Archives for category: Book printing

Erik Kwakkel sends a tweet linking to this Leiden blog post, about a sheet they found which shows evidence of having been used centuries later as a frisket to print characters in red. You can see the little windows which have been cut into the sheet which would be interposed between the paper (already printed with black) and the type. The full width of the type printed in red can be seen overprinting the original manuscript text and illustration on the frisket sheet. Where the little windows were cut the red ink would get through and print on the sheet being pulled. For the first pass through the press (or second if the red was printed first which actually seems more likely) all this type would have been inked in black. I’m not sure how, when printing the black they’d prevent its printing where the red was ultimately to go. There’s no way to cut a frisket with holes all over except in the few spots where red was required. Maybe they’d glue little patches over these characters after inking — though I’ve no idea how they’d prevent such slips falling off or moving and they’d have to do that after every inking which sounds ludicrously labor-intensive, even in times of cheap labor. Setting up two versions of type would be prohibitively expensive at a time when type was cast by hand and a printer’s holdings would be kept to a minimum. Really I think they’d have had to print the red first, using this kind of frisket, and then remove these bits of “red” type and replace them by quad spaces;* that way you could avoid having to reinsert these characters afterwards for the red printing.

This example, from a School of Advanced Study, University of London study of early modern frisket sheets, looks like the red ink was applied as a solid block, which would be hard to imagine unless it were being used in the inking phase rather than when the impression was pulled. Probably it just looks like this because so many impressions were run that slight variations in registration built up to fill in all the gaps between the type.


* Quad spaces are less  tall than the type, so that when ink is rolled across the type none of it adheres to the quads, leaving the area they occupy blank on the printed sheet. You can see them rather well in this picture from Paper Wren Press.


This image comes from Jeff Peachey’s blog post of October 20, 2015.

G. Ruse and C. Straker. Printing and its Accessories. London: S. Straker & Son., 1860. Robertson Davies Library, Massey College. University of Toronto.

Never really thought about it but it does stand to reason that litho stones would have to come in a variety of sizes. Just placing your image in the middle if a gigantic stone would make registration even harder — plus hauling the thing around — just look at those weights!

Atlas Obscura brings a collection of photos of stones from the Puck Building at Lafayette and Houston in New York City, where Puck magazine used to be printed by the J. Ottmann Lithographing Company.

I notice than some of these stones are right reading — this has to mean they were being used in an offset lithographic press.


Ink misting occurs on high-speed presses when the ink rollers, rotating too fast, spray out splashes of ink. Misting  is more likely to occur when excessively long ink is used. PrintWiki tells us misting can also be called flying, spitting, spraying or throwing.







Here’s an example from a recent Times Literary Supplement. Of course one could imagine its having happened when someone dropped their screwdriver into the magenta ink fountain. Click on the photo if you’d like to read the review.

“Mr. William F. Hill one of the early employees of Mr White after his move from Hartford watch maker a superior workman and an ingenious mechanic, conceived a method of making copper type by what may be called ‘swedging’ or pressing by steel dies the face upon the body.” This convoluted sentence comes from History of Typefounding in the United States by David Bruce. Mr Bruce was not a writer: he was the inventor of the first effective typecasting machine in America.

Swedging is defined as shaping metal using a hammer or other force. (Colloquially it can also mean leaving a restaurant or shop without paying. The OED asserts this usage derives from U.S. nautical slang, which sense  appears to have evolved from a meaning of doubling back and going around an object.)

The Oxford English Dictionary sends us to the noun “swage”, which it defines as “A tool for bending cold metal (or moulding potter’s clay) to the required shape; also a die or stamp for shaping metal on an anvil, in a press, etc.”. Swage also means “an ornamental grooving, moulding, border, or mount on a candlestick, basin, or other vessel”, or more remotely “the excrement of the otter”.

I suppose this means swedging copper type would involve just bashing a bit of metal till you’ve formed the shape of a character. I guess such a procedure wouldn’t seem too crazy in a world where the idea of melting the metal and pouring it into a mould was restricted to a one-off hand casting routine. However, hammering a bit of copper would seem to be a slower alternative. I wonder if what Mr Bruce is actually referring to is the making of a mould: swedging a bit of copper might well be a description of just such a punchcutting process.

