood, but potentially metal, which was carved to leave the areas to be printed black (or more often dark brown) at surface level while the background would be recessed. The entire page, pictures and the text would be carved by hand. In the illustration below the white areas will all have been carved away to leave the outlines to print. (The red lettering was most likely added by hand after printing.) At my recent post on Tarot there’s a picture of a wood block used to print cards.

Block books, and block-printed anything —indulgences, playing cards, calendars, etc. — were the way you would duplicate materials prior to the rapid development of letterpress printing which followed from Gutenberg’s invention of movable metal types. As the examples of block books which have survived all date from after Gutenberg’s breakthrough, the “prior to” in the first sentence might appear redundant, but what’s true of books isn’t true of all printed materials. Actually we have very few survivals anyway, and the older a block book was the less likely we are to have it come down to us. Certainly block printing, which has been shown to exist in China before the 2nd century, has a long history though evidence for its arrival in Europe before the mid-fifteenth century is lacking.

Wood block printing certainly co-existed with early hot metal printing — no new technology immediately displaces its predecessors. After metal types became available it was not uncommon for the text of a “block book” to be printed on a press using metal type after the illustrations had first been printed from a wood block. Eventually of course metal type text and illustrations cut into wood blocks would be locked up together in a single forme and printed together in a single pass through the press.

Because the “impression” was usually applied manually, by rubbing or hammering the paper against the inked block, block books would only be printed on one side of the paper. If you turned the sheet over and rubbed it again, you’d smudge the ink! The blank sides were often glued together when the book was assembled.

The first printed image of a bloodletting man in Europe, which appeared in a calendar printed as a block book in 1474. Joannes Regiomontanus (1436-1476), Calendarium, Nuremberg 1474.

This is the earliest diagram we have giving instruction on bloodletting. It comes from a 66 page block book calendar printed in 1474. Link via The Collation, the Folger Library’s blog. Read the Collation post for an interesting discussion of the science of bloodletting. Most importantly apparently it was important “to avoid bloodletting when the moon was in the sign of the zodiac governing the part of the body to be bled.” The block book shown comes from the Library of Congress.


A horse of a different color is the book block.


Jeff Peachey posted this image yesterday.

Although I’ve not met him, Mr Peachey, a bookbinder and restorer (and a fairly close neighbor) doesn’t look from his photo to be at all lank-haired and crooked-backed. (Roger Payne might better fit the mould. And I dare say the printer and publisher had plenty of models close to hand.) Back then, book manufacturing was a tough business, and took its toll on the bodies of its workers: for examples see my posts Printer’s gait, and Printer’s paralysis. This verse makes the poor bookbinder seem a rather undesirable mate — the writer implies that he’ll never get to kiss his “admirer”. In the last line there has to be a typo surely. “Press to pour chops” doesn’t mean anything to me. The damage to the “p” hints at a more logical “y” where “chops” would take on its meaning of face, cheeks, mouth. Might this represent a last-minute on-press correction: just hammer part of the “p” away to make it look a bit like a “y”?

The image comes from a self-help book for the nervous Valentine composer, Everybody’s Valentine Writer (Newcastle-on-Tyne: Printed and Published by W. R. Walker, ca. 1850). (I suppose the poor bookbinder has to count as one of the “comic Valentines”.) Note the show-through on page 24: You almost think you might be able to decipher “To a Gentleman” on the back of this page. Page 23 may in fact be read at Typelark. The book must have been printed on a pretty thin, absorbent sheet, and have been over-inked significantly — though it is show-through, not offsetting* that we see, as confirmed by the Typelark image of the back-up page, so over-inking may be less of a problem.

When was the Valentine invented? PBS tells us the earliest real Valentine’s cards (hand made) date “from the late 18th century, and they already resemble the modern valentine: frilly verses punctuated with cute pet names like ‘Turtle Dove,’ written on folded paper and decorated with pink and red hearts.” According to History Cooperative “The first commercially printed Valentine’s Day card was produced in 1913 by Hallmark, known as Hall Brothers at that time.” The presses have kept on rolling: apparently more than 150 million are sold each year.


