Archives for category: Book printing

“Every man his own printer” J. R. Holcomb & Co. of Mallet Creek, Ohio boasts. You can, with care and attention, read in the ad their description of how transfer process worked. (Does their drawing feature one or two gentlemen?)

Hectographic printing is a process involving the transfer of an original, prepared with special inks, to a pan of gelatin or a gelatin pad, and thence to paper. We’ve all got a digital printer/copier sitting under our desks nowadays, or have access to a Xerox machine in the office, so such finicky duplication techniques are no longer necessary. Does anyone still use carbon paper either? Carbon paper was good for one or at a pinch two copies: if you wanted more — hectograph to the rescue?

The process was also called jellygraph, and under this name is alluded to by P. G. Wodehouse in The Pothunters (1902). His characters use the process to print a school newspaper. “This jelly business makes one beastly sticky. I think we’ll keep to print in future” they opine. In Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936) George Orwell refers to a socialist paper produced on a jellygraph. Obviously the duplication technique was quite familiar to readers a hundred years ago. I’m not aware of ever having heard of jellygraph when I was growing up. Maybe none of my living kin had worked in an office (which perhaps strangely seems to have been true) or the small town in which I lived found no need for duplication of documents, but even when the Xerox machine was introduced I don’t recall anyone saying “Thank goodness. We won’t have to use that damn jellygraph any more”. That would only have been in the early sixties, before I became an office-worker myself though. I do however remember the mimeograph in it’s purple pride.

To operate the hectograph, you would use a special aniline ink to write your message, or to draw your picture onto a sheet of paper which you’d then lay on the gelatin pad which would take up the inky image, now reversed. The inks could come in the form of pencils or pens, as a type of carbon paper, or even as a typewriter ribbon. Various colors were available but most popular was purple, allegedly because it gave the best contrast, though it was the color of the first aniline dye invented, so may have been the default choice. After the image had been transferred from your master sheet to the gelatin, you’d place a blank sheet of paper onto it, apply gentle pressure, and a reproduction of the original would be transferred to that paper, now once again right-reading. Twenty or so copies could be made, though careful use could get up to 50 or more progressively paler and paler impressions before the ink on the gelatin pad was exhausted. Ironically the name hectograph originated with the Greek hekaton, meaning a hundred, but this was clearly an act of aspirational nomenclature. It was tricky to avoid touching the gelatin while putting sheets of paper onto it which would damage the surface and potentially the image. Sticky fingers were as Wodehouse tells us an occupational hazard.

The hectograph/Hektograf process was invented possibly in Germany in the 1870s, though aniline dyes were first developed by William Perkin in England in 1856. (Allegedly he found “mauveine” by accident while trying to discover a cure for malaria.) The one-page system marketed by Holcombs was soon upgraded by the introduction of the Schapirograph which operated from a continuous roll of paper coated with gelatin, glue and glycerin. This improvement was introduced about 1880 and continued to be marketed till the early 1920s. As their ad tells us the Schapirograph claimed to be able to make 150 copies in only a few minutes. Also simple enough to be operated by a child!

It’s reassuring that almost any old technology seems to be revived these days by hobbyists. Almost inevitably the hectograph has recently been revived and updated for use in the art world. Wikipedia discloses to us that temporary tattoos are actually hectographs.

Interesting to note that Holcombs spell facsimile as two words hyphenated. In fact the term originally began life as two words, unhyphenated. It began to pick up the hyphen around the start of the nineteenth century, and became one word around the turn of the twentieth century. Wikipedia tells us that the Holcomb advertisement dates from the nineteenth century — the online consensus seems to be that it dates from 1876, though I can’t find any real evidence for this: $4.50 for a pad of letter size masters may help date the ad.


Aquatint is a type of etching. Whereas in a regular etching process a solid layer of waxy resist is scratched with a sharp tool to expose the metal of the plate beneath so that it can be etched out in an acid bath, in aquatint the area to be bitten is covered with a powdered granular resin which is adhered to the metal plate by the application of heat. When the plate is put into the acid bath the resin particles protect the metal (printing white) while the areas between the grains are etched away and will thus form irregular pits ready to receive ink.

Here’s a close up of an aquatint coating from A device called a dusting box was developed in order to apply the resin in an even coating across the plate. An infinite variety of tones can be achieved in aquatint by treating different areas in acid baths of differing strengths and for different exposure times. After processing, the granular resin is removed and the plate can be touched up by scraping and burnishing. While it’s possible to make an aquatint picture just from various shaded areas, the plate will usually have some sort of outline and linear detail provided by conventional etching or by engraving. Aquatint is capable of producing smooth tones with such a fine detail that the unaided eye cannot see the grain.

