Archives for category: Book printing

This etching is one of the exhibits in the Folger Library’s exhibition “Beyond Words: Book Illustration in the Age of Shakespeare.” This exhibition goes on until June 3rd, 2018. This illustration comes from a 1745 edition of Abraham Bosse’s manual on intaglio printmaking, first printed 100 years earlier.

Previously printed sheets can be seen hanging from the clothes-line like ropes behind the pressman. In order to facilitate the transfer of the ink from plate to paper, hand press operators would dampen the paper before printing. As may been judged from all the pictures of intaglio presswork, considerable effort was required to create  enough pressure for a clean impression. (Intaglio printing works from an image recessed into a metal plate, not from letterpress’ raised image.)

Here Mr Bosse illustrates the method of pouring aqua fortis (dilute nitric acid) onto the copper plate in order to “bite” it.

Below is the frontispiece of Mr Bosse’s book, which is entitled Traicté des manières de graver en taille douce sur l’airin. A PDF of the entire book can be found at the Biliothèque nationale de France’s website Gallica, though it doesn’t seem to include all the illustrations.

Another of Mr Bosse’s etchings of the press in action, this one from The British Museum, shows plates being prepared for the press too. It also has drying sheets hanging in the background.

See also Printing methodsCopperplate and Starwheel press.


In announcing the closing of their Lillington, NC offset plant John Edwards, President of Edwards Brothers Malloy, says “We continue to see shrinking demand for offset printing and double-digit growth in digital printing.” Consequently they are consolidating their offset operations in their Ann Arbor offset plant. The digital operations at Lillington will continue there in one of the three buildings they currently have, but people will lose jobs.

The Printing Impressions article (delivered via Book Business Insight) continues “Edwards Brothers Malloy also operates a digital printing plant in Blue Ridge, Pa., and two digital printing facilities in Chicago. In 2014, the company installed a Ricoh InfoPrint 5000 MP continuous-feed monochrome inkjet press at its Lillington digital printing center, based on the success of an initial full-color Ricoh InfoPrint press it acquired the previous year for its Ann Arbor plant.”

Now of course “shrinking demand for offset printing” shouldn’t be taken to mean that publishers are annotating their purchase orders “Do not print by offset”. What it means is that publishers continue to reduce the number of copies that they order for each printing. When the average order quantity drops below — I don’t know what, say 1,000 to 1,500; the number will vary from plant to plant and from book to book — it becomes economically more advantageous to print on a digital press (if you have one). Don’t assume that the cost of printing 1,000 copies by offset has risen over the years: quite the contrary. What’s happened is that a cheaper way of doing the job has come along. Thus do technologies die: not because we don’t want them, but because we are unwilling to pay for them.

At their founding in 1893 book manu-facturing was not what Edwards Bros. were doing, as this ad shows.* Early in the Second World War Edwards signed a contract with the US government allowing them to publish books confiscated from Germany. Their publishing division continues in operation to this day. In 2012 Edwards Bros. merged with Malloy Inc. which had been founded in 1960 by an former EB employee. For years Edwards Bros. have been a reliable supplier to the academic and university press sector. Their move into digital printing, including print-on-demand, is a reflection of the changing patterns of demand in this type of publishing. Their website may be found here.


* Surprisingly, to me at least, mimeographing, stencil printing, was invented in 1886-7. Mimeographs fell victim to the growth of photocopying.


Ulrich Pinder’s 1506 Epiphanie Medicorum, Folger Library

Atlas Obscura shows a sample of what they refer to as early color-printing, though they do eventually admit towards the end that the color wasn’t printed. The original source, the Folger Library where this book is part of an exhibition, “Beyond Words: Book Illustration in the Age of Shakespeare” which will run till June 3rd, is less coy, making clear the color was added by hand after printing in black only, and pointing out that the lack of distinction between the different colors would make the chart less than perfectly useful for urinalysis. That different colorists might use different shades in coloring different copies would also detract from the chart’s value in interpretation.

Printing color as good as is required by this sort of urine comparison chart could not be attempted until the invention of the halftone process in the mid nineteenth century. In theory you could have mixed up twenty different colors of ink and printed each flat color separately — except of course for the fact that this would be hopelessly expensive, thus vanishingly unusual. Only a king among physicians might have a purse large enough.

Diagnosis by urinalysis is of course something we’re all familiar with as customers. It has a long history. Hippocrates believed in its diagnostic power, and we have a text from 100BC in Sanskrit discussing the technique. I had always assumed the analysis was totally chemical but it seems that color charts are still involved. It looks a bit like that old litmus test you remember from school.

