Archives for category: Book printing

Because it started off on stones, Senefelder’s new method of printing which he called Steindrückerei (stone printing) garnered the highfalutin Greek name lithography, stone writing. But on its way to commercialization Steindrückerei had to abandon its relationship with stones, and move over to a metal plate.

Although, according to Wikipedia, Senefelder had mentioned zinc as an alternative to limestones in his 1801 British patent application, the first real step on this road was taken in 1860 when Colonel Henry James printed Ordnance Survey maps by transferring his images onto zinc plates. He called this process photzincography, a name which unsurprisingly didn’t stick.

That the world didn’t rush to copy Col. James should not be put down to stubborn ignorance. We have always to bear in mind the inherent conservatism of the print industry. Not that printers were inveterate Tories, probably quite the opposite in many cases — but conservative in business terms. If you have a lot of capital tied up in equipment, you cannot just chuck it all away and follow the latest trend. You have to use the presses you have until the investment has been amortized, and of course until you’ve generated sufficient surplus to invest in new equipment. Letterpress was well established. It was efficient. There was no pressing need to consider any change. Lithography was great for pictures, but that edge wasn’t enough to necessitate a switch. Compromise was available by printing your images separately and binding or tipping them into your letterpress text. This is the origin of the otherwise completely unnecessary habit of publishers to have photo inserts in many of their books: it looks like we care. But for a long time there just wasn’t sufficient incentive to switch your operation over to lithography, and before that switch could became a real option a couple of other developments were necessary.

Photography was the first: invented independently in 1839 by Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre and William Henry Fox Talbot, both systems depended on light-sensitive chemical compounds but differed from there on. Daguerre relied on a single-use positive image created on a silvered copper plate, whereas Talbot produced paper negatives, which could be reused several times. Daguerre’s prints were crisp and detailed, Talbot’s grainier, more impressionistic. Talbot published the first book to be photographically illustrated: The Pencil of Nature‘s illustrations were all original photographic prints on silvered paper, each tipped in to the book. Unfortunately, as well as being uneconomically time-consuming to print and tip in, the photographs had an alarming tendency to fade. This was clearly not going to be the way forward.

In 1852 Talbot patented the “photographic veil” — the original halftone dot system — and was able to use it with his negatives to create an etched plate which could be printed like a copperplate engraving. Improvements, including working from positive not negative originals, resulted by the end of the century in relief halftones becoming the way of reproducing photographs in regular (letterpress) printing.

Offsetting was the second necessary discovery. (In offset lithography the inked plate never comes into direct contact with the paper. The image is transferred to an impression cylinder which then rotates to deposit it onto the paper.) In direct lithography, if the pressman accidentally failed to put a sheet in place on one pass through a rotary lithographic press the next sheet would be spoiled by having a reversed impression on the back too. The ink for the missing sheet had been transferred from the litho stone to the rubber blanket on the roller which was there to press the paper against the stone, and  this ink was, on the next pass, being transferred (offset) onto the back of the next sheet. In 1904 Ira Rubel, a New Jersey printer, noticed that the secondary impression was actually better, crisper than the main one, and encouraged others to act on that discovery. Eventually it was found that not only was the rubber blanket giving a superior image, it was kinder to the metal plates which eventually took the place of stones in commercial lithography, and resulted in longer runs becoming possible.

But it wasn’t till the 1960s in America and a decade or so later in Britain, that offset lithography finally took over from letterpress as the main way to print books. When I left Britain in the mid 1970s we were still printing about ¾ of our books by letterpress (but we were a fairly traditional operation). In America at that time letterpress equipment was still fairly widely available, but was probably used for only about 10% of book work. Now we are witnessing offset lithography gradually beginning to be superseded by ink jet printing.




