Archives for category: Book printing

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.

I started wondering if French flaps were invented in France, and if they weren’t — which is what I assume to be the case — why they got to be called French flaps.

I suspect this is one of these unruly wild geese which we can chase to exhaustion, and that at the end we’ll find there’s no real evidence for preferring one origin myth over another, rather like prefect bound. (See also the comments on the Perfect binding post.)

In the end I come down on the side of French fold as the origin of French flaps: but a misuse of the term rather than the real meaning. A real French fold is printed on only one side and folded into 4 panels. It is often used in invitations or greeting cards. There doesn’t seem to be any reason for this to be called a French fold rather than a Welsh, an Argentinian, a Thai one — people often grasp for the French as a sophisticated sounding appellation (and often of course as an insulting one, as in disease, leave, letter, loving; which for tit-for-tat’s sake are labelled as Anglais by French speakers).

The label “French fold book” appears to have evolved to mean something like this, where there are obviously no French folds involved — a French fold would demand that the top bolt was also left untrimmed, which would make any binding impossible to open. A seemingly knowledgable source says that such a binding style should really be called Japanese stab binding or French binding — though I was always familiar with French binding as a sewing term involving covering the raw edges of a bit of fabric with a ribbon or bias binding folded over the raw edge and sewn through. But again, why French? As far as I can see from this time-lapse video of a Japanese stab binding, there’s no inherent need for the uncut fore-edge element to be involved in this binding style. But of course if “everyone” is referring to a book like the one illustrated with uncut fore-edges and a stabbed spine binding as a French fold binding, then French fold binding it rapidly becomes. Maybe whoever came up with the idea of a French flap cover had recently seen one of these, and figured that the uncut fore-edge was what “French” was all about.

My habitual source of all knowledge on word origins, The Oxford English Dictionary is silent on the subject of French binding, French folds or French flaps. They even give the go-by to French joint which OUP tells us via their 2-volume Oxford Companion to the Book is a joint slightly wider than normal to allow a thick or heavy book to open more easily. Ingenious folk those French.

Later: On the subject of French . . . compounds here’s a delivery from yesterday:

This is the full text of an email received on the SHARP listserv in response to a request for members’ favorite statements by printers about printing.

My favourite has to be this take on ‘To Be Or Not To Be’ by the John Wilkes-esque proprietor/publisher/printer of India’s first newspaper, James Augustus Hicky of the Bengal Gazette.  The original spelling has been preserved.

The Printer’s Soliloqui – A Parody of Hamlet’s Soliloqui
To print – or not to print – that is the question.  Whether it is nobler for a man to suffer the threats and anger of the S-p—e C—n—l or to defy them and the B—d of 
C—m—e, and by opposing tease them!  But to stop to print – no more – and by that stept to end all quabbles, and the thousand cursed plagues a printer’s heir to – ti’s a consumation by cowards to be wished.  To cease to print my Gazette is perchance to starve – startling thoughts for in that idle state what cares may come when I have printed off my last Gazette, must give us pause – There’s the respect that makes the Bengall Gazette so long lived.  For who wou’d bear the insults of the time, the C—n—les frown, and D—es contumely – the pangs of weekly toil sorting types – laws array, the damn’d Post Office, and the spurns a patient printer of the unworthy takes, when he himself might his quietus make by breaking up his press, – who wou’d bow, and cringe, and fawne obsequeous at a Great Man’s Breakfast, but that the dread of this same cursed starving, that land of famine from whose fell gripe no victim e’er returns – puzzels the will, and makes the printer bear his present ills, and induces him to continue to print his Original Bengal Gazette than fly to projects that he knows not yet. – Thus famine doth make cowards of us all, and thus the boldest son of resolution … is sicklied o’er by such pale starving thoughts, and Bengal Gazettes of great wit and spirit without roast beef and claret, die away and lose their circulation.
From Hicky’s Bengal Gazette 16th-23rd December 1780.
The words only partially spelt out are Hicky’s “enemies”: the Supreme Council, the Board of Commerce, the Council again, and Mr. Simeon Droz who in November 1780 lodged a complaint against Hicky with the Governor-General Warren Hastings (‘The Great Man’).  The Post Office was ‘damned’ in Hicky’s eyes because in November 1780 it refused to circulate his weekly. Famine was very much on Hicky’s mind because in November 1780 a rival weekly The India Gazette began publication, threatening his livelihood.
Graham Shaw
Senior Research Fellow, Institute of English Studies, School of Advanced Study, University of London


“To print — or not to print” sounds reminiscent of current debates about ebooks as against print books. Evangelists for ebooks who grasp at every straw in any wind, now see the prospect for paper price increases as the death knell of the printed book. I assume that just as happens every time we come up against cost increases — something we haven’t really experienced for years — book prices will ratchet up to compensate. So? Such is life: prices go up. As publishers control the pricing of their ebooks too, their prices will go up by a similar amount. Publishers would be nuts to ignore ebook pricing in any general price review. Very few are the people who think that God really wanted the Ten Commandments to be disseminated in digital form and that the world has been holding its breath for eons awaiting the total transformation of reading into digital reading. Of course another price increase for ebooks (which the evangelists know to be absolutely free to produce) will just encourage them to scream louder and longer. Scream on.

