Archives for category: Book printing

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.

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.