Archives for category: Book printing

We have all heard of wood blocks being reused in different books, sometimes even slightly altered. But what is even more surprising to  a modern mind is to find the same woodcut being used over and over in the same book to depict different people or places. This post from The Collation shows a couple of instances from a 1518 edition of Plautus’ plays. The book contains five woodcuts, each one used over and over again. In early printing the presses were small, and maybe two or four pages would be printed per sheet. After printing, the type would be distributed for reuse in subsequent pages. Clearly woodcuts would be temptingly available too. As you can see from the captions underneath, this picture first shows Alcmena, Jupiter and Mercury from Amphytrion, who on another page turn into The Wife, Sosicles and Menaechmus’s father-in-law in Menaechmi.

I wonder if the reader was expected not to notice. Hardly, I think. More likely nobody minded: a picture is just a picture after all, and it’s obviously unrealistic to expect an accurate representation of Jupiter, say, so why not just that bearded male figure? If you’re not expecting a realistic depiction, then not getting one will hardly be a matter of note.

The practice of reusing woodcuts seems to have been fairly common in early book printing. For example The Nuremberg Chronicle, printed in 1493, contains 1809 woodcut illustrations, though apparently there are only 645 unique wood blocks. It clearly cannot have had any negative significance for readers. In a way a reused wood block is performing a function little different from a historiated initial or a vignette at the end of a chapter — just filling up space and giving the reader a little resting point. Noting how publishers’ minds work nowadays, I’d expect a significant motivator for their reuse would be that of making the book look longer, thus better value.

If you want to take a look at The Nuremberg Chronicle, the University of Cambridge Library offers a digital copy of a hand-colored edition here. Below is the double-page spread showing Nuremberg itself. These blocks were not reused elsewhere in the book, though blocks for other cities less familiar to readers apparently were reused with different labels.

At No. 1 Queenston Street in Queenston, Ontario, just about seven miles downstream from the Niagara Falls stands the house where William Lyon Mackenzie first printed The Colonial Advocate in 1824. Within is a small museum dedicated to printing, The Mackenzie Printery and Newspaper Museum.

They have on show the oldest press in Canada, a wooden Louis Roy press, as well as a bunch of letterpress equipment including a Linotype caster. Examples of The Courier Advocate can be seen, and of course the gift shop offers you facsimiles.




An effigy of Mr Mackenzie greets you as you enter. Perhaps the most fascinating feature of this image is Mr Mackenzie’s beard. Turns out the beard is merely a sort of chin strap to hold on his wig. Now whether this was the case in real life, or as I suspect merely true of this particular manifestation, I cannot confirm. Contemporary portraits and his bust outside the Legislative Assembly of Ontario in Toronto suggest that the actual beard was pretty real. We were told that to emphasize his point Mr Mackenzie would often throw his wig to the ground. He certainly was a turbulent man, starting his newspaper to give vent to his dissatisfaction at the land policies, patronage, and crooked justice of the ruling colonial administration. He was the first mayor of Toronto in 1834. He fled at times to the United States of America, to escape bankruptcy in 1826, and to avoid prosecution for rebellion after The Battle of Montgomery’s Tavern in 1837, when as leader of an armed revolt he had a price, £1,000, on his head. Born in 1795 in Dundee, Scotland, he died of an apoplectic seizure at his home in Toronto in 1861.

The highlight of your trip to the museum is the printing of a proclamation of your attendance. You have to typeset your own name by hand from an inevitably sparse collection of sorts in a job case. Word spaces were in notably short supply. The attending apprentice then fits this type into a standing form, locks it up, inks it with a couple of ink balls, and runs off one copy which you take away as a souvenir of your visit. The press used for this is not the Louis Roy, but a sturdier cast-iron Albion press made by Hopkinson & Cope of Finsbury, London.

While you visit the Mackenzie Printery do not fail to visit the many excellent wineries in the region.

Niagara-on-the-Lake, basically the right hand bit of the map above, is also the home of The Shaw Festival.


Tables are usually taken for granted. (In this grant we can include those bits of wood on which we rest our books while examining tables within them.) The Oxford English Dictionary gives as its first example of the use of the word in the sense of “a systematic arrangement of words, numbers, symbols etc.” the 11th century (Old) English of Byrhtferð: “Þæra geara getæl hæfð seo tabule þe we amearkian willað”. So the table has been around for a long time. However the scribes may have dealt with tabular material*, it has long been a topic of debate for book compositors, and each printing house would establish house rules for the layout of tables, all with the aim of making the information contained therein as clear and accessible as possible.