The name aquatint is derived ultimately from Latin, though only thought up and applied to this intaglio process in 18th century Britain, (aqua tincta = dyed water). It was thus called because of its supposed ability to mimic a watercolor painting. Due to an idea of Jan van de Velde IV around 1650, the technique didn’t catch on commercially for a while, reaching a peak by about 1750 and lasting through to the mid-nineteenth century when it began to lose ground to photography and lithography. There are of course still artists using the process.

Here’s a detail of an aquatint from a book Picturesque Groups for the Embellishment of Landscape (9¼” x 11½”, London, 1845). The full plate shows three groups of workers and is entitled Masonry. This is the middle group. The plate was made around 1823 by W. H. Pyne, and contains six different levels of aquatint exposure as well as an etched outline. The plate-maker would first do the lightest tone (shortest duration) acid bath, then paint over these areas with resist and expose again for the second lightest tone, and so on till all was done.

Below we can see a detail of the back wheel of the cart, showing two different levels of bite. In the dark shade at the bottom you can make out needle work done after the aquatint bite in order to darken the shadow.

You can click on these images to enlarge them. Masonry comes from Richard Benson’s invaluable The Printed Picture. I recommend examining the group with the cart: this is a beautiful piece of craftsmanship.

It’s probably a bit perverse to regret the development of more direct routes to the printing of such amazing technical masterpieces — photography, lithography, and photo gravure — and of course hardly anyone could afford to buy a book like Picturesque Groups nowadays if we did produce it this way. But still nostalgia tugs. It seems almost impossible that such work could be produced just by humans and hunks of metal.

Intaglio (from the Italian intagliare, to incise, engrave) could be argued to be the “best” printing method. Because it prints from ink held in grooves in a metal plate, the amount of ink applied to any point can vary in infinite gradations. Both relief printing and planographic printing deliver the same amount of ink onto every spot whereas intaglio can stack it up in the shadow areas. This is of course irrelevant in the printing of text, but can make for dramatic effects in the reproduction of pictures.

Before the invention of photography there were two ways to get to a plate ready for intaglio printing: engraving and etching. In engraving the lines are cut into a sheet of metal using a steel burin. In an etching, the metal plate is covered by a layer of waxy, acid-resistant “ground” and then lines are drawn into that layer exposing the metal below. Dip the plate into an acid bath or pour acid over it and the exposed lines will be etched into the underlaying metal leaving the areas protected by the ground or resist unaffected. The wider the line the deeper the cut. The deeper the cut the more ink, potentially, available to be pressed onto the paper.

Engraving was for a long time the only route we knew for getting to an intaglio printing plate. Starting with wood blocks, engraving moved onto metal (copper mostly) and was sufficiently demanding that a whole craft grew up around it. You’ll often see little attribution notes: “Joe Bloggs pinxit, Fred Spoons sculpt.” indicating that Fred engraved a copy of Joe’s painting. The skill and control needed to engrave a steady line was beyond most painters and became a specialized craft in its own right. However when etching was developed in 16th century Augsburg, painters and other graphic artists were quickly able to see that while control of a burin in a sheet of metal might be beyond them, using a point to scrape a design into a field of wax was something they could manage with freedom.

Tell-tale differences between engraving and etching are that with etching the lines tend to have blunt ends — the sharp ends of an engraved line are softened by the passage of the tool through the resist before reaching the metal surface. The lines in an etching may also tend to have slightly blotchy edges as acid creeps in below the cut edge of the resist. But it’s important to realize that a plate which started out as an etching might be touched up and “corrected” by engraving too, so that most of the prints we see are combinations of both techniques.

from Benson: The Printed Picture

In this picture of an etching with some engraved afterwork you can see evidence that the ruled background shading, which we might expect to have been done after etching with an engraving burin and a straight-edge, was in fact done with an etching burin through the resist layer. The top diagonal line is the give-away: that little turn back at the end of the line is just not something you could do with an engraving burin, whereas when you raised your hand you might easily remove enough wax to leave that little flick of a tail. Note also the blunt ends of the lines.

Sub-categories of etching include aquatint and mezzotint, which I will cover in separate posts. Drypoint is a sort of halfway house between relief and intaglio printing. It is done as after-work on an already etched plate. Using a needle the artist will raise a little burr of metal which will catch ink and print a different effect. Because these little burrs are delicate, drypoint cannot make long runs. It’s easy to overlook the difficulty of making prints back in the days before photography and digital methods. Everything had to be done in a resistant medium and then printed on a hand press. Some of the effects achieved by combining all methods know to the industry resulted in utterly amazing effects. Indeed when we look at some of the printed images, often representing utterly banal subject matter, we have to wonder at the huge amount of skill and effort expended for such an apparently trivial picture. Richard Benson’s The Printed Picture includes some mind-blowing examples.

