Archives for category: Book printing
Almost looks like his hat’s made of type metal

Johannes Gensfleisch zur Laden zum Gutenberg was born in Mainz some time between 1394 and 1404. In the 1890s the city of Mainz declared his official birthdate to be 24 June, 1400.

He didn’t invent printing. He didn’t invent the printing press. The closest thing to an invention that Johannes Gutenberg made was movable metal type: but even that had precedent in Asian printing, about which Gutenberg was however presumably ignorant. His father was a goldsmith and coin maker, and there are parallels between metal working and hot metal printing which seem to have worked on the mind of the youth. Obviously metal working led to a facility with the use of metals, including engraving copper plates. Casting coins and medals in moulds, and obviously the techniques involved in cutting the moulds themselves were essential skills in hot metal type manufacture. Presses were already known by then, used for printing wood blocks, but mainly evolved from wooden wine presses.

What Gutenberg really was was a businessman who saw an opportunity to develop some pre-existing technologies, and pushed hard, putting his money (and others’) where his mouth was. He seems to have been quite willing to take a flutter: one instance is the abortive pilgrimage to Aachen on 1439. Gutenberg manufactured thousands of little mirrors which were advertised as having the power to gather in divine rays. These were to be sold to souvenir-happy pilgrims. His inventory became useless when the plague (or maybe it was floods) caused to cancellation of Aachen’s ceremonies.

Between 1448 and 1450 Gutenberg established a printing operation in Mainz. Investors included Arnold Geldhus, his brother-in-law, as well as Johann Fust and his son-in-law, Peter Schöffer. Fust invested 800 gulden to get the operation going, and then put in a further 800 gulden to fund the printing of the Bible which started in 1452. Prior to the Bible project they were printing indulgences and Latin grammars. The first work surviving from the press is a German poem.

The BBC programme, The Forum, gives a straightforward introduction to Gutenberg’s entrepreneurial initiative. This programme dates from November 2020, and breaks in the middle for a news update, which, rather eerily, turns out to be the news from back then (2020, not 1452).

Printing Impressions brings us the news that R. R. Donnelley & Sons has agreed to a takeover bid from Atlas Holdings of Greenwich, CT. Atlas already owns LSC, so the acquisition holds out the possibility of a sentimental return to the olden days. They also own Finch Paper. So someone is betting that there’s life in publication printing yet.

As an earlier story from the same source sets up, there is the possibility of a tussle over the RRD acquisition. Atlas’ bid comes in at $8.52 per share, and Chatham Management has increased their original bid from $7.50 to $9.50 per share. Thus far the RRD board seems determined to go ahead with the Atlas merger, but who knows what’s next. Consummation of the deal cannot happen before the first half of 2022 anyway.

Photo: Andrew Jameson

Richard Robert Donnelley came down from Canada and in 1864 founded a book printing company named R.R. Donnelley & Sons Company in Chicago. A century later it had become the largest printing company in the world.

I remember visiting Donnelley in Chicago in the mid seventies, but I can’t be sure it was this building or another just like it. I was struck by one huge plant devoted to printing only Readers Digest Condensed Books. Much of RRD’s book work had already migrated to Crawfordsville, Indiana, where everything was on one level, not like this place involving constant trips for skids of sheets, book blocks etc. up and down in massive elevators. Once upon a time, when muscle was cheap, this sort of inconvenience was no inconvenience.

There was a time not all that long ago when the gigantic figure of R. R. Donnelley bestrode the universe (of book manufacturing). Not much striding going on in the second decade of this century. Let’s hope our baby steps continue for many years.

The New York Times Book Review recently noticed this poem, which they had originally published in their issue of 31 October, 1915. My interest, unlike theirs, in not in the quality of the verse but in its printing.

If you click on the picture you can enlarge it. Luckily the second column is in better focus in my picture. The sixth line of that column, “Gorges, precipices, and heights” and the fifth to last line “Giving suck to a child” are squashed vertically so that they look smaller than the other lines. Without changing font (which nobody would waste time doing) this would seem impossible in hot metal setting. Such compression of lines is occasionally an artifact of digital scanning — you can almost think of it as the paper slipping as it’s fed through the scanner. Could one imagine a similar slippage in the plate-making process? But the squashed lines are not to be found in the left hand column too, which might tend to suggest that the original may have been set in one column. But that’s not correct either, because in this reproduction they show the whole thing in situ with the surrounding material partially shown. How then could this happen? Could they have printed it in one column, with a plate-making flaw, then cut the plate apart and re-composed the page as double column? Sounds unlikely if not impossible.

Printing Impressions has a video in which Frank Romano, a well known name to anyone involved in book printing over the past few decades, reports from The Museum of Printing in Haverhill, Mass. of which he is Chairman and Executive Director.

Mr Romano believes printing has a bright future, but he sees it as likely to be less involved with ink on paper, as with ink on almost anything else. This prediction is also made by Mark Hahn whose Target Report (on mail-order printing) at Printing Impressions emphasizes the trend towards personalization in print too.