One of the early problems with mechanized type founding was a tendency for title air bubbles to form in the metal. This made the types lighter, but lead to their collapsing when pressure was applied to them in the printing press. David Bruce’s typecasting machines No. 1 (1838) and especially No. 2 (1843) overcame this and many other problems. His machine and versions of it remained the workhorses of typecasting for a hundred and fifty years.

Unsurprisingly, bad language is on the increase in books. After all it wasn’t that long ago that nobody would print the fruitier cuss words. In Britain printers could (can still in theory I think) be sued for doing so — this is one of the reasons the printer’s name has to appear on a book printed in the UK. I was a working adult when our printing house first printed the f-word — it was national news (on a slow news day, I dare say).

The Digital Reader brings a report of an academic study of the issue. He points out problems in the data which can be interpreted to show a decrease in swear words since 2005 — however I suspect that year-to-year fluctuations are pretty irrelevant. Just as back before the mid-twentieth century you’d take your hero and heroine up to the bedroom and then discretely close the door, you’d surely not have them damning and blasting — well that you might, but they’d never utter the stronger versions of cuss words which are omnipresent nowadays. Edwin Battistella tells us in Bad Language that the f-word appears over 4,000 times in James Kelman’s How Late It Was, How Late. (That’s averaging over nine per demy octavo page.) And I’d maintain that every one of them was justified — that’s just how (many) Scots (and of course non-Scots) speak and think!

I can’t say I mind the swearing — god knows I do enough of it myself — but I do find explicit sex scenes rather embarrassing. A lot of the time this is no doubt because the author found them embarrassing to write too. It used to be that this material was to be found behind plain covers in the world of the pornographic book, which mercifully for the rest of us was usually too expensive to enter. Now editors urge their authors to add sex scenes in order to make their novels sell. I wonder if this really works. I suppose it must, or are publisher’s editors just suffering from a collective delusion? I do still believe that the 1960s should be heralded for liberating us from stuffy political correctness and enabling us to throw off our inhibitions; inhibitions which had led to the prosecution of stuff as innocent as Lady Chatterley’s Lover or Ulysses. But still on this particular issue I have to go along with Evelyn Beatrice Hall in saying “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

Mercifully of course one can always skip or just stop reading the book. I have a suspicion that the trend for adults to read YA (young adult) fiction results from a section of the public which shares my sensitivity.

There was a moment when this machine made it look like letterpress printing might survive into the 21st century — but the moment passed and as far as I know no belt presses remain in the UK or USA. Maybe there’s still one in some far-flung corner of the world.

Photo: Kerley Ink

You took your copy, shot it, and used the negs to produce a flexible photopolymer plate carrying a raised image of every page. These plates were mounted on two long belts. You can just make the belts out beneath the rollers in this picture. One revolution of a belt would print one side of a book. The web of paper would then pass through to the second belt which would print the other side of the book. The roll of paper was then slit into ribbons which were cut into individual page pairs which were gathered in a sort of waterwheel-like device which would flip on after it contained a complete book, presenting the next pocket ready to collect the next book. An elegantly simple mechanical solution which got you straight, in one pass through the press, to a book block ready to be perfect bound.

Because of the need to recreate the image in polymer, the Cameron belt press tended to swell the image. Thus copy submitted in normal type would tend to print fatter, looking almost semi-bold, and any halftone work needed to be originated with a coarser screen than the 133 line screen favored for most book work. Still the press worked well for a certain category of book. Its problem was that that category wasn’t large enough to sustain the investment needed to install and operate the equipment. The arrival of quick-makeready narrow-web offset presses doomed the belt press.

Harold Wilson’s* “white heat of technology” was to be inculcated and accelerated by the training of the British labour force. New skills were going to enable us to power the economy to amazing heights. Publishers like all other businesses had to pay a new tax levy which they could recover by actually providing some training. Unsurprisingly training courses materialized, though I’ve always thought of publishing as more of a feel thing than a skill set to be mugged up.

I was in the first year’s basic publishing course which took place one day a week (or maybe it was just one afternoon a week) for a whole year in The London College of Printing in Back Hill near Farringdon. We were addressed by a variety of luminaries, none of whom I can remember, except for Tom Maschler of Thames & Hudson who told us how to organize international co-editions, a skill which I expect few of us ever used later on.