There’s an etching exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City now; The Renaissance of Etching. It closes January 20th. They have a link to this explanatory page about etching.

Here’s an etched iron block from the show. You can see blotches of rust on its face, inevitable when ink is constantly being spread onto it and then dampened paper pressed against it. It’s the printing block for “Venus, Mercury and Cupid” by Hans Burgkmair and dates from c.1520, and comes from the British Museum.

That a printing block might be made from iron or steel becomes less surprising when one recognizes that the print technique of etching evolved from the decoration of armor. Augsburg had long been a center of armor production, and it was there that the art of printing from etchings evolved.

Rembrandt has been referred to as the father of etching, though the process was of course invented well before his time. Here’s a YouTube video about the subject, which also shows a couple of process sequences demonstrating how etching is done.

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

Amazon is notoriously cagey about numbers. All we know for sure are some top level figures. Reasonable assumptions can perhaps be made, notably by the Data Guy at Author Earnings whose focus is self-published books. Here, now Benedict Evans takes a stab at the math aiming at a broader target than just books. He seeks to determine just what Amazon’s market share might be. (Link via Kathy Sandler’s Technology·Innovation·Publishing.)

Publishing people tend to look at Amazon through book-tinted glasses, but although they started out with books (a straightforward, non-perishable product with a pretty inefficient pre-existing distribution system) of course they now sell a lot more things than books; in fact almost everything else. They are still huge in the book trade: Mr Evans figures Amazon disposes of about ½ of printed books, and ¾ of publishers’ ebook sales (not including their own publishing efforts) and I doubt if there exists a book publisher today whose biggest customer isn’t Amazon. But the book business is a tiny business: “If Amazon was still ONLY doing books, and it had even 90% of the US consumer print book market, that is still only 0.2% of US retail.”

If we get past our book fixation we can discern the power of AWS (Amazon Web Services) the cloud computing service. But the real profit is coming from somewhere more surprising: “58% of global Amazon ecommerce is actually made by third parties using its platform, not by Amazon itself.” Mr Evans’ guesstimate of these sales is $42.745 billion* — and for Amazon, a sale here is not the value of the product sold, it’s only the commission they make of the third party sale: in other words mostly profit. We might speculate that Amazon may be doing better from the sale of a used book by a third party merchant than by selling the latest (discounted) bestseller direct to you.

Chart from Benedict Evans

Now that Amazon has planted a flag in bricks-and-mortar retail — their own stores, and more significantly Whole Foods — one speculates where they might go next. Delivery must be a huge cost for them, and unsurprisingly Amazon Logistics is immense. CNBC informs us that Amazon is already delivering almost half of Morgan Stanley’s packages. Amazon also appear to be using the same third-party ploy here. Are FedEx and UPS biting their nails in the same way as publishers? Healthcare is another area they are already colonizing. CB Insights provides an analysis of their strategy. The way Amazon does things is working, but Mr Evans does suggest that the fact that they can only do things in one way, that one excellent way, may end up being a problem in a changing world that may favor flexibility.

In the meantime, as Mr Evans shows us, Amazon’s market share is somewhere between 6% and 60%.


* And just recall that, as noted in the immediately previous post to this one, the Association of American Publishers reported total book sales for 2018 at $25.8 billion. So just as commission on third party sales of all sorts of things Amazon is clearing almost twice what the traditional book publishing business generates in sales. No wonder their share price is up there.

Memento mori.

Do we really need reminding that we are all going to die? Apparently we once thought we did. The dance of death/dance macabre category of book enjoyed strong sales back in the fifteenth century. I guess if you’ve got to go you may as well exit having a good time dancing your way off stage. Or is it more that by dancing you’ll take your mind off the real issue: dance your way to the head of the set and just vanish? The Princeton University Library’s exhibition Gutenberg & After includes one of the two known surviving copies of La grant danse macabre des hommes et des femmes. As a note in the front of Princeton’s copy of this 1499 book tells us the only other known copy is in the British Museum. (You can leaf through a digitized version here.)

In this Lyons edition a few new woodcuts were added. One is this depiction of death coming to get book trade workers. This illustration is frequently reproduced — it’s the only contemporary illustration of a fifteenth century print works that we have.

