Archives for category: Why is that?

Both of these techniques arrive at the same destination, a wooden block with the background carved away, leaving a raised image which can be inked and printed by letterpress along with the types making up the text.

Boxwood sample from Hobbit House Inc.

They differ in that wood engraving is done on the end grain of a block of wood (often boxwood) whereas a woodcut will be done on the more easily worked side grain. In this photo the end grain is seen on the right hand side.

Thomas Bewick (1753-1828) is credited with the invention of wood engraving, and he certainly was a master of the craft, engraving fine lines which the end grain could hold in a way that the side grain couldn’t.

However, one has to recall the detail which Albrecht Dürer had been able to achieve in his woodcuts four hundred years earlier. Here for example is St. John devouring the book from Revelations X.9 “And I went unto the angel, and said unto him, Give me the little book. And he said unto me, Take it, and eat it up; and it shall make thy belly bitter, but it shall be in thy mouth sweet as honey.” Dürer’s book is surely a bit more than a “little book” but he does manage to get lots of fine detail into this woodcut. One commentator claimed you could read the words on the pages. The Web Gallery of Art enables you to increase the size of its image to 200%, but even at that I can’t tell whether the words really are recognizable.

By the early years of the nineteenth century the technology of printing illustrations in books had advanced to quite sophisticated levels. The peak of excellence was offered by copperplate engraving, whereby a craftsman delicately gouged out little lines of metal from a smooth plate to allow the remaining image to be printed either as an intaglio or a relief print. The stability of the metal allowed for delicate lines, and marked a significant advance over the earlier method of woodcuts.

But do not assume that just because something is better it automatically takes over from all contenders. There was a hefty installed base of woodcut operators, and because copperplates cost more and required printing on a separate press they were thus only employed on deluxe projects. (Because these copperplates had to be printed on a different press and added in later to the text pages, they were known as “plates”, a term we still use in a rather debased sense, sometimes even using it to designate just a full page halftone.)

One cannot perhaps argue that this whimsical vignette contains more detail than Dürer’s work; but this feather just wouldn’t have been possible as a woodcut.

Bewick was born in Mickley near Newcastle upon Tyne, and spent his working life in that city (recoiling from an eight-month stint in London). A better draftsman than scholar, Bewick was apprenticed at the age of fourteen to Ralph Bielby, an engraver, and quite quickly switched from engraving on metal to doing his work on end-grain boxwood. This was not only cheaper but enabled the engravings to be incorporated into pages of metal type and printed in one pass. The pinnacle of their partnership was the publication of Bewick’s A History of British Birds in two volumes, Land Birds (1797) and Water Birds (1804).

One of Bewick’s blocks







Here’s a video showing Thomas Shahan making a woodcut

If you don’t see a video here, click on the title of this post so that you can view it in your browser.

And now a video of a wood engraving:

The project described in this video was set up by the Hamilton Wood Type Museum. The engraving is being done on end grain maple off-cuts from their wooden type. As you can see the techniques are very similar, with a wood engraver being able to use finer tools to create tinier detail.

Jenny Uglow’s Nature’s Engraver: A Life of Thomas Bewick is an excellent biography.

How many sheets of foolscap must I have disfigured in the cause of education? Nowadays, when we mostly live in that European-inspired world of boringly logical standardization based upon numbers and fractions thereof (I blame Napoléon), school children in Britain are no longer directed to write their essays on so many sides of foolscap. It’s A4 they’d use. In my schooldays foolscap meant a tall pad of white paper, around 8″ x 13″, ruled in pale blue, perhaps with a red double-lined vertical margin on the left. I suppose the word foolscap is rapidly traveling towards that fatal dictionary designation, Obsolete.

Jester’s cap watermark. National Gallery of Australia

It’s not altogether obvious why a sheet of paper slightly shorter and slightly narrower than legal size paper, should have had such a fanciful name attached to it. One theory is that paper of that size was manufactured with a watermark showing a jester’s cap (a fool’s cap), but there doesn’t seem to be evidence that sheet sizes were ever designated by watermarks. Nonetheless Keith Houston, in The Book, retells the story of the Rump Parliament’s ordering that a jester’s cap be used as a watermark on paper used by Parliament in place of the traditional royal arms. This is a neat historical joke, but does reek of back formation.

