Archives for category: Book printing

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.

When printing by letterpress it was always necessary to ensure that the type was level so that every letter would be impressed into the paper with exactly the same pressure. Life being what it is this is not always as straightforward as one might like to hope. Type is always cast to the same height: type height (0.918 inches in UK and USA). When a forme of type is locked up it is gently beaten down with a wooden batten so that all the sorts sit firmly on their bases. But perfection is always elusive, and once it’s put onto the press, the pressman would probably need to pack some areas of the impression cylinder with little strips of paper to ensure that a particular area wasn’t starved of ink because of being slightly further away from the type. Rather than attempt to raise a small area of type, the problem is solved by bringing the sheet of paper closer to that bit of the type page than others by raising the height of the cylinder in that spot by adding a little bit of paper. This packing process, part of the press make-ready, was one of the elements of the expense of letterpress printing, as the pressman would pull proof after proof to ensure ink balance and evenness of impression.

It’s a bit hard to see, but on this picture of page 239 of Moby-Dick the impression on the right hand side of this paragraph is significantly lighter than on the left. Compare “snow-” at the end of the fourth last line with “white” on the following line. This comes from the photographic reprint of the Arion Press Moby-Dick. The original book was designed and printed in 1979 by Andrew Hoyem with wood engravings by Barry Moser, cut on endgrain boxwood. The original folio text was set in 18pt Goudy Modern. In the California University Press reprint the whole is reduced by about 66%, but the cool spot on this page must result from a similar light area in the original. The problem could be simply a lack of ink in this area, but that, one would expect, would lead to a similar paleness all the way down the page (or across, depending on imposition) — and it doesn’t. The blemish might only appear in a few of the Arion Press’ edition of 265 copies: the pressman may well have picked up on the packing problem, and have corrected it, discarding a number of problem sheets, but evidently not the one from which CUP shot their offset black/white trade version.

All in all the book is a magnificent achievement. Such tiny blemishes do not detract from the reader’s experience: indeed most people will not even be aware of the lighter patch, which I show only to illustrate the point.

The University of Iowa has produced a dynamic map showing the spread of printing across Europe between 1450 and 1500. Follow the link above, and click the Animate button then the Spread of printing button, and watch fifty years of expansion. You can do this with the other categories too.

This was brought to our attention through the American Historical Association’s site in a piece about getting started in Book History.

CutStar is a new name for a phenomenon we used to have to describe as having a sheeter at the front end of the press. Here is Printing Industries of America‘s take on it. As it is cheaper to buy paper in rolls rather than sheets, and usually cheaper to print shorter runs on a sheet-fed press, the idea that economies might be achieved by sheeting on press began to grow in popularity in the later years of the 20th century. CutStar, a Heidelberg trade name, integrates this into the press giving you the flexibility of sheet-fed printing. The PIA description implies that, by disconnecting the cutter unit, the press can be used as a web press for longer runs.

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

I find these freakishly amazing. They are printed from electrotypes made from the original wood blocks, and come from Dahl & Sinnott, 308 Pearl Street, Hartford, Connecticut.

From Printing Art, Vol. 35, 1920

From Printing Art, Vol. 35, 1920

It is almost unbelievable that someone could cut this sort of detail in wood. (Click to enlarge the illustration so you can see the detail.)

See the recent post Wood engraving or woodcut.


It must have been a word everyone knew in 1933 when the song “Easter Parade” featured in “As Thousands Cheer” on Broadway. The song is of course better known from the eponymous 1948 film with Fred Astaire and Judy Garland.

The photographers — will snap us
And you’ll find that you’re
In the rotogravure.


Since 1933, partly as a result of advances in web-fed offset, newspaper color supplements and magazines have moved away from gravure printing. The excellence of the color reproduction turns out (for publishers) not to be worth the cost of engraving four gravure cylinders with pits to hold the cyan, magenta, yellow and black inks. As you can see from the illustration above, the ink covers the entire cylinder which then rotates and is cleaned off by the doctor blade* which leaves ink only in the pits — the deeper the pit the more ink — and none on the surface, before traveling on to meet the paper. See the section on Intaglio printing in my earlier post Printing methods, where there’s a video of hand printing by intaglio.

Photo: AJS Labels

In ABC for book collectors John Carter forthrightly describes gravure as “The finest of reproductive printing processes” Gravure “evolved in the second half of the 19th century. It involved the creation of an intaglio ground on a copper plate, either by a combination of hand-etching and engraving, or the similar treatment of an image projected on to the late photographically (photogravure). The process was mechanised with copper-faced cylinders instead of plates in the 20th century. To a publisher the presence of gravure plates was a mark of distinction, to be commercially advertised.”

I had assumed the “roto” part of the name referred to the fact that the gravure plate is curved around a roller, but the Oxford English Dictionary says the word probably was picked up from the name of the Rotogravur Deutsche Tiefdruck GmbH (Berlin), said to be derived from the names of the two companies out of which it was formed in 1911: Rotophot GmbH (Berlin) and Deutsche Photogravur AG (Siegburg).

Just to knock my roller idea on the head they say: “The form rotagravure (compare quot. 1919 at sense 1) reflects a reinterpretation of the first element of the word as showing classical Latin rota wheel, roller (see rota n.).” I still bet that, whatever the Latin tells us, RotoPhot got its name from these rollers. Modern printers, in contrast to their 15th century predecessors, are not required to be Latinists.

The process of printing etchings from rotating cylinders was developed by the Austrian-Czech artist and printer K. Klič in Lancaster in the 1890s (originally for printing textiles), but he did not patent his invention, and apparently did not use the word. A related process (invented by E. Mertens) was later popularized by the German company discussed above, but Klič is still frequently credited with the invention of rotogravure.

Rotogravure (or any kind of gravure) is far too expensive to be used for book and publications nowadays. It is now confined to printing labels for cans of vegetables: where color consistency from one can to another is absolutely vital, and the print runs are immense.


* Doctor blade may originate with dux, leader (via ductor) rather than with doctor, teacher.

I was aware of George Bernard Shaw’s desire to rationalize English spelling (famously his complaint that fish could be spelled ghote without phonetic alteration), but I didn’t know that he had sponsored the creation of a new featural alphabet. His requirements were that it contain at least 40 letters; be as “phonetic” as possible (that is, letters should have a 1:1 correspondence to phonemes); and be distinct from the Latin alphabet to avoid the impression that new spellings were simply “misspellings”. The alphabet was actually created after his death by Ronald Kingsley Read.


This means ghote be damned, fish would look like this: 


It turns out that  Penguin published a version of Shaw’s Androcles and the Lion in this script in 1962. This parallel edition was paid for by the Shaw Trust, but ended up being the only book to be thus sponsored because Shaw’s will was then contested.

I like the little price sticker on this image of the cover.

Atlas Obscura tells the story of Kevin Bradley’s cross-country haul to set up his Church of Type in Santa Monica. With the International Printing Museum there too LA looks like a place the typophile has to visit.

And this might just be the moment: The Great Los Angeles Wayzgoose is taking place from July 20th to 23rd. It is being hosted by the International Printing Museum in Carson. “The presentations will also have a special focus on the unique Los Angeles letterpress scene, from the bold and colorful Kevin Bradley and his Church of Type in Santa Monica, to Rebecca Chamlee, Otis College Lab Press, Art Center in Pasadena, The Bieler Press, and Kitty Maryatt of the Scripps College Press. Attendees will be encouraged to print, cast, create, and be inspired with the Printing Museum collections.” Roll up, roll up!