On the left we see the compositor at work sitting at his typecase, following the copy which is propped up in front of him, adding sort after sort to his composing stick. Behind him the pressman is being relieved of the task of pulling on that lever every time a new sheet of paper was put into the press. (A relief since this was quite hard work.) The apprentice in the background, brandishing his ink ball, seems not yet to be getting a dance ticket.

After a line of Latin which I can’t make out, the text below the illustration reads

      ¶ Le mort

¶ Venez danser vng tourdion
Imprimeurs sus legierement
Venez tost/ pour conclusion
Mourir vous fault certainement
Faictes vng sault habillement
Presses/ & capses vous fault laisser
Reculer ny fault nullement
A louurage on congnoist louurier.

      ¶ Le mort

¶ Sus auant vous ires apres
Maistre libraire marchez auant
Vous me regardez de bien pres
Laissez voz liures maintenant
Danser vous fault/ a quel galant
Mettez icy vostre pensee
Comment vous reculez marchant
Commencement nest pas fusee

      ¶ Les imprimeurs

Helas ou aurons nous recours
Puis que la mort nous espie
Imprime auons tous les cours
De la saincte theologie
Loix/ decret/ & poeterie/
Par nostre art plusieurs sont grans clers
Releuee en est clergie
Les vouloirs des gens sont diuers

      ¶ Le libraire

Me fault il maulgre moy danser
Ie croy que ouy/ mort me presse
Et me contrainct de me auancer
Nesse pas dure destresse
Mes liures il fault que ie laisse
Et ma boutique desormais
Dont ie pers toute lyesse
Tel est blece qui nen peult mais.

Death addresses the printers: “Come you printers and whirl in a dance with us, come all, come quietly, because in the end it’s beyond doubt that you’re all going to die”. The printers react: “Alas, where will we find refuge now that death has got its eye on us? We have printed the entire corpus of holy theology, laws, decrees, and poetry”. On the right hand side of the woodcut a bookseller also gets his comeuppance. He seems rather resigned: “If, despite whatever I might wish, I’ve got to join the dance, I say OK”.

Danse macabre books had been being printed in Paris in the years before 1499. Matthias Huss, a Lyons printer copied these Paris editions, presumably recutting the woodcut illustrations, the originals of which were apparently made by Pierre le Rouge. It is noticeable how superior in quality the woodcuts based on le Rouge’s originals are.

Here the Pope and the Emperor get the bad news

Still we see few reproductions of these other illustrations: that all walks of life end in death is understandably a less excitiing bit of news to us than what an early print works looked like.

Here’s a web version of Princeton University Library’s new exhibition Gutenberg & After: Europe’s First Printers 1450-1470. There’s a lot of information in the nine online sections they provide. Each of the books and other objects in the show is available in a full digital reproduction, so, if you dig in here, there may be enough material to keep you busy for years. You can even rotate that little bit of type which is the first piece in the show.

Included in the exhibition is an unbound sheet of 32 pages from a German Book of Hours. Here’s one side of this sheet. You can perhaps get in there and work out the imposition scheme!

This sort of survival is very unusual — extra sheets tend either get bound up or thrown away. Book-sleuths have traced this piece all the way back. “The sheet was used as binding material in a Ptolemy edition purchased in 1509 by a Nuremberg ecclesiastic, Johannes Protzer. The Bodleian Library owns one half of this same sheet, recovered from the binding of a Sebastian Brant work purchased by Protzer in 1499. Presumably hundreds of copies of this small Book of Hours (measuring roughly 4¼ × 2¾ inches) were printed and sold, all of which were eventually lost or thrown away. Only the unused sheets sent as waste to a Nuremberg binder have made their way, through a secondary channel of preservation, into the 21st century.” The survival of waste product is notoriously chancy.

We need to bear in mind that in the first twenty years of printing’s history its impact on the general public was negligible. Gutenberg’s Bible is a hugely significant book to us. To fifteenth-century book buyers it was just another Bible, which quaintly hadn’t been written out by a scribe. Many ignored it. Many no doubt lost (or tossed) their copy. We don’t have a count, but up to 1470 the total number of books printed anywhere amounted to no more than several hundred. The real expansion took place in the following years when printing expanded outward from southern Germany. “About 28,000 additional surviving editions were printed from 1470 to 1500, and it is probable that thousands more have disappeared without trace.”

A dynamic map showing the spread of printing can be found at this link. I’m finding this map a bit balky today. If you noodle around you should be able to get it to perform though.

