From Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press in the middle of the 15th Century until the middle of the 20th Century, virtually every book, poem, poster, card, newspaper and pamphlet was printed by the application of ink to metal type and the application of that metal type to paper. The specific mechanics of how it happened evolved through those years, but it was ultimately the same process in action. Over the course of the last hundred years, and especially over the last 50, changes in technology have replaced the descendants of Gutenberg’s process with methods that are faster, cheaper & easier to use – but none of which are – in my opinion at any rate – anywhere near as aesthetically pleasing as that given by the impression of ink and metal type into paper.
The development of “instant” reproduction technologies such as photocopying and the laser and inkjet printing associated with computers and the digital revolution means that most people are now in the position to print whatever they want whenever they want it, at a minimal cost in time and money. The easy availability of the technology with which we can compose these documents digitally completes this loop, and most of us can now throw together a booklet, pamphlet, card or letter on our computer in a matter of minutes, and send it to print in a matter of seconds. Of course, the resulting text usually looks like it has been laid upon the surface of the paper quickly and unwillingly, and that the print and the paper would really rather be somewhere else… but the convenience is hard to deny.
Not surprisingly, the concomitant convenience and disposability of the documents that we can now make with such ease and in such quantity has diminished the effort put into their typographical quality by a great degree, and their aesthetic value to just about nil.
These tendencies have been further exacerbated by the fact that a great deal of what I think of as falling under the title of “the printed word,” is now broadly conceived of as nothing more than data in text form, and has migrated entirely to the digital world. Quite a lot of text now exists entirely in a digital, non-physical form, and is composed and stored with the assumption that it is only going to be read on one of the multitude of screens of varying sizes that now pervade our world.
Though the data that makes up a particular text may be at least nominally fixed, the individual words themselves have a brief, fugitive existence, lasting only until the screen they are on is scrolled through, a digital page is flipped, or a file exited from. This is, in a way, the ultimate in disposability, and whatever the many benefits may be – and there are clearly some, if you are reading this – the aesthetics of the existence of these words in time and space has been sadly diminished.
And that, I suppose, is ultimately what attracted me to letterpress printing – the physicality of the text and the process of printing, the materiality of the paper that the text is printed on, and the time and constraint inherent in the process of producing them. The effort required to make a good print actually shows in the print, or so it seems to me.
Letterpress printing is, fundamentally, a mechanical process by which ink is applied to metal type, and that metal type is then pressed onto and into paper.
Through the course of human history many methods have been used to inscribe or imprint text onto various surfaces. From the scratching of signs into clay and stone to the writing of signs onto clay, wax covered wood or fibre, to the inking of characters that have been carved into wood and pressed onto paper, mankind has developed many different technologies to transmit the written word.
It was only in the 1440s and 1450s though, working in the German cities of Strasbourg and then Mainz, that Johannes Gutenberg managed to bring together the different technologies involving metal casting, the press and ink, and to develop movable metal type, a formula for ink which worked with the type, and the first practical press with which to print.
As with most great inventions, time and place were as important factors as the genius of the inventor. The 24 constituent characters of the latin alphabet (as it was composed at that point) lent themselves to the casting of individual letters in type in a way that many writing systems elsewhere in time and place did not. In addition, the increasing spread and sophistication of papermaking and paper mills across Europe meant that a medium to print on was now available in quantities which would not have been economically feasible in centuries past.
In many respects, the press Gutenberg used to print his 42 line Bible in 1455 – probably a large wooden frame on legs with a great wooden screw, on which the type forme would have been inked by hand, and which would likely have printed at a rate of several dozen impressions per hour – is a long way from the last iterations of the massive powered printing presses and linotype casters of the second half of the 20th Century, on which books and newspapers were printed at staggering rates.
In some very important ways however, the differences are not much more that a matter of the increased precision and sophistication available in modern manufacturing and machining processes, combined with the increased volume demanded from a world with a much larger and much broader reading population.
Letterpress printing, as practiced through most of its history, and as practiced at The Grunge Papers, worked like this:
1) You start with a text that you want to print and a typeface that you want to print it in. A font of type – a complete set of all the characters, ligatures, numbers and punctuation marks in a particular typeface – is usually stored in a typecase, with separate compartments for each sort (character), and for the line spacing material that is used to fill out the blank space on each line.
2) Each line of text is set, one piece of type at a time (letter sorts, numbers, punctuation and blank spaces), in a composing stick – a small handheld device used to hold several lines of type and leading (the metal strips that separate the lines).
3) Once a line (or several lines) has been set, it is transferred to the galley tray, in which the slowly-assembling block of text (called a "forme") is being arranged.
4) Metal strips called leads and slugs (depending on their thickness) are used to separate the lines of type in the forme, and these strips, with larger blocks of wood (called furniture) used if there are going to be large gaps in the forme.
5) The completed forme is then locked up in preparation to being set into the press. This procedure varies with the type and model of press used. On a platen press, the type forme is locked into a rectangular metal frame called a chase. Leads, slugs and furniture are used to block up the type forme, and quoins (small adjustable wedges) are used to lock everything securely into the chase. The chase, with the type forme locked within it, is then placed into the press bed.
For a flatbed or proofing press, the forme may be locked up – made tight and secure with a combination of leads and slugs, wooden furniture, a locking bar and quoins (small metal wedges) – in a galley tray, which will itself be locked into the pressbed, or else the the type forme will be locked directly into the pressbed itself.
6) “Make-ready” is then applied, a process by which the press is readied for printing, with under-sheets of heavy, hard cardstock and lighter tympan paper being placed onto the platen in such a way that a buffer layer is created on top of which the sheet to be printed on can be secured. The object is to make the surface under that printing sheet even, and to leave enough “give” in the printing surface that the type isn’t damaged in the process of making an impression.
7) The press is then inked and an impression taken. The initial copies are used to identify any spelling errors, spacing errors, or other textual problems that were not noticed when the text was being composed. Almost inevitably, there will also need to be adjustments made in the make-ready layer under the printing sheets. Letterpresses are usually well-built devices, and type well-cast, but they are physical objects – often quite old objects – and over time metal can become worn and parts can come out synch, and so there will usually be areas on a forme where the type sits too high, or too low, and so these spots will have to have tympan paper added or removed to the make-ready sheets, until the entire forme of type prints evenly.
8) On platen presses, once corrections in the text forme have been made and the make-ready has been perfected, guage pins or other clips are mounted on the covering tympan paper to hold the printing paper square and in place for printing. On flatbed presses, the type forme will have been locked into the pressbed so that it is squared to the position in which the press cylinder holds the printing sheet.
9) At this point, printing can be begin in earnest.
10) There are of course many variables in the printing process. Every press has its limits and limitations, and every printer develops his or her own routines and processes to get the most out of their press. Some of the things that printers have to consider are:
Dampening paper – Lightly dampened paper tends to print more easily and takes ink more easily. It does need to be properly dried afterwards though, or cockling can be a problem.
Multiple colours – Each different colour printed on a sheet will require a separate run through the press, which will involve cleaning the press and rollers, and may involve redoing at least some of the make-ready process.
Versals (“drop caps”) and close registration – A large capital letter in a different colour at the start of a page or a paragraph looks lovely, but you have to get the registration of the letter exactly right, which isn’t always easy.
Handmade paper – A good sheet of handmade paper can add a lot to the aesthetic value of a print, but the more irregular surface and deckled edges common to this sort of paper can add a lot of work to printing process, and can increase the “failure” rate of your individual impressions by a large amount.
be used – Printing ink is available in oil-based, rubber-based and soy-based
varieties. They will all work well, but they will also all work differently in
terms of colour interaction, absorption, the speed at which they dry and the
best way to clean them up. My own experience is that it's best to stick
with one kind of ink, if possible. The more you use it, the easier it will be to
predict how it will act and react.
My own experience is that it's best to stick with one kind of ink, if possible. The more you use it, the easier it will be to predict how it will act and react.
Ornaments, cuts and graphics – Lots of ornaments are still available from typecasters, and various kinds of metal and polymer plates can be made, in addition to lino block cuts and wood engravings. Knowing what to use and when to use it (and not use it) is a skill all on its own