Naturally Oxford and Cambridge University Presses have evolved different ways of dealing with the same material. One occasionally imagines them saying “So they do it that way over there. OK, we’ll do it this way here.” The main difference comes down to the head and foot rules where Oxford favors bold or semi-bold rules, while Cambridge goes for a double rule. To my (obviously utterly unprejudiced) eye, the color of the Cambridge version makes it superior. The bold rules clunk a bit as you flip through a book.

Oxford style

Cambridge style

The Chicago Manual of Style rather wanly opts for a single rule at top and bottom, losing any distinction from internal rules.

The parts of a table, all of which will be identified at least in the early going in a full manuscript mark-up, include the stub, which is the list of the elements you’d look up in the table, table number, table head, column heads, spanner rules etc. This picture from Cambridge University Press’ excellent Copy-editing handbook by Judith Butcher, shows some of this.

The use of leader lines (rows of dots) is usually frowned upon in bookwork. Newspapers may routinely use them, but book compositors always tried to work out any problems of the eye jumping from one line to another by the use of spacing, both vertical, between lines, and horizontal, between the  columns.


* Here’s a manuscript page showing a rather fancy table from a manuscript of Ptolemy’s Almagest. The table lists values of arcs and chords of angles. The manuscript’s creation date is uncertain, but majority opinion inclines to the 9th century, with one or two preferring the 7th or 8th centuries.

Photo: Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, ms. grec 2389, folio 17 recto.

There’s always something new. Kathy Sandler’s Publishing · Technology · Innovation provides news of this fascinating development: a book whose ink fades as it gets warmer. Publishers Weekly has an account.

The Penguin Random House book Penguin Frozen Book, the first to use thermochromic inks throughout, comes in a plastic box, so that when you store it in the fridge to cool it down it doesn’t get damp. As the story is about the effects of global warming on habitat, the fading inks are very appropriate. Thus far the book appears only to be being sold in China.

Apparently thermochromic technology has been around for a while: remember those mood rings in the seventies? Those were made with liquid crystals, not ink though. Not sure exactly when we started playing around with thermochromic inks in printing, but it seems quite widely available. One of the earlier patents, from 1997, appears to be all about nail varnish. It has been used on food and beverage packaging, where it makes sense to show when your beer really is cold. You can even get a thermochromicaly printed business card, though I’m not sure why you’d want people to have to hang about warming up your card before being reminded of your name. We even had a postage stamp last year apparently where a black blob, in fact a picture of the total solar eclipse seen from Jalu, Libya, on March 29, 2006 taken by Fred Espenak, turns into a picture of the moon if you push on it with your warm finger.

Left: warmed up. Right: cold as at purchase

As the US Postal Service tells us about this stamp “In the first U.S. stamp application of thermochromic ink, the Total Eclipse of the Sun Forever stamps will reveal a second image. Using the body heat of your thumb or fingers and rubbing the eclipse image will reveal an underlying image of the Moon (Espenak also took the photograph of the Full Moon). The image reverts back to the eclipse once it cools.

Thermochromic inks are vulnerable to UV light and should be kept out of direct sunlight as much as possible to preserve this special effect. To help ensure longevity, the Postal Service will be offering a special envelope to hold and protect the stamp pane for a nominal fee.”

This fading effect may put some limitation on these inks’ usefulness for bookwork; Maybe we need that box to protect the ink as well as to protect against the damp.

See my earlier post on Edwards Brothers Malloy’s closing.

Stanley Morison’s name was always mentioned with reverence in the Pitt Building in the sixties and seventies. He had died in 1967. As typographical advisor to the University Press his name had long been the calling card of all who wished to celebrate and cement Cambridge’s place of preeminence among letterpress printers.

Nicolas Barker, Morison’s biographer, speaks for about ¾ of an hour in this video of a talk at the Cooper Union in New York. (If you don’t see a video above, please click on the title of this post in order to view it in your browser.)