The process by which Alois Senefelder (1771-1834) invented lithography was by no means direct. His father, an actor, wanted Alois to go into the law, but after his father’s death he abandoned his studies to support the family. He took to playwriting, and determined to print his plays himself. Not owning a press, he decided to invent his own way of printing. He worked with copper plates, made sealing wax casts of conventional types, but couldn’t find success. Having almost exhausted his ingenuity and resources, he wondered if he might somehow print with the limestone slab he had been using to mix his inks. He was able firstly to print an intaglio impression by etching out lines in the surface of the stone using acids, filling the grooves with ink, and placing a sheet of paper over the ink. Then by chance he happened to notice that an inked page left on the stone would transfer the ink to the stone’s surface. He was able to etch away the background, leaving a raised image from which he could print.

He went to Munich hoping to sell such information as he had developed, and falling in with an old theatrical acquaintance, Franz Gleißner, talked him into setting up a print shop to print music on stones. Playing around with the transfer of music inked onto paper, Senefelder noticed one day that when he dipped the sheet into water the oily ink appeared to float on the surface. He was able to recognize in this the germ of a new printing method. “Tearing a page out of an old printed book, he soaked it in a solution of gum arabic — a known oleophobic, or oil-repelling, substance — and waited impatiently for the paper to dry.”* When he put the paper, dabbed with a solution of printer’s ink, onto the stone he found the image transferred to the stone and was able to print a few impressions. When he drew directly onto the stone with a wax crayon he could however make unlimited impressions. He’d got it! Spread the gum arabic solution onto the stone after an inky image had been established, then ink the stone, and almost magically you could print.

Gutenberg was edged out of the letterpress print shop he founded, and had to sell rights to his innovation. Senefelder, however, was diligent in keeping control over his invention. In 1799 he was granted an exclusive license to carry out “chemical printing” in Bavaria. Next year he patented the process in London. By 1818 he had secured rights to “stone printing” across Europe, and published his Vollständiges Lehrbuch der Steindrückerei, which is still in print as A Complete Course of Lithography.

As may be seen from this brief video, which shows the basics of Senefelder’s process, the ink and water balance needs to be worked up as ink is worked up on the stone. This is the equivalent of the makeready process on a modern offset press. (If you don’t see the video here, click on the title of this post to view it in your browser.)

Commercial offset lithography took over a century to evolve, but one early book printed by  stone lithography was the 1840-4 reissue of Audubon’s The Birds of America.

This 1874 chromolithograph by Louis Prang of Boston depicts a print shop in which, on the left, the stone is being sanded by rubbing one stone on top of another in preparation for the drawing of the image onto a prepared stone in the center, while on the right a worker is proofing the job. In the background the pressman is printing the final job.  One of the uses Prang made of chromolithography was, from Christmas 1873 onwards, to print greeting cards.


* Much of the information here presented comes from Keith Houston’s invaluable The Book. This extract is from p. 223)

There are five, maybe six, different methods of printing.

1. Relief printing, where a raised image is covered with ink and pressed against a bit of paper. Letterpress is the main occupant of this space, but it was preceded by woodblock printing (see The Diamond Sutra), and, even earlier, printing from seals. Originally used to impress an image into a yielding medium like clay (or sealing wax) seals were already by about 300BC being used by Chinese officials to stamp silk or paper documents with an inked “imprimatur”. Indeed the word for “to print” in Chinese, yin, originally meant “to authenticate a document with a seal”.

Linocuts, potato prints, and those old John Bull printing outfits, where little rubber letters are inserted into a holder and inked on an ink pad then stamped onto something your parents aren’t going to object to, are familiar relief printing methods for children. Those office date stampers make us all relief printers.


2. Intaglio printing. The opposite of relief printing: a recessed image rather than a raised one. An intaglio plate prints from an image incised into a metal plate, filled with ink, cleaned off, and then yielding up its ink to a sheet of paper pressed into it. Gravure, or Rotogravure, is the commercial application: it costs so much to prepare the image-bearing roller that the process is now used only for extremely long runs where great color fidelity is required, e.g. labels for cans of baked beans. On a more intimate scale, here’s a video showing dry point and etched prints being made. (Click on the title of this post if you can’t see the video here.)

While a signet ring doesn’t print intaglio when it is making its mark in that red wax blob on your envelope, it could. Imagine smearing the ring’s surface with Nutella®, polishing it carefully and pressing it firmly onto the envelope for a delicious impression.