* Offsetting in this context refers to the inadvertent transfer of an image from one sheet to its neighbor, usually as a result of sheets having been stacked before the ink has dried.

These two tarot cards, ten swords left, Emperor right, measure 4¾” x 2½”, quite similar to the size of a modern pack of cards. They were found in the binding of a book in the Folger Library collection, a 1673 edition of Vincent Reboul’s Le Pelerinage de S. Maximin. Before bookbinding became standardized as something the publisher did for you it was quite common to use waste paper as binding reinforcement materials. Playing cards were usually printed on a fairly substantial bit of paper and would be ideal for case linings.

The Folger Library blog The Collation, in a post entitled Fortune’s Fools, brings us their story along with a brief run-down of the structure of a tarot pack. The cards were printed from a woodblock — here’s an example from the Bibliothèque nationale de France’s collection. (The bits to print black are left at surface height and the rest is cut away.)

Early cards are assumed to have been made entirely by hand. I wonder. Playing cards reached Europe by way of the Middle East, most likely from Egypt. The first documented packs in Europe date from 1440 and 1450 — but I don’t know how they were manufactured. Printing from carved wooden blocks was well established in Europe before Gutenberg’s development of movable metal types — he merely took over the use of the printing press which was already well established. His Bible was printed in the early 1450s. Maybe playing cards were the vector pushing the popularity of the printing press? I wouldn’t be amazed if playing cards arrived in Europe accompanied by the knowledge of how to print them from woodblocks, maybe even accompanied by a woodblock or two — the technology is known to have existed in Egypt in the tenth century: it appears to have originated in China prior to the second century. In fact Gutenberg is known to have been associated with the Master of the Playing Cards, at whose works he learned about the engraving of copper blocks which were used as the Master’s title implies for cards among other things. I would speculate that the black outlines of early playing cards would have been printed from a block, first wood then metal (you could take an image by rubbing or hammering, not just by pressure in a press) and then colored by hand.

It’s no secret, though I didn’t know it, that tarot cards didn’t start out with the mysterious, fortune-telling aura they rejoice in today. They were originally used to play a game, often called trionfitarot in France. (Trionfi can be detected as the origin of the word trumps.) The games may have started in the fourteenth or fifteenth century but the card pack didn’t acquire its divinatory role till the eighteenth century. The local tarot card design, Tarot de Marseille, has become the standard. St Maximin, the subject of the book referenced at the top was of special significance in Marseille. Indeed as The Collation tells us “The book was printed in Marseille, written by a Marseille author, and focuses on three saints (Saint Mary Magdalene, Saint Lazare, and Saint Maximin) with a special connection to a holy grotto (Saint Baume) just outside of the city.”

In a vaguely related coincidence comes this story from Printing Impressions telling us R. R. Donnelley is increasing its capacity to serve the needs of game and trading card publishers. Apparently being locked up at home has prompted many to sort their trading card collections. Have tarot readings increased too? I bet they have.

This news comes at the same time as we are being told that LSC (formerly part of R. R. Donnelley) is closing its Spartanburg,SC catalog plant. Last fall LSC had already announced the closure of its Kendallville IN book plant. Times are tough in the book manufacturing world.


Those of us who go weak at the knees when we see signs of the Ye-Olde-Tea-Shoppe kind just have to bite our tongue and put it all down to yoghs and thorns.

Before the Latin-alphabetic-conquest, Germanic languages were written in a runic alphabet. I grew up thinking runes were those scratches on the edge of a stick or old stone: and of course they often were — but more important than that physical manifestation was the fact that they made up a coherent alphabet! Anglo-Saxon “futhorc” (named after the first six letters of its alphabet — just as ours is after the first two in the Greek alphabet)   is the most familiar runic alphabet to an English-speaking audience. There’s the thorn in third place; yogh is also in the top line under the guise of X. Yogh migrated to the form resembling the number 3 in Middle English.