For the time being, however, we are living through a time of high demand for ink on paper printing — for books. Books are selling well, so all publishers are scrambling for such book manufacturing capacity as remains. Paper is in short supply, too many plants have closed down, and the remaining capacity is stretched thin because, in a time of surging demand, like so many businesses, printing is finding it hard to coax people back to work after coronavirus shutdowns. And it’s not just printing: it’s harder and harder to find space in a shipping container. We keep being told we are short 600,000 truck drivers in the U.S.A. (the union says 1.1 million) — so even if the books do get made it’s almost impossible to get them shipped in a reasonable time. Cynically one might anticipate an easing of these labor shortages as well-deserved support measures for out-of-work workers come to an end over the next few months.

Risograph is a brand of digital duplicator made by Riso Kagaku Corporation and first released in 1980. This printing technique is a stencil duplication process, analogous to mimeograph. A digital file may be uploaded or an original scanned in and this digital information is used to “burn” tiny voids in a master sheet, one per color used. As with silk screen printing, ink is forced through these holes to create the printed piece.

Digitalartsonline has a good introduction to riso printing featuring the work of four artists, who all emphasize the importance of learning to make the limitations of the process work for you.

Risograph print by Rope Press

“Riso printing is a high speed, low cost alternative to screen printing. This process combines the ink-on-paper look of traditional screen printing with the speed and affordability of Xerox printing. Perfect for flyers, books, zines, brochures, artist editions, cards, 7″ jackets, cassette & cd covers, and much more.” — From Oddities Prints.

Oddities Prints, of Kansas City, are quite upfront about the limitations of riso printing. They show this graphic, and suggest if register like this will upset you, that you rethink you printing plan. They also illustrate the tendency of the roller which advances the sheet through the printer to smudge the ink it travels over. But it is cheap and cheerful.

Joel Quadracci obviously knows the printing market a lot better than I do, but I can’t help feeling that in this particular context it’ll be a matter of both-and rather than either-or when we get past this virus business. Quad seems to be betting on a digital future for those supermarket brochures advertising sale items and pushing other inventory. Printing Impressions brings a note of a Milwaukee Business Journal story which lives behind a paywall.

I avoided supermarkets for months during the pandemic (in New York supermarkets tend to squeeze their aisles rather close together because of the cost of real estate). In this I was hardly unique, and I expect the handouts were scarcely needed. Now that we are all opening up again I see they are still there, and no doubt justifying a bigger print run than they would have six months ago. Of course, as I rarely look at the grocery-store circular anyway, I’m probably not qualified to judge whether the option of seeing it online will mean that the paper version becomes redundant. Having exited the book business Quad continues to close plants, while at the same time acquiring the contract for providing an on-line grocery circular. Perhaps their on-line circular bet is allied to a gamble that on-line groceries are going to be the way we go in future. Delivery services have been great, and I can’t imagine we’ll never use them in the future — they are especially good for heavy stuff! — but so much about food buying makes you want to see what you are buying before you put it in your supermarket cart, and this I think will prevent grocery shopping going fully online. Maybe they hope we’ll all be walking through the store with our phones in hand rather than looking where we are going.

We are used to this sort of encomium being directed at Gutenberg’s Bible, but Edward Burne-Jones, not totally disinterested it’s true — he did the illustrations — when he spoke of “a pocket cathedral . . . the finest book ever printed” was referring to The Kelmscott Chaucer.

The University of Delaware has organized an exhibition, which is available online here, to mark the 125th anniversary of the book’s publication on 26 June 1896. There are events worldwide, and a comprehensive list may be found at The William Morris Society’s website.

This prospectus describes the binding options for the book, and offers copies at prices which of course startle today’s readers. Notice the warning about the ink used: a full year’s drying was required before the sheets would be safe for folding and forwarding!

William Morris established the Kelmscott Press at Hammersmith in January 1891. Between then and 1898, the press produced 53 books (totaling around 18,000 copies). After an age which had ushered in mass production, Morris wanted to demonstrate that the craft standards of the past could be repeated – even surpassed – in the present. Kelmscott books reinvigorated the ideals of book design and inspired better standards of production. Numerous other presses were set up to perpetuate Morris’ aims, including the Doves, Eragny, Ashendene and Vale Presses. Fine arts printing is important of course, but we had to wait till the 1930s for the practical application of these design principles to “normal” books. Stanley Morison was central to this design revolution. Today’s book buyer has to thank William Morris that today’s production values aren’t even worse than we’ve allowed them to become.

I have to confess that William Morris, socialist though he was, was always a bit of too much for me. Earnestness is of course important, but it can be a bit wearing. Remember the fashion for Morris wallpapers and furnishing fabrics: too intense. And books to my mind do benefit from white space. Still, a great, energetic and good man.