Morison became interested in type as a result the purchase of the 10 September 1912 supplement to The Times dealing with printing and its history. He was, apart from his typographical work, notable for two main things. He always wore a black suit of ecclesiastical cut with a black hat, and was a life-time socialist, imprisoned during the First World War for his pacifist beliefs.

Any publisher at all interested in design should read First Principles of Typography, a brief introduction to his style: simplicity, balance, a historical sensitivity and attention to detail.

Many book designers need to see his remarks, near the bottom of this page about ‘bright’ typography. “Even dullness and monotony in the typesetting are far less vicious to a reader than typographical eccentricity or pleasantry.” The designer’s work should ideally remain invisible to the reader’s (conscious) mind. Your job is to ease communication between author and reader; no more and no less.

See also my February post Stanley Morison.


The Mind of the Book is perhaps a strange title for this Oxford University Press book by Alastair Fowler, which was reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement on April 6 2018.

In the period when books were sold unbound the title page, often with a picture, performed the promotional job now taken over by the cover or jacket. The page started off blank, merely there as protection during storage prior to sale. Quickly a title was added for easy identification, and then things got more and more elaborate. The TLS review describes Fowler’s analyses of the title pages of Cranmer’s Bible, Hobbes’ Leviathan, and Dickens’ Edwin Drood as “tour-de-force readings, bringing the earlier material alive, showing how a title page might function as a systematic aide-memoire to a work’s contents.” The full listing of the title pages Fowler discusses is:

Geffray Chaucer, Workes (1532)
Great Bible (1539)
John Dee, General and Rare Memorials (1577)
John Harington, Orlando Furioso (1591)
Michael Drayton, Poly-Olbion (1612, 1622)
Ben Jonson, The Workes (1616)
Francis Bacon, Instauratio Magna (1620)
Robert Herrick, Hesperides (1648)
Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (1651)
Francis Barlow, Aesop’s Fables (1666)
Edward Sherburne, The Sphere of M. Manilius (1673)
Alexander Pope, An Essay on Man (1733)
John Baskerville, Virgil’s Works (Birmingham, 1757)
Thackeray, The Rose and the Ring (1855)
Charles Dickens, Edwin Drood (1870)
Geoffrey Chaucer, Works (1896)

Ben Jonson’s poem “The Mind of the Frontispiece to a Book” offers a key to the title page/frontispiece of Walter Raleigh’s The History of the World (1614) and was printed alongside it.

From death and dark oblivion (near the same)
The mistress of man’s life, grave history,
Raising the world to good or evil fame,
Doth vindicate it to eternity.
Wise providence would so, that nor the good
Might be defrauded, nor the great secured,
But both might know their ways were understood,
When vice alike in time with virtue dured.
Which makes that, lighted by the beamy hand
Of truth, that searcheth the most hidden springs,
And guided by experience, whose straight wand
Doth mete, whose line doth sound the depth of things,
She cheerfully supporteth what she rears,
Assisted by no strengths, but are her own;
Some note of which each varied pillar bears;
By which, as proper titles, she is known
Time’s witness, herald of antiquity,
The light of truth, and life of memory.

New Yorkers will have to wait to look at Alastair Fowler’s book. It’s not due at New York Public Library till 18 Jan 2019. Must be OUP, UK.

At Medium, Glenn Fleishman offers us the introduction to his book London Kerning. The subtitle might make you think this was a sort of walking-tour-guide, but it’s not. The main focus of the book is St Bride’s Printing Library off Fleet Street and The Type Archive, south of the river. Fleishman is a fan of Berthold Wolpe, and there’s discussion of his type designs, primarily Albertus, used for much London signage, and of Edward Johnston, designer of the London Underground’s typeface, and other modern type designers. He takes us to three shops where letterpress is still being carried on.

There are several superficially baffling names for early methods of making a photographic print. The differences between them can mostly be put down to the use of different chemicals to treat the paper or other surface onto which the “photograph” would be exposed. Heliotypes are made by exposing a negative onto a gelatin film and hardening it with chrome alum. Prints would be made thanks to the same water/grease antipathy utilized by lithography.

“Lady Macbeth” print in the original 1803 edition (left) and the 1874 edition “reduced and re-engraved by the heliotype process” (right). Note the pencil at the bottom, for scale. (Folger ART Flat b1-2 v.1 copy 1, and Folger ART Vol. f90 copy 2, respectively). Photo by Erin Blake from The Collation.