We used to spend a lot of time focussing on the quality of the output we’d get from various typesetting systems. You’d get out your loupe and scrutinize raster lines in Pacesetter or Linotron 202 repros, as if something you could only detect under high magnification could ever matter at all. But in the early days of phototypesetting this was the focus of concern: the image produced by a bit of metal type was something we knew. You knew you could rely on that good old analog reality; you could always see it; you could observe by eye and touch how smooth those curves were; you could always feel it as it indented the paper.

From Hugh Williamson: Methods of Book Design, 3rd edn. © Yale University Press 1983

Because a digital image can only be 1 or 0, on or off, black or white, the image maker has to make a decision around those curved edges: is more of my little dot black, or is it mostly white? On a curve this will obviously lead to a jagged edge as the decision goes one way or the other as you move along the slope. But it’s all on such a tiny scale that you really can’t see it happening.

Nobody would waste their time like this any more.  When a book is processed through a modern-day text processing system it remains a digital entity until it reaches the printing press, or just before that when it is used to create a printing plate. There’s not really any output to look at until you see a set of printed sheets, so we’ve just stopped worrying about it. I think this illustrates two things:

  1. If people don’t have enough to do they will worry about needless stuff, and
  2. It is difficult for people used to a tactile process, literally a hands-on-workflow, to repress the urge to touch their work, just to make sure it’s still there.

“Gutenberg invented his printing press around 1440; the modern paper jam was invented around 1960” says Joshua Rothman in a piece entitled “Why paper jams persist” at The New Yorker.

Unfortunately neither clause is true. Gutenberg didn’t invent the printing press — he invented movable metal types for use in a pre-exisiting wooden press. Nor was the paper jam invented in the 1960s: we’ve been contending with them for hundreds of years.

All too often a printing press will suffer a paper jam. It may be more likely on a sheetfed rotary press* than on a flatbed press; though plenty of paper jams of course occurred on flatbed presses before the rotary press was developed in the middle of the nineteenth century. Mechanization is the big bugaboo. Jams on a wooden press being fed by hand are rather unlikely: things just go too slowly. I well remember watching the printing, by flatbed sheetfed letterpress, of an extremely thin bible paper. The paper delivery system on a flatbed press relies on the weight of the sheet of paper to cause it drop quickly from the delivery platform onto the press bed. But this paper was so light that it’d lallygag about on its drop and gently flutter down into position. Miraculously the pressmen concerned were able to time their activity to get this to happen every time with total accuracy. But error lurked always just around the bend. Slight misalignment, slightly late arrival, a bowing in the paper which may not have settled down quickly enough — any of these, and other freaks lay in wait for the pressman who momentarily looked away. A misaligned sheet may catch on some projection on the press and cause a pile up of crumpled paper as sheet after sheet behind it rushes on to join in the chaos.

The paper jam is another of these tweaks to old technologies which have to be made in order to allow a new bit of whizz-bangery to work. One of the glories of nineteenth and twentieth century craftsmanship was exactly this victory over metal, entropy, and gravity in order to get high levels of production out of recalcitrant machinery. At the junction between a new technology and the physical world lurk trolls. Sort of like Jimmy Speckerman asking Leonard Hofstadter’s help to bring to life his “invention” of glasses which will enable you to watch non-3D movies in 3D. Jimmy knows Leonard is the smartest person he’s ever met, so that he can obviously make the 3D glasses work. But the mind, even Jimmy’s, can outpace the laws of physics. Another familiar example of technology/ physical world conflict can be seen in the fact that from time to time you won’t be able to recharge your iPhone because of the lint accumulated in its tiny charging socket. The phone is of course designed to be carried in your pocket, but the lint gets into the charging port because you carry the phone in your pocket. Pockets, being made of cotton cloth, slough off cotton lint. The hi-tech solution is carefully to scoop out the fluff with an unbent paperclip!

Despite my carping, the New Yorker story is well worth reading, and provides fascinating insight into the workings of R&D at a big company.


* Cylinder presses had been used for printing fabrics since the 17th century. Early patents involved horses (or water or steam) rotating large circular engraved copper cylinders. But what was really needed for printing anything other than pictures was a stereotype process. Without such a thing gravity would ensure that type would just fall onto the floor after one rotation of the press. See Mr Applegath’s ingenious interim solution. Paper jams look rather dramatic on a web-fed rotary press: crumpled paper piles up fast. provides copious detail on the development of the rotary press.

At the end of last year, before the Cenveo bankruptcy became public, Julie Greenbaum reported in Printing Impressions (link via Book Business Insight) on optimism in the book manufacturing industry.