Oxuniprint is to close. Well, with a name like that, carrying on must have been daunting!

The Bookseller informs us that Oxford University Press is closing their Kidlington plant, Oxuniprint Ltd., which represented the last remnant of OUP’s long printing history in Oxford. This started in 1478, with a book with a typo in the date of printing! Oxuniprint produces flyers, booklets, brochures, newsletters and magazines for internal and external clients. When this plant goes, on 27 August, twenty people will lose their jobs. The Union, Unite, is understandably displeased. The Guardian and Print Week provide a little more information.

This news comes on the heels of the announcement of the closure of OUP’s warehouse in Cary, NC. Warehousing functions in the U.S.A. will now be subcontracted to Ingram. Lots of other kinds of work went on in Cary, and a search for new offices is underway. Many other publishers, including Cambridge University Press, have already taken this road. Ingram becomes ever more central to our book industry. Ingram may turn out to be the answer to Amazon*.


*Actually, let me say I don’t really see why we need an answer to Amazon. The question posed by Amazon is I suppose, “How do you feel about half your books being sold by a single retailer”. My answer would be “Might be nice if other retailers could do even half as well, but as long as you sell ’em we’ll keep on making them”. Yes, of course, a powerful retailer like that can demand bigger and bigger discounts: but if someone else was doing as good a job, they’d be the ones seeking the discount. And discount demands can only go on until the absolute bottom is reached: if you will lose money on the sale, you’ll quickly decide to withdraw from the market. I say, as long as we make our margins, keep on rolling old man river.

Also, remember that to “compete” with Amazon you don’t have to eliminate Amazon. A few sales direct to retail customers will sugar a lot of pills.

Translates literally as plate glass, which because of shop-window associations we might better render as glass plate*. This name gives some idea of what cliché-verre is. Cover a plate of glass with an opaque coating and scratch a drawing into it, or alternatively paint an opaque design onto a transparent plate, and there you are, ready to make a photographic reproduction by exposing the plate onto a sheet of photosensitive paper.

Early adopters in the art world of the mid-nineteenth century art liked to experiment with photography. Cliché-verre was one of the earliest techniques they came up with — I guess to some, combining the traditional with the modern has an attraction. The process was superseded after a couple of decades when more effective methods were developed.

Corot: obscurity achieved by two different chemical routes.

You could play around with the output: here (above) the same cliché-verre plate has been printed using different chemicals, but more dramatic contrasts could be a achieved by printing with the paper in contact with the drawing, or in reverse with the exposure being made through the thickness of the glass. This would result in a spreading of the lines, imparting a sort of foggy blur which might occasionally be considered an asset. Here’s an example by Millet. His signature may tell us which one he was going for.

As you’d expect, because of the accent, our word cliché, meaning a trite, overused expression, comes from the French, where cliché means (in printing) a stereotype block or a printing plate, and (in photography) a negative. It’s basically the past participle of the verb clicher which just means to make a metal reproduction of type (to make a stereo). The leap from the printing house to critical discourse seems unlikely without the intervening step of the photographic negative, from which obviously many, many repetitive prints can be made. So while clichéd may be taken as a negative epithet, it is actually really truly negative.

The Clark Institute in Williamstown recently had an exhibition reviewed here by Antiques and the Arts Weekly. The prints on display come from Quarante Clichés-glace, published in 1921 by Maurice Le Garrec. Apparently in those days they were called ice plates. The exhibition site describes the production as “Portfolio of clichés-verre, gelatin printing out prints”. Unfortunately the exhibition closed on May 16th, but there’s a lot of information at the Clark’s site.


*The temptation to translate as glass print should be avoided as this term has, we are told by Wikipedia, already been taken by a process which sounds almost unbelievable. Allegedly a glass print is made as follows: a print is glued face down onto glass, and the paper is then carefully rubbed off to leave only the ink film on the glass. This process, whose very existence I wonder about, has now in any case been rendered redundant by our ability to get an inkjet printer to print photos directly onto a primed glass. Artmill has a good description, and assure us that acrylic or plexiglass is a better option than glass itself.

Via Kathy Sandlers’ Technology • Innovation • Publishing comes a link to this story from New Atlas about a process for turning paper into an interactive surface.

This piece of paper has been printed in such a way that it can function as an electronic keyboard. Photo: Purdue University.

Ramses Martinez of Purdue’s School of Industrial Engineering, isn’t giving away the secret sauce when he tells us “We developed a method to render paper repellent to water, oil and dust by coating it with highly fluorinated molecules. This omniphobic coating allows us to print multiple layers of circuits onto paper without getting the ink to smear from one layer to the next one.” They claim that printing is quite cheap and can be carried our with conventional printing techniques. Perhaps we can expect early adoption in the printing of food packaging, where the technology might be used to signal freshness.

Professor Martinez reports that a sheet of paper printed by their technique can be made to function as a music player, as may be seen in this video.

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