The Oxford English Dictionary will have nothing to do with it, stating in a rather lengthy aside “It has been asserted that the fool’s cap mark was introduced by Sir John Spielmann or Spilman, a German who built a paper-mill at Dartford in 1580; but we have failed to find any trustworthy authority for this statement. The Brit. Mus. copy of Rushworth’s Hist. Coll. (1659) is marked with this device. The watermark called by Sotheby ( Princ. III.) a ‘fool’s cap’, and said by him to occur in some copies of Caxton’s Golden Legend, seems not to be correctly so called. The catalogue of the Caxton Exhibition (1877) states that examples of the fool’s cap, dating from 1479, are found in a German collection there exhibited. There is no foundation for the often-repeated story that the Rump Parliament ordered a fool’s cap to be substituted for the royal arms in the watermark of the paper used for the journals of the House.”

The OED‘s earliest source for foolscap in the sense of a paper size dates from 1699, from A new dictionary of the terms ancient and modern of the canting crew, where it is defined “Fool’s-Cap, a sort of Paper so called.”

So far, so circular. The watermark idea sounds plausible, but that of course doesn’t make it true. The Oxford Companion to the Book opts, rather tepidly, for the watermark origin, adding, to complete the circularity of their argument. “it is the clearest example of a watermark being used to name a sheet size”. (Wouldn’t it actually be the only example?) The German connection hinted at above prompted me to do a bit of German research. I find no hint that they ever referred to any sort of paper in terms having anything to do with jesters’ caps.

Paper wrapper (From Paper in Printing History, Lindenmeyr Paper Corp. 1979)

For what its worth my bet is that the name — which obviously has to come from somewhere* — results from a wrapper put around sheets of paper of this sort of size and merchandised by a medieval papermaker with a jester’s cap on the label. See the wrapper in this picture: the paper it contained could easily have been called “lion”. By their very nature disposables like this very rarely survive, just as word origins for commonplace articles are infrequently recorded.

It  also seems difficult to be absolutely precise about the measurement of foolscap. I suspect that different manufacturers chopped it off at different points depending on convenience. In my size comparison with legal paper not only does the term foolscap appear to be becoming rare; legal sheets of paper seem to be at risk of disappearing. As the site informs us “Nowadays with the proliferation of cheap printers Legal paper is becoming less common as the cost of having two paper trays in a printer is significantly greater than just having one and Letter size paper is winning out when printers only have a single tray.”


* I fear that the history of British (and other) paper names is far too convoluted, extensive (and be it confessed, confusing) to be adequately covered in a blog post. The site, linked to above, makes a stab at it via the tabs in the gray bar at the top. I did have a partial go in the early days of this blog.

I wonder if the reason Sponge Bob or Bart Simpson have yellow faces doesn’t have more to do with CMYK than with the RGB solution this video suggests. Of course lots of modern cartoon characters have been developed for TV but the conventions may have been established before that in newspapers and comics, where absorbent papers demanded large screens and spot colors, subtractive rather than additive color.

Still, this is interesting. Maybe yellow does stand out against a blue background being complementary on the RGB color wheel. But just because the sky is blue doesn’t have to mean it’s the constant background color in a cartoon. What about green grass? Wouldn’t complementarity make us want the faces to be magenta?

I just bet the convention predates television, so that the explanation is rather more ink-based.

Link thanks to David Crotty at The Scholarly Kitchen.

ink-ballIt is slightly hard for our modern sensibilities to take, but we cannot avoid the knowledge that early printing houses reeked of urine. The ink was applied to the type by a couple of ink balls. These were leather-covered pads, and in order to keep them supple they were stored overnight in a bath of urine. Urine was also handy for cleaning off excess ink. An ink ball is illustrated at the left, and their use shown below. You can also see ink balls in operation in the video at my recent post Printing on a Gutenberg press.









Ink for writing with a pen would be water-based, while for printing it evolved to be oil-based. In the early day of printing, printers made their own inks with lampblack or soot and animal glue or vegetable oil which each boiled up according to their own closely guarded formula. Part of the success of Gutenberg’s printing innovation is due to the special ink he developed for transfer to and from the cast metal type. Ink making became a commercial process in the 17th century, and the first ink factory in America was established in 1742.

Little color was used in inks until the discovery of coal tar types in the middle of the 19th century though early Chinese printers had added some earth elements to their inks even before Gutenberg’s time. Linseed oil (a vegetable oil) was the main vehicle in printing ink until the mid-1930s when new vehicles (oils and resins containing specific chemicals depending upon what the inks are going to be used for) were introduced for letterpress printing in the United States. UV (ultraviolet) and EB (electron beam) curing vehicles for ink and coatings were introduced in the 1970s. More recent developments in inks have been water-based ink for gravure and flexography, and soybean ink for lithography.

In classical times the ink consisted of soot, gum arabic and water. Shady Characters has an interesting piece on the inks used in Roman manuscript work in which he tells of an early use of metallic inks found at Herculaneum, thus dating to 79CE. For those who crave the condition of a scribe here are instruction on how to make your own ink (remarkably simple, though not as simple perhaps as going out and buying a bottle of ink).

Today printing inks are made of four basic components: 1. pigments to color the ink and make it opaque; 2. resins, which bind the ink together into a film and make it stick to the printed surface; 3. solvents to make the ink flow; and 4. additives which alter the physical properties of the ink to make it suitable for different types of printing. It is a two-stage process: first they make the varnish, which is the base/vehicle used for all inks, though its recipe will vary depending on what the ink is to be used for. It is made by mixing the resins, solvents and additives. The resins react together to create some larger molecules which make the varnish more viscous the longer these reactions go on. In the second phase the pigments are mixed into the varnish, a process which can be seen in the rather lyrical video about modern ink making which can be found here. It’s well worth watching.


The U. S. Copyright Office defines it thus:

“Copyright law protects a work from the time it is created in a fixed form. From the moment it is set in a print or electronic manuscript, a sound recording, a computer software program, or other such concrete medium, the copyright becomes the property of the author who created it. Only the author or those deriving rights from the author can rightfully claim copyright.

There is, however, an exception to this principle: “works made for hire.”
If a work is made for hire, an employer is considered the author even if an employee actually created the work. The employer can be a firm, an organization, or an individual.

The concept of “work made for hire” can be complicated. This circular refers to its definition in copyright law and draws on the Supreme Court’s interpretation of it in Community for Creative Non-Violence v. Reid, decided in 1989.”

Their circular provides more detail.

Probably the most obvious example of “work made for hire” is work written by an employee as part of the scope of their employment. Think journalists. Other categories depend on an agreement between the parties. Thus, perhaps if you were employed by a publisher as a Production Director and wrote a few last-minute entries for an Encyclopedia, fleshing out its coverage of baseball, your work would only be work made for hire if you had a piece of paper in which your publisher asked you to do the work under these terms. The fact that I didn’t have such a piece of paper doesn’t really matter, as I had/have no intention of suing for what is an utterly worthless right. Of course the law courts might decide that this was in fact part of the scope of my employment even though my job didn’t involve writing stuff, and although I wrote in the evenings while not in the office. One of the constant problems about copyright law is that you can rarely be certain about things: you can only really know as a result of a law suit — and law suits cost more than the bone of contention is usually worth.

Publishers contracting out jacket design to freelance designers should no-doubt note somewhere in their communications with the designer that the result will be considered work made for hire. No way you want to be delaying a reprint gettting permission for a copyright holder.

In the olden days a good comp would strive to avoid rivers: those white streams which meander down too many type pages. Here’s one from the Library of America’s Harriet Beecher Stowe volume.



Not that this is a particularly bad case. (There’s a more dramatic example at Wikipedia.) You can make out a river with a side branch in the last paragraph of this page from Uncle Tom’s Cabin. I’ve outlined it in red — on a photocopy, not in the book! Rivers result from a coincidence of word spaces one below the other carrying on for several lines. They can be got rid of by making a correction in one of the early lines: the reflow resulting from such a change will probably work to eliminate the rest of the river. The word spacing in the first line of the paragraph is quite wide: it’s just easier to space out the line like this than it is retrospectively to tighten things up so that the word “from” can be taken back into line 1. Doing that would rearrange the word spaces all down the paragraph, and while it’s possible that another rivulet might appear, the chances are that taking back that one word would eliminate the whole problem. If there’s not enough room to transfer “from” to the first line, you set about attempting the same cure on the second line; “set” should surely be possible to pull back. Sometimes your move will get you into hyphenation hypertrophy: as you are only allowed to have three hyphenated lines in sequence the solution you select may become dauntingly complicated. A distracted comp could be tempted to edit the copy to get around the difficulty. “Aint sh’a peart young un?” will probably never be noticed! After all the author’s not going to be proofreading. In newspaper and jobbing work this way out was not uncommon. One way or another rivers can be eliminated, but as you can see it can be quite time-consuming, thus expensive, so of course more often than not the river is tolerated.

Unjustified setting (ragged right) like the pages in this blog presents less of a risk of rivers. With the constant word space permitted by the removal of the need to fill every line to the same measure, it becomes less likely, though not I suppose impossible, for a river to evolve.

While this sort of thing used to worry skilled craftsmen, we have to admit that as problems go it’s pretty minor. Still it is a fact that I notice rivers when I’m reading: and they do say that anything which distracts the reader from the author’s message should if possible be avoided.

Flying splice – which always sounded to me a bit like a pizza being thrown at your head, is actually a way of switching on press from one roll of paper about to come to an end to a new one. It is here explained by “As the main feeding roll nears its end, the roll stand is rotated to bring the next full roll of paper into running position. This is done with the press running at full or operating speed. Double-sided tape is applied to the leading edge of the new roll. The new roll is moved into contact with the running roll of paper. The taped edge of the full roll is pressed against and immediately adheres to the running roll.” Obviously this is a lot more efficient than stopping the press every time you get to the end of a roll of paper.

img_0454A photo is flopped when it is reversed. Think of the negative. Think of looking at it from the wrong side. The guy sitting there is now on the left, not the right. Maybe this works better in your design, so off you go. (Not sure it makes any aesthetic difference here though.)

But, oops, you forgot about the newspaper sticking out of his briefcase. Less obvious perhaps is the fact that breast pockets on men’s suits are generally positioned over the heart.

This error could result from a lack of care, but knowing what I do about publishing operations I’d bet that it happened because of a last-minute rush. The photo they had originally selected was found to be unusable after the job had been sent off to the printer (maybe they’d failed to get permission) and this one’s what they were able to locate at the last minute. Make up the new mechanical, and off it goes. Bang, bang; done. No time to check it, unfortunately.

Anyway, I think this guy looks a bit too delicate and polite to be Richard Hannay. Maybe I’m too influenced by the movie versions, though I do hate such ones as I’ve seen. Hannay has his own Wikipedia page.

This book doesn’t contain short stories you’d never realized existed. The “Stories” are in fact the five novels in which Richard Hannay stars: The Thirty-Nine Steps, Greenmantle, Mr Standfast, The Three Hostages, and The Island of Sheep.



Here’s a nice use of a flopped photo, tweeted by Orkney Library.


This picture is from MIT’s Reading 17.



Click on it to enlarge enough to be able to read the labels.

Not much more to say about this really. I didn’t know about the tittle, and am not sure I altogether understand about the Ascent line, though it is defined at Typography Deconstructed.

In printing a rule is a line, though of course there are also rules in the conventional sense that printers follow. Think for example of Hart’s Rules for Compositors and Readers at the University Press Oxford. Although the book doesn’t contain rulesª directly about rules, it does include plenty of reference in its rulesª to the appropriate use of rules, for instance in its rulesª about setting rules in tables.

Rules, in their manifestation as straight lines, are measured in points or fractions thereof. We tend to talk of the weight of a rule, not its thickness. The rules at the top of this page might be 1 point rules “printing” in 50% black, though translating from screen to print is nonsensical because of variable rendering. As a ruleª these rules will look different on your iPhone, than they do on your iPad, or on your desktop computer.

One should bear in mind the related manifestation of rule: this is an en rule – and this an em rule —. In well-mannered typesetting these will be set with a word space on either side of them. This may be a British ruleª rather than an American one though.

Of course the one ruler will rule them all, which hints at the derivation of the printer’s straight line. After all printers have other uses for the word line. The OED informs us that the phrase “rule and line” means determined or regulated, rigid or strict. Apparently the word rule used also to refer to riotous conduct especially in north England and Scotland, where we love such activity.