I image that the invitation pictured, which I just found serving as a bookmark in an old book, marks the awards luncheon at the end of the year-long course. There could be no other reason for the PA to invite a callow, if somewhat arrogant, youth to a free lunch. I had done well on the test.

I subsequently did a PA weekend course on editing and another on production. None of this called for any financial input from the student: just commitment to that white heat I guess.

It was no doubt yet another diagnostic difference distinguishing between the two nations separated by that common language that equivalent training in America tends to be the sole responsibility of the individual. Many companies will reimburse you for the cost of a relevant course (in some cases for any educational course) but the initiative is with the employee. As in so many things the UK now appears to have followed the American lead in this matter — the Publishers Association no longer takes junior publishers by the hand. They go only as far as suggesting where you might go to arrange a course.

I have posted under this title before.


* He probably needs a footnote now: Labour Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland from 1964 to 1970 and again from 1974 to 1976.

Copperplate script by John Ayres, 1683; Columbia University Libraries. From Encyclopedia Britannica.

We’ve all seen it. Copperplate flexes its stiff old joints and takes a run around the track whenever there’s a wedding invitation to be done.

But why would the handwriting style also called English Roundhand get that name?

Once upon a time all illustrations for printing were cut in wood. By the seventeenth century printers had figured that engraved copper plates (though more expensive) would be more durable and better able to hold the finest detail. Pages printed from these copperplate engravings got the name “plates” and were printed separately from the rest of the book. An engraving could have a raised impression like type but would more usually be an intaglio image with the area to print black recessed into the plate — this would obviously make printing on a different press a necessity. You can see a video of a copper plate being engraved at the earlier post Die sinker.

Because for hundreds of years all the handwriting manuals teaching schoolchildren English Roundhand were printed from copperplates, that term took over as the name of the script in colloquial usage. And when I say these manuals were widespread and long-lasting you have to understand that I learned handwriting from one of them (probably by then printed by offset lithography, but quite possibly not) which I was given at the age of four upon arrival at Primary School in Gullane. A line of letters was followed by a wide space below, with little leader lines onto which we were meant to copy the model above. We were not required to make all the curlicues as shown in the picture above, which had evolved as markers of scribal skill, though we were taught a fairly elaborate script.

These books would be reprinted over and over again, with nary a change needed. That was one of the benefits of the technology: unlike letterpress the type/images didn’t need to be recreated every time you needed to print more. It was quite common to re-engrave the lines on a copperplate before reusing it for a second printing. Fine lines might fill in after the press bashed the plate about for a number of impressions. This cleanup was routine and noncontroversial: nothing really was changed. The Folger Shakespeare Library blog, The Collation, shows us the example below from two versions of The Aeneid from 1654 and 1697 where part of the plate was re-engraved to change Aeneas’ face. Their conclusion is that this was done to make Aeneas look like the mustacheless King William III; it is thought that the printer, Jacob Tonson, did this in order to attract patriotic wealthy subscribers. It worked. The book turned out to be oversubscribed, and several refunds had to be made.

Research shows that apart from this edit, the plates were identical.


Mental Floss gives a list of ten phrases which they claim originate in the print industry.

  • out of sorts
  • mind your p’s and q’s
  • upper case
  • lower case
  • hot off the press
  • stereotype
  • cliché
  • typecasting
  • make an impression
  • ditto

There must be others, mustn’t there? Can’t think of any right now though. Most of what comes up are words which apply to print only, though in common use, like galley, pica.

I have a post from a couple of years ago called Mind your ps and qs

This film, made almost unbelievably by school children, tells the story of the end of Fleet Street, telling you along the way what it was like there before the Murdoch-alypse.

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

The film tells the story (from one side it’s true) of the brutal switchover from letterpress to computers and offset in the British print industry. As one of the casualties says: “The benefits of new technology go to those who own it, not those who work it.” It’s hard not be get angry about it — inevitable as such change is. The film’s website is here.

The title, Banging out, derives from the celebration marking the end of your 6-year apprenticeship. The first part of the movie is about apprenticeship. Technological change has made apprenticeship less important — the machines now just know stuff which in the olden days had to be learnt by workers: it’s all been programmed in. The pride to be found carrying out a complex and back-breaking task with colleagues who all knew the same vast amount that you did, is no longer a feature of our work. Watch the film for the touching story of the bonds of comradeship which marked the old industry. It is 52 minutes long, but it is good.