3. Planographic printing. Neither raised nor recessed — the image sits on a flat plate, working by the magical incompatibility between oil (the greasy ink) and water. Commercially planographic printing effectively means offset lithography, but of course it started off as direct offset; discovered by the footloose, carefree (and smart) Alois Senefelder at the very end of the 18th century. Find a flat stone; draw a picture on it using a wax crayon, douse it in water, put ink on it (it will flee the wetted areas), and put a bit of paper on top, and Bob’s your uncle. The following video, from the same MoMA series as the one above, shows the process is actually a little harder than that.

Unsurprisingly commercial offset lithography is quite different but the principles, oil/water antipathy, remain the same. It took almost 150 years for it to knock letterpress off its perch. (You can see the whole series of seven videos on Printmaking at Khan Academy.)

4. Ink jet printing. Not a raised image; not a recessed image; not a flat surface with an image: no image, except for the digitized information about an image carried in a computer which directs the printer to squirt or not squirt. More and more commercial and book printing is going this way. This short video shows how it works inside your home ink-jet printer.

Although it’s not fundamentally different in terms of my surface analysis, being a sort of analog analogy of the digital-driven ink jet system, I include electrostatic printing as a fifth variety.

5. Electrostatic printing. Think office copier. You expose the image onto a selenium-coated rotating belt using a bright light (light, which can be regarded as a fast form of electricity, is able via a photoconductor to create static electricity on the belt); the belt rotates the charged image to a drum with toner powder; static electricity causes toner to stick to the bits which form the image; and the belt moves on to meet up with a sheet of paper which has been given its own electrical charge, which makes the toner jump from belt to paper; the image is fused via a pair of heated rollers; and out pops the still warm copy.

It was the adaptation of this process to book work (and the clever dodge of getting binding done by library-repair binders, who are used to binding single copies), which gave birth to the print-on-demand business. The original workhorse here was the Xerox DocuTech.

6. Recessed impression. The sixth method, the earliest, might not really count, as there’s no ink being transferred, but cuneiform characters incised into clay tablets have been found dating back to Sumerian times, about 8,000BC, and certainly played a role similar to that of printed documents. The technique could be used with positive or negative images: i.e. resulting in a raised image or a recessed image.


Of course, at a trivial level, I should probably note that we use the word “print” to distinguish a line of upper case letters from a cursive script hand. In the same spirit we might mention finger prints (relief printing), foot prints (recessed impression), photographic prints (planographic printing). We occasionally use the word to refer to an illustration, and to a design on cotton goods. Apparently a butter print is a lump of butter which has been shaped in a mould.

I’m not sure we can go any further: we’ve tried printing from a raised surface, a recessed surface, a flat surface, no surface, an indented surface. There’s nowhere else to go, up or down. Future developments will probably be tweaks improving on what we’ve already established.


“It’s inevitable. Technology. There will come a day when there’s no print. I know that that’s coming; and that’s — I think it’s the way it is.”

These words of resignation come from one of the workers who speaks in the video at The Boston Globe‘s website. This 7½ minute video is well worth seeing: it gives a good impression of the late industrial print industry with its economical use of space, its heavy metal, and its oily filth.

The Boston Globe has closed its printing plant in Dorchester and is moving to a new plant in Taunton. They’ll be leaving behind them the grime of almost 60 years. The photo below of the Taunton plant, from a Facebook post, shows some of the new presses: they look sparkling clean, but give them time.

Half way through the video you can see the pressman checking a copy of the New York Times. Despite all the Red Sox caps these workers clearly print under subcontract too.

I rather think the worker quoted at the top is being a bit too pessimistic. You can already see it’ll be different: but there are a lot of newspapers still to be printed. Maybe in shorter and shorter runs; maybe with different titles; maybe with fewer employees; maybe less profitably — but that’s a lot of plant to build for something that’s already over. I’ll bet it has been built with quicker makereadies in mind, so that a greater variety of jobs can be printed economically.