A few letters from Anglo-Saxon times didn’t make the jump across to the Latin alphabet. Notable among these are yogh (ȝ) and thorn (Þ). In rough terms yogh represented the -ch sound in the Scottish word loch. It used to be written at the start of the word ȝear (year) which would occasionally be transcribed as “gear”. An Anglo-Saxon speaking about that twelve-month span of time would begin with this sort of throat-clearing sound.

In the case of the word year, yogh did move to y, but generally it would turn into -ch, -gh, -g, -z, or -x. The name Menzies (which in Scotland we pronounce Ming-iss) is an example of ȝ being replaced by z. The culprit in “Ye olde” is the thorn, a straightforward -th sound as in, temptingly, “the”. However “ye” as a sort of antique-ish form of “the” shouldn’t be conflated with “ye” the personal pronoun, plural of you, as in “hear ye!”. This “ye” (“y’all” in the southern USA, or “yous yins” or indeed just “ye” in Scotland) would have been spelled with a yogh, ȝe.

However over the years the shape of the thorn does seem to have moved towards that of y — see the illustration below of the Wycliffe Bible. This can surely be the only justification for thinking that our ancestors ever said (well, wrote) “ye” instead of “the”, because if you’d taken off from the thorn in it’s original shape, Þ, wouldn’t you have been more likely to have ended up with Pee Olde Tea Shoppe?

The website Bellaria from Classics for all comes up with an explanation of why we got lots of “ye”s in the King James Version. Their idea just doesn’t sound right to me. If you go to the link, scroll down to the bottom. On the way down you can work through an interesting series of examples of different translations of the Bible, moving from Greek and Latin, through a very German-looking English, and up to the 1611 King James translation. The Bellaria idea is:

“If you go back to the Wycliffe manuscript and look carefully at ‘In þe bigynyng was þe word . . . .’, you will see that þ (‘thorn’, = th) has changed its shape to Ƿ. But while this was happening, ‘th’ was becoming more common and starting to win the day.

“This is where the fun starts. The original printers of the KJV preferred not to use ‘th’ for the word ‘the’ because it would take up too much space, and opted for Ƿe instead. Unfortunately early printing presses came from Germany and Italy and did not possess such a letter. So in the very first texts of the Bible, the London printers replaced it with ‘y’. Result? ‘Ye’, meaning and pronounced ‘the’ at the time, but in time becoming the ‘ye’ we know and love as in ‘ye olde village shoppe’.”

Here is the Wycliffe illustration, followed by Bellaria‘s illustration of the KJV.

Of course it wasn’t the press which was the defining feature in this argument: any press will be happy to make an impression on anything you place below it — a grape, a piece of type, a recusant’s thumb. It’s the metal type that makes the difference. If the printers of the King James Bible really wanted a thorn of þ or of Ƿ shape what was to stop them obtaining one? 1611 isn’t exactly prehistoric times in the story of British printing, and there must have been any number of die sinkers and punch cutters available to create a mould for a thorn if they really needed one.

To me the unconvincing bit in Bellaria‘s story is that if you look at that 1611 edition of the KJV, there’s nary a Y in place of þ or Ƿ. All the “the”s are perfectly happily rendered as t-h-e, just as if the thorn had never stuck in printer’s flesh. In fact I believe that the only “ye”s in the KJV are in fact of the plural personal pronoun sort, where we are addressing a group. “Ye stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, ye do always resist the Holy Ghost: as your fathers did, so do ye”. (Acts 7:51 for example.) All the “the”s in the KJV are in fact, and have always been, rendered as “the”. So the printers of the King James Bible didn’t suppress the thorn; they actually got rid of yogh in a different “ye”: a switch which may well have occurred many years earlier.

And isn’t that thorn, Ƿ, in Wycliffe getting dangerously close to wynn, ƿ, another lost Anglo-Saxon letter, which stood in for the -w sound, which was not one the Romans used? Maybe there’s a story in that too.

See Mental Floss for an article about 12 letters which didn’t make the alphabet.

Anther literary connection is to J. R. R. Tolkien, a friend of all medievalia. He introduced runes into The Hobbit. Thorin’s map has lots of them: