Archives for category: Letterpress

Erik Kwakkel sends a tweet linking to this Leiden blog post, about a sheet they found which shows evidence of having been used centuries later as a frisket to print characters in red. You can see the little windows which have been cut into the sheet which would be interposed between the paper (already printed with black) and the type. The full width of the type printed in red can be seen overprinting the original manuscript text and illustration on the frisket sheet. Where the little windows were cut the red ink would get through and print on the sheet being pulled. For the first pass through the press (or second if the red was printed first which actually seems more likely) all this type would have been inked in black. I’m not sure how, when printing the black they’d prevent its printing where the red was ultimately to go. There’s no way to cut a frisket with holes all over except in the few spots where red was required. Maybe they’d glue little patches over these characters after inking — though I’ve no idea how they’d prevent such slips falling off or moving and they’d have to do that after every inking which sounds ludicrously labor-intensive, even in times of cheap labor. Setting up two versions of type would be prohibitively expensive at a time when type was cast by hand and a printer’s holdings would be kept to a minimum. Really I think they’d have had to print the red first, using this kind of frisket, and then remove these bits of “red” type and replace them by quad spaces;* that way you could avoid having to reinsert these characters afterwards for the red printing.

This example, from a School of Advanced Study, University of London study of early modern frisket sheets, looks like the red ink was applied as a solid block, which would be hard to imagine unless it were being used in the inking phase rather than when the impression was pulled. Probably it just looks like this because so many impressions were run that slight variations in registration built up to fill in all the gaps between the type.


* Quad spaces are less  tall than the type, so that when ink is rolled across the type none of it adheres to the quads, leaving the area they occupy blank on the printed sheet. You can see them rather well in this picture from Paper Wren Press.


There was a moment when this machine made it look like letterpress printing might survive into the 21st century — but the moment passed and as far as I know no belt presses remain in the UK or USA. Maybe there’s still one in some far-flung corner of the world.

Photo: Kerley Ink

You took your copy, shot it, and used the negs to produce a flexible photopolymer plate carrying a raised image of every page. These plates were mounted on two long belts. You can just make the belts out beneath the rollers in this picture. One revolution of a belt would print one side of a book. The web of paper would then pass through to the second belt which would print the other side of the book. The roll of paper was then slit into ribbons which were cut into individual page pairs which were gathered in a sort of waterwheel-like device which would flip on after it contained a complete book, presenting the next pocket ready to collect the next book. An elegantly simple mechanical solution which got you straight, in one pass through the press, to a book block ready to be perfect bound.

Because of the need to recreate the image in polymer, the Cameron belt press tended to swell the image. Thus copy submitted in normal type would tend to print fatter, looking almost semi-bold, and any halftone work needed to be originated with a coarser screen than the 133 line screen favored for most book work. Still the press worked well for a certain category of book. Its problem was that that category wasn’t large enough to sustain the investment needed to install and operate the equipment. The arrival of quick-makeready narrow-web offset presses doomed the belt press.

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.

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.


from Chicago Tribune

Walker Rumble’s The Swifts: Printers in the Age of Typesetting Races (University of Virginia Press, 2003) is an odd publication. Its main focus is on the weird phenomenon of races between hand typesetters. (Rapid typesetters were apparently referred to a swifts.) These races were put on in the sort of place, commoner in the second half of the nineteenth century, now represented by Ripley’s Believe It or Not, or Madame Tussaud’s, and appear to have drawn large crowds. Betting on the speed of a hand typesetter had long been a feature of in-house work-time entertainment in print shops: this development pulled it out into a public forum and naturally did nothing to reduce the betting.

Speed of setting was obviously an important factor in the efficiency of a newspaper. Getting pages printed was no problem on their power presses, but you had to have type to print there: and there were limits to the number of people you could hire. Not only was there a limited number of journeymen out there, but training, all via apprenticeship, was controlled by the union. In a ten-hour day the average journeyman would set (and correct) about 7,000 ems, 700 an hour. At a rate of 1,500 ems an hour, which most compositors would achieve in spurts, their hand would be reaching into the typecase at a rate of 4,000 times per hour. Very fast workers might reach back and forth from case to stick seven or eight times every five seconds. William C. Barnes, one of the last of the champion racers before technology took over and hand setting was superseded, managed 2000 ems an hour in the heats for the 1886 national typesetting championship in Chicago. He would also set blindfold and with his type cases reversed (i.e. upper case below lower case).

The workers naturally had an interest in not allowing the speed in the composing room to get too high: 700 ems an hour was just fine by them. One of the workers’ beefs about the attempt to bring women into the business in the years following the Civil War was that they would work too fast, no doubt to indicate how viable an alternative workforce they were. This represented a delicate balancing act for the macho typesetting unions who needed to demonstrate that men were better, and yet keep work rates down (thus pay rates up). This tension could be partially resolved by these typesetting races which seemed to show that men really could set type faster than women. This was almost certainly not the case, but naturally head-to-head races were not arranged. A comp could easily claim that it wasn’t possible to sprint all day: their competitive speed bursts were never allowed to become the norm. Of course the union, and all its members also faced the looming challenge of machine typesetting, a challenge which overwhelmed them all in the end.

Public hand typesetting races were a short lived phenomenon. They couldn’t get going till printing became industrialized in the 1830s and 40s, so that there were large groups of comps who could compete with one another in in-house competitions, and the races couldn’t survive when hand setting was superseded by machines and the contestants all lost their jobs (or retrained). Thus the “sport” only lasted for about 15 to 20 years from around 1870 when the first public events were arranged.