This is a rather bogus word which, perhaps because of its rarity, has managed to survive. It originated as a description, in Latin, for books originating from the new-born art of printing, incunabula (neuter plural the Oxford English Dictionary points out — the putative singular form “incunabulum” is not found in Latin) meaning swaddling clothes; cunae apparently being cradle. Converted into the back-formed noun “incunabulum”, plural “incunabula”, its definition has narrowed down to indicate only books printed before 1501. The OED‘s earliest quote from J. M. Neale in 1861 attributes the usage to the Germans. English-ing it to incunable [in-queue-nable] is pretty well established now, though the OED credits that word to the French. The vagueness surrounding the word may encourage many to resort to “incunabula” as a singular, which at least protects you against the aural ugliness of incunable. In a world of total confusion, nobody can tell you you’re wrong whichever form you chose to use when talking about books printed before 1501. Maybe just saying “books printed before 1501” would be a safe and euphonious choice.

Teasingly the OED tells us incunabula also means “the breeding-places of a species of bird”. They support this with no quotes, and leave unclear whether they mean any species or one special species of bird.

On the south side of West 26th Street immediately after the High Line can be found the vast buildings which once housed the successful H. Wolff Book Manufacturing Company. To anyone of a certain age the name H. Wolff Book Manufacturing Company means “big book manufacturer”, with echoes of “the end of book manufacturing in New York City”.

As may be seen from this photo, someone has taken a chisel to the name sign and chopped off an “F”. Seems a pretty silly gesture.

Looking down the street from the High Line gives an impression of the scale of the building(s), 508 and 518 W. 26th, which now seem to be filled with art galleries. This is Chelsea, and the space is great. The  building farther away, #518, was the first one constructed; it was built specifically for the H. Wolff Company, and was completed in 1910. Their expansion led them to construct, in 1926-27, the adjacent building, 508 West 26th, shown in the first photograph and in this one to the east (left) of the original structure; (508 is the grey building, and 518 the pinker one). The expanding company made further acquisitions in the neighborhood, and also subcontracted space to Grosset and Dunlap, George H. Doran, van Reese Press, and Greenwich Lithographers.

Photo: 14 to 26th Street (where you can find a detail which enables one to see the sign a bit more clearly)

And here, viewed from the west is the no-longer visible evidence (you can see a new building going up in the previous picture) of their location in barely legible white paint on the brickwork, immediately below the Grosset and Dunlap sign which just shows below that reddish line.

The High Line we think of as a sort of aerial park, but it isn’t all that long ago that it was functioning as a means of hauling industrial goods to the railway station, or to the docks. H. Wolff leased and in 1957 purchased 259 Tenth Avenue (just along 26th Street) which had a private rail siding linking in to the High Line. Traffic along the High Line was halted in 1980, when its northern extension was demolished to make way for the Javits Center. A 5-block section at the southern end was demolished as recently as 1991.

Certainly by 1962 when members of the Guild of Book Workers toured the plant this New York location was only involved in binding books. Printing was done in their plant in New Jersey, or came from different printers. They’d turn out 100,000 bound volumes a day. The Guild members were shown around by Jerry Bloom who I knew in a different capacity later on!

In 1968 the company was sold to American Book-Stratford Press who had just constructed a large plant out of the city in Saddle Brook, New Jersey. Harry Wolff, who succeeded his father in the business, died in 2013 aged 86. It’s surprising how little information about this huge company is readily available online.

I’ve seen dead insects printed in books and other unidentifiable splodges. Here from The Collation is a picture of a piece of type which has fallen across the type page and been printed — in 1609.

STC 7470 copy 2. The groove is at the bottom of the foot of the type (upper left in the image), the nick on the side. Photograph by Caroline Duroselle-Melish.

Anything which falls onto the type, or in the case of offset lithography onto the plate or the blanket, can remain in place, pick up ink, and be immortalized in print. The press-minder is meant to notice this sort of thing, but even they are just human. Once they do discover such an error they are meant to discard the last few sheets printed on the assumption that several faulty impressions will have happened before they noticed, but sometimes they take out too few sheets.