There’s trooble at t’ mill.* This Publishers Weekly piece Big Trouble in Ink Production warns us of scarcity added on top of price increases in ink. Green-ness and tariffi-ness are impacting supplies of materials from China. First it’s paper, then press capacity, now ink too! We manufacturing people are having to work for our supper.

Just because it’s so nice, let me refer you to this video on making ink.


* Allegedly this is what they’d say in South Yorkshire during the industrial revolution.† As I went to school in Yorkshire this was a catchphrase we often repeated to one another. Hey, we were kids. One Sunday morning on our way to chapel we saw that there was indeed trouble at the mill. Rawthey Mill, about half a mile away across the fields was indubitably on fire. Well, what’s a red-blooded schoolboy to do: one’s duty to God by turning up at chapel, or off to fire-fighting duty? Are you joking? Es war getan fast eh’ gedacht as Goethe puts it, and off we raced to save the day. The fire was in the mill proper, but our efforts focussed on the adjoining residence which, although not burning, was certainly at risk. We emptied it in a trice, taking everything outside and placing it all at a safe distance away in the open field neatly situated between the cow pats. I can remember crouching on hands and knees under the grand piano along with Balls Ballingall and straining upward while our coadjutants unscrewed the legs so we could get the thing out into the field too. We probably didn’t need to take up the fitted carpets, and we certainly didn’t need to rip the sconce lights out of the wall, but we were on a roll. Soon there was nothing left indoors to remove except the wallpaper on the walls — and we considered it! By this time the fire brigade had got the mill fire under control — so it now being lunch time we left everything in the field and went back to eat.

I was surprised when the owner expressed his intense gratitude to us eager fire-fighter boys, and presented the school with a clock which now hangs on the front of the Busk Holme rugby pavilion. I never did find out how long it took to put everything back, or who did it. Luckily it was a beautiful day.


† Not so fast. The origin of this phrase is cloudy. It certainly didn’t originate with Monty Python’s Flying Circus as many speculate, since John Cleese et al were also schoolboys at the time of the Rawthey Mill fire, but it may not go back that much farther. My muscular fire-fighting took place in the late nineteen fifties. The earliest quote the Oxford English Dictionary comes up with is merely 1967, where they have it being used in John Winton’s H. M. S. Leviathan. Mr Winton’s (Lieutenant Commander John Pratt, actually) books appear to be out of print: they include the straightforwardly entitled We Joined the Navy. There are lots of them: 14 fiction and 29 non-fiction. He obviously made good use of the long watches at sea.

The expression “There’s trooble at t’ mill” shouts music hall to me, but I cannot find that anyone has made a record of the line. If you know, please tell the Oxford English Dictionary folks at this link.


A woodcut will be printed by letterpress, a relief process, an engraving by an intaglio process. In relief printing the white needs to be cut away; in intaglio it’s the black which is cut away.

The Collation has a useful post telling you what to look for in that old book. The key is to study the detail: this example shows why.

You can engrave a clean sharp intersection between two black lines: it’s much harder to carve out a sharp white angle consistently to make the grid as sharp and regular in a woodcut.

Don’t be confused by the fact that a wood engraving carries the word engraving in its name. A wood engraving is basically just a wood cut executed on the grain end of bit of wood, usually boxwood, rather than on the side. A wood engraving will be printed letterpress just like a woodcut. See Printing methods for video demonstrations of the difference between relief and intaglio printing.

Gyotaku is basically a letterpress process: ink up a fish and press a bit of paper against it. Focussing on Gyotaku-meister Naoki Hayashi, Atlas Obscura bring us the incredible story. I suppose there are lots of other things you could print like this, but who wants to print an omelette? The Atlas Obscura piece does show a rather creepy roadkill gyotaku. The idea that this technique evolved from fishermen recording the dimensions of their catch while still at sea does have a charm to it, though one wonders why they couldn’t just use the fish itself for bragging. If you have a fish lying around, and your fancy’s tickled enough, here’s a YouTube video showing you how to do it.

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

The Queens Half-Marathon used to take us around College Point, lots of which is charmingly low-key and residential, but we only got to glimpse The New York Times plant from afar. It opened in 1997. You’ll drive right past it when you come over the Whitestone Bridge. It is immense, unsurprisingly for a plant which puts out 1.7 million copies of The Times each week. At the plant they also print USA Today, Newsday and AM New York.

Photo: Christopher Payne/ New York Times

Christopher Payne has spent two years photographing the plant, and the results were published in The New York Times Magazine on 24 March under the tile The Daily Miracle. The piece is introduced by Luc Sante who riffs on the  contrast between the immensity of the plant and the possible fragility of its future. Follow the link to find a substantial selection of Mr Payne’s photographs.