She gets comments (which can be seen at the Book Business link) from a couple of the top-5 companies shown in this table, which conspicuously omits R. R. Donnelley who have split into three parts, but didn’t give Printing Impressions the segment breakdown figures they needed. The RRD book division, now trading as LSC Communications (LKSD* on the New York Stock Exchange) reported sales for 2016 as $3.65 billion down a bit from the previous year.

No doubt they too are cautiously optimistic. Consistent with what I have said before, the printers who responded to Ms Greenbaum talk about investment in ink-jet and digital media, not offset.

It probably says something about the consolidation, closures, and general transformation that’s been under way for the last few years that this top 5 (or 6 counting LSC) is rather different from any such list compiled even five years ago. The list is really now a list of the big 2 and the next largest 4.


* Are the NYSE initials an echo of Lakeside Press in Chicago, the old home of R. R. Donnelley’s operations from which the expansion grew?


At his blog The Future of Publishing, Thad McIlroy gives a thorough examination of this large print bankruptcy. (Link via The Digital Reader.)

He points to two forces at work in Cenveo’s financial troubles. Declining demand for print, and excessive executive remuneration. Cenveo’s core business is envelope printing (and the stuff that goes in those envelopes for mass mailings) but they have an array of assets, including some book manufacturing capacity.


The evidence for declining print sales is clear and obvious — and of course what we’d all expect to be the case given the increasing importance of digital commerce. The book manufacturing segment of the print industry has responded by a flurry of consolidation and capacity reduction. I guess it’s hard to stop any family-controlled business from making dangerously large payments to its top management kin. We rely on the honor of ownership and boards: so much so that no legislation could be imagined that would restrict their freedom. Shareholders have a theoretical role, but it’s hard to organize and seems rarely to be given effect. For fans of freedom this is all great; for the workers, less so.

Consolidation combined with cost containment and capacity reduction is of course the correct response to market declines. Things used to be great. Now it’s a lot harder. But scaling your operations to match the new smaller market can lead to an acceptable future: maybe not such a big one as you once enjoyed. A business can perhaps power through a temporary decline in demand by aggressive acquisition and price discounting, but with a long-term trend such a ploy is surely suicidal. Restructuring, more or less drastic, will eventually be necessary.

Relax, though: the world as we know it is not coming to an end. Mr McIlroy suggests restraint on such apocalyptical impulses by reminding us “There’s no particular reason to think that print will disappear in our lifetimes. On the other hand, as the printing industry’s most notable economist ‘Dr. Joe’ Webb puts it, ‘Not dead’ is not the same as being ‘alive’.” I assume that this “alive” means more or less excitingly profitable, but there’s a vast distance between such levels of excitement and death. The printing industry is not noted for any reluctance to develop new and more efficient ways of doing things. Tightening margins tend to encourage such invention. It may not make sense to seek the big bucks in this business in the future, but plenty of printing will be done, and not at negative margins.

Everybody knows, don’t they, that Times New Roman was designed by Stanley Morison? Surprise, surprise, the typeface design was for The Times newspaper, and was part of a comprehensive face-lift that took several years to implement fully.

Morison was, beyond that, a remarkable man. He was born in 1889 and brought up in north London, a city he always expressed himself reluctant to leave. He didn’t attend university but managed to become formidably learned. He was described as the most intelligent man in Europe by his friend R. M. Barrington-Ward, editor of The Times. Typographical consultant to The Times, he was at one point almost dragooned into becoming its editor. He did serve as editor of The Times Literary Supplement from 1945 to 1948. He was a consultant to the Monotype Corporation where he helped usher in many classic typefaces, refusing ever to compromise quality.  He was also a consultant to Cambridge University Press, joining there with Walter Lewis, the University Printer, to launch and consolidate the mid-century revolution in the design and printing of books.

Morison, who converted to Roman Catholicism at the age of nineteen, always wore black suits which he’d obtain from an ecclesiastical outfitter. Lord Beaverbrook, a friend, alleged that the black hat he always wore was one size too small for his head. Morison was a life-long Marxist, and was a conscientious objector in World War I, spending time in jail in consequence. In the Second World War his Regent’s Park flat was bombed out with the loss of immense amounts of early print and manuscript evidence, but he couldn’t get there for hours as he was on the roof of Barrington-Ward’s house a few doors down putting out fires from another bomb. On more than one occasion he declined to be knighted.

He promoted a clean, uncluttered design scheme. His First Principles of Typography amounts to a manual for creating a book layout using one typeface. “The primary claim of printing is not to be an art, but to be the most responsible of our social, industrial and intellectual mechanisms; it must, like a transport system, be most disciplined, most rational.” The transport simile is characteristic: Morison was a wild fan of railway trains, and once rode to Edinburgh on the footplate of “The Flying Scotsman”. Perhaps more clearly he writes in First Principles “Typography is the efficient means to an essentially utilitarian and only accidentally aesthetic end, for enjoyment of patterns is rarely the reader’s chief aim . . . Even dullness and monotony in the typesetting are far less vicious to a reader than typographical eccentricity or pleasantry.” Many today would benefit from this advice.