This woodcut by Hans Burgkmair (1473-1531) carries the date 1510. Burgkmair is credited, along with Lucas Cranach, with inventing the chiaroscuro woodcut whereby a multicolor printed picture could be produced in multiple copies. This was basically an attempt to reproduce the technique of chiaroscuro drawing: drawings on a colored paper where ink was used to create shadow and white paint to create a dramatic highlight. Burgkmair’s “Lovers surprised by Death”, is the earliest chiaroscuro woodcut known. It was made from three wood blocks, printing in black, and two shades of red/brown ink. The highlights are left blank allowing the paper to create the contrast. Naturally careful registration was required when printing a chiaroscuro print. The detail below makes things a little clearer.

Chiaroscuro has always seemed a slippery term to me. It is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “The style of pictorial art in which only the light and shade, and not the various colours, are represented; black-and-white, or dark brown and white.” They suggest that that definition is now in fact obsolete, the meaning having generalized out to cover just the (usually dramatic) treatment of light and shade in any picture. I suspect my uncertainty about the word resulted from its being used in these two different ways. A painting by Georges de la Tour doesn’t really have much in common with Burgkmair’s print.

The video below accompanied an exhibition at the Royal Academy in 2014. Achim Gnann, from the Albertina Museum in Vienna gives a 5-minute history of the early development of the chiaroscuro woodcut.

If you don’t see a video here, click on the title of the post to view it in your browser. The YouTube video is a bit herky-jerky, but it is all there.

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!

This copy of The Mill on the Floss, which cost me 2/9 (about 27 pence in today’s money, but worth a good bit more back in the sixties when I must have bought it second-hand in Cambridge) was originally published and printed by William Blackwood and Sons in Edinburgh at some time late in the 19th century. At that time publishers often didn’t bother to put any dates in their books, especially their cheaper editions; and this carries none. It promotes itself as “The Stereotype Edition” on its title page: I wonder what that said to the potential book buyer. Probably that it was an “affordable” edition. The series title page features a little drawing of Dorlecote Mill and has a totally spurious tissue overlay which looks like it’s there to protect said drawing. Spurious, because the illustration is in no need of protection, being as likely to be damaged as any of the rest of the type on that page, or any other, which was printed by letterpress from the advertised stereo plates. The tissue’s there to impress the potential buyer, who’s meant to think that that vignette of the mill was separately printed as a copperplate engraving, and is therefore delicate. The book also has six full page line illustrations (rather clunky ones) printed so as to look as if they were tipped in plates, i.e. with blank back, and not included in the book’s pagination.

The series list gives pricing for the pukka Cabinet Edition where each volume will cost you 5/-. (No discount if you bought all 24 volumes for £6 though.) I bet you got even more tissue overlays there. My book looks like it’s Crown Octavo too (it’s 5″ x 7⅜”) so they may have used the same paper on both editions. It’s stood the test of time pretty well.

A stereotype is a solid plate of type metal made from a mould of the original type. (It can also be referred to as a cliché.) One of the tell-tale signs of a stereo is its tendency to get damaged after repeated use. On the page shown below you can see along the left hand margin evidence of the plate’s having been slightly bashed, which has compressed the “h”, “w”, “c” and lower down the “d” and “a”.

You can see the hefty impression the stereo could be subjected to in the indentations on the back of the sheet. It’s called letterpress printing for a reason!

Stereotypes would be made for books which the publisher expected to print often and in longer runs. Standing type was an expense as well as being constantly at risk of pi-ing — dropping down into a heap of individual sorts. Until the development of lithography enabled publishers to print whatever they wanted whenever they wanted, the stereotype provided a means of evading resetting every time you ran out of stock.

See also Flong, a step on the way to making a stereotype.

It’s an odd book that Mill on the Floss. I remember the first time I read it wondering if I’d failed to notice that there was a second volume. It finishes so abruptly. It’s almost as if the author got fed up; maybe she’d missed her delivery deadline. Alternatively I image them shouting up “Hurry up, Mary Anne. Come on down to dinner.” and she saying to herself: “OK, OK. Let’s just drown ’em and get it done with. And then off downstairs for that mutton chop and tomato sauce”.

I’ve seen dead insects printed in books and other unidentifiable splodges. Here from The Collation is a picture of a piece of type which has fallen across the type page and been printed — in 1609.

STC 7470 copy 2. The groove is at the bottom of the foot of the type (upper left in the image), the nick on the side. Photograph by Caroline Duroselle-Melish.

Anything which falls onto the type, or in the case of offset lithography onto the plate or the blanket, can remain in place, pick up ink, and be immortalized in print. The press-minder is meant to notice this sort of thing, but even they are just human. Once they do discover such an error they are meant to discard the last few sheets printed on the assumption that several faulty impressions will have happened before they noticed, but sometimes they take out too few sheets.

The forme (form in US) is all the hot metal type, blocks (cuts), and furniture to be printed in one impression locked up after imposition in a chase ready to be moved onto the bed of the press.

This example is not too huge and is going to be printed 4 pages to view. Most book work was done 8 or 16 pages to view which made the formes immensely heavy and unwieldy. They would be wheeled from composing room to press room on metal trolleys constructed at the same height as the bed of the press, so that the forme could be slid into position upon arrival. (It looks like this one is being balanced on such trolley.)

In the early days of printing, when type was often scarce a compositor might set in forme order. In this picture, you are looking at, say, pages 7, 2, 6, and 3. So the comp might deal with those pages first, and then set pages 1, 8, 4, and 5 for the back-up of this sheet. After the first forme was printed the type could be distributed and be available for the comp’s next batch of pages. This procedure would call for accurate casting-off (or compromises on page length consistency).