Well, more like doubling — by the announcement last week of an agreement for the purchase of LSC (the old R. R. Donnelly book manufacturing business) Quad/Graphics took a large leap forward from a $4.2 billion to an $8.1 billion company. Quad was founded in 1971 when Harry V. Quadracci took out a second mortgage on his house, left W. A. Krueger Company, and founded his own printing business in Pewaukee, Wisconsin.

Clicking on this image (taken from the Printing Impressions report) will enable you to read why the acquisition is “a good thing”.

The deal is expected to complete in mid-2019, and will make Quad/Graphics the biggest printer in North America moving it ahead of R. R. Donnelley.

For a league table of book manufacturers see this post from earlier this year. The rankings are undisturbed by this news — Quad/Graphics was top already. Number five has disappeared and probably number four has been overtaken according to news of the recent purchase of Webcom by Marquis Book Printing as reported by Printing Impressions. The Quad/Graphics acquisition is significant also in the magazine printing business.

LATER: Here’s D. Eadward Tree’s reaction from Publishing Executive.

We have all heard of wood blocks being reused in different books, sometimes even slightly altered. But what is even more surprising to  a modern mind is to find the same woodcut being used over and over in the same book to depict different people or places. This post from The Collation shows a couple of instances from a 1518 edition of Plautus’ plays. The book contains five woodcuts, each one used over and over again. In early printing the presses were small, and maybe two or four pages would be printed per sheet. After printing, the type would be distributed for reuse in subsequent pages. Clearly woodcuts would be temptingly available too. As you can see from the captions underneath, this picture first shows Alcmena, Jupiter and Mercury from Amphytrion, who on another page turn into The Wife, Sosicles and Menaechmus’s father-in-law in Menaechmi.

I wonder if the reader was expected not to notice. Hardly, I think. More likely nobody minded: a picture is just a picture after all, and it’s obviously unrealistic to expect an accurate representation of Jupiter, say, so why not just that bearded male figure? If you’re not expecting a realistic depiction, then not getting one will hardly be a matter of note.

The practice of reusing woodcuts seems to have been fairly common in early book printing. For example The Nuremberg Chronicle, printed in 1493, contains 1809 woodcut illustrations, though apparently there are only 645 unique wood blocks. It clearly cannot have had any negative significance for readers. In a way a reused wood block is performing a function little different from a historiated initial or a vignette at the end of a chapter — just filling up space and giving the reader a little resting point. Noting how publishers’ minds work nowadays, I’d expect a significant motivator for their reuse would be that of making the book look longer, thus better value.

If you want to take a look at The Nuremberg Chronicle, the University of Cambridge Library offers a digital copy of a hand-colored edition here. Below is the double-page spread showing Nuremberg itself. These blocks were not reused elsewhere in the book, though blocks for other cities less familiar to readers apparently were reused with different labels.

At No. 1 Queenston Street in Queenston, Ontario, just about seven miles downstream from the Niagara Falls stands the house where William Lyon Mackenzie first printed The Colonial Advocate in 1824. Within is a small museum dedicated to printing, The Mackenzie Printery and Newspaper Museum.

They have on show the oldest press in Canada, a wooden Louis Roy press, as well as a bunch of letterpress equipment including a Linotype caster. Examples of The Courier Advocate can be seen, and of course the gift shop offers you facsimiles.




An effigy of Mr Mackenzie greets you as you enter. Perhaps the most fascinating feature of this image is Mr Mackenzie’s beard. Turns out the beard is merely a sort of chin strap to hold on his wig. Now whether this was the case in real life, or as I suspect merely true of this particular manifestation, I cannot confirm. Contemporary portraits and his bust outside the Legislative Assembly of Ontario in Toronto suggest that the actual beard was pretty real. We were told that to emphasize his point Mr Mackenzie would often throw his wig to the ground. He certainly was a turbulent man, starting his newspaper to give vent to his dissatisfaction at the land policies, patronage, and crooked justice of the ruling colonial administration. He was the first mayor of Toronto in 1834. He fled at times to the United States of America, to escape bankruptcy in 1826, and to avoid prosecution for rebellion after The Battle of Montgomery’s Tavern in 1837, when as leader of an armed revolt he had a price, £1,000, on his head. Born in 1795 in Dundee, Scotland, he died of an apoplectic seizure at his home in Toronto in 1861.