As well as his work on book design and the history and design of typefaces, Morison was expert in the history of letter forms, manuscript hands, and ecclesiastical printing. He edited and wrote much of the four-volume History of The Times (1935-52). Towards the end of his life he was a member of the board of editors of Encyclopedia Britannica.

In his biography Stanley Morison Nicolas Barker writes “Morison found typography without organized history or principles: he left it with both, and in addition a substantial body of work exemplifying them. The future is unlikely to dispute the size of this achievement.” He was direct, and often outspoken. Barker compares him in this to Samuel Johnson. Johnson I fear is the English author I’d come closest to wanting to punch on the nose — so portentously opinionated; so irritatingly often correct.* However, I started working at Cambridge University Press a couple of years before Morison’s death in 1967 so naturally grew up uttering his name with awed respect.


* D. H. Lawrence runs him a close second. Might there be a lit. crit. genre abirthing here? Authors one feels violent toward?

Farmers’ Almanacs still survive. Indeed they thrive. As this fascinating piece from Topic tells us The Old Farmer’s Almanac has an annual sale of about 3,000,000! The Old Farmer’s Almanac was first published in 1792, while The Farmers’ Almanac only began as recently as 1818. This upstart manages an annual print run of 2,000,000. And we though farmers had all been replaced by machines! The editor of The Old Farmer’s Almanac tells us that it is “’a calendar of the heavens’, in other words, a listing of astronomical events for the year, sunrise and sunset times, dates of the solstices and equinoxes, mixed with civic and religious holidays, proverbs, poems, and bits of trivia. The Almanac is a lot more than that, though: it’s also filled with advice on gardening, recipes, home remedies, astrology, and feature stories on everything from groundhogs to body odor.”

One might have thought that the material distributed in an almanac would now be freely accessed on the internet. There can’t be two or three (or do I mean five) million people who lack internet connection and thus need a printed almanac to know who was the president before Polk, what’s the capital of Wyoming, Saskatchewan, and Moldova, or what weather to expect in spring. And of course there aren’t. Technophobia has nothing to do with it: both publications enjoy sizable social media followings. The Old Farmer’s Almanac has nearly 1.5 million on-line followers while Farmers’ has almost 1.2 million. Their websites appear to contain everything you could look for in the printed book. For instance, The Old Farmer’s Almanac site tells us that today is especially auspicious if you are planning any of the following activities, to “quit smoking, begin diet to lose weight, plant belowground crops, can, pickle, or make sauerkraut, breed animals, wean animals or children, slaughter livestock”. These directions all come with links telling you why for instance the moon’s phases make this a good day to start weaning. Farmers’ Almanac has a similar website.

As the Topic article tells us, almanacs have a long history. Poor Richard’s Almanac, started by Benjamin Franklin in 1732, is not America’s oldest — that almanac dates from 1639 — but is certainly a name which stick in the popular American mind, as well, obviously as Farmers’ and Old Farmer’s. The size of their market is impressive. Clearly a need is being met.

On a negative note, one British almanac has just announced its end. Pears Cyclopedia has just issued it’s last volume.

The Collection is a nice little movie about a collection of 60,000 cuts/blocks for newspaper movie adverts. The story about it appears at Atlas Obscura. You can watch the film here — it’s only 11 minutes long.

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

I guess it’s good that there are lots of people who are movie enthusiasts: there’d be no market for a collection of old blocks from say Mackays of Chatham or The Cambridge Evening News. In the olden days all printed illustrations used to require this sort of physical object in order for them to be printed — with a raised area to pick up the ink, and recessed areas to “print” white. Most would naturally be rather uncollectible, even if printers had gone to the bother of saving them.

I’m not sure why these would all have ended up at the storage room of their originator, KB Typesetting of Omaha, Nebraska. After all, in order to print from them, the local newspapers around the country would have needed to have the blocks on hand. I guess the blocks would have been mailed out to all the printers from this central address: very few letterpress printers had their own engraving set-up. Can they have been required to return the block after completing printing? I doubt it. I assume that the ones held in inventory were there for the odd late rush order.

If you want to see how such a block was made, please look at the amazing videos at my earlier post, Engraving a halftone block. The functions carried out in the first of these videos would almost certainly have taken place at the movie studio. KB’s involvement would have started at the beginning of the second video with receipt of finished art or negatives from the studio.