Here’s a photo of the heliotrope edition of A collection of prints, from pictures painted for the purpose of illustrating the dramatic works of Shakspeare by the artists of Great-Britain shown on the right next to the original (London: John and Josiah Boydell, 1803). Erin Blake’s piece at The Collation shows a proof as well, and discusses in detail the production of the original print via etching and engraving. The heliotrope reprint would obviously have been made from a photograph of the original, which itself was made from the etched and engraved copper plates. These original plates were subsequently acquired by an American printer who “restored” them and sold prints from 1848 to 1852. He also issued a two volume edition which can apparently be distinguished from the original London edition by the addition of numbering at the bottom left.

Digital printing is made up of two separate approaches. There are toner-based systems, and ink jet systems. The toner side is better established, having been a growing factor in book work for the past 25 years. Ink jet is just beginning to get established as the primary technology for books, though it has been around for about as long.

There’s no doubt now that digital printing is a solid part of the book manufacturing scene. Not only can publishers print fewer and fewer copies — a highly desirable ability in uncertain times — but the quality of digital print is now every bit as good as offset, and in some respects I’d argue, superior. For instance the catalog for The New York Book Industry Guild’s 2015 Annual Book Show was printed digitally (ink jet) for the first time: see the photo below. In an offset world the pale blue tints — made up of tiny dots of blue ink — which appear on almost every page would have been difficult to hold consistent, as their color would be affected by the colors used on the rest of each individual page. Some photos will call for more blue ink, others for more yellow etc. In an offset job, to serve that need more blue, or yellow ink will need to be delivered to that area. This ink can’t instantly disappear when the press revolves on to the next part of the book needing to be printed. If that’s just a page of black text, no problem, but if it’s a color tint, the ink buildup needed for individual halftones would make the background tint vary slightly from one track to another. On a digital press the ink deposited can be exactly right every time. (See Printing methods.)

Here’s a report on a 2016 Ricoh seminar from Book Business Magazine. which projects steady growth in digital printing. Notable in the projections, regardless of whether you think the projections are too high or too low, is the contrast between percentage of production and percentage of sales volume. Avoidance of unsold inventory is going to loom larger and larger in publishers’ planning.

Digital printing first made its appearance in the office environment, and was soon adopted for short-run book manufacturing. Initially this was available only for black and white work — which of course means about 90% of serious books — and this made it initially ideal for academic publishing. I recently discovered a couple of memos I wrote in 1982 in which I advocated for the setting up in our warehouse of a digital print engine plus a small binding line so that we could print one-off books in response to customer orders. This seems to me to be extraordinarily early for such a thing to be possible, but hey, you can call me a dreamer. In fact the first real digital book printer, Integrated Book Technology, wasn’t established till 1991. I’m not sure when the first on-demand setups in publishers’ warehouses were, but I don’t think it happened earlier than about 2005. Here, from Edwards Brothers Malloy, a pioneer in this regard tragically closing their doors this week, is a neat little illustration of why digital printing works.


In the offset scenario 750 copies are manufactured and paid for. Publishers have long been hung up on the unit cost of production, a number which is often used to in calculating the retail price of the book. But of course the unit cost per copy sold is really the important number; you just don’t happen to know it ahead of time. You may claim that the 350 you hadn’t sold by the end of the 20-month period measured in the EBM scenario will eventually be sold: and so they may, but “eventually” might be a long time, and does come with a cost. Your capital is tied up in slow moving inventory, and you have to keep a warehouse going to house it all. If you don’t print the book till after you’ve received an order, you clearly avoid holding unsold copies in stock, even though each individual copy has cost you more.

BIGNY did a meeting in March, reported on at Book Business Magazine. Perhaps the most important message heard at this meeting relates to the economic difficulties presented by ink jet printing today. Paradoxically a technology which is ideal for shorter and shorter print runs really has an economic model which demands longer runs. The equipment costs a lot, and the per page cost is higher than printers are accustomed to. Maybe, as we have become accustomed to in the era of Moore’s law, both machines, and perhaps most importantly, inks will come down in price. Or perhaps we publishers will get used to paying the economic price for such a convenient technology. Still it’s evident that nobody’s junking their last offset machine just yet.

See also Print on demand.