The highlight of your trip to the museum is the printing of a proclamation of your attendance. You have to typeset your own name by hand from an inevitably sparse collection of sorts in a job case. Word spaces were in notably short supply. The attending apprentice then fits this type into a standing form, locks it up, inks it with a couple of ink balls, and runs off one copy which you take away as a souvenir of your visit. The press used for this is not the Louis Roy, but a sturdier cast-iron Albion press made by Hopkinson & Cope of Finsbury, London.

While you visit the Mackenzie Printery do not fail to visit the many excellent wineries in the region.

Niagara-on-the-Lake, basically the right hand bit of the map above, is also the home of The Shaw Festival.


Tables are usually taken for granted. (In this grant we can include those bits of wood on which we rest our books while examining tables within them.) The Oxford English Dictionary gives as its first example of the use of the word in the sense of “a systematic arrangement of words, numbers, symbols etc.” the 11th century (Old) English of Byrhtferð: “Þæra geara getæl hæfð seo tabule þe we amearkian willað”. So the table has been around for a long time. However the scribes may have dealt with tabular material*, it has long been a topic of debate for book compositors, and each printing house would establish house rules for the layout of tables, all with the aim of making the information contained therein as clear and accessible as possible.

Naturally Oxford and Cambridge University Presses have evolved different ways of dealing with the same material. One occasionally imagines them saying “So they do it that way over there. OK, we’ll do it this way here.” The main difference comes down to the head and foot rules where Oxford favors bold or semi-bold rules, while Cambridge goes for a double rule. To my (obviously utterly unprejudiced) eye, the color of the Cambridge version makes it superior. The bold rules clunk a bit as you flip through a book.

Oxford style

Cambridge style

The Chicago Manual of Style rather wanly opts for a single rule at top and bottom, losing any distinction from internal rules.

The parts of a table, all of which will be identified at least in the early going in a full manuscript mark-up, include the stub, which is the list of the elements you’d look up in the table, table number, table head, column heads, spanner rules etc. This picture from Cambridge University Press’ excellent Copy-editing handbook by Judith Butcher, shows some of this.

The use of leader lines (rows of dots) is usually frowned upon in bookwork. Newspapers may routinely use them, but book compositors always tried to work out any problems of the eye jumping from one line to another by the use of spacing, both vertical, between lines, and horizontal, between the  columns.


* Here’s a manuscript page showing a rather fancy table from a manuscript of Ptolemy’s Almagest. The table lists values of arcs and chords of angles. The manuscript’s creation date is uncertain, but majority opinion inclines to the 9th century, with one or two preferring the 7th or 8th centuries.

Photo: Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, ms. grec 2389, folio 17 recto.

There’s always something new. Kathy Sandler’s Publishing · Technology · Innovation provides news of this fascinating development: a book whose ink fades as it gets warmer. Publishers Weekly has an account.

The Penguin Random House book Penguin Frozen Book, the first to use thermochromic inks throughout, comes in a plastic box, so that when you store it in the fridge to cool it down it doesn’t get damp. As the story is about the effects of global warming on habitat, the fading inks are very appropriate. Thus far the book appears only to be being sold in China.

Apparently thermochromic technology has been around for a while: remember those mood rings in the seventies? Those were made with liquid crystals, not ink though. Not sure exactly when we started playing around with thermochromic inks in printing, but it seems quite widely available. One of the earlier patents, from 1997, appears to be all about nail varnish. It has been used on food and beverage packaging, where it makes sense to show when your beer really is cold. You can even get a thermochromicaly printed business card, though I’m not sure why you’d want people to have to hang about warming up your card before being reminded of your name. We even had a postage stamp last year apparently where a black blob, in fact a picture of the total solar eclipse seen from Jalu, Libya, on March 29, 2006 taken by Fred Espenak, turns into a picture of the moon if you push on it with your warm finger.

Left: warmed up. Right: cold as at purchase

As the US Postal Service tells us about this stamp “In the first U.S. stamp application of thermochromic ink, the Total Eclipse of the Sun Forever stamps will reveal a second image. Using the body heat of your thumb or fingers and rubbing the eclipse image will reveal an underlying image of the Moon (Espenak also took the photograph of the Full Moon). The image reverts back to the eclipse once it cools.

Thermochromic inks are vulnerable to UV light and should be kept out of direct sunlight as much as possible to preserve this special effect. To help ensure longevity, the Postal Service will be offering a special envelope to hold and protect the stamp pane for a nominal fee.”

This fading effect may put some limitation on these inks’ usefulness for bookwork; Maybe we need that box to protect the ink as well as to protect against the damp.