The forme (form in US) is all the hot metal type, blocks (cuts), and furniture to be printed in one impression locked up after imposition in a chase ready to be moved onto the bed of the press.

This example is not too huge and is going to be printed 4 pages to view. Most book work was done 8 or 16 pages to view which made the formes immensely heavy and unwieldy. They would be wheeled from composing room to press room on metal trolleys constructed at the same height as the bed of the press, so that the forme could be slid into position upon arrival. (It looks like this one is being balanced on such trolley.)

In the early days of printing, when type was often scarce a compositor might set in forme order. In this picture, you are looking at, say, pages 7, 2, 6, and 3. So the comp might deal with those pages first, and then set pages 1, 8, 4, and 5 for the back-up of this sheet. After the first forme was printed the type could be distributed and be available for the comp’s next batch of pages. This procedure would call for accurate casting-off (or compromises on page length consistency).


I wonder if the reason Sponge Bob or Bart Simpson have yellow faces doesn’t have more to do with CMYK than with the RGB solution this video suggests. Of course lots of modern cartoon characters have been developed for TV but the conventions may have been established before that in newspapers and comics, where absorbent papers demanded large screens and spot colors, subtractive rather than additive color.

Still, this is interesting. Maybe yellow does stand out against a blue background being complementary on the RGB color wheel. But just because the sky is blue doesn’t have to mean it’s the constant background color in a cartoon. What about green grass? Wouldn’t complementarity make us want the faces to be magenta?

I just bet the convention predates television, so that the explanation is rather more ink-based.

Link thanks to David Crotty at The Scholarly Kitchen.

ink-ballIt is slightly hard for our modern sensibilities to take, but we cannot avoid the knowledge that early printing houses reeked of urine. The ink was applied to the type by a couple of ink balls. These were leather-covered pads, and in order to keep them supple they were stored overnight in a bath of urine. Urine was also handy for cleaning off excess ink. An ink ball is illustrated at the left, and their use shown below. You can also see ink balls in operation in the video at my recent post Printing on a Gutenberg press.









Ink for writing with a pen would be water-based, while for printing it evolved to be oil-based. In the early day of printing, printers made their own inks with lampblack or soot and animal glue or vegetable oil which each boiled up according to their own closely guarded formula. Part of the success of Gutenberg’s printing innovation is due to the special ink he developed for transfer to and from the cast metal type. Ink making became a commercial process in the 17th century, and the first ink factory in America was established in 1742.

Little color was used in inks until the discovery of coal tar types in the middle of the 19th century though early Chinese printers had added some earth elements to their inks even before Gutenberg’s time. Linseed oil (a vegetable oil) was the main vehicle in printing ink until the mid-1930s when new vehicles (oils and resins containing specific chemicals depending upon what the inks are going to be used for) were introduced for letterpress printing in the United States. UV (ultraviolet) and EB (electron beam) curing vehicles for ink and coatings were introduced in the 1970s. More recent developments in inks have been water-based ink for gravure and flexography, and soybean ink for lithography.

In classical times the ink consisted of soot, gum arabic and water. Shady Characters has an interesting piece on the inks used in Roman manuscript work in which he tells of an early use of metallic inks found at Herculaneum, thus dating to 79CE. For those who crave the condition of a scribe here are instruction on how to make your own ink (remarkably simple, though not as simple perhaps as going out and buying a bottle of ink).

Today printing inks are made of four basic components: 1. pigments to color the ink and make it opaque; 2. resins, which bind the ink together into a film and make it stick to the printed surface; 3. solvents to make the ink flow; and 4. additives which alter the physical properties of the ink to make it suitable for different types of printing. It is a two-stage process: first they make the varnish, which is the base/vehicle used for all inks, though its recipe will vary depending on what the ink is to be used for. It is made by mixing the resins, solvents and additives. The resins react together to create some larger molecules which make the varnish more viscous the longer these reactions go on. In the second phase the pigments are mixed into the varnish, a process which can be seen in the rather lyrical video about modern ink making which can be found here. It’s well worth watching.